18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini

Larry Holzwarth - November 19, 2018

Although Italy is often regarded as the weak sister of the nations which made up the Axis during the Second World War, the Italian Fascist regime preceded the rise of the Nazis in Germany by many years. Hitler admired Mussolini and adapted many of the Italian leader’s methods and plans during his rise to power. Like most of the industrial world, the economic collapse of the 1930s greatly affected the Italian economy, with the resulting unemployment and financial uncertainty. Mussolini’s government established programs and institutions to help the economy recover, and over time the Fascist government gradually gained ownership of the majority of the nation’s industrial capacity, which though it lagged behind the rest of Europe’s powers nonetheless grew considerably. The state also reached into most aspects of daily life with programs for adults and children.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Adolf Hilter and Benito Mussolini in Venice in 1934. Wikimedia

Mussolini’s Italy had its own secret police, which were less fearsome than the Nazi SS and Gestapo but which were nonetheless avoided as much as possible by the Italian populace. The depth of which Fascism was imposed on the Italian people was clearly stated by the party in 1935 in the Doctrine of Fascism. The Doctrine stated, “The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Fascism…interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people.” Despite being moderated somewhat by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church – Mussolini created and maintained diplomatic relations with the Vatican through most of his rule – the Italian citizenry felt the effects of Fascist rule in nearly all aspects of their life.

Here are some examples of life in Fascist Italy during Mussolini’s years in power both before and during the Second World War.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Mussolini had medieval age housing destroyed to create this dramatic approach to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Wikimedia

1. Mussolini actively solicited the support of the Roman Catholic Church

Benito Mussolini was an atheist, as well as staunchly anti-clerical, as were the majority of the leaders of the Fascist Party. When they achieved power in 1922 their political position in the Italian parliament was tenuous, and to strengthen it Mussolini created a political alliance with the Italian People’s Party, a Catholic organization. The ties led to a better relationship with the Vatican, which had not been an independent city-state since Italy had annexed the Papal States in the 19th century. In 1929 relations between the Italian Fascist government and the Vatican were cemented in the Lateran Accord, which created the independent Vatican City, with the Pope as its head of state, within the boundaries of Rome. Roman Catholicism was established as the state religion of Italy, though other religions, including Judaism, were allowed.

In March of 1929, a plebiscite vote was scheduled to allow the Italian citizenry to express their views over the new relationship between the Church and the Italian government. Over 9 million Italians voted and of them less than 150,000 expressed disapproval. Though the number seems low, the 9 million participants represented more than 90% of the registered voters in Italy. The Church became a strong supporter of several of Mussolini’s later expressed policies, such as fighting the communists in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually the invasion of Ethiopia. The official support of the Church over many policies was placed before the largely Catholic Italian population, and the support of the lay members of the Church followed. The Roman Catholic Church and the Fascists were never warm and cozy, and areas of contention remained, but they continued to work together throughout the regime of Mussolini.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Pro and anti-fascist propaganda graffiti appeared all over Italy, but little of it was anti-Semitic in nature. Bundesarchiv

2. Italian anti-Semitism was not born of the Fascist Party

Adolf Hitler did not create anti-Semitism in Germany, he exploited the hatred directed towards Jews in the center of Europe for centuries. Anti-Semitism was also prevalent in France, the Soviet Union, England, and other European countries. Italy was not known for being anti-Semitic, nor was it a part of the Fascist program during Mussolini’s rise to power and early years as the Italian dictator. In the 1920s Mussolini wrote, “Italy knows no antisemitism and we believe that we will never know it”. Nevertheless, Mussolini’s writings were fraught with anti-Semitic analyses of the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Civil War prior to his rise to power. Though he personally held views which were in some cases in line with Hitler’s, the Italian dictator did not have the latent anti-Jewish views among his people as the German dictator had.

During the Fascist March on Rome in 1922, which had been instrumental in launching Mussolini to power, well over 200 Italian Jews marched with the Fascists. By the late 1930s, under pressure from both Spain’s Franco (who associated Jews with communism) and Hitler, Mussolini began to allow the spread of anti-Jewish propaganda, though the situation of the Jews in Italy never reached the depths which it had in Germany and German-occupied territories. After Italy entered the Second World War and lasting until the armistice in 1943, Italian Jews were shielded from deportation to the German concentration camps, and Italy built camps of its own to house those considered enemies of Fascism and thus of the Italian state. Anti-Semitism was unpopular in Italy and among the Italian people and even among the Fascists, who considered it a vice of the German people, and a political mistake by Adolf Hitler.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Parades displaying martial might were a common affair to appeal to the masculine virility of Italian Fascism. Wikimedia

3. The National After Work Program for Adults

In 1925 Mussolini and the Fascist government created a program for adult recreation, entertainment, and education throughout Italy which they called the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (OND) which translates to National After-Work Program. It was the largest of several recreational organizations for adults and was instantly popular. The organization built recreational facilities including theaters and movie houses, outdoor grounds for football and other sports, indoor gymnasiums, libraries, and amphitheaters for orchestras. Membership was voluntary, and it was massively popular as well as remaining apolitical. More than three-quarters of Italy’s salaried workers were members by the 1930s, when it shifted its priorities to primarily sports, and they were soon joined by almost half of Italy’s industrial workers.

The success of the Italian program was one of the initiatives admired by Adolf Hitler, and it served as the Nazi’s model for the Strength through Joy program in Germany after Hitler was in power. Unlike the Italians, who admitted members without regard for political affiliation or ethnicity, the Nazis did not allow Jews to participate in their program. The OND was not the only such program started by the Fascists, but it was the largest nationwide as measured by membership rolls. Another program which gained widespread acceptance in Italy was the ONB, which provided recreational facilities for youth, offered clubs and dances, cafes where they could gather to listen to the radio, hiking facilities in the Apennines and Italian Alps, ethnic and sports festivals, and circuses, usually at no cost, or for largely insignificant fees.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
A fascist propaganda poster compares the benefits of Bolshevism (left) to those of Fascism (right) circa 1924. Wikimedia

4. Getting the news about Italian and world affairs

The Fascist party presented Mussolini as the savior of Italy and the Italian people, having rescued the country from both the communists and the social democrats which had threatened to take over. Officially Italy was a parliamentary monarchy, with King Victor Emmanuel III on the throne, but Mussolini held power as the prime minister and once his Fascist party was firmly in power he was the de facto head of state. His status as the nation’s savior was presented to the Italian people continuously, in radio broadcasts, newspapers and magazines, and in pre-orations during live performances in theaters and concert houses. When the Italians attended the cinema, newsreels preceded the feature film, which were prepared by companies working for the Fascists, and presented only material which was pro-Fascist, and lauded Mussolini.

The propaganda machinery kept the Italian people apprised of the efforts of the Fascists to resurrect the Italian economy, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, and strengthen the army and the pride of the Italian military, the Regia Marina, or Italian Navy. The success of social welfare programs was presented in the newsreels. Feature films produced in Italy were almost always of a pro-Fascist nature, and reflected the image of Italian life which Mussolini wanted to project, that of the grandeur and majesty of the Roman Empire. The new Italian male and the ideal Italian woman were depicted repeatedly and promoted endlessly. The Italian who never left the country found little news which accurately presented events both within and without Italy. As the Nazis in Germany grew in strength, Adolf Hitler and his followers followed Mussolini’s programs and propaganda with great interest and admiration.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
The “New Italian Male” championed by Mussolini was described as rugged and athletic, as with this Brescia rugby team in 1929. Wikimedia

5. The “new Italian man” was defined and promoted under fascism

In Mussolini’s Italy, only a true supporter of Fascism was considered to be a true Italian, and fascist beliefs were the defining aspect of his character. But they were far from being the only aspect which defined the new Italian man. The new Italian man offered complete loyalty and obedience to the state, and only those who were members of the Fascist Party, and publicly endorsed its policies, were eligible for citizenship as Italians. Without evidence of membership in the Fascist party, employment was denied. The new Italian man rejected individualism and was presented as a single part of the great machine known as the state, to which he belonged and to which he owed his first and greatest loyalty. The new Italian man was expected to sacrifice everything to the state, including his life if the state demanded it, for the overall benefit of the state and the party. Pieces of machinery can be replaced.

The new Italian man exhibited the nobility and dedication of the centurions of Rome, and the symbolism of Roman dedication became the embodiment of Mussolini’s definition of Italian manhood. Physical fitness and the willingness to fight, not for individual beliefs and motives but when commanded by the state were traits which the Fascists promoted in their propaganda. Because manhood is preceded by boyhood, the vision of the ideal Italian man became part of the raising of children in Mussolini’s Italy, presented in schools and supported by the curricula of which the Fascists took control. Italian history classes concentrated on the age of the Roman Empire, while individual Italians such as Garibaldi and others were largely ignored. Education was recognized as critical to forging the new Italian man.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
A large part of the role of women in Fascist Italy was the raising of children using Fascist values. Bundesarchiv

6. The role of women in Italian society under Mussolini

Women of all social strata, from the idle rich to factory workers and farmers, were viewed by the Fascists as victims which required rescuing from the position in which prior society had imprisoned them. The emancipation of women was viewed with alarm by Fascist doctrine. Italian Fascism stressed and adopted male virility as its doctrine and in its presentation to the populace. Strength and control were its core values, with the state both providing all and responsible for all. The new Italian woman was to exhibit the ideals of motherhood, serving as a provider and a consoler. Marriage and the raising of children who were taught the values of Fascism were stressed, to the point that single men of marriageable age were taxed by the state, the revenues from which were used to support social welfare programs directed at children.

Italian fascism presented classes for women aimed at making them better housekeepers and cooks, stressing the use of locally produced foods. The women in Italy were proved dietary programs by the state which was designed to support Italian agriculture. The consumption of bread and pasta, local produce and wine were encouraged, and the use of meat and dairy products (other than cheese) was discouraged by the state. Many formerly common food items disappeared from shops since they were not produced in Italy and economic policies rendered them no longer imported. In the 1930s a black market grew in Italy, in large part operated in the south of the country and Sicily by the mafia. At the same time, Fascist propaganda elevated the role of women in Italy, stressing their importance in establishing the welfare of the state by faithfully fulfilling their duties to the state.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Italian children were educated in schools using curricula approved by the Fascist Party, and in youth groups run by the state. Wikimedia

7. The education of children in Fascist Italy

When Mussolini was appointed as prime minister by King Victor Emmanuel III he took over a government which presided over a nation exhibiting an alarmingly high state of illiteracy and a poorly run educational system. The Fascists took over the education of Italian children in 1922, and immediately enacted a law which dictated the age at which a child could quit school was 14, raising it from the age of 12. The state strictly enforced truancy laws; absenteeism was not tolerated. From the beginning, education under the Fascist government stressed Italian fascist beliefs and the duty of obedience to authority. In 1929 the government assumed control of all textbooks used in Italian classrooms, including those of the Roman Catholic Church.

Teachers at the secondary school level were required to take an oath of loyalty to Mussolini and the Fascist party. Students at all levels were indoctrinated into Italian citizenship by being taught that the state deserved the same level of loyalty as was given to God. By 1933 all members of the faculties of universities and colleges were required to be active Fascist party members, and the party began monitoring classes, teaching materials, student’s notes, and tests. The history of Italy was presented through party-approved materials which stressed the glory of Rome, and the consolidation of the various Italian principalities and states during the nineteenth century. Mussolini also required physical education and fitness training to be part of the educational system, which was further supported by after-school programs throughout Italy.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Italian boys trained in paramilitary battalions, using World War One vintage rifles, beginning as young as the age of six. Wikimedia

8. The Italian equivalent of the Hitler Youth Program

The indoctrination of children under fascism in Italy was supported by the creation of youth programs and the elimination of competing organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and the youth organizations of the church. Catholic Church youth groups were not fully eliminated, but their activities were curtailed by the state. The organization took the name Opera Nazionale Balilla (ONB) and operated separate branches of different names based on the age and sex of the children enrolled. Children of the ages between six and eight years were enrolled in a group known as the Children of the She-Wolf, which referenced the myth of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, being raised by wolves. The programs were run by Mussolini’s Minister of Education until 1937.

The participants wore uniforms while attending activities, and many of them wore them all of the time. Boy’s uniforms resembled those of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, a paramilitary group of the Fascist Party. Boys and young men received paramilitary training and additional schooling in careers and technology. Women received training in raising children in fascist philosophy, as well as what in later generations would become known as home economics. Children of all ages received physical fitness training and participated in competitive sports and events. Enrollment was not mandatory, but school teachers were encouraged to enroll their students and were financially compensated for doing so. The youth program became highly popular due to its efficiency in providing activities for children under controlled circumstances and supervision.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Il Popolo d’Italia (The People of Italy) was a daily newspaper founded by Mussolini which dominated the press through the 1920s-30s. Wikimedia

9. Censorship was less strident than in Nazi Germany

Although the government of Italy under Mussolini controlled the radio broadcasts and much of the film industry, it did not practice the strict censorship of the German government. Dissent was to a limited extent allowed under Mussolini. Only those who expressed open protests which condemned the actions of the government, or strongly criticized fascist theories and doctrines were strongly censored. The more liberal approach of the Italian government allowed for discussion regarding the fascist system and comparison of the Italian system to the Nazi government, and the steady stream of propaganda which exhorted Italian fascism often used the Germans as a negative example. As ties between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy strengthened, the negative comparisons became less frequent. Mussolini and Hitler were presented as personally close, through Mussolini’s private comments indicated that he had a low opinion of the German Fuhrer. He once referred to Hitler as a little monkey.

Italian radio broadcasters were for the most part allowed to prevent their views without restraint, though the news they received came from government sources. They also received news broadcasts from the BBC and French radio, though radio was not a common appliance in Italian homes. Most Italians received their news and information from newspapers or via word of mouth. News was often read to workers in the form of bulletins while they were at their places of employment. Thus there was little need for the Italian government to censor radio broadcasts. Negative news was dismissed as anti-fascist propaganda by the newsreels and government-controlled newspapers rather than being completely suppressed by the government. The Italian government did broadcast propaganda via radio in the form of news bulletins and speeches delivered by government officials, which the state required the radio stations to broadcast. Broadcasting Mussolini’s speeches was mandatory.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Under Mussolini the Italians built great sports arenas for competitive sports such as gymnastics and football, in several Italian cities. Wikimedia

10. Under Mussolini sports were avidly followed by Italians

Mussolini emphasized participation in competitive sports as a means of establishing Italian superiority over other nations, another embodiment of the new Italian man. Chief among the sports which he stressed was international football. Mussolini’s use of sports as another form of propaganda was another aspect of his regime which was adopted by Hitler, which culminated in the Nazi production of the 1936 Olympic Games. Mussolini too used organized sports as a program to help Italy dig itself out of the Great Depression, with government-funded projects to recover land and erect soccer stadiums and other sports facilities. In 1934 the Italians won the World Cup, defeating the Czechoslovakians to become the second World Cup champions on their home pitch in Rome.

Automobile racing in Europe became highly nationalized during the 1930s, and the Italians participated in the sport with fervor. Racing teams adopted national colors, blue for the French, green for the British, white for the Germans and the Italians adopted red. Governments subsidized their racing teams in France, Germany, and Italy as a means of displaying their technological prowess. By 1935 the German teams were dominating European racing, but the Italians weren’t far behind, and the Italian Grand Prix became one of the most prestigious races of the year. Italian racing drivers and engineers became national heroes during Mussolini’s regime, including a man by the name of Enzo Ferrari, who raced for Alfa Romeo before founding his own company in the 1930s.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Carlo Gambino, founder of the still extant Gambino Crime Family in New York, was driven out of Sicily by Mussolini’s crackdown on the mafia. Wikimedia

11. The Italian government and the Mafia

Organized crime in Sicily developed in the nineteenth century. Known as the Cosa Nostra (our thing), it permeated Italian life, developing black markets and corrupting officials. Few people in history possessed a greater loathing for organized crime than Mussolini, and the Italian government during his regime was aggressive in fighting what is known as the mafia, a word which translates loosely as meaning “manly”. In 1924 Mussolini dispatched Cesare Mori to Palermo as prefect with the expressed mission of destroying organized crime in Sicily and the southern portion of the Italian boot. “Your Excellency has carte blanche,” Mussolini informed his prefect, “the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily”. Mussolini told Mori that if existing laws hindered his efforts he, Mussolini, would change the laws.

Mori fought the mafia using tactics he adopted from their own. He not only sought arrests, but he executed them in a manner which brought public humiliation. Mori revealed to Sicilians that the government under Mussolini was as strong as the mafia, and that Sicilians co-operating with organized crime could no longer rely on them for protection. He also unveiled links between organized crime and the Italian government, including many Fascist members of the Italian bureaucracy. During his campaign, when more than 11,000 arrests were made, Mori successfully suppressed the mafia in Sicily, but he did not eradicate it entirely. In 1929 Mussolini recalled his prefect, under pressure from elements within his own government. During the campaign against the Sicilian mafia, many criminals fled Sicily for the United States, including Carlo Gambino and Joe Bonanno, both of whom became powerful mob bosses in New York.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Arturo Bocchini served as the head of the Italian secret police – the OVRA – which in turn served as the model for the Nazi secret police forces. Bundesarchiv

12. The Fascist secret police and Italian society

Mussolini early in his career formed the National Security Volunteer Militia, which became known as the Blackshirts, in order to ensure the complete authority of the state, which is to say of himself. During the early years of his dictatorship, there were several attempts to assassinate the Italian leader, and in 1927 Mussolini created the Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism. The new force was the Italian equivalent of what later became Hitler’s Gestapo, though it was never as large as the German secret police force. The Italian organization, known as the OVRA, was efficient at suppressing opposition to Mussolini, using similar techniques as the Germans, but on a smaller scale. A special court was established to try the cases of those charged with crimes against the state, and the same law which established the special court reinstated the death penalty for certain crimes.

Up to 6,000 Italian citizens were arrested by the OVRA and tried before the special court, though many chose to live in exile rather than face charges. OVRA relied on a network of informants, many of whom were developed through blackmail, including priests which it used as spies within the Vatican. After the Italian entry into the Second World War, OVRA was used to infiltrate resistance groups in the Balkan region, and attempts were made by its agents to likewise infiltrate the British Special Operations Executive. The Italian secret police force was used by Heinrich Himmler as the model for the civilian branch of the SS and the Gestapo in Germany, though the methods of torture used by the Italians were not. One of the torture methods of the Italians was to force its victims to drink liberal doses of castor oil, which led to diarrhea, dehydration, and eventually death.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
The Italian liner Rex under attack by British fighter-bombers, was a symbol of the industrial strength of Italy during the depression. Wikimedia

13. Recovering from the depression in Italy

The Italian economy rebounded from the Great Depression faster than most western nations, with its industrial growth exceeding that of Germany until 1938. The effects of the depression were likewise less keenly felt by the Italian population due to the social welfare programs which had been instituted during the 1920s. It was the model of Mussolini and the Fascist success which served as the basis for many of Hitler’s programs in Germany, though fascism and socialism were two entirely different political systems. Under Mussolini, the state controlled most of the country’s industry and agriculture, as well as the unions. It established levels of production, wage scales, and the level of crops. During the 1930s the state increased the production of wheat to the level where Italy was self-sustaining, ending the importation of wheat and flour from the United States and Canada.

Because the Italians produced more wheat, less land was available for other crops, such as feed for cattle and hogs, which led to the Italian government establishing new dietary standards which stressed eating bread and pasta while consuming less meat. Much of what in a later day would become known as the Mediterranean diet can be traced to the Italian government’s dietary standards prior to World War II. Though Italy recovered strongly from the effects of the near-global depression of the early 1930s, it then damaged its own economy through its territorial ambitions in East Africa. The colonization efforts weakened the Italian economy, creating shortages of cash which were felt by the Italian people in the form of increased taxes and lower wages. Combined with the shortages of some foods in the shops, the pinch led to an increase in black markets, which in turn led to aggressive activities against them by OVRA.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
By the time Mussolini declared war on France in 1940 his control over the Italian government and people was at its zenith. Wikimedia

14. Mussolini tightened his grip on Italy

There were, according to most historians and political scientists, five distinct phases of Mussolini’s reign over the Italian government and people. When Mussolini was appointed as prime minister of what was ostensibly a parliamentary government, his power was limited by the fact that the Fascists were still a minority party. The first phase was the early years, yielding to the second phase around 1925, during which Mussolini attained dictatorial power. In 1929 the third phase began, as Mussolini and the Fascists instituted the programs which gave them near-total control of Italian society, industry, agriculture, and finance. From 1935 until 1940, Mussolini’s foreign policy was one of aggression and territorial expansion as he sought to restore the empire once held by the Romans. The final phase was the temporary Italian Socialist Republic in Northern Italy, which was little more than a German puppet state near the end of the war.

It is often forgotten that during World War II Italy fought on both sides of the conflict, joining the Allies in the fall of 1943. The collapse of Mussolini’s government that fall led to the German’s rescuing him from his captors and establishing him as the leader of a state that was torn by insurrection and was defended mostly by German troops. Fascism under Mussolini was made more moderate in the Italian Socialist Republic in an attempt to entice support from the people, but by then the majority of Italians had had their fill of Il Duce, and without the support of the German troops, it would have collapsed. As it was it was generally in a state of anarchy throughout its short existence. The short-lived republic was recognized as a state by the Japanese and Germans, as well as Vichy France and other German puppet states. Mussolini’s new Italian Empire ended as a small territory of Northern Italy wholly dependent upon the Nazis for its existence, which lasted about nineteen months.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
From left, Heinrich Himmler, Herman Goering, Galazzo Ciano, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini in Munich in 1938. Bundesarchiv

15. The Pact of Steel changed Italian laws regarding the treatment of Jews

When Adolf Hitler rose to control the German government as Chancellor, and after passing the Enabling Act as dictator, he moved to tighten relations with Mussolini, both due to his admiration of the Italian dictator and his need to neutralize the French Navy in the Mediterranean. England and France had a naval agreement which gave the French primary responsibility for the protection of the Mediterranean and North Africa, while Britain was responsible for the North Atlantic and the coast of Europe. The Italian Navy was built primarily to counter the French fleet. As Hitler courted the Italian leader, the Germans created many programs along the lines of those created by Mussolini, including the youth movements, education reforms, and secret police forces. Hitler also berated Mussolini over the Jewish population, warning the Italian leader of the dangers they created internationally.

Mussolini discounted the Nazi preoccupation with the Jews of Germany during the 1930s, and opposed the creation of similar laws in Italy, going so far as telling the Austrian ambassador to Italy, “Hitler’s anti-Semitism has already brought him more enemies than necessary.” After the Pact of Steel Between Germany and Italy, Hitler and his regime increased the pressure on the Italians to enact laws which restricted the Jews in Italy. In 1938 Mussolini yielded to the pressure, which cost him his Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, who also had served as his Minister of Propaganda. The laws which made anti-Semitism an official policy of the Fascist party and Italian law were highly unpopular within the Italian populace and the Fascist Party and were often little more than winked at by government officials.

18 Details About Life in Italy Under Benito Mussolini
Mussolini visiting the Alfa Romeo plant in Modena sometime in the early 1930s, with officials of the prestigious Italian automobile manufacturer. Wikimedia

16. Italian technology-enhanced national prestige

As did Hitler, but ahead of the Fuhrer’s projects, Mussolini and the Italian government-sponsored or commissioned projects which trumpeted Italian technology and industrial might, placing Italy on a par with the most advanced nations. One such project was the construction and operation of two great ocean liners, Rex and Conte di Savoia (King and Count of Savoy). Described by their advertising literature as being the “Riviera Afloat”, the ships were notable for their luxurious trappings during the final years of the great transatlantic liners’ golden age. In 1933 Rex completed the fastest transatlantic crossing ever achieved to that time, a record it held for two years before the French Normandie surpassed it in 1935. Both Italian ships were laid up for safety purposes in 1940, though both were severely damaged by allied action against them and eventually Rex was broken up after the war.

The Italians also made significant contributions to the field of aviation, including the development of a seaplane which for five years held the record as the world’s fastest airplane, of all types, and which still holds the record (as of 2018) as the world’s fastest piston-engine aircraft. During the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, held in Chicago, a leader of the Fascist party and aviator flew the aircraft from Italy to Chicago. The pilot, Italo Balbo, used the flight and the publicity it generated to demonstrate Italian technological innovation and engineering achievements. Balbo was instrumental in building the Italian Air Force beginning in the 1920s and was the only senior member of the Fascist Party to vocally oppose the alliance between Nazi Germany and Italy, which led to his being assigned to lead the colonial government in Libya.

17. Drumming up nationalistic fervor among the Italians

Mussolini’s creation of the new Italian man needed an outlet for its masculine virility and willingness to fight, and throughout his regime, he promised the means to create it internationally. Official Fascist doctrine referred to the Mediterranean Sea as the Mare Nostrum, the name it was given by the ancient Roman Empire, and which meant “Our Sea”. The name was a reference to the Fascist goal of creating a New Roman Empire, through which the Mediterranean region would be brought under the control of the Italian government in Rome, and which would have included North and East Africa, the Middle East, Abyssinia, Greece, Dalmazia, and the islands of the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. Mussolini created jobs for the Italian people through the expansion of the air force, navy, and army.

In speeches and through the use of the Fascist propaganda machine, Mussolini exhorted the Italians to increase their pride by calling himself and his people nationalists, in a manner which was adopted by Adolf Hitler in Germany. Nationalism percolated through all levels of Italian society, and the nation was forged together as being one of the Great Powers of Europe, at least in the promises of the Fascists. It was taught in the schools, exhibited in films, and permeated Mussolini’s frequent addresses to the people and the Italian parliament, which was little more than an audience for Fascist exhibitions. When Mussolini launched his quest for empire in the Mediterranean it quickly became apparent that his self-vaunted military machine was far less capable than the people had been told.

18. The end of Fascism in Italy

By the summer of 1943, the Italian military was soundly beaten by the British and Americans, and the Italian people had had quite enough of Il Duce (the duke, understood by Italians to mean the leader) and were ready to depose him. King Victor Emmanuel III, in an attempt to save his crown, removed Mussolini as prime minister after obtaining a vote of no confidence from the Grand Council of Fascism and placed him under arrest. The Italian people supported the king, and the new government of Italy opened negotiations with the Allies, seeking an armistice. In response, Hitler ordered a commando mission to rescue Mussolini, which was successful, and the German leader installed Mussolini as the dictator of those parts of Italy under German control. Mussolini managed to hold the position only by virtue of the German troops protecting him.

Mussolini had his revenge against those on the Grand Council who had voted against him, trying 19 in a special court (13 of whom were in absentia) and executing the six which they had in custody. The Italian people under his jurisdiction were almost uniformly against him and partisan resistance fighters plagued the ever-shrinking territory as the Americans and British struggled up the Italian boot. By the spring of 1945 German resistance had all but collapsed and partisans who had been under Mussolini’s thumb since 1922 finally caused Il Duce to flee for Switzerland with his mistress. A communist partisan group captured them, gave them a brief mock trial, and executed both on April 28, 1945. The final pictures of the pair shown to the Italian people which he had led to disaster were of them hanging upside down at a Milan service station.


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“My Autobiography with The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism”. Benito Mussolini. 2006

“Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy”. Christopher Duggan. 2013

The Irish Times – How Pius Came To Regret His Deal With The Duce: The Pope And Mussolini

Anne Frank – Why Did Hitler Hate The Jews?

The Atlantic – Understanding Hitler’s Anti-Semitism

History Collection – Antisemitism Helped Protect Jews From the Black Death… And Then Got Them Killed

Haaretz – Angst or Reality: How Bad Is anti-Semitism in Italy?

History on this Day – Mussolini’s Blackshirts March On Rome Seizing Total Control

E International Relations – Hitler And Mussolini: A Comparative Analysis Of The Rome-Berlin Axis 1936-1940

History Answer UK – Mussolini Vs The Mafia

Natural History – Were Romulus And Remus Really Nursed By A She-Wolf?

Smithsonian Magazine – How Journalists Covered the Rise of Mussolini and Hitler

Soccer Politics – Mussolini’s Football

Football Times – When The World Cup Rolled Into Fascist Italy In 1934

The Guardian – Italy Mafia Networks Are More Complex And Powerful, Says Minister

Haaretz – When Jews Praised Mussolini and Supported Nazis: Meet Israel’s First Fascists

Australian War Memorial – The Corpse of Benito Mussolini, his mistress, Clara Petacci and other senior Italian Fascists