The fascist movement born in Italy after the First World War desired a revolutionary dictatorship, which would transform Italy into a new civilization, using force when required. Yet, the impact of fascism on Italy was not uniform. From the perspective of the Italian population, how fascist rule was experienced varied according to social class, political orientation, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnic origin. For large numbers of Italians, an oppressive fascist regime brought economic hardship and/or a loss of basic human rights. For others fascism appeared to bring stability, well-being and national honour (epitomized in the conquest of Ethiopia in 1936) - for which authoritarian government was a price worth paying. The impact of fascist rule to an extent also varied according to geographical location, reflecting a historical divide between the north and south of Italy, and between rural and urban areas. Fascism outwardly transformed Italian society, as evident in the creation of a one-party state, which claimed to penetrate all facets of life, whether the economy, education, leisure pursuits, or the family and private life. The fascist state’s control of information, the large number of choreographed rituals and spectacles dominating public life, and the creation of a cult around the leader, Benito Mussolini, reflect this. However, the extent to which fascism profoundly transformed Italian society is questionable. The speed with which consensus for the regime collapsed in the wake of Italy’s disastrous participation in the Second World War as an ally of Hitler’s Germany is often cited as evidence of Mussolini’s failure to create a nation of genuine fascist believers and ‘warriors’ in spite of propagandized images of a society at one with fascism.
The Fascist Police State
Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister in October 1922 did not see the immediate institution of dictatorial rule. Characteristic of the means the Fascists had employed to come to power, Blackshirt squad violence helped to reduce the influence of parliamentary opposition without outlawing it altogether. From the start of 1925, a fascist parliamentary majority (elected in April 1924 partly thanks to fascist intimidation) was able to pass a series of laws which dismantled the institutions of liberal democracy. Denoting a decline in squad power, the regular police forces together with the OVRA secret police (created in 1927) were now entrusted with the task of rooting out political opposition and controlling the population, with the assistance of Fascist Party organizations (including the Militia). From 1926, the police benefited from enhanced powers which made them less accountable for their actions. Italian citizens were monitored more frequently than in the past, and could easily fall victim to spies and informers - to the extent that most began to be careful about what they said in public. However, the main targets of police oppression belonged to the working classes or underground opposition parties. Many had been subject to police action under the previous Liberal state because of their involvement in union militancy or left-wing politics. Nevertheless, they suffered considerably worse under fascist rule, with large numbers being sentenced to imprisonment or confino (exile in a remote part of the country or penal colony). Government-supporting middle class citizens were less likely to fall foul of the fascist police state. When relatively harmless criticism of the regime on the part of such individuals reached the authorities, their good social standing, and clean criminal and political records, could count in their favour.
Economy and Labour
In its efforts to ‘nationalize’ the Italian masses, fascism applied the imagery and metaphors of war to economic production, as evident in highly propagandized, but largely unsuccessful, ‘battles’ for national autarchy in raw materials and wheat. Mussolini claimed to cater to the needs of workers while rejecting socialism, according to the principle, enshrined in the Fascist Charter of Labour of 1927, that previous conflict between bosses and employees was now overcome as both became ‘producers’ for the nation. The implementation during the 1930s of the ‘Corporate State’, consisting of representative bodies of employers and employees for each sector of the economy, only superficially reflected this. In practice, the regime favoured employers over workers. In the wake of the economic depression of the 1930s, big business benefited from the state’s intervention to save failing companies and fascism’s preparation for long-term warfare and occupation of foreign territory. In spite of state welfare measures, large numbers of workers and their families saw a decline in living standards. Fascist unions did little to protect them against wage cuts and sackings. While propaganda exalted rural life, the regime’s economic policies impoverished the peasant masses in particular.
Mussolini’s government invested heavily in education as a means of developing future generations of fascists. Ideological penetration of education was especially evident in primary schools, where politically ‘reliable’ instructors ensured that children were drilled in fascist ‘values’, including strict obedience to authority, a spirit of sacrifice and heroism, and protection and enhancement of the Italian ‘race’. Fascist Party youth organizations assisted the process of ideological instruction through to university, with activities focused on pre-military training for boys and forms of civic service for girls, though working-class youngsters were less likely to participate if they left school early to go into employment. In poorer parts of Italy, particularly the South and rural areas, lack of resources limited the extent and attractiveness of organized youth activities. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the fascist regime was most successful in controlling the minds of children and teenagers. Many were left traumatized by Mussolini’s fall from power during the Second World War, having been brought up to believe that their leader and fascism were invincible.
Leisure Pursuits and Culture
Citizens living in fascist Italy spent much of their free time engaged in pursuits that were no different to those undertaken in other Western nations. Yet, most were in some way affected by the regime’s attempt to exercise control over leisure activities (partly in competition with the Catholic Church). As illustrated above, for children and teenagers, organized leisure activities and education were hardly separable. By contrast, the activities of company after-work clubs (overseen by the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro) were less focused on ideological instruction. Such clubs partly catered to welfare and consumer needs, by offering their members household goods and entertainment at discount prices. We should consider mass leisure in the broader cultural context in which the state censored news and banned all direct criticism of fascism, but did not attempt to have the content of literary texts, theatrical productions or commercial films excessively ‘fascistized’, at least until the late 1930s. However, fascist newsreels and documentaries were screened at cinemas. Moreover, in the public sphere, large numbers of citizens were obliged to participate in state-organized spectacular rituals (ceremonies, parades, etc.) which aimed to mould a patriotic and martial spirit. Yet, it is questionable how deeply felt such participation was, particularly among the adult population, given the environment in which, above all, shows of commitment were essential for getting by.
Gender Roles and Sexual Mores
The rise of fascism was partly a consequence of fears about the power and status of men in a world in which gender roles no longer appeared distinct. Mussolini wanted women to return to their traditionally subservient positions as wives and mothers in correspondence to his demographic campaign to increase the birth rate, which would in turn justify colonial expansion. This involved limiting female employment and encouraging marriage (as evident in the introduction of a bachelor tax), restricting the availability of contraceptives, and increasing the severity of prison sentences for illegal abortions. In spite of the parading of the nation’s most prolific mothers at official ceremonies, the ‘battle for births’ did not succeed in halting a long-term demographic decline. This partly reflected fascism’s inability to inhibit female impulses for emancipation. Moreover, in its desire not to lose consensus among the middle classes, the regime itself was unwilling to enforce an extensive ban on women’s employment and their access to university and the professions. However, in the sexual and family sphere, fascism reinforced traditional mores to the point of oppressing individuals who did not conform. This explains the persecution of homosexuals, particularly among men, many of whom were sentenced to confino. It also explains the double standards exercised to the benefit of men and detriment of women in the state’s treatment of adultery.
Conclusion: Fascist War and Defeat
Although the impact of fascist rule on Italian society varied according to the regime’s policies towards specific classes or groups, arguably, the most dramatic consequences revealed themselves to the Italian populace as a whole during the latter years of the dictatorship. The intensification of policies aiming to ‘fascistize’ society and enhance its warrior ‘qualities’, was marked by political and strategic alignment with Hitler’s Germany, as well as the ostracism in 1938 of Italian Jews (many of whom, ironically, had been enthusiastic fascist supporters) from mainstream Italian society, accompanied by a vicious anti-Semitic propaganda campaign. In a similar vein, Italy’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War in support of Francisco Franco’s Nationalists amounted to an ideological war, which, unlike the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, demanded human sacrifice but offered no territorial reward. During the Second World War, a series of military defeats and the collapse of the economy laid bare the hollowness of propaganda stressing Italy’s invincibility. While large numbers of Italians celebrated Mussolini’s consequent fall from power in July 1943, the nastier side of fascism manifested itself in the Italian Social Republic (1943-45), set up under the control of the Nazis, who had occupied Italy after their former ally surrendered to Anglo-American forces in September 1943. Many adherents to the Social Republic, believing that the previous fascist regime had not been radical enough, aimed to resurrect the violent revolutionary fascism of the earlier movement, which had preceded Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922. This partly accounts for the Republic’s ruthless repression of anti-fascists and partisans, as well as its complicity with the Nazis in deporting Jews to death camps. Italian collective memory underlines the human suffering caused by Mussolini’s ill-fated alliance with Nazi Germany. However, reflecting the varying impacts of fascism discussed in this essay, Italians are more divided on the question of how life was under the rule of Mussolini before the Second World War.