Unlike Hitler Mussolini had made compromises with the monarchy and the Church (in 1929 he gave the Vatican the status of an independent state and allowed the two million-strong Catholic Action to continue to function). Mussolini also had to manoeuvre between, balance, and play-off several competing cliques inside his own movement. Regional fascist organisations were organised through powerful local bosses often linked to organised crime.
These structures and problems placed additional limits on his dictatorship which was authoritarian, but never totalitarian. Mussolini was a vicious thug – capable of setting gangs on unarmed political opponents, using poison gas on African villages and having prisoners of war shot – but he never had a vice-like grip over Italy in the way that the Nazis had in Germany, or used terror as the Stalinists did in Russia. In particular the fascists never had complete control of the state machine – the police, army and civil service remained, in the final analysis, in the hands of the old, pre-fascist ruling elite.
The German Nazis had had a much longer, harder road to power — and they ended up as a more coherent, consistent party. Aside from grandiose imperialist scheming, and repression at home which destroyed the opposition — especially working-class opposition – there was little consistency in Mussolini’s policy.
For example, until 1925 the fascist economic policy was classically liberal: inheritance and other taxes were abolished, so were rent controls; state industries were privatised. The rich who had backed Mussolini benefited from stability and an ending of most strikes. But later in the 20s the fascist state had developed the idea of ‘corporatism’, allegedly modelled on the guild system, and involving heavy state control. Later, when Mussolini rediscovered contempt for the bourgeoisie, he advocated nationalisation of industry.
The German Nazi-Italian fascist alliance was, in fact, problematic. In 1935, Italy formed a bloc with France and Britain against Germany (the Stresa front). Despite collaboration to help the Spanish military defeat the Republic (Italy sent 75, 000 troops in total and vast amounts of armaments) there were serious barriers in the way of a German-Italian alliance.
The Nazis regarded the Italians as an inferior race and the German stereotype was that Italians were lazy and disloyal. And, for his own strategic reasons, Mussolini was opposed to the German seizure of Austria.
Over twenty years the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini had developed. In 1922, Mussolini, in power, could consider Hitler to be almost insignificant. The two men first met in 1934 and Mussolini thought himself to be the more important, senior partner – dismissing Hitler as “a mad little clown”. By 1938 Italy was very much in Germany’s wake, being swept along towards world war. When Hitler visited Italy in May 1938 some of the guns mounted on antiquated military vehicles were made of wood. As war started Italy was weak, unprepared – very much Germany’s junior partner.
It seems that Hitler did genuinely admire Mussolini, at least until Italy’s humiliating military defeats of 1941-2. During their final meetings in 1943-4 Mussolini sat in silence, for hours, listening to Hitler ramble and rant, seemingly trapped, now too frightened of Nazi power to discuss a way out of the war that was being lost.
As the war opened Italian capitalism was backward compared to all the other major European powers.
Car production was 15% of that of Britain and France; Italy produced tiny fractions of the coal, iron ore, steel and oil of Britain or Germany. Mussolini only declared war on France and Britain on 10 June 1940 after the German army had smashed into France and the British had evacuated at Dunkirk. He was expecting a short and victorious war.
Although Mussolini had invaded and – eventually – defeated the Ethiopians in 1935-6 with half a million troops and civilian workers using a “systematic policy of terrorism and extermination,” the British and American armies were a different matter. By 1942 the war was going seriously wrong for Italian fascism, beaten in the Balkans, and in east and north Africa.
There had been sporadic strikes during 1942, but the first big strikes since 1925 took place in March 1943, coordinated by Communist Party cells. On 5 March at 10am Fiat workers in Milan stopped work. The Communist paper, Unita, had been re-established in June 1942 and in the lead-factory, Fiat Mirafiori, there was a CP organisation of 80. In three other Turin factories the CP cells had 30, 72 and 60 members.
On 8 March the local secretary of the Fascist Confederation of Industrial Workers estimated 30-35 000 workers had joined token strikes at 10am that morning. Four days later the Communists claimed 100 000 had stopped work. On 14 March the underground committee of the Lombardy region of the CP met in Milan and announced a strike for 24 March when Pirelli and Falk workers followed Turin.
For the fascists there were many alarming facts about the workers’ action. Although the formal strike demands were economic (getting enough to eat was now hard, and the cost of living had increased by 75% over the previous three years), the underlying mood of the workers was opposition to the war. The workers that had struck were all involved in the war industries. Cianetti, a minister, spoke of fascist workers who “showed themselves to be completely passive [as the strikes took place], or had even fomented the strikes.” And Roberto Farinacci, a fascist leader, wrote to Mussolini, “The Party is absent and impotent… everywhere in the trams, the theatres and air-raid shelters … people are denouncing the regime.”
The fascist militia had failed to act against the strikers, despite prior warnings; many fascist party members had taken part in the action. Some hundreds of strikers were arrested in Turin and Milan, including the central CP cadre at Mirafiore.
By early 1943 Italy had only 400 modern fighter planes left, and three-quarters of Italian ships had been destroyed or were out of use. In January Libya had been lost and by May ’43 the Axis had been defeated in north Africa. On 10 July US and British forces invaded Sicily, and nine days later the Allies bombed Rome for the first time. This series of events pushed Mussolini into isolated depression and political paralysis. Among the old ruling class, and even in leading fascist circles, there was widespread discussion about the need to break from Germany and make a separate peace.
On 24 June 1943 the latest fascist party secretary, Carlo Scorza, reported 4.77 million PNF members, 1.2 million in the party’s women’s organisations. In the 1930s PNF membership had become mandatory for all those needing work or welfare. Scorza added that these impressive figures would have “no absolute value if they do not represent spirit and will.” The events of the next weeks showed just how hollowed-out fascist power had become.
The fascist Grand Council met on 24-25 July and voted by 19 votes to 7 for the King, parliament and ministers to be given back the powers Mussolini had taken from them. Mussolini, in the state of passive confusion that had gripped him for many weeks, quietly accepted criticism during the ten hour meeting, effectively allowing the motion against him to be passed. Later on the 25th Mussolini visited the King, Victor Emmanuel III, and was arrested on the King’s orders, while leaving. The King appointed Marshall Badoglio as prime minister.
There was no serious fascist resistance to what amounted to the reassertion of direct political control by the old ruling class. The fascist militia failed to react; even Mussolini’s own paper Popolo d’Italia accepted the change, replacing Mussolini’s photo on the front page with Badoglio’s. Mussolini wrote to Badoglio offering, “every possible collaboration.”
For Hitler the overthrow seemed to provide a worrying example to others closer to home and Mussolini was moved regularly as the Germans tried to find him. Victor Emmanuel, however, resisted handing Mussolini over to the Allies and continued to tell the Germans the Italian war would continue – out of fear of the Nazi reaction — as his government secretly attempted to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies, which was eventually announced on 8 September 1943.
The King and Badoglio then ran from Rome, leaving their forces in chaos. In response the German army – which had expected and planned for this overturn, and moved more troops into Italy during August — took control in central and northern Italy, seizing Rome on 10 September. Parts of the Italian army began to resist, but piecemeal, without central direction.
There was fighting in Rome. And on the Greek island of Cephalonia 12 000 Italian troops fought German attempts to disarm them. After ten days of fighting the Italians surrendered and thousands of prisoners were massacred. Generally, captured Italian troops were given a choice: either fight under German command or be disbanded. About 100 000 chose to fight, most (perhaps 700 000) were disarmed and then deported to Germany as slave labour.
The Germans tracked Mussolini down to a hotel in an Apennine ski resort and freed him in a commando raid on 12 September. Mussolini was taken to Germany and soon after a German puppet Republican Fascist government was set up in northern Italy led by Mussolini. The Social Republic — or Salo Republic, after a town north of Verona where some of the administration was based – had little power. Mussolini was surrounded by SS guards who read his mail and vetted his visitors, and he was deprived of an army which the Nazis believed would be inevitably unreliable.
Blaming the King and the old ruling class for his downfall Mussolini declared his neo-fascist statelet to be republican and socialist. Mussolini wanted to nationalise armaments and electricity, plans that were never implemented and partly declared to build a base of support among the workers for re-founded fascism.
A series of overlapping, chaotic, fascist militias were created or expanded. Some were heavily tied to organised crime. Pietro Koch’s Banda Koch group which had its own prisons and torture chambers was eventually supressed by the regime using the Muti gang in Milan. Despite its criminal links the Muti gang was tolerated as an effective strike-breaking force.
The Allies were already on the Italian mainland, the British having crossed from Sicily on 3 September. In Sicily the Allies had been greeted as saviours, and now Naples was liberated from below as the Allied armies fought their way north.
On the edge of Italy’s borders the fascists had, from the start, persecuted non-Italian minorities. The Slovene language was prohibited, although half the people in and around Trieste were Slovenes. And German was banned in Alto Adige, where 90% spoke German as a first language; teaching German was banned, even in private, and German papers were supressed.
The French army under Napoleon had invaded in 1797 and – as in France — Jews were granted equal rights. Following Napoleon’s defeat, in 1815, the Jews were thrown back into the ghettos and their rights were repealed.
The Italian revolution of 1848, which unified the Italian states under the House of Savoy again granted the Jews civil and political equality, without religious distinction.
At the beginning of Mussolini’s rise, many Italian Jews supported the fascists. And Mussolini had a long affair with a Jewish woman, Margherita Sarfatti, from 1911 to 1938, when Sarfatti left for South America. Sarfatti was a propaganda advisor to the PNF in the 1920s and the party was open to Jewish members.
However, in 1929, Mussolini passed the racist Falco Laws, contradicting the freedom of religion sanctioned by the Italian Constitution. In 1938 he declared the Italians to be part of the ‘pure race,’ along with the Aryans. Jews were expelled from all public services and schools. Although Mussolini believed the idea of a ‘pure race’ was nonsense, he adopted Nazi ideas out of political opportunism.
In 1931, there were 48 000 Jews in Italy. By 1939 nearly 4 000 Jews had been baptized and thousands more chose to emigrate, leaving approximately 35 000 Jews in the country. During World War II, Jews were interned in labour camps in Italy, but when the north of the country — where the Jewish communities mostly lived — became occupied by the Germans in 1943, the threat became critical. In October 1943, the Nazis raided the former Ghetto of Rome and deported 2000 Jews to death camps. In November, they sent the Jews of Genoa, Torino, Florence to Auschwitz.
Perhaps 7,500 Italian Jews became victims of the Holocaust.
Strikes broke out in Turin on 1 March 1944 and spread to Milan and Genoa.
The German reports stressed, “The movement has political aims, and a Communist character.” The strike was called by the CP-dominated Committee of Agitation in Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria and was coordinated with sabotage and disruption on the rail network. On 6 March, on Hitler’s personal orders, 600 workers at Fiat were arrested. The Committee ordered a return to work; 200 000 workers across northern Italy had struck.
In the strike’s aftermath many strikers were deported to Germany as forced labour. The Nazis also decided to dismantle the key factories and move the machinery to Germany. The authorities began to move equipment in June and were met with further strikes – colluded with by Fiat managers — to prevent them. Over ten days 40,000 workers struck. The fascist German state made concessions on wages and assurances the machinery would not be touched.
In mid-1944 there were about 70 000 fighters in partisan formations (40% in Communist-led units). The partisans were numerically strongest in the hills where many young men had fled to avoid being conscripted. The Garibaldi Brigades were Communist controlled, the Matteotti Brigades were Socialist and the Justice and Freedom Brigades were affiliated to the liberal Partito d'Azione. Other groupings also existed (monarchist, anarchist, unaffiliated local groups). The Committee of National Liberation (CNL) was the umbrella group that had the support of most of these militias.
In mid-1944, there was a generalised rising across northern Italy led by the CLN. The German armies were being pushed northwards in a series of East-West defensive lines across the width of Italy. And they faced a partisan war in the rear of their front lines, which had liberated large areas of the north. Over the summer of 1944 Kesselring, the German military commander in Italy, estimated partisans had killed 5000 German troops, with larger numbers missing or wounded.
Using terror and Italian fascist units the partisan rising was largely crushed by the end of 1944. In total the partisans lost perhaps 50 000 fighters during 1943-5.
As the German armies collapsed and the Allies renewed their offensive the CLN called an uprising. Turin and Milan were liberated by partisans on 25 April 1945. The 14 000-strong German-Italian forces in Genoa surrendered to the CLN on 26-27 April.
The end came in April 1945. Mussolini had half-intended a last stand with thousands of fascists in Valtelline, north of Milan, near the Swiss border. But his support vaporised. He was caught by partisans from the 52nd Garibaldi Brigade attempting to escape northwards dressed in a German airforce coat and helmet. Communist partisans shot him and his mistress Clara Petacci on 28 April. Their bodies were hung up by their heels, with other leading fascists, from the roof of a petrol station in Milan. In the aftermath of the war some thousands of pro-German collaborators and Italian fascists were killed in revenge for acts during the war.
In June 1946 Italy held a referendum on the monarchy. 12.7 million (54%) voted for a republic and the heavily compromised monarchy was abolished. In the general election held on the same day 35% voted Christian Democrat, 20% Socialist Party and 19% Communist Party. The CP had 2.3 million members in 1947.