During the interwar period (1918-39), democracy became a casualty in several European countries following the establishment of totalitarian dictatorships by the Fascists in Italy and the Nazists in Germany. Besides, the fascist movements were stronger in various European countries like Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Rumania, Spain, Portugal and Poland by the 1930's.
Italian Fascism: Causes
The First World War had devastating and humiliating effects on Italy. Nearly seven lakh Italian soldiers were killed and a million wounded in the war, besides the severe financial loss suffered. Though Italy was with the victors in the war, in the division of war spoils Italians got less than they expected. Naturally the nationalists blamed the existing Italian government for this.However, people desired a stronger leadership and a united nation to bring back the lost glory of Italy under the ancient Roman Empire.
Economic disruption and social unrest were the direct impact of the war as far as Italians were concerned. Trade declined, industries were ruined and taxes rose. Unemployment was rampant. Inflation was all time high and the cost of living increased tremendously. The propertied class feared that a left wing revolution was in the offing and hence were forced to support fascism to avoid confiscation of their property and save them from the ‘danger’ of socialism.
However, the immediate cause of the fascist revolution was the breakdown of the parliamentary system and the consequent constitutional crisis which developed in Italy by the early 1920's. These circumstances were capitalised by the anti-democratic forces which ultimately led to the formation of the National Fascist Party with a national programme.
The Fascist Rule and its Legacy
Fascism is a far-right authoritarian, ultra nationalist, totalitarian political ideology which is firmly rooted in militarism and violence. According to Fascists, ‘‘there is nothing above the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state’. ‘‘The state is everything and individual is nothing”. Citizens have no rights, only duties to perform. It glorified war. Mussolini used to say “War is to man what maternity is to woman.” Using his military force Mussolini suppressed all kinds of opposition. Universal compulsory military service was introduced. All economic activities were brought under the strict control of the government and Italy functioned virtually as a Corporate State. However, Fascism was a revolt against modernity and stood against all values and ideals of Enlightenment. According to the Fascists, democracy was the worst kind of government and they ridiculed all types of discussions and consultations. They dubbed parliaments as useless talking shops.
Finally, Mussolini dragged Italy into the Second World War with disastrous consequences both for him and to the nation. The career and life of Mussolini ended in disgrace in April 1945.
The leader of the fascist movement in Italy was Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). He had an adventurous life. In 1912 he became the editor of the Avanti, the Socialist newspaper. Mussolini fought in the First World War, was seriously wounded and hospitalised. Later he tried his hand in active politics and it was he who founded the National Fascist Party with the professed aim of establishing Fascist regime in Italy.
He was an eloquent speaker and a great strategist who could capture the imagination of the people and lead them from despair to hope. In late October 1922 the Fascist volunteers marched on Rome and on 29 October, Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy invited Mussolini to form a government. Thus without firing a shot Mussolini and his ‘Black Shirts’ gained power. In 1926 he declared all political parties illegal except his own Fascist Party and assumed the title ‘II Duce (the Leader).