Marching on Rome: The Return of the Undead

by | 21 Sep 2022

In a recent article in The Guardian, John Foot suggested that the extreme right was about to win the general election in Italy and, consequently, the next Prime Minister would be Giorgia Meloni, head of Frattelli D’Italia, a party which has roots in the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) which in turn was a direct descendant of Mussolini’s fascist party. She is likely to take power in time for the 100th anniversary of Mussolini’s march on Rome in October 1922.. ‘But let’s be clear,’ he wrote, ‘Meloni is not a fascist. She will not command armies of black-shirted armed groups and she will not look to overturn liberal democracy.’ 

The distinction between Meloni’s rightwing agenda and that of the 1920s fascists is made clear in this excellent and highly-readable history of the movement. But many actual fascists are waiting in the shadows and many more are addicted to the belief that there were good things to be said about Mussolini. Nostalgia for fascism centres around the belief that Il Duce brought order to Italy, restored the nation’s pride after WWI, made things work (including railway timetables), built fine buildings and drained the Pontine Marshes among other things. Possibly fascism’s one great achievement was the electrification of the railways, but otherwise most of it is a carefully propagandised mythology. John Foot is unequivocal about this. Fascism was about violence and repression from the outset, he argues in this book, and despite its carefully cultivated proletarian image it was successful primarily because it did the bidding of the latifundisti(landed estate class) and the industrialists. Its earliest actions were against agrarian trade unions and strikes by impoverished farmworkers and poor sharecroppers.

It us to be hoped that Foot is right in his assessment of the politics of Giorgia Meloni; many of my Italian friends are not so sanguine and expect that her attempts to win over the middle ground are no more than a front.  Others point to the poor record on human rights and workers rights of the Partito Democratico (usually described as centre-left) and ask whether Meloni can be much worse. In any case, we can expect to see, for the first time since the passing of the Italian constitution, open displays of the ‘Roman salute’ and other fascist trappings throughout Italy at least for the March on Rome anniversary. Her accession to power, if it happens, will almost certainly be accompanied by an increase in violence against migrants and people in need of international protection – the fascist squadristi, so well described in this volume, haven’t really gone away – though she will deny all knowledge of their actions.

The background

Blood and Power begins, appropriately in the rich history of nineteenth century Italian anarchism and syndicalism with a series of pen portraits of figures such as Errico Malatesta who spent his life agitating for revolution, much of it in exile or in prison and was a central figure in the series of strikes known as ‘Red Week’ in 1914 in which workers, farm labourers and ‘sharecroppers’ (farmers who paid rent in shares of the crops) took control of towns, villages and farm land. Then came the First World War and Italy entered on the side of Britain and its allies, declaring war first on Austria-Hungary and later on Germany. The conduct of the military campaign in the high mountainous region known as the Carso (ably described in Mark Thompson’s brilliant study The White War) was disastrous from the start. General Cadorna, arrogant and callous, hated by his troops (there is a song that begins ‘Maledetta sia Cadorna’, ‘Cursed be Cadorna’) believed that modern warfare would be a war of movement and so failed to equip his troops for trench warfare or even to prepare the most rudimentary defence lines. Time after time Italian soldiers, who but a short time before had been peasants peacefully tending their sheep or workers in factories, were thrown against near impregnable Austrian redoubts, charging over frozen ground that was thinly covered limestone and which instantly became shrapnel during bombardment. Their losses were immense – as a proportion of the population, higher even than Britain’s – and many died from exposure in the snow, from hunger and from preventable diseases – not to mention the extraordinary numbers executed for refusing to undertake suicidal attacks or simply worn down by cold, hunger and the loss of their comrades. 

The war was an existential shock to the recently unified Italian state. It divided Italians around deeply emotive issues. Millions had been conscripted, many from parts of Italy that were remote from the seat of power in Rome never mind from the Austro-Hungarian border and many more from areas with strong anarchist or socialist traditions and who were politically disinclined to fight against what they saw as their comrades in Germany and Austria on behalf of the imperialist Powers of Britain and France. Every village, almost every farm and factory suffered losses or saw conscripts return mutilated and often unable to work. The catastrophic defeat at Caporetto enraged the militarists and they blamed those who had opposed the war. Many who would become the fascist foot-soldiers cut their teeth on street fighting with the anti-war Left.

As in Germany during Weimar, post-WWI Italy was convulsed by a struggle of workers and farmers pitted against industrialists and large land-owners using gangs of ex-soldiers and the police as strike-breakers and union beaters. These rightwing gangs would eventually coalesce around the figure of Benito Mussolini to become his fascist squadristi.

Foot spends some time defining the concept of squadrismoSquadra is the Italian word for ‘team’ and is also the root of our word ‘squad’. In essence, the squadristi were squads of ex-soldiers or hangers-on who took it upon themselves to ‘restore order’ on behalf of the rich and powerful. Violence was their modus operandi. They raided the offices of trade unions, the socialist party and its newspaper and the homes of leftwingers. They brought revolvers, clubs with nails driven into them, and castor-oil. The castor-oil was a particularly finely tuned piece of humiliation. Leftwingers were forced to drink it and then paraded through the streets once they had soiled themselves (there is a famous scene which depicts this punishment in Fellini’s masterpiece Amarcord). The methods of the squadristi were memorably described by the socialist lawyer Giacomo Matteotti in one of his most eloquent contributions to parliament (as quoted by Foot):

In the dead of night, while most gentlemen are in bed at home, the lorries of the fascists turn up in small villages, in the countryside, where not many people live. Naturally, they are accompanied by the leaders of the local landowners, guided by them, because otherwise it would be impossible to recognise, in the dark, in the middle of the countryside, the small house of the trade union leader, or the tiny local employment office. They gather in front of a small house and the order is given… surround the building. They are twenty, sometimes a hundred of them armed with rifles and revolvers…. they put him on the lorry, they torture him in a horrible way and pretend to murder him, to drown him, then he is abandoned in the middle of the countryside, naked, tied to a tree….

One of the mottoes of the squadristi was ‘Me ne frego’ (roughly equivalent to ‘I don’t give a shit’). Originally a wartime marching song and slogan indicating that the soldier didn’t care about his hardships, it came to signify something else under fascism. They didn’t give a shit for the law, for public opinion, for old age, childhood, weakness, innocence. Violence was an end in itself, an affirmation of their manhood, or their dominance and of their impunity because the law never intervened against them. 

This menefreghismo, should be borne in mind when we think of Giorgia Meloni and her Frattelli D’Italia. It lies just below the surface and many of her followers yearn for it. We have seen it in attacks on gypsy camps and refugees, in particular Africans. It is likely to reappear should Meloni come to power and there is no certainty that the police can be relied upon in all instances to investigate and arrest.

Fascism developed during the two years after the war known as the Biennio Rosso (1919 and 1920). This was a period of intense activity by socialists, anarchists and syndicalists (trade unionists). The general strike was their weapon (many were pacifists) and they hoped, and in many cases succeeded, to seize the means of production from the factory owners and landowners and run them for the benefit of the people. For two years, factories in Milan and Turin were run by workers councils (the Communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci called them soviets), farms in the Po valley were run by labourers and the workers armed ‘Red Guards’ to protect themselves from the rightwing militias and the police. Many of these strikes and occupations were spontaneous responses to repression, wage-cuts or lockouts. In many localities the struggle was one of life or death, such as in the south where landowners were their own law and employed gangs of enforcers armed with guns or clubs to terrify the peasants. Extraordinarily despite the ferocity of reactionary violence, at the general election of 1919, almost two million Italians (on a limited franchise) voted Left and the Socialist Party became the single largest party in parliament. At the same time, as Foot points out, ‘no fascist was elected.’ In addition, the strikes and occupations won important rights for workers. Foot enumerates them: ‘the eight hour day, employment rights, pay increases, controls over who was hired and fired in the countryside.’ But the turmoil had negative effects too, most importantly the climate of uncertainty and fear among the better off.

Mussolini (who was once a leading socialist and editor of the party’s newspaper Avanti!) seized the moment and, funded by the factory- and land-owners, established his fascist party as the party of law and order. Given, as we shall see, the fact that the fascists unleashed wave after wave of criminality, that reputation seems extremely ironic.

The Italian bourgeoisie and political class failed to identify the threat posed by the fascists. They saw Mussolini as a slightly ridiculous figure, a useful thug at the head of a gang of thugs, and believed that once they had made use of him to suppress the revolutionary groups, they would be able to put him back in his box; it was a temporary arrangement, they would return to business as usual after a brief spell of authoritarianism. In the event, fascism in Italy lasted 20 years and ultimately caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the destruction of homes, businesses, factories and heritage.

Benito Mussolini

What kind of a man was Benito Mussolini? He came of modest origins. His father was a blacksmith and a socialist and his mother was a  devout catholic school teacher. Unusually for the son of a blacksmith, and at his mother’s insistence, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school and eventually qualified as an elementary schoolteacher. He was widely read in anarchist, syndicalist and Marxist literature and fascinated by Nietzsche. He taught himself French and German (at one point it was popular to compare Donald Trump with Mussolini, but even this brief summary of Il Duce’s CV makes such a comparison ridiculous. Mussolini actually was intelligent and well-read). Fiercely anti-war, he was appointed editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti! and raised its circulation from 20,000 to 100,000. By the outbreak of WWI he was one of Italy’s most prominent socialists. But having read Nietzsche first in his Swiss exile, he gradually abandoned one of the central tenets of socialism, that all people are equal, and adopted the Nietzschean concept of the übermensch or superman, the born leader who must shake off all christian  moral limits and impose his own meaning on the world. In this regard, he was not alone on the left; many anarchist thinkers were also intrigued by Nietzsche’s philosophy. However, it led Mussolini not towards anarchism but to thinking that he and his followers could disregard all social norms and values and impose themselves on society, and that socialism and communism, with their emphasis on equality, solidarity and class struggle were forms of weakness. The Nazis too were to use (or, more correctly, misuse) Nietzsche’s thought, in their case to justify their obsession with the ‘master race’. 

It is popular among rightwing commentators to declare that socialism and fascism are the same – the so-called ‘horseshoe theory’ – but, in a sense, Mussolini’s apostasy defines fascism and separates it from socialism. To become a fascist he had to abandon the concept of solidarity and adopt a cult of violence. 

In considering the claims of fascism to be about helping the proletariat, creating work and abolishing poverty we need only look at the infamous raid on Ravenna and the surrounding towns carried out by one of the most brutal fascist leaders Italo Balbo. When the squadristi descended in huge numbers on Ravenna in July 1922 it was the cooperative movement that they targeted. They attacked the beautiful ex-Palazzo Byron which housed the federation that represented 92 cooperatives and which provided work, fair prices and a decent living standard for thousands of poor farmers and workers. The federation owned and farmed  6,000 hectares (almost 15,000 acres) of land and rented as many. It was an institution of national importance founded and led by workers and small farmers, the brainchild and life’s work of the moderate socialist Nullo Baldini. The squadristi burned the federation headquarters to the ground and beat Baldini mercilessly. They then proceeded to burn the houses of known socialists, communists and republicans. With the connivance of the police they commandeered lorries and descended on the surrounding towns with the same effect, destroying the cooperative network throughout the zone. Not once did the police or carabinieri (armed military police) intervene. No fascist was prosecuted for the actions, but the economic power of the working class and poor farmers was broken. The question of cui bono is trivial. Of course it benefitted fascist power, but the ultimate beneficiary was the landowner, the merchant, the middlemen. Balbo and his fascists were, essentially, enforcers for the bourgeoisie.

The so-called ‘March on Rome’ (they mostly travelled by train) was accompanied by ferocious fascist violence in every region and province, most particularly wherever the cooperative movement or a strong trade union organisation existed and wherever the socialists or communists were popular. The triumph of Mussolini gave the squadristi carte blanche and they used it to exact revenge on their opponents even to the extent of sacking towns, burning union and cooperative buildings and homes, and hunting down leftwing activists such as at Turin where at least eleven people are known to have been murdered – historians believe the actual number to be much larger. On one occasion the entire journalistic staff of Gramsci’s newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo was put up against a wall and subjected to a mock execution. The life of a socialist politician, a union organiser, a cooperative manager, a leftwing or republican journalist or a lawyer became untenable. Socialist, anarchist and communist mayors were assassinated in many provinces, many of them shot in the back. 

Ultimately, this prolonged system of murder, intimidation and destruction led to the 1924 election in which Mussolini won 374 seats to the Left’s 65. Even so, the fascist majority could not have been guaranteed without the ‘Acerbo Law’ which allocated two thirds of the seats in parliament to the party which won the largest share of the vote, the remaining third to be divided among all the other parties. The law was passed with the support of most of the liberal deputies under the glare of armed squadristi who occupied the Chamber of Deputies. The majority was also swelled by the defection of many Liberals who simply changed party while retaining their seats. 

Any fascist claim to democratic legitimacy is pure propaganda. Without the violence, intimidation, murders and the new electoral law they would again have been a small minority in parliament. Mussolini never won an election and 1924 was the last occasion in which he bothered to try.

The murder of Matteotti

The ‘ventennio fascista’, the twenty years of fascism, began in violence and continued in violence, one of the most egregious examples of which was the murder of Giacomo Matteotti. A lawyer, handsome, an eloquent advocate for the rights of his mostly desperately poor peasant constituents, a fierce opponent of Italy’s entry into WWI (for which he was interned), Matteotti was a thorn in the side of the fascist administration. He had previously been kidnapped, tortured and possibly sexually abused, but it did not silence him. He published, in 1921, a detailed denunciation of the brutal fascist violence against left voters and political opponents in the elections of that year (which, nevertheless, produced a mere 35 fascist deputies versus 123 socialists and 15 communists). In 1924, it was published in London as The Fascisti Exposed; a Year of Fascist Domination, a meticulous catalogue of fascist criminality and impunity. On the 30th of May 1924, during the debate on the elections, he made a famous speech in parliament in which he attacked the legitimacy of the entire election. The fascist deputies were enraged and tried to shout him down with threats and insults but Matteotti was fearless. On being cautioned by the speaker of the house to ‘speak prudently’, he replied: ‘I shall speak neither prudently nor imprudently but according to parliamentary law’. His very presence in parliament had become intolerable to the fascists. 

On the 10th of June that year, walking in the afternoon sunshine along the banks of the Tiber, Matteotti was attacked by five squadristi, part of a secret fascist hit-squad. All had been soldiers and all had killed since the war. Fit and a strong, a client of the gymnasium in his home town, he seems to have acquitted himself well with his fists and was only subdued when one of his attackers knifed him. They dragged him into a black Lancia and probably stabbed him again because the back seat was covered in blood. This time he would not survive. His body was dumped in a shallow grave in a wood outside Rome; it would take two months to find and then it would be by chance. He was thirty nine years of age, married with three children under six. When news broke of his kidnapping, before his body had been found, there were strikes, demonstrations and protests all over the country. The entire opposition agreed to withdraw from parliament. Because the squadristi had acted so blatantly, at 4.30 in the afternoon in broad daylight and in front of witnesses, the police were able to arrest several. One of them Cesare Rossi was Mussolini’s press officer and, to save his skin, he decided to turn the blame on Mussolini. Eventually Rossi would flee the country. Tricked into returning four years later he was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison. By then Mussolini had taken the Matteotti allegation and turned it on its head by publicly accepting responsibility for all the political violence: ‘If all of the violence was a result of a specific historic, political and moral climate, I have created that climate with propaganda since the intervention.’ It was an astonishing coup de theatre, a dictator beating his chest and proclaiming his own amoral power, the exact opposite of those craven and obviously insincere apologies we have become used to in our present day politicians. Il Duce would have regarded such grovelling as a sign of weakness, something the übermensch could never contemplate.

There were four attempts on Mussolini’s life during his reign. In Ireland we remember Violet Gibson who came closest to actually eliminating the dictator. The bullet grazed his nose and only missed blowing his brains out because he turned his head at the last moment. She spent the rest of her days in an asylum in Northampton. The fourth and last attempt appears to have been carried out by a fifteen year old boy who was beaten to death by the crowd which included many leading fascists. But each attempt on his life led to a further orgy of violence against political opponents and a further consolidation of Il Duce’s power. Many of those accused (though not necessarily guilty) of being accomplices finished up on the brutal prison island of Santo Stefano where later such political figures as the socialist Sandro Pertini, one of the most popular postwar Presidents of the Republic, would be imprisoned.

Repression as a measure of resistance

A corollary of this sustained campaign of brutality is the extraordinary and dignified resistance of the Italian Left. Figures like Misiano, Modigliani, Gramsci and Matteotti were outstanding figures, models for their comrades, and martyrs for democratic Italy, but they were only the famous names. Ordinary socialists, anarchists and communists, trade unionists and republicans stayed at their posts as councillors, mayors, union organisers, journalists, or ordinary workers, farmers, fishermen, sailors, resisting by whatever means were at their disposal. The extent of the campaign against them is the very measure of their resistance. 

And the campaign against the left really was relentless: the battery of laws introduced by the fascist parliament, the perversion of the judicial and carceral systems, the imprisonments, the raids, the sacking of towns, the burning of homes, farms, offices, places of work, the beatings, the torture, the assassinations continued with ferocity throughout the 20s and early 30s. The range of forces marshalled to defeat the antifascist resistance was extraordinary too – the squadristi, the various secret police forces, the uniformed police, the army, the spies and informers, the magistrates and judges, the specially created fascist trade unions and the whole panoply of the corporate state. We can count the deaths, but many local and national figures of antifascism, women and men and often even children, were physically or psychologically destroyed by the squadristi, their health broken down, blinded, lamed, sexually abused, deprived of their livelihoods, some driven to madness or chronic depression, their families also targeted even after their deaths. Many torture victims never recovered. This vast apparatus of repression was necessary because of the scale of the resistance at the micro and macro levels, a fact that is often forgotten when we think of the fascist years. 

Italy did not simply become fascist. Firstly, there never was a free and fair election in which the fascists gained more than a tiny fraction of parliamentary seats. Secondly, even when they brutalised their way to power the resistance continued. 

By the mid ‘30s, left resistance was broken within in Italy or had gone underground. Ultimately, many of the leading figures like Palmiro Togliatti, friend of the imprisoned Gramsci and co-founder of the communist party, fled abroad to await a propitious moment in which to return. Others, were hunted down by fascists in their country of exile – the brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli, for example, unrelenting critics of fascism through activism and journalism, were murdered by a gang of cagoulards, French fascists, probably at Mussolini’s instigation. Many others, volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and, given the extraordinary rate of attrition in the International Brigades, many never returned to Italy. Some, such as Luigi Longo and Pietro Nenni would return from Spain to fight in the resistance against the Nazi-fascists. Nenni was arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned on the Italian island of Ponza. Many of the surviving antifascists would play important roles in postwar Italian politics.

Mussolini and the Jews

This brings us to roughly the mid-point of Blood and Power. We have not yet come to the Lateran Treaty in which the church threw its weight behind fascism in return for official recognition of the Vatican State or the passing of the Racial Laws  of 1938 which set out to excise the Jewish presence in the Italian state. 

Apologists for the fascist period often attempt to distinguish between Nazism and fascism, emphasising, in particular, Hitler’s antisemitism which led to the deaths of at least six million Jews. Mussolini, they argue was not antisemitic. But, as Foot demonstrates, the squadristi and their leaders were profoundly antisemitic long before that, and the evidence is that Il Duce regarded Jews as a convenient ‘other’ that could be treated as an internal enemy. The regime set about its anti-semitism with the same thoroughness it had applied to the war against socialism. The vast scope of the ‘Racial Laws’, the fine-tuning of the discrimination year by year and the pseudo-legal process they introduced deprived Jews of their livelihoods, their wealth and their place in society. The census of Italian Jews (estimated at 50,000 ‘Jewish’ persons in a population of more than 40 million) ultimately enabled the efficient deportation of Jews to the gas chambers, and all this in a state, which before the rise of fascism, was relatively welcoming to Jews (there had been several Jewish ministers and prime ministers, for example).

The war is still before us and the dramatic removal of Mussolini as the Allies invaded, his imprisonment, his rescue by Nazi commandos, his role as a quisling to Hitler in the Republic of Salò, his part in the Holocaust, the massacres carried out by the fascist Black Brigades against whole villages that supported the resistance, and Mussolini’s eventual execution by a band of partisans led, according to some accounts, by Luigi Longo himself.

The photograph of Mussolini and his companions hanging by their heels in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan is infamous, but rarely accompanied by the explanation that here, eight months previously, the Gestapo, with the aid of local fascists, had executed fifteen partisans, leaving their bodies on display on the side of the busy road for days. The display of Mussolini’s body was the counterpoint to that massacre and, arguably, a fitting end to the man who had unleashed such terror on his country. One thing is certain, Mussolini could not be permitted to live. As it was, fascism largely went underground after the war, but it continued to exercise power through the police, the army and the judiciary. Many partisans who played a heroic part in the resistance were prosecuted on trumped up charges by judges who had remained in place since their appointment under fascist laws. The Christian Democrat party provided a safe haven for former members of the fascist party. From time to time fascist violence would return – as in the so-called Years of Lead when the fascist underground would carry out atrocities such as the Bologna Railway Station bombing which killed eighty five people and injured hundreds with the intention of blaming it on the Left, or the Reggio Emilia massacre where police fired on striking workers, killing five and injuring eighteen. Had Il Duce lived he would almost certainly have been returned to power in some form, in my opinion. 

2022 Elections

Needless to say, the usual cautions apply about history repeating itself, but it would be unwise (post-Trump) to completely discount the possibility of a reprise of Mussolini’s coup. Of course, the Italian constitution and its institutions are in a much stronger position to resist than they were in the interwar years, and, as Foot argues, Meloni’s ambitions do not seem to extend to dictatorship, but it’s probable that her coalition of Frattelli D’Italia, the Lega (Salvini) and Forza Italia!(Berlusconi) is likely to last more than one term and during that time a great deal of damage can be done to the fragile political settlement and to Italy’s international reputation. Despite his confidence in the Guardian article, there is one sentence in the epilogue to this book that sent a shiver down my spine: ‘Fascism will not return,’ he wrote,’ in the same form; yet it may still make a comeback in some way.’ In European terms, an alliance between a far-right Italy, Hungary and Poland would be disastrous. It must be remembered that Italy is the eighth largest economy in the world and the third largest in the EU.

There are many historical accounts of the rise and fall of fascism in Italy but they tend to be somewhat dry and factual. Blood and Power is rich in personal detail, a fascinating glimpse into the actual experience of living under fascist terror. The historical facts are mostly told through micro-histories, stories of individuals and groups, elegantly stitched together with background and context. It is the first book I have read which brings the reader to the heart of the period. This is important as we in Europe again face the possibility the return of the far-right in the country that invented fascism. Blood and Power is a stark forewarning and an invaluable rehearsal of the actual meaning of fascism as well as the necessity for resistance.

This article was previously published in The Dublin Review of Books


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