The Uses of History, 30 – Mussolini and Fascism, 2

“Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

Benito Mussolini’s formulation of the Motto of Fascism.

(Photo credit – Alamy – Italian forces enter Ethiopia, October 1935)

In our last post, we took a look at what historical Fascism is and how its originator, Benito Mussolini, rose to power in Italy in 1922. We then outlined the course of the Fascist regime up until the early 1930s.

Mussolini was Prime Minister of Italy from 1922-25. In 1925 he adopted the title “Il Duce” – the Leader – as encompassing his role in the government and as the embodiment of the principles of Fascism in practice. The role of Prime Minister all but disappeared, although the title remained alongside “Duce”. “Duce” was more suitable for the “New Italy”, whereas “Prime Minister” harkened back to the notion of his position and power being subject to “the King’s pleasure” to whom he was, in theory, accountable within Parliament. A series of laws and constitutional changes transformed Italy into a one-party state, abolishing Parliament and creating in its place “the Fascist Grand Council” which was a rubber-stamp body whose role was to endorse whatever the Duce and his ministers decreed as official policy. The King was left as a figurehead Head of State with a strictly symbolic and ceremonial function. Mussolini had no further accountability to King Victor Immanuel III.

As we have seen, until 1933, Italy was the only Fascist state in the world. In January of that year, Germany fell under the sway of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis) – and Germany became the second Fascist state. Mussolini was of two minds about this development. On the one hand, he was glad to see another Fascist government in Europe, but on the other, Italy had to look out for its own strategic interests, and he, and by extension Italy’s Fascist government, really needed to demonstrate that Italy was still strong and vital to Europe’s peace.

When, in early 1934 with German Nazi support, the Nazis in Austria attempted to overthrow the Austrian government and accomplish Hitler’s aim of unifying racially German Austria with Hitler’s Third Reich (the Nazi term for the “New” Germany), Italy (Mussolini) quickly put a stop to it by sending five army divisions (about 75 000 men) to the Austro-Italian border at the Brenner Pass as a warning to Hitler that Italian troops would intervene to maintain Austria’s independence. The Treaty of Versailles forbade the Anschluss– the unification of Germany and Austria – and Italy was still retaining its association with its World War I Allies, Britain and France.

Hitler backed down and Mussolini gained a foreign policy triumph. Hitler now believed that he needed to persuade Mussolini to work with him as a fellow fascist rather than oppose him, and so in May 1934 he flew to Venice to meet Mussolini for the first time. This was but a few months before Hitler consolidated his power as “Fuhrer” (Leader) in Germany upon the death of President von Hindenburg in August 1934. It was also but a month before “the Night of the Long Knives” on June 30, 1934 – the purge of the Nazi movement itself masterminded by Goering and Himmler to end the threat to Hitler’s (and their) control posed by Ernst Röhm and his SA militia.

Publicly at their first meeting, the two Fascist leaders put on a good show of getting along. Privately, Mussolini professed himself unimpressed by Hitler. At this point Hitler was not the senior partner, and, due to the two circumstances alluded to above, his rule was not yet consolidated. He seemed ill at ease and awkward to the more suave and sophisticated Italians. As well, Germany was still struggling mightily to emerge from the desperate economic straits the Depression had caused and to shed its military feebleness. Mussolini enjoyed the feeling of being cultured and a man of superior experience and accomplishment to the Nazi leader. At this point Italy was still the stronger military power.

Gaining a cheap foreign policy victory at Germany’s expense and then having Hitler come calling as a sign of Germany’s need of Italy’s friendship could not long palliate the fundamental weakening of the Fascist regime’s prestige and hold inside Italy, especially with economic and living conditions declining. Mussolini could not readily change that, but he could provide distraction and regain prestige by taking steps to expand the Italian colonial empire and validate his claim that he would restore Italy’s greatness by resurrecting the glory of ancient Rome.

Abyssinia (Ethiopia) would be the first step in that process. Italy had tried to conquer that ancient kingdom in the late 1890s but suffered a humiliating defeat at the hand of the “primitively” equipped Ethiopian army on March 1, 1896 at the Battle of Adwa. Mussolini declared that it was time to erase this blot on modern Italy’s history.  On October 3, 1935, 250 000 Italian troops attacked Abyssinia from Eritrea and Italian Somaliland (Italian colonies in East Africa). This undeclared war would last until February 1937, when the outgunned and technologically inferior Ethiopian forces surrendered.

While Mussolini trumpeted the glories of this “great achievement” of crushing one of the only remaining independent African states after its heroic but futile resistance to the power of modern weapons, airpower, and even chemical warfare (a violation of the Geneva Convention), this war had cost Italy dearly, and ultimately Mussolini and his Fascist regime, in several ways.

  1. Italy became a pariah state and lost its friendly relations with its former World War I Allies, Britain and France.
  2. Italy was condemned as an aggressor nation by the League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations) and was subjected to sanctions. Italy then withdrew from the League in defiance.
  3. The Italian armed forces were shown to be not as modern and efficient as Fascist propaganda painted them.
  4. Italy was pushed towards turning to Germany, which was now embarked on a program of rapid rearmament and modernization of its military forces. The subtle German response to Italy’s Ethiopian adventure was two-edged. On the one hand the German Fuhrer voiced modest support and sympathy to his fellow Fascist. On the other hand, German weapons and advisers were secretly being supplied to the Ethiopians in order to prolong the war and further embarrass and isolate Italy, thus making the Italians more ready to turn to Germany as a friend and then remove their protection of Austria’s independence.
  5. The war proved a serious drain on Italy’s economic and military resources, and what could be extracted from Ethiopia in compensation would never make up for this.

In sum, the Ethiopian adventure proved an enormous blunder in the long run and, although unseen at the time, drove the first tangible spike into the coffin of Fascism’s reign in Italy.

Mussolini did not at first see this, and there was no immediate thaw in Italo-German relations. Hitler had his own plans, and with the Western Allies and the League of Nations thoroughly engrossed in the “Ethiopian Question” in March 1936, Hitler decided on a great gamble of his own. On March 7, he sent 7000 German troops into the Rhineland as a symbolic move to accompany his announcement that he would no longer abide by the clause in the Treaty of Versailles which banned German military forces from being garrisoned in an entire region that was sovereign German territory.

Hitler argued, not implausibly, that the Allies (the French) had pledged to reduce their armies and dismantle their own fortresses along the German frontier as a gesture of good will towards a disarmed Germany. The French Army remained huge and never reduced its heavy weapons or its efforts to improve all its arms of every sort. Germany, Hitler said, had a right to protect itself among the family of European states. It was intolerable that small countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland could theoretically easily invade and occupy large areas of Germany and meet little resistance. Hitler’s gamble paid off. The French protested but, without British support, which was not forthcoming, did not move to chase the German troops out of the demilitarized zone, even though they could easily have done so without mobilizing any more forces than those which were on hand along the frontier at the time it happened.

This bold move was not lost on Mussolini. This kind of calculated bravado was something he could understand and relate to. His opinion of Hitler improved, and he sent a message of congratulations to the Fuhrer.

Before long, the ties between the dictators would grow much closer.


Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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