The Uses of History, 31 – Mussolini and Fascism, 3

Fascism is a religion. The twentieth century will be known in history as the century of Fascism. – Mussolini

(Photo credit – The Guardian – Mussolini inspects “Volunteers” going to Spain)

While the 20th Century was not the century of Fascism in the sense Mussolini intended (as the dominant force in world affairs), Fascism certainly left its indelible mark on it. It is a fair question to ask whether World War II would have occurred without powerful, aggressive, militant Fascist dictatorships allied together as “the Axis Powers”. Perhaps a Second World War would eventually have come anyway, but in another form. Perhaps it would have come in a showdown between the Capitalist nations of the liberal (in the old, traditional sense) democratic West and the Soviet Union, along with whatever acolyte states it had been able to recruit as the century wore on.

Communism was and is as inherently aggressive an ideology as Fascism, and perhaps moreso. Here in the West, that truth seems to have been largely obscured by the creeping neo-Communism that many “progressive” Western academics have come to espouse from their intellectual Ivory Towers.  This slow soul-poison morphs like a chameleon to suit whatever slippery new ideological fad seems best suited to insinuate Marxist core doctrines into strategic socio-political locations. At the same time, these ideologues seek to lull regular citizens to sleep by appealing to new doctrines of global and individual morality which all “right-minded people” should adhere to in the name of social justice. However, this is a subject for another time.

In studying Fascism as practiced in actual history, our purpose is to learn what the real thing looks like in the real world rather than the caricature depicted in the ideological rhetorical bombast now used to label ideas, groups, and opponents the Woke want to shame into silence, or at least to convince the populace not to give credence to the “fascists” and reactionaries who are impeding the coming of the latest version of Utopia.

This sort of sophisticated, righteous-sounding tub-thumping would have been laughed out of town for thirty years following World War II. The “Great generation” who had grown up in the Great Depression and fought World War II knew real Fascism from close up and could smell the rot a mile away. The Gulags of real-world Communism were right in everyone’s face. Direct, horrendous experience had shown them both sides of the spectrum. They would know that Donald Trump and other purported neo-Fascists are mere field-mice compared to Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Tojo and their minor partners and imitators. Ivory Tower gradualist soft-Communism would have to wait for the stench of the Gulags (1922-1989) and the spectre of the crushing of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) to fade into distant memory and forgetfulness.

In 2023 our failure of memory and will to recognize the real face of both Fascism and Communism as inevitably practised when their proponents gain power makes us purblind. We cannot even recognize that two of the three greatest powers in the 2020s are actually full-blown Fascist dictatorships. We seem unable to admit that Communism has utterly failed whenever and wherever it has been given its big chance in real time and space between 1918 and right until the present.

As we survey the geopolitical landscape, we now find a growing cohort of Fascist states among the nations of the post-colonial world. They identify themselves otherwise, but if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck …. In Orwellian Newspeak fashion, the most powerful among them even retains the moniker of “The People’s Republic …”, pretending it is still somehow faithful to the opposite side of the spectrum it once espoused. The next most powerful fascist state engages in a war of naked aggression against its wealthiest immediate neighbour.

Meanwhile in the West, we hear rival Greek choruses hysterically calling their political opponents “Fascists” and “Communists”. Such puerile tactics only betray the bankruptcy of your case, which you would rather not discuss in a rational, civilized fashion. You might lose the debate after all! If you want to see what real Fascism looks like, you have only to look across the Big Water, or perhaps just a few hundred kilometers down the road. You can also take a trip down memory lane to the time of your grandparents’ youth. We all need a true “woke” experience about both the extreme “solutions” to our undoubted problems of injustice and inequity, but dressing up old demons in angelic costumes and ignoring all the lessons of even recent history is insanity. The record of history echoes with eery familiarity.

In 1936, Benito Mussolini and Fascist Italy were estranged from their erstwhile World War One allies. Italian aggression against Abyssinia (Ethiopia) had led to economic sanctions by the League of Nations against Italy, but Britain and France refused to take these to the make-or-break limit of boycotting oil and coal, without which Italy’s armed forces would have been paralysed and Mussolini would have been forced to either cease his invasion or fight the Western Allies to break their blockade. This was the point at which Hitler shocked everyone by reoccupying the demilitarized Rhineland and declaring that he would remilitarize it. France desperately wanted to keep Italy friendly and all talk of sanctions ended. Italy completed its conquest of Ethiopia.

However, the damage had been done, and Mussolini and Hitler now looked at each other as potential allies. Lower-level trade and economic talks proceeded to warm things up between them with a longer-range target of a future closer relationship. Were they not fellow Fascists encircled by the West and France’s cordon of lesser European allies (Poland and Czechoslovakia in particular)? Mussolini and Hitler shared a hatred of communism as well, although the “Jewish question” was irrelevant to Mussolini at this point.

In July 1936, Spain erupted in Civil War. Rightist Army elements attempted to overthrow the leftist Popular Front government and only partially succeeded. Spain had shed its monarchy in 1931, although by that point the King held no actual power. Since 1921 the government had been under a military dictator who issued decrees in the King’s name.

With growing unrest and social chaos taking hold, the King abdicated and called for elections. The Second Spanish Republic was constituted. The elections brought a broad coalition into power with hopes of modernizing the country and healing the social divisions between revolutionary radicals, traditionalists, and moderate centrists. However, in short order the radical elements of the left began vigilante actions against religious people and institutions, the traditionalists grew alarmed, and the government proved unwilling or unable to reign in the growing unrest. As in Germany prior to Hitler’s accession to power, Spain found militias and mobs creating near anarchy.

New elections confirmed the swing to the radical left in the legislature and executive. The army was officered largely by monarchists and traditionalists, and many of the rank and file shared their views. Thus, in July 1936 several of the top military commanders decided it was time to end the Communist-Socialist-Anarchist alliance that had taken control of government and was dismantling much of Spain’s historical society and institutions. These “actions” were often vicious and violent, including burning churches, pillaging monasteries and convents and other religious centers, and even murder and rape, often preceded by torture and terrible abuse.

With this in mind, we can better understand what now happened. Mussolini, since 1929 an official protector of Roman Catholicism in Italy, declared his support for the “Nationalists”, as the rebels and their supporters on the right had named themselves. The Vatican lauded his policy and it was popular in Italy. The Duce began actively sending arms and “volunteers” to assist the Nationalists.

The Spanish Republicans managed to hold onto the majority of the country at first, but most of the army had defected and the Madrid government appealed to France and Britain to help them “defend democracy” and “uphold the rule of law”. The League of Nations called for all members to stand aside as neutrals, condemning Italian intervention. Mussolini shrugged at the League as if to say, “Are you going to stop me like you did in Abyssinia?” He could and did point to this abysmal failure of the League as evidence of its impotence.

Britain and France were torn. Neither wanted to see Spain become Fascist, but they could not countenance the dreadful atrocities committed against the Catholic Church and many of its clergy in the name of “freedom”, as had been seen in the run-up to the Civil War. France itself was torn internally by some of the same extremism. Its government was struggling to prevent a similar social disintegration. This left Britain as the major voice of the Western democracies, and Britain at this time had an appeasement-minded government which declared for strict neutrality and non-intervention.

Mussolini cared little for Britain`s opinion and continued shipping arms of all kinds and thousands of “volunteers” to fight with General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces. Following his triumph in the Rhineland, Adolf Hitler also quietly began sending weapons and “technical advisors” and “volunteers” to Franco, although in far fewer numbers than Mussolini. Spain would be a good proving ground for Germany’s rapidly expanding rearmament program where new weapons and tactics could be tried under live combat conditions.

The Spanish Republic appealed to the Soviet Union for help, and Stalin obliged with shipments of weapons and his own “volunteers” – especially pilots for the planes he was sending. Leftist sympathizers in France also smuggled arms and international volunteers into Spain doing an end-run around their own and the British Navies who had begun to enforce a League-sanctioned blockade to keep all international intervention by sea out. Italy backed this up by using submarines to sink Soviet freighters headed for Republican Barcelona or Malaga, officially carrying grain, but almost always with other secret cargo aboard. The Fascist powers sent in their support by air instead, and Italy used its own naval vessels to escort passenger liners carrying “volunteers”. Faced with the possibility of having to actually use force, the blockading ships turned a blind eye.

Hitler admired Mussolini’s willingness to defy the Western democracies and the League and the Duce’s canny judgment that he would get away with it. He was taking notes for his own future plans of expansion in the not-too-distant future. Mussolini was showing up the weakness, which the Fuhrer considered moral failure, of his opponents. This was a lesson definitely not lost on him. Hitler rarely admired anyone else, and respected no other living statesman – with one exception, the Duce!

The “Spanish Affair” thus became another point of contact and recognition between the two Fascist Dictators. They shared a clear mutual interest in cooperating together to strengthen their relationship as a counterbalance to the Franco-British alliance and system of encirclement of the Fascist powers. In October 1936, Mussolini returned Hitler’s initial move of coming to Italy in 1934 to offer friendship by going to Berlin to complete the negotiation of a broad-spectrum treaty of friendship and cooperation. The treaty included many economic, trade, and technological aspects, but most of all put the Germany-Italy relationship, as well as the Mussolini-Hitler relationship, on a new footing, with a definite commitment to act much more in each other’s common interest and support.

When Mussolini arrived in Berlin, Hitler put on his best charm-offensive, which could be considerable when he willed it. He praised and flattered the Duce as his model and a pioneer. He showed the Duce much of the new developments under way in Germany’s dynamic industrial, infrastructure, and military expansion. The Duce was much impressed, and waxed eloquent. Germany was the new rising star in Europe, and Italy joining with it could bring great reward. A week after this treaty with protocols was signed on October 25-26, 1936, Mussolini extolled its significance as a major shift in the affairs of Europe and the world. He declared that henceforth, Europe would no longer find itself turning around the ineffectual Western democracies, but around the newly established “Rome-Berlin Axis”.

Thus was born the Fascist alliance system called “The Axis” which would fight much of the rest of the world (and lose) in World War II. But in 1936 it began to look like the Fascist powers were indeed rising and democracy was fading. Spain was the proxy war where this could be witnessed on the ground, as well as the superiority of Fascism over the even more hated specter of Bolshevist Communism.


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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