The Buzz

How Mussolini Took Power (And Destroyed Italy)

Aside from King Victor Emmanuel, 55, Mussolini had to out-bluff the country’s Liberal Party leader, Premier Luigi Facta, 63, who wanted to crush the brewing rebellion with force. So did the chief of staff of the Army, General Pietro Badoglio, 47, and also General Emanuele Pugliese, commander of the well-armed and loyal garrison of Rome, which had machine guns, armored cars, and artillery.

The nervous, jittery Duce feared, too, that if he managed to have Facta fired by the king, his majesty might reappoint the 80-year-old former Prime Minister Giovanni Gioliitti, a hardline anti-Fascist, to office.

“The Army Will do its Duty”

The king, who had appointed a succession of 20 prime ministers thus far during a 22-year reign and attempted to work with six governments in the past three years, was not so sure. His minister of war, World War I hero General Armando Diaz, who was pro-Fascist, told him, “The Army will do its duty, but it would be better not to put it to the test.”

Meanwhile, troops and barbed wire surrounded the king’s own 16th-century Quirinale Palace above Rome, where 200 cavalry on white horses paraded alongside turreted armored cars with candy-striped towers. Rome’s seven hills, 15 gates, and 17 bridges over the river Tiber were all patrolled as well.

His Majesty was a shy, timid man mainly interested in saving his throne and his dynasty from civil war and from his rival cousin Amadeo, the Duke of Aosta, 53, who was known to be flirting with the Fascists to be named regent. Victor Emmanuel III threatened to abdicate as the German kaiser and Russian czar both had done during 1917-1918. He believed that the Italian middle class would accept Mussolini and his Fascists as the lesser of all evils, and he was right.

General Pugliese, meanwhile, demanded that martial law be declared, and Premier Facta, president of the Royal Council, induced the king to promise a state-of-siege order at 9 pm on the 27th, only to have the king refuse to sign it the next day. Facta resigned, and then began the hasty political negotiations of a host of former Italian premiers to return to office, all of them desiring the Fascist Party Duce as their number two man, vice premier. He balked.

Mussolini had remained calm in Milan the previous few days, working in his office, driving in the countryside, and being seen at the theater on two nights running, as if nothing was happening. However, he kept a getaway car waiting to take him to safety in nearby Switzerland if things went awry. His office telephone was tapped by the police.

An Embellished Coup

The celebrated March on Rome was duly launched at dawn in pouring rain, and in temperatures of nine degrees above zero Fahrenheit, on October 28, 1922. When he learned that the king had refused to order martial law that same day, Mussolini knew that he had won, even though a reported seven Blackshirts had been shot down by Army troops at Cremona. In all, a dozen people died, but after the march the Fascists inflated that death toll to a whopping and false 3,000 to make their “struggle” appear all the more heroic.

Mussolini’s own Milan newspaper office was barricaded with huge rolls of newsprint paper and barbed wire and guarded by a curious mix of Fascists, police, and Army troops. His second-floor offices featured hand grenades in desk trays, and the flustered Duce himself was seen brandishing a rifle. Melodramatically, he wrote in his 1928 autobiography, “There was a rapid exchange of shots … I had my rifle loaded and went down to defend the doors…. Bullets whistled around my ears.”

In fact, the Milan police chief refused to arrest him, and the mayor and commander of the Royal Guard jointly asked for a truce, thus withdrawing their men a further 200 yards away. The immediate crisis thus passed.

Even as the new Fascist Militia, organized in Imperial Roman cohorts and legions with consuls and zone commanders, began marching, they were soon seizing telephone switchboards, telegraph offices, waterworks, post offices, and other government buildings all over Italy.

Mussolini Seizes Power

The now confident Mussolini refused three phone calls from the palace to come to Rome to form a new coalition government cabinet, with him in the top spot as Italy’s youngest ever premier. He demanded that the king’s military aide, General Arturo Cittadini, send a telegram dictated by him, so that he would have the official request in writing. Like the king, the cautious Duce also had fears, mainly of being arrested and shot as a rebel in Rome.

Victor Emmanuel offered to send a special train for him, but Mussolini and five aides took the regular Milan-Rome night sleeper express on October 29-30. Thus, his personal “March on Rome” consisted of a single 14-hour train ride in a railway carriage. He arrived in Rome and moved into a suite at the Savoy Hotel. He had almost flown in an aircraft and had even thought about disembarking from the train outside the city so that he could enter on horseback. He decided against entering the city mounted so as not to look overly ridiculous.

Mussolini saw the king at 11:45 am in the Quirinale Palace reception room and became Liberal Italy’s 60th premier since 1870. It was later alleged that he boomed out in greeting, “Your Majesty, I bring you the Italy of Vittorio Veneto,” an Italian World War I victory, but claimed himself that he actually said, “Your Majesty will forgive my attire. I have come from the battlefield,” which he had not. The king found him “a man of purpose,” and the Duce said that the new duo went forward “from that day onward” as the team that dominated now Fascist-Savoyard Italy for the next 23 years.