Key point: Mussolini would try to recreate the glory of the Roman Empire and would fail. In fact, he would kill many and lose his own life in the process.
On March 23, 1919, but four months after the armistice that ended the Great War—100 young toughs, ex-Italian Army war veterans, former socialist politicians, and newspapermen met in Milan’s Piazza San Sepolchro in industrial northern Italy to form a new political party. By the fall of 1922, the Fascists numbered over 300,000 members.
Dissatisfied with the territorial gains gleaned from Liberal Italy’s participation in the war on the Allied side during 1915-1918, these angry young men, typified by 39-year-old Benito Mussolini, formed the Fasci di Combattimento, which their leader [Il Duce] himself defined as “The Bundles of Battle.” He was referring to the ancient Roman Imperial symbol of an axe surrounded by rods bound together, as their past and present symbol of authority and power.
Mussolini had served in World War I as a combat-wounded Bersaglieri, a member of one of Italy’s most elite formations. Other members of the new Fascist Party included the Alpini, mountain troops, and also the more renowned Arditi, assault soldiers, who mimicked the famed German storm troopers of 1918.
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The Italian versions of these shock troops, however, were far more colorful than their German cousins, reportedly going into battle armed with daggers in their clenched teeth and grenades in both hands on the very heels of artillery barrages, so as to take the unsuspecting Austro-Hungarian enemy by total surprise. More than half of the Arditi’s members were tough peasant boys, while the very meaning of the word Ardito was “audacious man.”
Formed in June 1917 as special forces, they ran on campaign rather than marched, and one of their commanding officers asserted, “You are the first, the best … the future owners of Italy … the new Italian generation, fearless and brilliant. You will prepare the great future of Italy! The smile of the beautiful Italian woman is your reward!”
This was pretty heady stuff for the young soldiers of that era. The Arditi wore the fearsome skull and crossbones on their caps, gave stiff-armed Roman salutes with unsheathed daggers, and chanted, “To us!” Not only did Mussolini, then the editor of the fiery newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia (The People of Italy), adopt all of these martial trappings for his new Fascists, but 25 Arditi soldiers guarded his offices in Milan, and four times they burned down those of the rival Socialist paper Avanti! (Advance!).
Fearing these very soldiers, traditional, Liberal Italy had disbanded the Arditi in December 1918, within a month of the end of the war, but Mussolini promptly reorganized them into Fascist squads, roving bands of men wearing black shirts and trousers and red fez caps, who terrorized their political opponents all over Italy with physical violence.
Avenging Italy’s “Mutilated Victory”
They shared the anguish of what poet, war pilot, and political activist Gabriele D’Annunzio defined as Liberal Italy’s “mutilated victory” in World War I that denied it the fruits of victory. One of these was the Adriatic seaport city of Fiume in the new state of Yugoslavia, which all Italians felt should rightly become the spoils of victorious Italy.
On September 12, 1919, D’Annunzio led a small force of former Arditi in a swift occupation of Fiume in opposition to the Italian government of King Victor Emmanuel III, who had been on the throne since the assassination of his father in 1900.
Secretly, both the king and the regular Italian Army favored the occupation, but it also put them in direct confrontation with their fellow Allied victors of World War I—France, Great Britain, and the United States. “Where an Arditi is,” the occupiers boasted, “there is a flag. No enemy shall pass. The Arditi are the real vanguard of the nation,” they proclaimed.
Nevertheless, it was imperative that the king, who at 5 feet, 3 inches in height, was nicknamed contemptuously as “Little Sword,” reassert his authority, as among both the ranks of the Arditi and the other Fascists were many republicans who wanted nothing better than to see the antiquated, 900-year-old ruling House of Savoy swept aside as it finally was by a popular vote after World War II. The king’s most ardent supporters were the royalist officers of the Italian Army, but even many of these had Fascist sympathies.
Benito Mussolini: From Socialist to Fascist
Initially, ex-Socialist Mussolini had been one of these fiery republicans, asserting, “The king is nothing more than a useless citizen,” and in 1912 he even made the antinationalist proclamation, “The Italian flag is fit only for a dung heap!” He had also opposed Liberal Italy’s imperialist war of aggression in Libya against the Turks in 1911 that witnessed the first usage of aircraft in modern warfare.
What caused Mussolini’s politics to veer from far left to hard right was the coming of World War I in 1914, when Italy balked at joining its first set of allies, the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and chose neutrality instead.
This was also the position of Socialist Mussolini, who was then editor of Avanti! His later critics charged that it was French gold received in bribes that led Mussolini to come out in 1915 for Italian intervention in the war on the Allied side instead. Enraged, the Socialists expelled Mussolini from their party, and Bersaglieri Corporal Mussolini was wounded at the front when a mortar exploded. Notably, he was twice visited in the hospital by the king and was feted as a political celebrity among both enlisted men and their officers. He thus arrived on the national scene as a war veteran.
Lessons From the Fiume Occupation
During D’Annunzio’s Fiume occupation, he and the Duce, who united all Fascists around his person under the spell of his fiery oratory and inflammatory newspaper editorials, several times discussed the possibility of a joint march on Rome to seize political power by simply taking the capital by force and kicking out the longtime Liberal Party cabinet. The main question was: What would the king, the Army, and the Carabinieri (military police) do?
Mussolini had other pressing concerns as well. First, he feared that D’Annunzio would march without him and thus upstage him a second time, as he had done earlier at Fiume. He also worried that his younger Fascist lieutenant, the red-haired “Iron Beard” Italo Balbo, would likely move on his own.
Then came the thunderclap of Bloody Christmas Eve, December 24, 1920, as the king ordered the Italian Army and Navy to crush the Arditi forces in Fiume. By January 5, 1921, D’Annunzio’s occupation was over. This disaster marked the end of the Arditi’s support for the colorful poet soldier and the massive start of their real swing toward Mussolini and his Fascists.
Mussolini, a quiet, thoughtful, shrewd political planner as well as a revolutionary, drew several conclusions from the Fiume debacle: The police would often overlook Fascist depredations in favor of attacking their traditional leftist enemies the Socialists. The police would also fire on opponents of the monarchy. More importantly, the Duce observed, so would the military. Therefore, he realized he had to win over the king, the police, and the armed forces by a clever mix of both public bluster and behind-the-scenes, old-fashioned political maneuvering to attain appointed or elective office by legal means.
“To Rome! To Rome!”
In the national election of May 1921, the Duce himself was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in Rome to occupy one of 35 Fascist Party seats. Although he rarely attended its sessions because he held the chamber in contempt, Deputy Mussolini nevertheless appreciated the accompanying free railway ticket on the state railroad system, which he later reformed and also that he was held legally immune from prosecution while in office.
In 1921, his party posted at the middle of the list of deputies. Ahead of the Fascists were 159 Liberal Democrats, 146 Socialists, and 104 Popular Party members; while behind it were 26 Agrarians, 11 Communists, 10 Republicans, and 12 members of German-Italian and Slavic-Italian splinter groups. Clearly, in order to be appointed to office as prime minister—Mussolini’s initial goal—the Duce’s fourth-place Fascist Party would have to enter government in a coalition cabinet with other parliamentary parties and their leaders.
But Mussolini also faced a problem unique to him. His party was the only one that had organized and sometimes even armed groups of violent adventurers dedicated to wreaking murder and mayhem across the land in order to seize power. His biggest fear, again, was that his plans for gradual success would be overtaken by both the activities of these groups and other events and that he would be forced to take Rome. That is exactly what happened.