Plotting and Planning: How Mussolini Took Over Italy and Doomed His Country

By Ladislav Luppa - Own work, Public Domain,

Plotting and Planning: How Mussolini Took Over Italy and Doomed His Country

It started with a March on Rome.

Later, he said that his basic decision to launch a Fascist “March on Rome” was made by him alone on October 12, 1922, after a stormy rally at Cremona on September 24, at which his massed supporters chanted, “To Rome! To Rome!” He made this known to his subordinates at a party summit of the Milan Fascios on October 16, and he developed a five-part plan to execute the march at Florence on the 21st.

The formal Fascist Militia, incorporating all the various Arditi bands and squads, emerged on the 24th during a massive rally at Naples. In a national proclamation on the 27th that began with, “This is the situation,” Mussolini ended with the declaration, “Fascism wants power, and will have it!”

He also claimed to have appointed the four Quadrumviri leaders of the march, headquartered at Perugia’s Brufani Palace and that would begin in towns and villages and then converge on Rome in several mobile columns. These four men were General Emilio de Bono, 58, former commander of the regular Army’s IX Corps, his chief military adviser who opposed the march, asserting that it would take six months to plan and execute; Deputy Cesare Maria De Vecchi, who was used as an emissary with the king; Party General Secretary Michele Bianchi, the man closest to the Duce; and the rebellious Balbo, 25, who wanted to wrest the national leadership from the elder Mussolini.

The Weapons of Mussolini’s Army

To arm their ragtag army of 26,000 Fascist Arditi, illicit stores of arms and ammunition were received secretly from sympathetic police stations and some Army barracks, while armories and even museums were raided for antique firearms. The overall array of weaponry included shotguns, muskets, powder-loaded pistols, golf clubs, scythes, garden hoes, tree roots, table legs, dynamite sticks, dried salt codfish, and even an ox’s jawbone!

Horses, carts, trucks, wagons, bicycles, and even a race car with a machine gun mounted on it were employed for transport, along with the more mobile trains, while many more moved toward the capital on foot.

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.

Initially, Mussolini took appointed office not only as premier but also as foreign minister and interior minister, and in the latter post appointed General De Bono as his new chief of police, with Balbo heading the Fascist Militia. He had Premier Facta escorted out of office by an 11-man Fascist honor guard because he had lost a son in the war.

Il Duce’s first cabinet meeting was held in his second-floor suite at the Savoy, a long way from his cheap apartment at 38 Foro Bonaparte, where he had left his family back in Milan.

As he had told his brother Arnaldo, “If only our father were alive!” His wife Rachele, upon hearing the news, exclaimed, “What a character!”

“I Forgave Him—and Took the Truncheon”

The next day, October 31, 1922, the marching Fascist columns finally arrived in Rome. On November 1, Mussolini had them march out again to the train station, so that they could all return home.

The withdrawing Fascist columns marched with palm leaves fluttering ahead past the Quirinale Palace in a five-hour parade that day, as the king, his new premier, and General Diaz reviewed it from the royal balcony. The king declared, “Mussolini has saved the nation. The House of Savoy must be grateful.”