When Mussolini came to power in 1922, Italy was disunited and the country was still reeling from the ‘mutilated victory’ after the First World War.
Italians felt hard done by regarding the Versailles Treaty; while they had lost a large proportion of men, they felt that they received unsatisfactory compensation. The Socialist Party was perceived to be a threat by the majority of Italians, despite their negligible success in local elections and disorganisation. The number of people that emigrated from Italy at the time reflects the people’s dissatisfaction with their country; the quality of life in the South was far poorer than that in the North, with higher illiteracy levels and little modernisation in industry or transport. Thus, when Mussolini’s intention to make Italy ‘great, respected and feared’ was welcomed by the Italian people; the country was in dire need of improvement.For a country to be ‘great’ it has to have a strong economy, a stable system of government, a law-abiding society and a good quality of life for its people. This would mean a good education system, no drastic regional differences in terms of wealth and living standards, the upholding of human rights and liberty and equality between the sexes.
However, Mussolini’s domestic policies from 1922-1939 did not focus on making Italy great in itself, but preparing it to be great in warfare and as an international power. His policies were dominated by his fantastical desire for autarky; he wanted Italy to be self-sufficient so that in the event of a war she would not have to rely on imports from other countries. He initiated the various Battles for the Lira, Marshes, Births and Grain to in effect mobilise Italy. Although at first these appeared to be successful, with the two prestigious new towns created by the draining of the Pontine Marshes and the 100% increase in grain production, the Battles achieved little. Only Mussolini’s manipulation of both foreign and domestic media was successful; it convinced the Italians and important foreigners that Il Duce was dynamic and a man ‘who got things done’.Mussolini claimed to have started a welfare state in Italy but again this was an attempt to win support rather than actually improve the living conditions of Italians. Measures that he did introduce were largely inspired by the previous Liberal governments’ attempts and were not far – reaching.
He attempted to initiate the revolutionary Corporative State; the ‘Third Way’, in which employers and employees would unite to make Italy a classless society. In reality, this was a powerless faï¿½ade; mixed corporations were not set up until 1934, were not properly representative and the National Council of corporations did not meet after 1937 – another propaganda success, which did little to enhance Italy’s ‘greatness’.Mussolini, in making Italy ‘great’ visualised a nation of Fascists united behind him in every respect. He was concerned, not with freedom of expression, but with transforming Italians into devoted Fascist automatons with little personal choice or liberty.
Thus, Mussolini set up the secret police (OVRA) with the mandate of arresting anyone suspected of disloyalty to Mussolini, and the MVSN, an armed group designed to intimidate the public in whichever way they saw fit. This created an informer society; people were so scared of being caught and tortured themselves they would inform on others to allay suspicion or even advance their careers. The number of deaths attributed to the state during Mussolini’s regime amounted to more than 400; a repressive country that intimidates its inhabitants, threatens death and torture and categorically squashes opposition is not ‘great’ for the people that have to live there.
The Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (OND) was set up in 1925 to incorporate the ‘fascistization’ of the people with leisure activities. It distracted Italians from the more negative aspects of the regime by providing free holidays; 4 million a year at one point. It became the largest Fascist organisation and had 3.8 million members by 1939. However, while the OND was generally hugely popular, it failed to unite Italians with the idea of a totalitarian regime.
Mussolini wanted Italy to be on a par with the great international powers Britain and France; he wanted to recreate the great Roman Empire of the past and ensure that Italy was well respected. To do this, Mussolini needed to show that he was willing to co-operate with Britain and France, adhere to agreements made with them and show that he was a dynamic leader that had improved Italy greatly. At first, at least, the international impression of Mussolini was favourable. His warning to Hitler to stay out of Austria; the Locarno Pact of 1925 and the ‘Four Power Pact’ of 1933 apparently showed Mussolini to be a peace-loving leader, wanting to kerb the threat of Nazi Germany alongside the Western powers. His domestic policies, like the previously impossible draining of the Pontine Marshes, were impressive to the outside world, causing Winston Churchill to describe him in 1933 as “the Roman genius.
..the greatest lawgiver among living men.
” In 1938 Mussolini was attributed with having prevented a war in Europe at the conference in Munich to give the Czech Sudetenland to Germany; he appeared to be every inch the just and skilful politician. However, Mussolini’s urge to create an Empire could never really be compatible with Western democracies’ desire to maintain the status quo.Il Duce was jealous of their colonies, which surrounded him in the Mediterranean, and continuously harked back to the glorious days of the Roman Empire in his ‘Romanita’ propaganda; he put on a conciliatory front in a shallow attempt to unite with the Western powers. He showed his true colours with the Corfu incident, when he invaded Corfu after the murder of an Italian official who had been working on resolving the border dispute between Greece and Albania, effectively demanding a ransom of 50 million lire and an apology. Italy received the money and withdrew after threats by the British navy, indicating that the two sides would clash in the future.
His decision in 1938 to ignore Hitler’s Anschluss, where he had previously been praised for taking such a firm stance, showed him to be a weak and indecisive leader; less preoccupied with international peace and more concerned with seizing the opportunity most likely to give him power. Any respect he had gleaned in his first few years of power had dwindled into nothing by 1939.To make Italy feared, Mussolini would have had to show its military prowess, either by building an impressive army and navy or by demonstrating fortitude in the field of battle. Mussolini was eager for Italy to go to war and prove itself as a mighty country in order to expand the empire and become and influential world power; how he chose to do so was crucial in his scheme’s success. Mussolini’s invasion of Corfu, the acquisition of Fiume, the Abyssinian War and his intervention in the Spanish Civil War all point to a strong army and a country capable of intimidation, able to do what it wants when it wants. This erratic behaviour would certainly have worried the British and French; they would have been unsure whether to treat him as an ally or as an enemy. On closer inspection, Mussolini’s foreign adventures were neither impressive nor menacing.
As soon as Britain threatened intervention in Corfu, Mussolini ran away tail between legs; Italy could not compare with the naval strength of the very nation it was trying to emulate and intimidate. Italy’s gaining of Fiume was of little consequence as shortly afterwards it was all but abandoned and a rival, more successful port was established at Split. The fact that Mussolini was able to defeat the Abyssinians is unsurprising and unimpressive as, while Italian forces benefited from new warfare technology, the Abyssinians fought with relatively primitive weapons, like spears. This was directly contradicting an agreement Italy made with Britain and France not to invade Abyssinia and the nature of the fighting meant that Mussolini was criticised and derided in the British Press, not feared. By intervening in the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini hoped to be associated with the West’s fear of the spread of Fascism and, more specifically, of Nazi Germany.This backfired, as Franco stayed out of the war, his own expansionist ambitions ignored by Hitler, and Italy could not comply with the Pact of Steel and did not enter the war until 1940. The whole of Italy was badly affected by the intervention in Abyssinia, particularly that of military and economic resources; the budget deficit rose from 2.5 billion lire to a staggering 16 billion.
Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia and the manner in which it was carried out meant the country gained a reputation of brutality. Despite the inequality of the two sides’ weapons, however, the campaign, which should have lasted a few weeks, took seven months – even in such an unfair battle, the Italian forces were apparently incompetent and the war dragged on at their expense. Italy gained little with the acquisition of Abyssinia; it was an expensive exploit for the country and for Mussolini’s international relations. The fact that Italy was weak in 1939 and that the world saw that she was not ready for war, would have contributed to the internationally low opinion of Mussolini’s regime.
Mussolini’s very attempts at intimidating the Western world had destroyed any propensity Italy had of doing so by 1939.Despite his many claims to the contrary, in the eyes of the majority of historians Mussolini had not succeeded at all in making Italy ‘great, respected and feared’ by 1939. His policies, both domestic and foreign, were opportunistic; his belief that “You can usually get away with 97 cents worth of mere public clamour and three cents of solid achievement” had a bearing on everything he did. While propaganda proclaimed him a genius, he did little to genuinely change or improve Italian society and the international opinion of Italy fluctuated from indifference to hatred during his dictatorship; Mussolini was ridiculed in Britain, not respected or feared. However, as Mussolini was able to convince himself and many Italians that he was successful, perhaps this evaluation is a moot point.
Some Italians today, like the historian de Felice, are not completely derogatory of Mussolini; context and point of view mean that there are slightly differing assessments of Mussolini’s successes and failures.