Mussolini’s Dictatorship

Mussolini’s road to a dictatorship took much longer than Hitler’s in 1933. Hitler was appointed chancellor on January 30th 1933. By April 1st 1933, his power was such that, after the Enabling Act, Hitler could only be seen as the dictator of Nazi Germany regardless of Hindenburg’s presidency. Mussolini’s public posturing and boasts did not guarantee loyalty in Italy – hence why it was so important for him to establish a relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. He only gained what could be described as dictatorial powers after the Lateran Treaty whereby he could guarantee loyalty from those Catholics who may well have not been supporters of the fascist state in Italy.

Mussolini took years to achieve what could be defined as a dictatorship. He achieved some semblance of power after the March on Rome in 1922 when he was appointed Prime Minister of Italy. But his government contained a mixture of men with different political beliefs – similar to Hitler’s position in January 1933.

But his time in power almost collapsed after the murder of Matteotti when great anger gripped Italy. If he had been a true dictator in 1922, then such an uproar would never have happened as his enemies and the Italian people in general would have been cowed into submission.

Mussolini started his time in power by buying support from both the working class and the industrial bosses.

The workers were promised an eight hour day while an enquiry into the profits made by the industrialists during World War One was dropped. The rich benefited from a reduction in death duties – now, under Mussolini, more of what someone had earned during their lifetime, went to their family and not the government. To get support from the Roman Catholic Church, religious education was made compulsory in all elementary schools.

These policies can be seen as an attempt to ‘buy’ support. As an example, in 1933 Hitler introduced workers holidays into Germany (similar to a bank holiday). This was very popular. He then almost immediately banned trade unions which protected workers rights. Any protests over this were banned as a result of the Enabling Act – Hitler did not bargain with anyone. Mussolini was not in a position whereby he could assert his authority and it is probable that the extent of his dictatorial powers never did equal those acquired by Hitler.

Mussolini had never intended to share power with the liberals who were in the government. He introduced a Fascist Grand Council which would decide policy for Italy without consulting the non-fascists in the government first.

In February 1923, Mussolini and the Fascist Grand Council introduced the Acerbo Law. This law changed election results. Now if one party got just 25% (or more) of the votes cast in an election, they would get 66%of the seats in parliament.

When it came for Parliament to vote on the Acerbo Law, many politicians agreed to a law that would almost certainly end their political careers if they were not fascists. Why did they do this?

The gallery in the hall in which the politicians voted was filled with armed fascist thugs who had a good view of anybody who spoke out against the law. The threat was clear and real. If you voted for the law, you would be fine. If you did not, then you were certainly in danger from fascist thugs.

Mussolini did say in the spring of 1924 that “a good beating did not hurt anyone.”


Mussolini as he wished to be seen – in military uniform and a formidable figure

Hitler used very similar tactics when the vote for the Enabling Act was taken at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin – SA thugs gathered outside the Opera House while the SS lined the corridors to the main hall where the voting was to take place. Again, the threat was clear to any politician who was brave enough to protest against the law.

In the March election that followed the Acerbo Law, the Fascist Party got 65% of the votes cast and, therefore, easily got the 2/3rds of parliamentary seats – a clear majority. That people were intimidated into voting for the Fascists or that the Fascists took ballot papers from those who might have voted against Mussolini were brushed aside. The Fascists who were elected were bound to support Mussolini. In this sense, the Acerbo Law was an important move to dictatorship in Italy.

However, unlike Hitler, even after the Acerbo Law was passed, Mussolini still faced open criticism in Italy. The fear element that Hitler had created in Nazi Germany by April 1933, was still not in place in Italy.

Blackshirt thugs did beat up critics but that did not stop Giacomo Matteotti from publicly condemning Mussolini. Matteotti was murdered almost certainly by fascists and Mussolini was held responsible for this. There was overwhelming public outrage at the murder as Matteotti was Italy’s leading socialist Member of Parliament. Newspapers and wall posters condemned Mussolini and in the summer of 1924 there was a real possibility that Mussolini would have to resign.

A number of non-fascist politicians walked out of Parliament in protest at the murder. This gesture only served to play into Mussolini’s hands as it got rid of more parliamentary opposition. The protestors – named the Aventine protestors – appealed to the king, Victor Emmanuel, to dismiss Mussolini but the king disliked the protestors more than Mussolini because they lent towards republicanism and he refused to take action.

With this royal support, Mussolini felt strong enough to take on his opponents. Any critics of Mussolini were beaten up and newspapers that were not supportive of the Fascists were shut down. In January 1925, Mussolini said the following:

“I declare….in front of the Italian people……that I alone assume the political, moral and historic responsibility for everything that has happened. Italy wants peace and quiet, work and calm. I will give these things with love if possible and with force if necessary.”

After surviving the Matteotti affair, Mussolini slowly introduced the classic features of a dictatorship. But this was now nearly three years after the March on Rome.

In November 1926, all rival political parties and opposition newspapers were banned in Italy.

In 1927, a secret police force was set up called the OVRA and it was lead by Arturo Bocchini. The death penalty was reintroduced for “serious political offences”. By 1940, the OVRA had arrested 4000 suspects but only 10 people from 1927 to 1940 were ever sentenced to death – much smaller than in Nazi Germany.

Mussolini also changed Italy’s constitution. He introduced a diarchy. This is a system whereby a country has two political heads. In Italy’s case, it was Mussolini and the king, Victor Emmanuel. This system put Mussolini in charge of Italy simply because Victor Emmanuel was not the strongest of men and rarely felt able to assert himself. Though he disliked Mussolini bypassing him at every opportunity, he did little to challenge this.

Mussolini appointed members to the Fascist Grand Council and from 1928, the Grand Council had to be consulted on all constitutional issues. As Mussolini appointed people onto the Council, logic would dictate that those people would do what Mussolini wished them to do.

The electoral system was changed again in 1928. Mussolini said after the change:

“Any possibility of choice is eliminated…..I never dreamed of a chamber like yours.”

Workers and employers unions (now known as corporations) were entitled to draw up the names of 1000 people they wanted considered for parliament. The Grand Council selected 400 of these names i.e. people they would approve of. The list of 400 names was presented to the electorate for approval. They could only vote for or against the whole list – not the individual candidates. In 1929, 90% of the electorate voted for the list and in 1934, this figure had increased to 97%. However, all those on the list were Grand Council approved so they were no more than ‘lap dogs’ for Mussolini with no real political power. In 1939, Parliament was simply abolished.

The power of the Fascists was even felt at regional and local level where mayors, who had been very powerful at a local level, were replaced by magistrates appointed in Rome and answerable to Rome alone.

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