King Vittorio Emmanuelle-The Man Who Gave Away Italian Democracy: F.G. Stapleton Highlights the Key Role Played by the Italian King in the Rise of Mussolini

By Stapleton, F. G. | History Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview
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King Vittorio Emmanuelle-The Man Who Gave Away Italian Democracy: F.G. Stapleton Highlights the Key Role Played by the Italian King in the Rise of Mussolini


Stapleton, F. G., History Review


The Role of the Individual

On 29th October 1922, King Vittorio Emmanuelle III appointed Benito Mussolini as the 30th Prime Minister of the liberal democratic Italian State. Mussolini was 39 years old (astonishingly young to hold office), had no previous governmental experience, was in control of a party which had only attained 35 seats by proportional representation in the last free elections of 1921, and led a paramilitary force which was riddled with internal dissension and had recently challenged his rights to the title Duce (leader). All of these factors considered, it seems astonishing that he should have been offered any governmental ministry at all, let alone the office of the premier.

For most historians, the crucial factors behind Mussolini's rise to power may be found in the peculiar circumstances of postwar Italy's chaotic socio-political atmosphere which allowed a talented opportunist and brilliant self-publicist to manipulate a decaying parliamentary system and grab office by deception. The historian Martin Blinkhorn emphasises that Italy was faced with 'the convulsive effects of war, postwar economic crisis, mass demobilisation, frustrated nationalism and acute social unrest' and that Mussolini obtained power as a result of compromising 'with conservative and ostensibly liberal interests'. From a left-wing perspective, T. Abse in 1986 insisted that 'Any analysis of the Italian political crisis stretching from the Armistice to the March on Rome which ignores or even in minimises the role of class conflict is absolutely valueless'. Despite differing emphases, both Blinkhorn and Abse see long- and medium-term causal factors as the mainspring of triumphant Fascism. Theirs are very much twentieth-century interpretations. This century designated underlying socioeconomic trends as the key motivational forces that transform society.

Yet to fully understand Mussolini's rise to power in October 1922, we must apply a 19th-century maxim 'general tendencies do not decide alone: great personalities are always necessary to make them effective'. Clearly the role of Mussolini was vital, and so was that of the man who appointed him as Prime Minister. The role of King Vittorio Emmanuelle III was absolutely crucial to Fascist success and, moreover, an alternative decision by him could have produced a completely different historical outcome. But let us first put the long and medium-term causal factors into perspective.

The Problems of Postwar Italy

The orthodox range of causal elements accepted by most historians to explain the Fascist rise to power would be the following.

a) The Impact of the War

A small but vocal nationalist elite drew Italy into war in 1915. To keep a largely peasant conscript army in the field, wartime Prime Ministers Salandra (1914-1916), Boselli (19161917) and finally Orlando (19171919) had to continuously exaggerate the spoils of war awaiting the Italian people. The return of 'irredentist lands' from Austria-Hungary, a new Dalmatian empire, land reform, economic growth and greater democracy were some of the postwar carrots held before the poorly equipped and at times incompetently led armed forces fighting on one of the most physically challenging fronts of the conflict. The pressure on the domestic scene was equally traumatic. Escalating food prices, inflation and longer and longer hours all weakened the will to fight.

The Treaty of Versailles did return irredentist territory, but Wilson's adherence to a policy of self-determination handed the Dalmatian territories to the new Yugoslavia. With no German colonies as compensation, Italy was handed, in D'Annunzio's famous phrase, a 'mutilated victory' which cost 600,000 dead, 1 million wounded and 450,000 disabled.

b) Economic Depression

Italy's geological shortage of natural resources (gas, coal, iron ore) meant that economic stability was always closely allied to the buoyancy of the global market.

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