Believe, Obey, Fight: Political Socialization of Youth in Fascist Italy, 1922-1943

Believe, Obey, Fight: Political Socialization of Youth in Fascist Italy, 1922-1943

Believe, Obey, Fight: Political Socialization of Youth in Fascist Italy, 1922-1943

Believe, Obey, Fight: Political Socialization of Youth in Fascist Italy, 1922-1943


The Fascist regime under Mussolini regarded its youth as its best hope for the future. Young people were courted more assiduously than any other group in the society and their political socialization became a central concern of the government. Believe, Obey, Fight discusses the various tools used by the Fascist regime from 1922 to 1943 to shape the political values and environment of the young. Tracy Koon focuses on the secondary agents of socialization, including the party, the educational establishment, youth groups, and the media of political communication. She shows that the response to this socialization ranged from apparent consent to dissent and finally to open opposition.

The regime employed several methods to produce consensus among the young. Koon's analysis begins with a discussion of the rhetorical style of Mussolini's message and the key political myths manipulated by his propaganda machine: fascism as continuing revolution and social justice, the glories of ancient Rome, the hygienic function of war and violence, the religious spirit of the new creed, and the omniscience of the leader. She then describes the pre-Fascist educational system, the "most Fascist" Gentile reforms of 1923, and the later revision of those reforms by zealous party men engaged in the Fascist regimentation of teachers and students and the militarization and politicization of curricula and textbooks.

Equally important agents of socialization were the Fascist groups organized for young people from their earliest years through the university level, including the annual national competitions and forums in which members could express their ideas on a range of issues. The regime provided physical, military, sports, and political training to strengthen the new Fascist society.

Fascist socialization did for a time create a superficial consensus by appealing to both the love of conformity that marks the very young and the economic fears that caused students to conform in the hope of jobs. But Koon argues that the regime's attempt to exert totalitarian control over the young deprived them of personal identity. As time passed, the contradictions of the regime became clearer, the chasm between Fascist rhetoric and reality more obvious. In the end, the majority of young people came to believe that the regime had given them nothing to believe in, no one to obey, and nothing for which to fight.


In mass societies, myth takes the place of history.

-- William Bosenbrook

Italian fascian was heir to a variegated political and cultural legacy, an intellectual product of the crisis of the 1890s. In its revolt against positivism, fascism echoed Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergon. It emphasized spirit over matter, faith against reason, action over thought. Like the Futurists, the Fascists praised the purifying effects of war and dynamism and condemned pacifism and neutralism. For the Fascists, as for F. T. Marinetti and the Futurists, the future of Italy lay with the "young, the strong, and the living." Like Gabriele D'Annunzio, Benito Mussolini had a vision of politics that glorified adventure and struggle, the sexual imagery of domination and virility, the religious rhetoric of sacrifice and duty, and, above all, the role of the man of action who could control the mass and mold it to his own design. Fascism replaced economic man with heroic man, decried the decadence and corruption of liberal and parliamentary systems, and exalted the cult of the elite, of force, and of youth. Against the fragmentation and anomie of modern mass society, it placed the harmony, belonging, and identity of the national community. Rejecting the rotting and defeatist Italietta of the past, it promised a glorious Italy in the future.

Fascism did have roots deep in the intellectual developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But it was less a coherent ideology than a cry of pain -- or a war cry. It did not have an oracle like Marx, Lenin, or Mao, nor did it possess a body of sacred, written truths against which ideas and behavior could definitively be measured as orthodox or heretical. The titular theorists of the regime, Giovanni Gentile and Alfredo Rocco, both tried to provide such an ideological base ex post facto. But the theories of the ethical state or corporativism, though much in evidence in the regime's official propaganda, were never really the guides of political action in Fascist Italy.

Mussolini's real uniqueness lay not in the depth of his political analysis nor in the originality of his thought but in his conception of the political process as the art of political communication. No matter which side one takes in the hoary debate about fascism as ideology or how one traces its intellectual debts, fascism did have a doctrine, an essentially . . .

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