Benito Mussolini: Great Man of History or Man of Exploit?

John Keller | @keller4liberty

There are two prevailing schools of thought in analyzing history. The first is the ‘great man’ theory, in which great men such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte drive history. The second school of thought is that history is inspired by societal trends and circumstances, not merely the actions of one man. This essay seeks to examine Benito Mussolini and try to understand if his rise to power was a product of circumstance or made possible by his efforts.

Italy in 1910, twelve years before Mussolini seized power, was a much different place. Liberals (in the historical use of the word) struggled to motivate people into active roles within the state. Politicians in Rome struggled to develop a sense of nationalism throughout the populace. Giovanni Giolitti, one of the most prominent figures in Rome and frequent prime minister, tried to stir nationalist sentiment in 1911 by catering to war hawks and going to war with the Ottoman Empire. The Italo-Ottoman War (1911-12) served to be a disaster for Giolitti’s government. The result of the costly war was the annexation of Rhodes and Libya into the Italian borders, but the rewards were too limited for the war hawks and not beneficial for the nationalists.

Giolitti turned from war, and when it was brewing in Europe, he became a neutral activist, believing Italy could gain just as much from staying out of the war as they could by becoming active participants. His opinion, however, was not popular among the radical activists, who, although a minority, began threatening deputies in the national legislature. As a result, his government fell in 1914.

Going to War

In 1915, the next prime minister Antonio Salandra, sided with joining the war. During his tenure, the Chamber of Deputies voted 5-1 in favor of war with the Central Powers under threat from the loud minority. Going to war, however, was not popular with the people, and by 1917 Italian morale had reached a breaking point. The Central Powers penetrated roughly 100 miles into Italian territory, devastating the Italian government, but caused a strong, although temporary, nationalist surge to protect Italy from German and Austrian threat.

The end of the war in 1918 was a bitter disappointment. The Entente failed to meet their promises in the Treaty of Versailles, and soldiers returning from the war found themselves greeted by the red flags of socialist and communist revolutions, not the national flag. Veterans were pelted with stones and beaten by sticks for being imperialists and betraying the people that had fought and bled to protect on the front lines. The socialists secured 34% of the vote in the 1919 elections and caused a ‘Red Scare’ in Italy.

In the same year, Benito Mussolini formed the Fasci di Combattimento, the beginnings of the Fascist Party, to begin fighting back against the rising socialist threat to Italian society. The Fasci di Combattimento was comprised primarily of former soldiers, and the militarized wing of the party was popular among disgruntled and assaulted veterans. Throughout Italy, he gathered supporters, giving stirring speeches and stepping in with his Blackshirt militia to end strikes were the police failed. Italy, lacking national pride, law, and order, began to look favorably on Benito Mussolini and his young Fascist Party that represented everything Italy lacked. After growing chaos in Italy and nationwide striking during the final days of the liberal government, Mussolini organized and set into motion a march on Rome with his armed Blackshirt militia. On October 28, 1922, the squadistri marched on Rome in four columns, numbering roughly 25,000. In addition to this march, several thousand men had taken control of the Po plain and other key areas of Italy in preparation for the march to maintain order. King Victor Emmanuel III, fearing civil war, granted Mussolini the authority to form his own government, which he established on October 31 of the same year.

History and the ‘Great Man’

In a brief telling of the pre-fascist era, it would appear that Mussolini was able to thrive and operate due to the historical conditions in Italy, exploiting opportunities in societal trends to achieve dominance and control. This argument is very plausible and credible, but there is more to the story.

Making their first appearance in the 1919 election, the Combatant’s Party adopted a nationalist, pro-veteran platform very similar to the fascist agenda, but without the militarized wing. Their success was limited in the elections and by 1922 had been swallowed up by the Fascist Party. If it had solely been the exploitation of trends, the Combatant’s Party, which formed prior to the Fascist Party, would have seen similar success to the Fascist Party. However, to say Mussolini would have been capable of asserting control over Italy without the exploitation of Italian nationalism is a hard case to make.

Like all history, the true nature of the event cannot be wholly derived. Mussolini’s pre-1922 tale is one highlighted by personal accomplishment in a society ready for exploitation by the message he adopted. Thus, the final question is whether this is a case of history moving forward due to great men or is it simply a symptom of societal trends.

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