Ask any moderately intelligent person to name the bane of the 20th century and nine out of ten will probably answer “Adolph Hitler”. A few might answer Joe Stalin or Chairman Mao but Hitler is the lens through which we view the carnage of mid-century.
On the other hand, a young millenial might answer “Madonna”. So much for public education.
Our understanding of the Second World War and the preceding years are refracted through our comprehension of the Fuhrer. It is the ghost of Adolph Hitler who carried the world to total war and with pseudo-scientific fanaticism exterminated millions.
It is the ghost of Adolph Hitler who shapes our understanding of the world; that persuades us that our opponents comprise “The Other” – the imponderable, fundamentalist crazies. The ghost of Adolph Hitler shapes what we think about all dictators and the societies they rule; that each is a replica of his murderous regime.
It is the influence of Adolph Hitler which allows the resurfacing of simplifiers – once the concept of “otherness” takes root, the unimaginable becomes possible.
Yet before the rise of Adolph Hitler there was another model of dictatorship – the Italian dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. Beginning in the 1920s when Hitler was just another bar room speaker of the German right, the Italian people fell under the domination of a a vicious and retrograde tyranny.
It banned other political parties, arbitrarily imprisoned or drove into exile their leaders and before 1922 killed 2,000 – 3,000 of it’s political opponents.
It destroyed the free press, liquidated non-Fascist trade unions, sponsored a secret police, forced Italians to spy on one another, infringed the rule of law and reaffirmed crudely patriarchal practices. It crushed socialism.
It spoke of building a corporate state at which the world would marvel, uniting bosses and workers – bringing justice and welfare to all. None of the economic progress came to be.
During the 1920s Fascist Italy was almost constantly at war, “restoring order” in it’s overseas empire. In 1935 it attacked Abyssinia with modern aircraft and poison gas and in 1936 impelled “volunteers” to fight in Spain in support of the Fascist Franco. In 1939, Italy occupied Albania, it’s erstwhile puppet. No one remembers the Italian occupation of Albania.
From the Italian Fascists came the doctrine of “pre-emption” and the ready acceptance of collateral damage on innocent bystanders. These were essential elements of “squadrism;” its motorized and armed raids on Fascism’s political opponents.
Italian Fascists savagely eliminated their enemies without a by your leave and without a care for life. It was right in 1920- 21 to sally forth against democratic socialist or Catholic foes; so it became just and necessary to launch aggressive foreign wars.
Fascism became openly racist, notwithstanding the lowly slot of Italians on most western “racial hierarchies” Italy brought public racism to it’s African empire, belatedly bearing the imperial “white man’s burden”. In Libya and Abyssinia, Italian armed forces murdered with a will and sought to ruthlessly cancel out any history of the native population. Slovenes were “yokels” who had to be brought to heel. Albanians were barbarians who needed Italian guidance.
Fascist rhetoric was unrestrained in extolling the virtues of war and killing; the essence of Fascist manhood.
It was for Italian Fascism that the term “totalitarian” was coined; Italians did not invent the word but adopted it as a special badge of honor. Italy was a place where you had to ask “what must I do for the state?”
Fascism was the new civic religion – the new fundamentalism. “Mussolini ha sempre ragione.” Mussolini is always right.
Mussolini supported actual and proto-fascist regimes including Franco’s Spain and perhaps most odious, the Croatian Ustasha lead by Ante Pavelic.
The Italian Fascists acted as a model for Adolph Hitler during the 1920s, when the Fuhrer was still a peripheral and unsuccessful figure on the crowded German right. And the Fuhrer never forgot the spiritual patronage.
So here is a regime that, at a minimal count is probably responsible for the premature death of a million people. And the only reason it was not more successful was that Italy was not Germany. Germany became a great power. Italy only had it’s pretensions.
In the Italian diaspora Fascist clubs suddenly appeared, supported by the “prominenti” and the church. Fascism was only opposed by “reds”.
Members of the pro-Nazi German American Bund and the pro-Fascist Italian Blackshirts give the salute. This gathering took place at the Bund’s Camp Siegfried on Long Island. Yaphank, New York, – October 16, 1937.
The apolitical Italian, who didn’t join a local fascist club and was just trying to get by in his new country found himself reflecting in a quiet pride. Those who had previously treated him and his country with contempt and disdain now listened to what the Duce of Italy had to say. Suddenly we mattered. The apolitical were predominantly pro-fascist in their hearts.
The axis alliance was a natural; Fascist Italy had no use for the democracies nor anything in common with Stalinist Russia, other than mass murder. So it was Italy and Germany.
Who knows what the world would look like if Italy had stayed neutral; Spain did and Franco lived a long long time.
Today Hitler gets all the blame and Mussolini is a cartoon; Italy’s war making capability derided in jokes. “For Sale! Italian war rifles! Never used! Only dropped once!!”.
Not one Fascist faced a war crimes trial. They all continued with their lives and joined the Christian Democrats. Then they went underground, joining P2 – Propaganda Due – the fake Masonic Lodge for Fascists and neo-Fascists.
Besides, Italians are nice! Not like Germans! Italians are brava gente. Italians are the last to be typecast as willing executioners.
But we were.
“Everything in the State! Nothing outside the State! No one opposed to the State!”