Fascism in its inception was a distinctly localised phenomenon, growing out of the specific concerns and obsessions of Italians in the immediate post-WWI period.
For example, one of the main drivers in the formation of the movement that is little commented on today was the Dalmatian question. During WWI, Italy had been promised Dalmatia — the coastal region of Croatia — as spoils of war, only for it to be pulled away at the peace talks and given to the newly-created state of Yugoslavia. To a large degree, Mussolini’s rise to power floated on the fall-out from Gabriele D’Annunzio’s brief seizure and occupation of the Croatian city of Fiume in 1919, which the Italian government was forced to disavow, angering war veterans and patriots.
From a welter of local issues, Fascism nevertheless gelled together and seized the day, gaining control of the Kingdom of Italy and impressing people across a continent numbed by four years of devastation and a devastating pandemic.
The movement that then emerged was one with a militant, revanchist, emboldening ideology that emphasised the superiority of the fascist “man of action” as a heroic figure, unafraid of death, and only living through things greater than himself. “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State,” as Mussolini phrased it.
Il Duce, as the memes at the time ran, was mobilising the long-dormant power of Rome and recreating the ancient empire of the Mediterranean. However, the tone had been set even earlier by D’Annunzio, himself in rich rhetoric, honed by his career as poet and writer.
When Italy had initially sat on the sidelines of WWI, it was D’Annunzio who made speeches, with ringing words and lofty themes, advocating involvement in the senseless slaughter:
“Blessed are the young who hunger and thirst for glory for they shall be satisfied… Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be called upon to staunch a splendid flow of blood, and dress a wonderful wound… Blessed are they who return with victories, for they shall see the new face of Rome.”
Mussolini picked up this strain of high-flown language, which was itself picked up by America’s own master of modern rhetoric. In the 2016 Presidential election campaign, Donald Trump famously retweeted a post with what is perhaps the best-known quote from Mussolini:
“It is better to live one day as a lion than a thousand years as a sheep.”
This was typical of his style and the image he constantly tried to project. Critics of Fascism claim that “the mobilizing power of such language would be exploited fully by Fascism.” But was it?
Did the Fascist system create a society of men who felt “blessed” to “hunger and thirst for glory,” a nation of warriors who preferred to live one day as a lion? The result as well as the details of the war suggest that it failed abysmally.
After almost two decades in power, the country that went to war in 1940 was far from the heroic ideals embodied in its propaganda, pomp, architecture, and flashy militarism.
Ettore Conti, one of Italy’s leading industrialists at the time, was well aware of this failure. In his diary entry for the 2nd of January 1940, he comments on the mood of the country in the period before Italy declared war on Britain and France in 1940:
“We may well be on the verge of war: but never has a country wallowed in such a state of apathy and inertia: never has Fascism been held in lower esteem by the Italians. The failings of the dictatorship are now finally evident to all, even to those who had supported it in good faith… The gradual but constant worsening of the quality of leadership, the insolence of the officials in every branch. the spread of profiteering combined with the most idiotic constraints imposed on every aspect of private life have turned the Italians into an amorphous herd that has no sense of will, of faith or inspiration. And with this country in this state, they want to take us to war.”
Conti’s misgivings were borne out in the events that followed. Italy’s “heroic” Fascist army was given a severe drubbing by the lowly Greeks, while in Africa, its large forces in Libya and Abyssinia were rounded up by British forces that they greatly outnumbered. The Italian general Rodolpho Graziani’s 200,000 men were brutally defeated by General Wavell’s British and Commonwealth force of around 30,000 men. Only the arrival of the German Afrika Korps in 1941 pushed back the British, who had also been depleted by the redeployment of troops to Greece, Abyssinia, and the Far East.
Rather than living one day as a lion instead of a thousand years as a sheep, the Italian Fascists were living one day as sheep and then surrendering in their droves to the British Lion.
The Italian air force and navy fared no better. The Battle of Taranto saw the Italian navy dealt a devastating blow that also reassured the Japanese that a torpedo bomber attack on Pearl Harbour would be feasible. The weakness of the Fascist Italian troops was also a major factor in the collapse and encirclement of the German army at Stalingrad.
As a martial code, Fascism clearly and resoundingly failed.
The easy way out of this for apologists of Fascism is to blame the Italians themselves, and point to the fact that in the modern era they have never been great fighters. This is true, and it is even plausible to see Mussolini and D’Annuncio’s tough guy posturings as “overcompensation” for Italy’s actual military inferiority. But Fascist Italy’s military performance still seems to fall below even this level, when, according to the rhetoric of Fascism, it should have soared high above.
Conti’s observations seem to offer some insights into what was really going on. He mentions “apathy” and “inertia,” as well as the low esteem that Italians had for the regime. This seems to be accurate: when the tide of war turned decisively against the Axis in 1943, the Italians abandoned the Fascist regime overnight and placed Mussolini under arrest, forcing Hitler to send Otto Skorzeny to rescue him. The Germans, by contrast, fought doggedly in support of their discredited regime, until almost the entire country had been conquered and devastated.
Conti’s diary also highlights the insolence of the Fascist officials, the profiteering, and the constraints imposed on private life.
It is not hard to infer what was really happening here: a non-meritocratic state, in which position was determined by ideology, party position, and a Fascist form of ‘political correctness’ was firmly in place, and those representing it were clearly abusing their power. The apathy and inertia mentioned are typical manifestations of passive aggressive behaviour, of people doing as little as possible and dragging their heels rather than resisting outright.
This speaks of a populace tired of bombast and propaganda, whose main defence was utter cynicism and barely disguised contempt for their leaders. It is easy to see how these feelings would work themselves out on the battlefield, and lead not only to defeat but abject defeat.
For people in the modern, degenerate West, Fascism sometimes has an understandable appeal. Its iconography, which still resonates through the ages, projects an image of strength and virility that appeals to those far from its reality. But history reveals that Fascism has its own degeneracy, one that led to its defeat but also enshrined its glamour in death.