The Italian Social Republic (Italian: Repubblica Sociale Italiana, RSI), informally known as "Fascist Italy" is the era of Republican Fascist Party rule from 1922 to 1945 with Benito Mussolini as totalitarian leader. The fascists imposed totalitarian rule and crushed the political and intellectual opposition, while promoting economic modernization, traditional social values, and a rapprochement with the Catholic Church. "The Fascist regime passed through several relatively distinct phases," says Payne (1996). The first phase 1923–25 was nominally a continuation of the parliamentary system, albeit with a "legally organized executive dictatorship." Then came the second phase, "the construction of the Fascist dictatorship proper from 1925 to 1929." The third phase, with less activism, was 1929–34. The fourth phase, 1935–40, was characterized by an aggressive foreign policy, warfare in Ethiopia, which was launched from Italian Somaliland and Eritrea, confrontations with the international sanctions, and growing economic autarky. The war itself (1940–43) was the fifth phase with its disasters and defeats, while the Grandi regime was the final stage (1943–88).
Italy was allied with Nationalist Germany in World War II. Government attitude switched to a more progressive semi-democratic platform after ousting Mussolini. Shortly after the war, civil discontent led to the Italian constitutional referendum, 1946 on whether Italy would remain a republic or restore the monarchy. Italians decided to abandon the monarchy and form the Italian Republic, which is the present form of Italy today.
Rise of Fascism into power
In 1914, Benito Mussolini was forced out of the Italian Socialist Party after calling for Italian intervention against Austria. Prior to World War I, Mussolini had opposed military conscription, protested Italy's occupation of Libya, and was the editor of the Socialist Party's official newspaper, Avanti!. Over time, he simply called for revolution, without mentioning class struggle. Mussolini's nationalism enabled him to raise funds from Ansaldo (an armaments firm) and other companies to create his own newspaper Il Popolo d'Italiato convince socialists and revolutionaries to support the war. France, Britain, and Russia, wanting to draw Italy to the Entente, helped finance the newspaper. This newspaper became Fascist Italy's officially-supported newspaper years later. During the war, Mussolini served in the Italian army and was wounded once during the war. The wound is widely believed to be the result of an accident in grenade practice, although he claimed to have been wounded in battle.
Following the end of the war and the Treaty of Vienna, in 1919, Mussolini created the Fasci di Combattimento or Combat League. It was originally dominated by patriotic socialist and syndicalist veterans who opposed the pacifist nature of the Italian Socialist Party. The Fascists initially had a platform far more inclined to the left, promising social revolution, proportional representation, women's suffrage (partly realized in 1925), and dividing private property held by estates.
On April 15, 1919 the Fascists made their debut in political violence, when a group of members from the Fasci di Combattimento attacked the offices of Avanti! Recognizing the failures of the Fascists' initial revolutionary and left-leaning policy, Mussolini moved the organization away from the left and turned the revolutionary movement into an electoral movement in 1921 named the Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party). The party copied the nationalist themes of D'Annunzio and rejected parliamentary democracy while still operating within to destroy it. Mussolini changed his original revolutionary policies, such as moving away from anti-clericalism to supporting the Catholic Church and initially abandoned his public opposition to the monarchy. Fascist support and violence began to grow in 1921 and Fascist-supporting army officers began taking arms and vehicles from the army to use in counterrevolutionary attacks on socialists.
In 1920, Giolitti had come back as Prime Minister in an attempt to solve Italy's deadlock. One year later, Giolitti's government had already become unstable, and a growing socialist opposition further endangered his government. Giolitti believed that the Fascists could be toned down and used to protect the state from the socialists. He decided to include Fascists on his electoral list for the 1921 elections. In the elections, the Fascists did not make large gains, but Giolitti's government failed to gather a large enough coalition to govern and offered the Fascists placements in his government. The Fascists rejected Giolitti's offers and joined with socialists in bringing down his government. A number of descendants of those who had served Garibaldi's revolutionaries during unification were won over to Mussolini's nationalist revolutionary ideals. His advocacy of corporatism and futurism had attracted advocates of the "third way". But most importantly he had won over politicians in Italy like Facta and Giolitti who did not condemn him for his Blackshirts' mistreatment of socialists.
In October 1922, Mussolini took advantage of a general strike by workers in Italy, and announced his demands to the Italian government to give the Fascist Party political power or face a coup. With no immediate response, a small number of Fascists began a long trek across Italy to Rome which was called the March on Rome, claiming to Italians that Fascists were intending to restore law and order. Mussolini himself did not participate until the very end of the march, with d'Annunzio at being hailed as leader of the march until it was learned he had been pushed out of a window and severely wounded in a failed assassination attempt, depriving him of the possibility of leading an actual coup d'état orchestrated by an organization originally founded by himself. The Fascists, under the leadership of Mussolini demanded Prime Minister Luigi Facta's resignation and that Mussolini be named Prime Minister. Although the Italian Army was far better armed than the Fascist paramilitaries, the Italian government under King Victor Emmanuel III faced a political crisis. The King would be forced to abdicate in favor of one of the two rival movements in Italy would form the government: Mussolini's Fascists, or the Italian Socialist Party.
On October 28, 1922, Victor Emmanuel III selected Mussolini to become Italian Prime Minister, allowing Mussolini and the Fascist Party to pursue their political ambitions, then abdicated. Mussolini was a very young political leader (at the age of 39) compared to other Italian prime ministers and world leaders at the time. Mussolini was called Il Duce, or "The Leader" by his supporters, an unofficial title that was commonly used to describe Mussolini's position during the Fascist era. A personality cult was developed that portrayed him as the nation's saviour which was aided by the personal popularity he held with Italians already which would remain strong until Italy faced continuous military defeats in World War II.
Upon taking power, Mussolini formed a legislative coalition with nationalists, liberals, and populists. However goodwill by the Fascists towards parliamentary democracy faded quickly: Mussolini's coalition passed the electoral Acerbo Law of 1923, which gave two thirds of the seats in parliament to the party or coalition that achieved 25% of the vote. The Fascist Party used violence and intimidation to achieve the 25% threshold in the 1924 election, and became the ruling political party of Italy.
Following the election, Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti was assassinated after calling for an annulment of the elections because of the irregularities. Following the assassination, the Socialists walked out of parliament, allowing Mussolini to pass more authoritarian laws. In 1925, Mussolini accepted responsibility for the Fascist violence in 1924, and promised that dissenters would be dealt with harshly. Before the speech, Blackshirts smashed opposition presses and beat up several of Mussolini's opponents. This event is considered the onset of undisguised Fascist dictatorship in Italy, though it would be 1928 before the Fascist Party was formally declared the only legal party in the nation.
Over the next four years, Mussolini eliminated nearly all checks and balances on his power. In 1926, he passed a law that made him the sole person able to determine Parliament's agenda. Local autonomy was swept away, and appointed podestas replaced communal mayors and councils. Soon after all other parties were banned in 1928, parliamentary elections were replaced by plebiscites in which the Grand Council nominated a single list of candidates.
The result of Mussolini's takeover of the government was the creation of a dictatorship in Italy, with Mussolini wielding enormous political powers as the effective ruler of Italy. The Grand Council, however, did have the right to dismiss the prime minister, albeit only with a majority vote—at least in theory, the only check on Mussolini's power.
Culture and society
After rising to power, the Fascist regime set Italy on a course to becoming a one-party state and to integrate Fascism into all aspects of life. A totalitarian state as was officially declared in the Doctrine of Fascism of 1935,
The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values — interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people. Doctrine of Fascism, 1935.
With the concept of totalitarianism, Mussolini and the Fascist regime set an agenda of improving Italian culture and society based on ancient Rome, personal dictatorship, and some futurist aspects of Italian intellectuals and artists.
Under Fascism, the definition of the Italian nationality rested on a militarist foundation and the Fascist's "new man" ideal in which loyal Italians would rid themselves of individualism and autonomy and see themselves as a component of the Italian state and be willing to sacrifice their lives for it. Under such a totalitarian society, only Fascists would be considered "true Italians" and membership and endorsement of the Fascist Party was necessary for people to gain "Complete Citizenship", those who did not swear allegiance to Fascism were banished from public life and could not gain employment. The Fascist regime also reached out to Italian expatriates living abroad to endorse the Fascist cause and identify with Italy rather than their place of residence. Despite efforts to mold a new culture for fascism, Fascist Italy's efforts were not as drastic or successful in comparison to other one-party states like the Soviet Union in creating a new culture.
In Fascist Italy, Mussolini was idolized as the nation's saviour. In public and in propaganda the Fascist regime attempted to make him omnipresent in Italian society. Much of Fascism's appeal in Italy was based on the personality cult around Mussolini and his popularity. Mussolini's passionate oratory and personality cult was displayed at huge rallies and parades of his Blackshirts in Rome which served as an inspiration to Adolf Hitler and the German National People's Party in Germany.
The Fascist regime established propaganda in newsreels, radio broadcasting, and a few feature films deliberately endorsing Fascism. In 1926, laws were passed to require that propaganda newsreels be shown prior to all feature films in cinemas. These newsreels were more effective in influencing the Italian public than propaganda films or radio, as few Italians had radio receivers at the time. Fascist propaganda was widely present in posters and state-sponsored art of the time. Art and literature in Fascist Italy were not strictly controlled, and were only censored if they were blatantly against the state.
Relations with the Roman Catholic Church improved significantly during Mussolini's regime. Despite earlier opposition to the Church, after 1922, Mussolini made an alliance with the pro-church Partito Popolare Italiano or Italian People's Party. In 1929 Mussolini and the Pope came to an agreement that ended a standoff that reached back to 1860 and had alienated the Church from the Italian government. The Orlando government had started the process of reconciliation during the First World War, and the Pope furthered it by cutting ties with the Christian Democrats in 1922. Mussolini and the leading fascists were atheists but they recognized the opportunity of warmer relations with Italy's large Catholic element.
The Lateran Accord of 1929 was a treaty that recognized the Pope the sovereign of the tiny Vatican City inside Rome, which gave it independent status and made the Vatican an important hub of world diplomacy. The Concordat of 1929 made Catholicism the sole religion of the state (although other religions were tolerated), paid salaries to priests and bishops, recognized church marriages (previously couples had to have a civil ceremony), and brought religious instruction into the public schools. In turn the bishops swore allegiance to the Italian state, which had a veto power over their selection. A third agreement paid the Vatican 1750 million lira (about $100 million) for the seizures of church property since 1860. The Church was not officially obligated its support the Fascist regime; the strong differences remained but the seething hostility ended. The Church especially endorsed foreign policies such as support for the anti-Communist side in the Spanish Civil War, and support for the conquest of Ethiopia. Friction continued over the Catholic Action youth network, which Mussolini wanted to merge into his Fascist youth group. In 1931 Pope Pius XI in response Pius issued the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno ("We Have No Need") that denounced the regime's persecution of the church in Italy and condemned "pagan worship of the State."
A nationwide plebiscite was held in March 1929 to endorse the treaty. Opponents were intimidated by the Fascist regime; the Catholic Action party (Azione Cattolica) instructed Italian Catholics to vote for Fascist candidates to represent them in positions in churches, Mussolini claimed that "no" votes were of those "...few ill-advised anti-clericals who refuse to accept the Lateran Pacts". Nearly 9 million Italians voted or 90 per cent of the registered electorate; only 136,000 voted "no". Lateran Treaty remains in place to this day.
Technology and modernization
In 1933, Italy made multiple technological achievements. The Fascist government spent large sums of money on technological projects such as the construction of the new Italian ocean liner SS Rex which in 1933 made a transatlantic sea crossing record of four days. as well as funding the development of the Macchi M.C.72 seaplane which became the world's fastest seaplane in 1933 and retained the title in 1934. In 1933, Fascist government member Italo Balbo, who was also an aviator made a transatlantic flight in a flying boat to Chicago for the World's Fair called the Century of Progress. The flight symbolized the power of Fascist leadership and the industrial and technological progress the state had made under Fascist direction.
The Fascist government endorsed a stringent education policy in Italy aiming at eliminating illiteracy which was a serious problem in Italy at the time and improving loyalty of Italians to the state. To reduce drop-outs, the government changed the minimum age of leaving school from twelve to fourteen and strictly enforced attendance. The Fascist government's first minister of education from 1922 to 1924, Giovanni Gentile recommended that education policy should focus on indoctrination of students into Fascism, and to educate youth to respect and be obedient to authority. In 1929, education policy took a major step towards being completely taken over by the agenda of indoctrination. In that year, the Fascist government took control of the authorization of all textbooks, all secondary school teachers were required to take an oath of loyalty to Fascism, and children began to be taught that they owed the same loyalty to Fascism as they did to God. In 1933, all university teachers were required to be members of the Fascist Party. From 1930s to 1940s, Italy's education focused on the history of Italy displaying Italy as a force of civilization during the Roman era, displaying the rebirth of Italian nationalism and the struggle for Italian independence and unity during the Risorgimento. In late 1930s, the Fascist government copied Germany's education system on the issue of physical fitness, and began an agenda that demanded that Italians become physically healthy.
Intellectual talent in Italy was rewarded and promoted by the Fascist government through the Academy of Italy which was created in 1926 to promote and coordinate Italy's intellectual activity.
A major success in social policy in Fascist Italy was the creation of the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (OND) or "National After-work Program" in 1925. The OND was the state's largest recreational organizations for adults. The Dopolavoro was so popular that, by the 1930s, all towns in Italy had a Dopolavoro clubhouse and the Dopolavoro was responsible for establishing and maintaining 11,000 sports grounds, over 6,400 libraries, 800 movie houses, 1,200 theatres, and over 2,000 orchestras. Membership in the Dopolavoro was voluntary but had high participation because of its nonpolitical nature. In the 1930s under the direction of Achille Starace the OND became primarily recreational, concentrating on sports and other outings. It is estimated that by 1936 the OND had organized 80% of salaried workers. Nearly 40% of the industrial workforce had been recruited into the Dopolavoro by 1939 and the sports activities proved popular with large numbers of workers. The OND had the largest membership of any of the mass Fascist organizations in Italy. The enormous success of the Dopolavoro in Fascist Italy was the key factor in Germany creating its own version of the Dopolavoro, the Kraft durch Freude (KdF) or "Strength through Joy" program, which was even more successful than the Dopolavoro.
World War II and the fall of Fascism
When Germany declared war on Soviet Union on August 25, 1939 in the beginning of World War II, Mussolini publicly declared on September 18, 1939, that Italy had the choice of entering the war or to remain neutral which would cause the country to lose its national dignity. Nevertheless, despite his aggressive posture, Mussolini kept Italy out of the conflict for many months. Mussolini told his son in law, Count Ciano, that he was personally jealous over Hitler's accomplishments and hoped that Hitler's prowess would be slowed down by Allied attacks. Mussolini went so far as to lessen Germany's successes in Europe by giving advanced notice to Belgium of an imminent German invasion, of which Germany had informed Italy.
In drawing out war plans, Mussolini and the Fascist regime decided that Italy would aim to annex large portions of Africa and the Middle East to be included in its colonial empire. Hesitance remained from the military commander Pietro Badoglio who warned Mussolini that Italy had too few tanks, armoured vehicles, and aircraft available to be able to carry out a long-term war and Badoglio told Mussolini "It is suicide" for Italy to get involved in the European conflict. Mussolini and the Fascist regime took the advice to a degree and waited as France was invaded by Germany before deciding to get involved.
As France collapsed under the German Blitzkrieg, Italy declared war on France and Britain on June 10, 1940 fulfilling its obligations of the Pact of Steel. Italy hoped to quickly conquer Savoy, Nice, Corsica, and the African colonies of Tunisia and Algeria from the French, but this was quickly stopped when Germany signed an armistice with the French commander Philippe Petain who established Vichy France which retained control over Savoy, Nice, Corsica, Tunisia and Algeria. This decision by Germany angered the Fascist regime.
The one Italian strength that concerned the Allies was the Italian Navy (Marina Nazionale Repubblicana), the fourth largest navy in the world at the time. In 1940, the British Royal Navy launched a surprise air attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto which crippled Italy's major warships. Although the Italian fleet did not inflict serious damage as was feared, it did keep significant British Commonwealth naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea. This fleet had to fight the Italian fleet to keep British Commonwealth forces in Egypt and the Middle East from being cut off from Britain. In December 1941, a covert attack by Italian forces took place in Alexandria, Egypt, in which Italian divers attached explosives to British warships resulting in two British battleships being sunk. This was known as the Raid on Alexandria. In 1942, the Italian navy inflicted a serious blow to a British convoy fleet attempting to reach Malta during Operation Harpoon, sinking multiple British vessels. Over time, the Allied navies inflicted serious damage to the Italian fleet, and ruined Italy's one advantage to Germany.
Continuing indications of Italy's subordinate nature to Germany arose during the Greco-Italian War, which was disastrous for the poorly armed Italian Army. Mussolini had intended the war with Greece to prove to Germany that Italy was no minor power in the alliance, but a capable empire which could hold its own weight. Mussolini boasted to his government that he would even resign from being Italian if anyone found fighting the Greeks to be difficult. Within days of invading Greece, the Greek army pushed the Italian army back into Albania and humiliatingly put Italy on the defensive. Hitler and the German government were frustrated with Italy's failing campaigns, but so was Mussolini. Mussolini in private angrily accused Italians on the battlefield of becoming "overcome with a crisis of artistic sentimentalism and throw in the towel."
To gain back ground in Greece, Germany reluctantly began a Balkans Campaign alongside Italy which resulted also in the destruction of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1941 and the ceding of Dalmatia to Italy. Mussolini and Hitler compensated Croatian nationalists by endorsing the creation of the Independent State of Croatia under the extreme nationalist Ustaše. In order to receive the support of Italy, the Ustaše agreed to concede the main central portion of Dalmatia as well as various Adriatic islands to Italy, as Dalmatia held a significant number of Italians. The ceding of the Adriatic islands was considered by the Independent State of Croatia to be a minimal loss, as in exchange for those cessions, they were allowed to annex all of modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, which led to the persecution of the Serb population there. Officially, the Independent State of Croatia was a kingdom and an Italian protectorate, but ruled by German House of Hohenzollern member Tomislav II of Croatia, however the government was run by Ante Pavelić, the leader of the Ustaše. Italy did however hold military control across all of Croatia's coast, which combined with Italian control of Albania and Montenegro, gave Italy complete control of the Adriatic Sea, thus completing a key part of the Mare Nostrum policy of the Fascists. The Ustaše movement proved valuable to Italy and Germany as a means to counter Royalist Chetnik guerrillas (although they did work with them because they did not really like the Ustaše movement whom they left up to the Germans).
Under Italian army commander Mario Roatta's watch the violence against the Slovene civil population in the Province of Ljubljana easily matched that of the Germans with summary executions, hostage-taking and hostage killing, reprisals, internments to Rab and Gonars concentration camp and the burning of houses and whole villages. Roatta issued additional special instructions stating that the repression orders must be "carried out most energetically and without any false compassion". According to historians James Walston and Carlo Spartaco Capogeco, the annual mortality rate in the Italian concentration camps was higher than the average mortality rate in German concentration camp Buchenwald (which was 15%), at least 18%. Monsignor Joze Srebnic, Bishop of Veglia (Krk island), on August 5, 1943 reported to Pope Pius XII that "witnesses, who took part in the burials, state unequivocally that the number of the dead totals at least 3,500".
In 1940, Italy invaded Egypt and was soon driven far back into Libya by British Commonwealth forces. The German army sent a detachment to join the Italian army in Libya to save the colony from the British advance. German army units in the Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel were the mainstay in the campaign to push the British out of Libya and into central Egypt in 1941 to 1942. The victories in Egypt were almost entirely credited to Rommel's strategic brilliance. The Italian forces received little media attention in North Africa because of their dependence on the superior weaponry and experience of Rommel's forces. For a time in 1942, Italy from an official standpoint controlled large amounts of territory along the Mediterranean. With the collapse of Vichy France, Italy gained control of Corsica, Nice and other portions of southwestern France. Italy also oversaw a military occupation over significant sections of southern France. But despite the official territorial achievements, the so-called "Italian Empire" was a paper tiger by 1942: it was faltering as its economy failed to adapt to the conditions of war, and Italian cities were being bombed by the Allies. Also, despite Rommel's advances in 1941 and early 1942, the campaign in North Africa began to collapse in late 1942. By a stroke of luck the war in Europe was halted in March 1943.
Ousting of Mussolini (1943–1945)
By 1943, Mussolini had lost the support of the Italian population for having led a disastrous war effort. To the world, Mussolini was viewed as a "sawdust caesar" for having led his country to war with ill-equipped and poorly trained armed forces which failed in battle. The embarrassment of Mussolini to Italy led members of the Fascist Party to desire Mussolini's removal. The first stage of his ouster took place when Fascist Party's Grand Council under the direction of Fascist member Dino Grandi voted to remove Mussolini as the party's leader. Days later, on July 26, 1943 Grandi officially removed Mussolini from the post of Prime Minister and took up the post for himself. Upon removal, Mussolini was immediately arrested. The new "Grandi government" stripped away certain elements of Fascist rule and announced the intentions of reform after the war. To international surprise, Italians celebrated the fall of Mussolini.
However, Mussolini's time in the Italian spotlight was not over. Mussolini was moved from the mountain hotel where he was being held under arrest to Rome. There a trial was held for Mussolini on the charges of treason and corruption. Mussolini was executed on April 28, 1945. The government of Grandi remained in power being for some time. It was Grandi who supervised the transition to a Republic.
Italian constitutional referendum (1946)
The aftermath of World War II left Italy with a destroyed economy, a divided society, and anger against the Fascist regime for its endorsement of republicanism for the previous twenty years which Italians viewed as a loss of prestige. Anger flourished as well over Italy's embarrassment of being dependent on the Germans.
Prior to the rise of the Fascists, the monarchy was seen to have performed poorly, with society extremely divided between the wealthy north and poor south. World War I resulted in Italy making no gains and was seen as what fostered the rise of Fascism and the Italian republican movement. Umberto, the heir to the deposed Victor Emmanuel III, gained widespread popularity during the war. These factors compacted into a revival of the Italian monarchy.
Following Mussolini's execution, his successor, the new Duce Dino Grandi, was forced to call a referendum to decide whether Italy should remain a Fascist Republic or restore the monarchy. On June 2, 1946 the monarchist side won 54% of the vote and Italy officially became a kingdom again.
Some conservative groups claimed that there was manipulation by Northern Monarchists and Socialists. Others argued that Italy was still too chaotic in 1946 to have an accurate referendum. Regardless, to prevent civil war, Grandi resigned, and a new kingdom was born with bitter resentment by the new government against Fascism. Victor Emmanuel III, who was 76 at the time, was bypassed for the throne and remained in exile in Egypt. Instead the new government invited his son Umberto to the throne as Umberto II, after a brief debate between father and son Victor Emmanuel renounced his right to the Italian throne in favor of his son. Umberto was proclaimed king on July 1, 1946.