Italy from 1922 to 1943, under the rule of Benito Mussolini. Also known as il Ventennio ("the Twenty Years") in Italy.
28 October, 1922: the March on RomeAfter World War I, the situation in Italy was dire: the veterans were not happy because of the so-called vittoria mutilata ("maimed victory"): Italy got only a part of the territories the Allied powers promised in the Treaty of London (1915) and the Italian public opinion was understandably not happy about it. As if that wasn't enough, said veterans had a difficult time finding work and reentering normal society, so they ended up following - as Blackshirts - a balding hothead named Benito Mussolini. He came to power after the so-called March on Rome, where some tens of thousands of threatening, poorly-equipped Black Shirts successfully pressured Victor Emmanuel III (the King of Italy) into making Mussolini Prime Minister despite the fact that the Army was completely loyal and would have beaten them every day of the week - easily. But the King and his advisors (with the notable exception of the then-Prime Minister, Luigi Facta, who urged the King to crush the Blackshirts) were afraid. Not of Mussolini, mind you: they were afraid that a socialist revolution was just around the corner, considering the fact that workers and peasants had been striking, revolting and taking over factories up and down Italy for the previous two years (1919 and 1920) during the so-called Biennio Rosso (the "Two Red Years"). Mussolini promised to rule with an iron fist and that such things would not happen again; that was good enough for the King, who sacked Facta and appointed the soon-to-be Duce in his place.
Italy from 1922 to 1935However, Mussolini's administration soon faced its first crisis. In 1921 Italy was invited by the League of Nations to oversee the boundary dispute between Greece and Albania; two years later, four Italian officers were murdered by unknown assaillants while in Greek territory. Mussolini promptly sent Greece an ultimatum demanding an official apology, compensations and capital punishment for the gulty; and even though the Greek government accepted most of the requests, Mussolini was not satisfied and ordered the Army to occupy Corfu until Greece had accepted his conditions; the whole matter was later settled by the League of Nations. Mussolini's government passed a new electoral law (the infamous "legge Acerbo") which - needless to say - favoured the Fascist Party and its allies; in addition to all this, the Italian electorate was "pressured" by the Blackshirts to vote for Mussolini, who, unsurprisingly, won the elections. In 1924 Italy - by virtue of the Treaty of Rome (which it had signed along with Yugoslavia) - acquired the city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia), which was populated mainly by Italian-speaking people. And Mussolini showed his true face. A socialist MP, Giacomo Matteotti, publicly denounced Mussolini's crimes (suppression of civil liberties, repression of opposition groups and the like). Mussolini was not pleased and had him kidnapped, beaten up and then stabbed; to add insult to injury, the Duce even acknowledged his involvement with the murder in front of the whole Parliament. The socialist MPs, disgusted, left as an act of protest (as they had no real power anymore) but in doing so they left Mussolini and his cronies alone in control of the country. Indeed, the Fascists would later pass the so-called leggi fascistissime ("very-Fascist laws") which, among the other things, allowed only one party (guess which one?); gave (a lot) more power to the Head of the Government (who remained some sort of a PM, as the King was never removed from power); created the Grand Council of Fascism, which was the main body of government; forbade strikes, protests and the like, officialised censorship and stripped the Italian people of most of their rights. The year 1929 saw the resolution of the questione romana (Roman Question), that is, a dispute between the Kingdom of Italy and the Papacy which had been going on since 1870 (the year in which the Italian troops annexed Rome, thus ending the temporal power of the Pope. He declared himself "prisoner in the Vatican", refused to acknowledge the Kingdom of Italy and forbade Italian Catholics from participating in the political life of the new country). Mussolini, in order to play up to the most devout strata of the population, signed the Lateran Treaty which established Vatican City. In 1930, the O.V.R.A. (that is, the infamous Fascist Secret Police) was established and in October of the following year, Mussolini demanded that university professors swear an oath of loyalty to him and to the Party; few refused to and later, laws were passed which allowed only party members to become teachers, barristers etc., etc. Meanwhile, in the colony of Libya a rebellion (led by Omar al-Mukhtar) had been going on since the 1920s. The Italians controlled only the coastal areas and the situation was getting worse and worse; Mussolini then sent marshal Rodolfo Graziani to deal with the rebels. He managed to repress the revolt by making great use of the indigenous cavalry and by capturing Omar; however, his heavy-handed approach towards the Libyan civilians dwelling in the troubled areas (who were sent to concentration camps where the mortality rate was very high) earned him the nickname of "Butcher of Fezzan". 1934 was the year in which Benito Mussolini - now known as the Duce, or "leader" - and Adolf Hitler faced each other in Venice. The latter wanted to annex Austria to the Reich, but Mussolini - who, surprise surprise, not only couldn't stand him but was also a personal friend of the Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß (who opposed National Socialism) - didn't quite like the idea of having a nation that powerful at the gates. He threatened to send the Army to the Brenner Pass in order to guarantee the territorial integrity of Austria; Hitler backed off (for the moment) and Mussolini didn't miss the occasion to boast his diplomatic prowess. Oh, and Italy won its first World Cup.
1935 - 1936: the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and the involvement in the Spanish Civil WarMussolini considered economics a zero-sum game and accordingly saw economy as a means to its own end, through warfare: industry equips the armed forces, the military conquers new territory, the new territory provides more raw materials for industry to expand.note That was exactly what happened in 1936. Italy was a latecomer to the so-called "scramble for Africa" and had to content itself with the left-overs (said left-overs being first and foremost nations in their own right such as Eritrea, Somalia and Libya). But in 1896, the then-prime Minister Francesco Crispi pressured the ill-led colonial army to conquer Ethiopia, which was at the time the only independent African country left. Unfortunately, the expedition was a failure: the Royal Italian Colonial Corps and their Eritrean allies were slaughtered at the battle of Adowa. The Italian public opinion was so enraged it caused the Prime Minister's downfall; therefore, Mussolini wanted to avenge the humiliation which had tarnished Italy's reputation as a colonial power (and some easy land-grab, too). Taking advantage of modest border clashes, on 3 October 1935, at dawn, the invasion began. That same Royal Italian Colonial Corps and its colonial allies (Libyans, Eritreans, Somalians and a few local populations such as the Azebu Galla) advanced slowly into the rugged Ethiopian territory. However, the Christmas Offensive (which was spearheaded by the Emperor Haile Selassie himself) managed to break in two the Italian Army but failed to route it and it was eventually repelled after fierce fighting. In December, the Hoare-Laval Pact (which guaranteed Italy substantial gains and bore the names of the then British and French Prime ministers) was prepared and Mussolini was going to sign it when it was leaked by the press and publicly denounced; the uproar caused by the scandal forced the British and French signatories to disassociate themselves from it. Then, later that month, an Italian pilot was downed and murdered by Ethiopian troops; this fact, along with marshal Badoglio's finding that the Ethiopian troops were using dum-dum bullets, prompted him to ask Mussolini's permission to use mustard gas against the enemy - which was duly granted - and even though it was used in (relatively) small amounts, it was used against both civilian and military objectives. The Royal Italian Colonial Corps kept advancing from North and South (the forces in the south being led by Graziani) and won the battles of Amba Aradam and Tembien, where two Ethiopian armies were annihilated; during the battle of Shire the Italians crushed another Ethiopian army suffering only 10 losses, while the Ethiopians lost some 10,000 men. Finally, on 31 March 1936, the Italians defeated another Ethiopian counteroffensive at the battle of Maychew, where mustard gas was used; the R.I.C.C. suffered 400 casualties, the Ascari (Eritrean fighters) 800 and the Ethiopians lost 11,000 men. The final battle occurred on April 14, 1936 (battle of Ogaden) where, after ten days of fighting, the Ethiopians lost 15,000 men and the Italians 200; this enabled marshal Badoglio to launch the so-called March of the Iron Will, in which a mechanised column reached the Ethiopian capital, Addis Abeba, on May 5, 1936; the last Ethiopian troops surrendered thirteen days later and Badoglio was appointed viceroy of Ethiopia, while Mussolini appointed himself Marshal of the Empire, whatever that meant. Whom did he piss off, then? France and Britain, of course, which imposed an effective - if short-lived - embargo on Italy. This lead to the establishment of a particular economic policy called autarchia (meaning self-reliance), which has its origins in national pride or embargoes or both. Anyway, Italy did not have the resources to cope with that and the standard of living of the Italian population worsened significantly; certain crops (e.g. grain) were favoured at the expenses of others (e.g. wine, olive trees) with the result that the average Italian's diet became very bland. Plus, the Italian army had to rely on the few supplies/resources that factories could produce. On top of it all, the Duce wanted Italy to join the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist side. However, a lot of Italian anti-fascists joined the Republican troops, with the result that the Italian Expeditionary Force often fought a fratricidal war against other Italians (the battle of Guadalajara makes a perfect example). While the Germans used these battlefields as a benchmark for new tactics and equipment, Italian commanders learnt nothing; moreover, the war proved long and costly and the few supplies the Army had received were dilapidated in a pointless intervention. As if that wasn't enough, the Royal Italian Air Force or, better, the Aviazione Legionaria ("Legionary Aviation", as it was known during that war) got involved - along with the Germans - in the infamous bombing of Guernica (26 april, 1937), where 400 civilians died. Anyway, Mussolini would later regret participating in such an expensive war.
The Racial Laws - Italy joins the AxisDespite having had the Austrian chancellor killed in June 1934, Adolf Hitler supported Italy during the war against Ethiopia and thus the relations between the two countries significantly improved (Italy won the World Cup again... could that be a factor?). On October 25, 1936, count Galeazzo Ciano - the Italian Foreign Minister (as well as Benito's son-in-law) and the German diplomat K. von Neurath signed a rather vague (but important) treaty with which their respective nations agree to support Nationalist Spain and "collaborate against Bolschevism"; the Axis was born. The British even offered Mussolini large tracts of Egypt as a sweetener for him to come in the British side, or at the very least stay neutral. This was not a ridiculous proposition - Italy had been allied to the United Kingdom against Germany and Austria in WWI, and many Italians felt that a British alliance was a far more preferable alternative. Anyway, on May 5, 1938, Adolf Hitler visited Rome seeking a military alliance with the Kingdom of Italy; Mussolini, however, was not favourable because of the Anschluss, which he saw as a threat to the country. Eventually, the Pact of Steel was signed on May 22, 1939, thus sealing the country's fate and that of its people. Due to pressure from Germany, anti-semitic laws (the leggi razziali; "racial laws") were issued and the Manifesto of Race published in July 1938. Prior to that date, not only anti-semitism wasn't part of the Fascist ideology at all but most Italians were opposed to it, and Jews were allowed to join the ranks of the Fascist party: Mussolini himself had a Jewish mistress - Margherita Sarfatti - who signed the Manifesto of the Fascist Intellectuals. Despite said racial laws, there wouldn't be deportation of Jews until after the fall of Mussolini and the subsequent German occupation (1943-1945).
Italy occupies AlbaniaAlbania had already been occupied by Italy during the last months of WWI; Ahmed Zog, the Albanian president, was nothing more than a puppet for the Italian government. In 1928, he proclaimed himself King but was not recognised as such by almost every other country (with the notable exception of Italy... of course). Albania became thus more and more involved with Italy (for example, Mussolini requested that all Albanian ministers speak Italian; the language was also made compulsory in schools), which had access to most of that country's resources. When King (or President?) Zog refused Mussolini's requests for further concessions, Italy invaded Albania on 7 April 1939 without meeting significant resistance and proceeded to occupy the country; president (or King?) Zog fled to Greece and Victor Emmanuel III became King of Albania, too. Much like the "occupation" of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary some three decades earlier this was simply the formal recognition of a practical reality - Italy ran Albania in all but name up until that time.
Interval: society and culture in Fascist Italy
10 June, 1940: Fascist Italy digs its own graveThe unshakable certainty that Germany would have won the war, coupled with the prospect of easy land-grabs at the expense of France and Britain, caused the Italian entry into World War II. Mussolini did not (or, perhaps, he didn't want to) understand that with antiquated and unreliable equipment, very few supplies (most of which had been spent either in Ethiopia or in Spain), an ill-led military fighting in a war it didn't want against an enemy it didn't want to have along an ally it didn't like to be associated with was bound to be mediocre. Most of the Italian generals (except the ones loyal to the Duce) were skeptical about joining a war without proper preparation; the King and the Royal (Italian) Navy's Chief of Staff even thought about overthrowing Mussolini in order to avoid it. But he, once again victim of his own (very big) ego, refused to listen to reason and demanded the army to be mobilised anyway, regardless of its pitiful state. When marshal Badoglio (yes, that one) pointed out that "[...] the Army doesn't even have enough shirts!" Mussolini replied: "You don't understand. I just need a few hundred casualties in order to sit on the table of peace". Unfortunately, that "few hundred casualties" became more than 32,0000 (not including civilians); by the end of the war, more than 450,000 people had died. On June 10, 1940, Mussolini - while speaking from the Venezia palace - declared war on France and Britain. This involved occupation of parts of southern France at the expense of a country already decisively beaten by Germany and a sizable Royal Italian Air Force contingent was sent north to participate in the Battle of Britain. Mussolini had cause to regret this: the British began bombing the Italian cities. (Meanwhile, Japan joined the Axis) Then, on October 28, 1940 Mussolini, in another display of stupidity, ordered the invasion of Greece - which was governed by another Fascist dictator, Ioannis Metaxas. Anyway, the Duce - more and more paranoid - thought that his Hellenic colleague was working for the British and therefore saw fit to declare war on Greece. The desire for such a pointless invasion was further fueled by his beyond-foolish concept of guerra parallela ("parallel war"): "If Germany annexes Poland, we'll annex Greece; if Germany annexes France, we'll annex Egypt..." and so on. On top of it all, Sebastiano Visconti-Prasca - the Italian Commander-in-Chief - was so confident in a Greek defeat that he sent nearly half of the invasion force home to help with the incoming harvest. What was left of the aforementioned invasion force was first humiliatingly beaten by the Greeks during some of the bloodiest battles of the war; then, the "Julia" Alpine division was completely annihilated (but fought so valiantly that a German general, Karl Eibl, once said: "My tanks are the Italian Alpines"). One of the most capable Italian generals, Italo Balbo (who was also a renowned aviator), was shot down by his own AA guns (some say on behalf of Mussolini) and another army ten times the size of the British opposition was comprehensively defeated in North Africa during Operation Compass. Further humiliation followed: the Royal Italian Navy was caught in its home port of Taranto on November 12, 1940 by British aircraft carriers, and sent to the bottom in an attack that was a precursor of Pearl Harbor (incidentally, Japanese observers took careful notes). These events forced him to ask help by Germany. Naturally, the Germans had to invade Yugoslavia first and at dawn, on April 6, 1941, the invasion began; fighting lasted eleven days before Yugoslavia surrendered officially on April 17 and was later partitioned between Italy, Germany and Hungary. Part of the Slovene and Croat civil populations in the regions of Yugoslavia annexed by Italy were imprisoned; at the Arbe (Rab) concentration camp (opened in 1942 under the infamous general Robotti), between 1,500 and 4,000 people died. On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa began and Mussolini, once more blinded by his own greed, sent another poorly equipped expeditionary force, the ARMIR (Armata Italiana in Russia, "Italian Army in Russia"), to fight along the Germans. They took part in the battle of Stalingrad and, contrary to the stereotype, distinguished themselves; during the battle of Nikolajewka they managed to break off the encirclement and to return home during the Russian winter, only to find the Fascist authorities trying to hide them from the populace because of their "demoralising looks". Of the 220,000 soldiers sent, more than 115,000 never returned. Meanwhile, in the Italian East Africa (or A.O.I., Africa Orientale Italiana) the troops under Amedeo, Duke of Aosta managed to hold their positions on the mountains and fought bravely in the battles of Cheren, Culqualber and Gondar. Their last stand took place at the battle of Amba Alagi, fought between the 17th of May and the 17th of April 1941; after more than one month of bloody fighting on the mountains, they ran out of water and ammunitions. Mussolini was lucid enough to grant them permission to surrender and when they did, the British singled them out for their valour and granted them the honours of war. During the battle of el Alamein (23 October - 5 November 1942) the Royal Italian Army was fighting along the Germans and distinguished itself once more, routing the American troops at the battle of Kasserine Pass (19 - 25 February 1943). It should be also noted that the Italians were at the forefront of asymmetrical naval warfare: the Royal Italian Navy was the first one to make use of torpedo boats and frogmen, sinking the Austrian battleships Viribus Unitis and Szent István during WW1. Almost thirty years later (on March 25, 1941) said frogmen (then organised into the X [tenth] flotilla M.A.S.) sunk the British heavy cruiser HMS York at Souda Bay; then, on December 19th, they infiltrated the Royal Navy's base at Alexandria and hit the British battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth, which remained unserviceable for over a year, giving the Axis an important advantage in the Mediterranean. On July 25, 1943, after the British and American invasion of Sicily (see Catch-22 as an example of literature set at that time), Mussolini was overthrown by his very own Grand Council of Fascism and the King had him imprisoned in a remote place in Abruzzo called Campo Imperatore; he was later rescued during a raid (led by Otto Skorzeny) at Hitler's request. Meanwhile, a new (and even more incompetent) government was formed under Marshal Pietro Badoglio (yes, him again!): the Armistice was signed on September 8, 1943, Rome was declared an "open city" (hence the film's title), the King and Badoglio fled to Brindisi (which was controlled by the Allies) and the Royal Italian Army was left with no instruction whatsoever. The Germans took advantage of it and occupied Italy, committing atrocities such as the massacre of the Ardeatine caves (335 innocent Romans were murdered in retaliation for the death of 33 German soldiers) or the Marzabotto massacre, where 1830 civilians (including women and children) were murdered in reprisal for a failed partisan attack. Most soldiers joined the (Italian, Greek, or even Yugoslav) partisans, while the others continued the fight against the Allies. The Italian troops quartered in Greece bravely fought the Germans and - at first - succeeded in keeping them at bay, thinking that an Allied support would have been sent shortly. However, when said Allied support failed to show up the German reinforcements arrived and the Italian garrisons quartered in the Greek islands of Kefalonia and Corfu were slaughtered after a bloody siege. Meanwhile, in Naples, a popular revolt forced the Germans to flee the city. Italy was now split in two: its Northern half was under German occupation, while the Southern part of the country was under Allied control; the Italian Resistance was very active during this period, hiding Allied soldiers, providing information, sabotaging enemy infrastructure and bravely engaging in skirmishes against the Germans. its contributions to the Allied cause considerably shortened the length of the war in Italy. Mussolini essentially became the Gauleiter of Lombardy (although he was, at least nominally, the president of the R.S.I., that is, the Italian Social Republic) and had most of the Grand Council members who deposed him killed; his henchmen, called repubblichini, often fought against the Italian partisan formations and occasionally engaging in war-time atrocities along their German counterparts... at this point in history, Italy had plunged into a civil war. Meanwhile, half the north-east was directly annexed by Germany. Finally, Mussolini was forced to flee to Switzerland but was captured by Communist partisans. Said partisans (or, perhaps, British agents?) then shot him and his mistress on April 28, 1945 and hung their bodies in public. On meat-hooks. Upside down. At a gas station. While a large crowd cheered. This is what later persuaded Hitler to ask his henchmen to burn his body - he did not want to be put on display.
The Foibe killingsBetween 1943 and 1949, the ethnic Italian poulation which had been living in Istria (a region then in North-Eastern Italy, now split between Slovenia and Croatia) for centuries suffered greatly at the hands of the Yugoslav partisans. The name foibe refers to a kind of karst sinkhole that can be commonly found in the area, in which the victims' dead bodies - or the victims themselves, when still alive - were uncerimoniously dumped after the massacre (previously unknown mass graves were still being discovered as late as 2000). The events were probably triggered by the acts of violence (forced Italianisation, beatings, internment in concentration camps, etc.) perpetrated by the Fascists against the ethnic Croat and Slovene minorities in the area, but there were also preliminary plans to wipe out potential opponents of the new Communist rule - Yugoslavia wanted to annex the whole area along with most of the neighbouring region of Venezia Giulia - that called for the ethnic cleansing of the region. And when Italy signed the Armistice, there was nobody left to protect said population. It's worth noting that, among the victims (which included women, elders as well as Army soldiers...), there were also some Italian members of the Yugoslav partisan formations. There's still controversy among historians over the exact number of the victims: according to the majority of them, at least 5,000 Italians from Istria were summarily executed, while the ones who survived were pushed out of the region and had to resettle in other parts of Italy during the Istrian exodus. Moreover, the whole issue was conveniently "forgotten" by the newly-established Italian Republic in order to mantain a "good neighbour policy" with Yugoslavia (which not only still claimed other parts of the Italian territories as war compensations but was also a member of the Pact of Warsaw) and did not resurface until the early '90s, when the first systematic investigations began and the findings were brought to the public.
ConclusionThe previous and later performances of the Italian armed forces were never as bad as their fiasco in WWII, which led to the false perception (strengthened by the ignominious Allied propaganda) that the Italian flags came in white only, the red and the green bands being omitted for expediency. The Germans did praise the fighting skills and abilities of the Italian units, however, rating them at least equal to any unit in the Afrika Korps. The Folgore parachute regiments were especially singled out for German praise. And, according to The Other Wiki, by the British and American troops facing them at El Alamein, the Kasserine pass (Tunisia) and Amba Alagi (Ethiopia), where Italian units fought so honourably that the British singled them out for the honour of being allowed to surrender without the formality of a white flag or a display of disarmament. It should be noted, though, that while the Fascist Italy the Allies faced on the battlefield seemed ineffectual, its domestic policy was considerably less of a comical display. Between 1922 and 1940 only 27 people were officially sentenced to death, however, the O.V.R.A. and M.V.S.N. secret polices often opted for Mafia-style assassinations rather than "ordinary" trials: hundreds of Italians were killed, tortured or beaten under Mussolini's rule. Blackshirts in particular used to tie the "suspect" to a nearby tree, beat him (or her) with their truncheons and then, they made him/her drink a quart of good ol' castor oil. They were also infamous for setting other people's houses on fire... usually while said other people were still inside. As for Mussolini, he was never as powerful as Hitler was (and not even nearly as crazy); he was still some sort of Prime Minister (the King was never removed from power) and had to do a lot of politicking to get the job done. And unlike Hitler, Mussolini had to deal with far more resistance from the Italian people. To make a long story short - if Stalin was the closest equivalent to Hitler, Mussolini would fall somewhere between him and Churchill: powerful, yes - but not unchallenged. When Fascist Italians are portrayed in fiction, they are never shown to be as evil as Those Wacky Nazis. At best they're portrayed as benign (and almost silly) bumblers who are just caught up with the wrong crowd, and at worst as obstructive toadies sucking up to their boss, Adolf Hitler. This characterisation even applies to works produced by Italians.
Fascist Italy in fictionAnime and Manga