The history of Italy from 1922 to 1943, under the rule of Benito Mussolini.
Also known as il Ventennio ("the Twenty Years") in Italy.
After World War I, the situation in Italy was dire: the veterans were not happy because of the so-called vittoria mutilata ("maimed victory"): Italy only got a small portion of the territories the Allied Powers promised her in the Treaty of London (1915) and Italian public opinion was understandably unhappy about it. As if that wasn't enough, said veterans had a difficult time finding work and reentering normal society, so many of them ended up following a balding hothead by the name of Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini 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 easily beaten them. 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 (the Blackshirts arose from right-wing militias who fought anarchist and communist revolutionaries); that was good enough for the King, who sacked Facta and appointed the soon-to-be Duce in his place.
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 then Mussolini showed his true face.
A popular 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 bundled into a car, beaten up by blackshirts and then stabbed several times with a sharpened file. Although Matteotti had seen this coming and was Defiant to the End in his last moments, shouting that the workers would bless his dead body (which they did in grief, along with fellow Italian socialists), the country was in an uproar, complete with people burning their Fascist membership cards. To add insult to injury, the Duce, although denying his involvement with the murder, said that he was the one who encouraged Fascist violence against opponents 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 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, which is to say most Italians, from participating in the political life of the new country (very few took that last part seriously). 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) may or may not have been established (there are allegations Mussolini came up with the name as a terror weapon and to distract people from the normal police doing the job. The acronym sounds suspiciously like "piovra", Italian for "octopus") 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.
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 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 Italian 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, which the Fascist propaganda machine milked to hell and back.
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. However, 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 the Italian Army in two but failed to rout 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 Foreign Secretary and French Prime Minister) 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 Pietro 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 1,000 total casualties losses, while the Ethiopians had 4x's as many killed and their entire fighting force of 20,000+ effectively neutralized.
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 14 April 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 mechanized column reached the Ethiopian capital, Addis Abeba, on 5 May 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 favored 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 was a perfect example, with Italian International Brigade volunteers fighting their fascist countrymen). Mussolini's volunteers, the CTV, were sent in as a show of fascist military strength; the support of their armor and air force would prove decisive for many Francoist victories, such as the battles of Maiorca (August 1936), Malaga (February 1937), Bilbao (June 1937), Santander (August-September 1937, which resulted in the Republican Basque forces surrendering to the Italians), the Asturias Offensive (September-October 1937), the Aragon Offensive (March-April 1938), the Battle of the Ebro (July-November 1938) and the Catalonia Offensive (December 1938-February 1939). However, at Guadalajara in March 1937, they suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the International Brigades, which resulted in Mussolini losing considerable amounts of prestige, and the world now knowing that Franco was receiving foreign aid from the Fascists. To make matters worse for Mussolini, the Nationalists and German volunteers would not stop mocking the retreating Italians for days afterwards. While Nazi Germany used these battlefields as a benchmark for new tactics and equipment, Italian commanders learnt nothing; moreover, the war proved long and costly for Italy 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 two very expensive wars.
The British even offered Mussolini large tracts of Egypt as a sweetener for him to come on 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. As a matter of fact, this was the first time that many Italians, including some sincere fascists, started to have second thoughts about Mussolini's purported genius, as they could not grasp the rationale of an alliance with a state whose propaganda exalted those very German tribes that had historically brought down ImperialRome, the restoration of whose glory was officially the main goal of Mussolini's foreign policy, and they suspected that the Nazi's incredible racism would soon find another target in another race they considered as inferior, Italians themselves.
On 5 May 1938, Adolf Hitler visited Rome seeking a military alliance with the Kingdom of Italy; Mussolini, however, was not favorable because of the Anschluss, which he saw as a threat to the country. Eventually, the "Pact of Steel" was signed on 22 May 1939, thus sealing the country's fate and that of its people.
Due to pressure from Germany, antisemitic laws (the leggi razziali; "racial laws") were issued and the Manifesto of Race published in July 1938. Prior to that date, not only was antisemitism not a part of the Fascist ideology at all, but most Italians were opposed to it, including the King, the Pope and the Italian church in general, 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).
When King 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; 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.
Party symbols and other amenitiesThe Fascist régime had a wide variety of symbols at its disposal: the most known were perhaps the fasces (hence the party's name); that is, a bundle of wooden rods including an axe with its blade emerging that dates back to the days of ancient Rome, where it symbolized the magistrate's power and, on a broader degree, justice. Therefore, it's no surprise that Mussolini — who had always been fascinated by everything Roman — chose it as the party's symbol; by 1929, they were even emblazoned on the Royal Family's Coat of Arms. In many ways, the Fascists considered themselves the spiritual successors of the Roman Empire.
The infamous black shirt traces its origins back to WW1, when it was worn by the Arditi ("the daring ones") - the Royal Italian Army's shock troops tasked with leading the first assault on the enemy (in this case, Austrian) lines. The soon-to-be-Duce was very impressed by them and made that shirt part of its paramilitary's uniform. A new Fascist calendar, in which Roman numerals denoted the number of years since the March on Rome, was introduced: to give you an idea, 1937 became XV E.F. — that is, the fifteenth year of the "Fascist Era".
Of course, the Italian flag was exalted while the act of flag desecration was made a criminal offence punishable with a hefty fine and, naturally, a good ol' beating. Even though the régime kept using the old Royal March, from 1929 on Giovinezza ("Youth") was made the de-facto anthem of Fascist Italy.
SocietyMen, according to Fascism, had to be virile and well-built: physical education was made compulsory at school while lots of youth clubs, gyms and swimming pools were built. Mussolini himself was photographed, willingly, with his shirt off, trying to make himself out to be a highly virile Italian. Interestingly, beards, long hairs and everything that was deemed untidy were frowned upon: men had to be well-shaved, well-behaved and were required to keep a good posture. Homosexuality was a made a criminal offence under the new penal code (the so-called "Codice Rocco") and many "suspect" homosexuals were exiled — often acting on anonymous denunciations — to the several remote (and brutal) penal colonies scattered throughout the Mediterranean.
Like Adolf Hitler, the Duce encouraged Italian women to dress modestly; excessive make-up and skimpy clothes were viewed with suspicion. Italian women were also encouraged to have as many children as possible and substantial benefits were granted to the ones who had three or more; women with more than six children were granted the title of Madri della Patria ("Mothers of the Fatherland") — but, notwithstanding all these benefits, they were subject to their husbands.
Hand-shakes were banned because they were deemed unhygienic; people had to greet each other using the saluto romano (which would be later adopted, albeit heavily modified, by Adolf Hitler) during official gatherings. Also, the Lei - that is, the formal Italian subject pronoun for "you" - was banned because Mussolini thought it was "foreign-sounding" and "too obsequious"; the voi (its archaic equivalent, similar to the French vous) was put in its place, often with humorous results.
Italian words of foreign origin were censored as well in order to "avoid polluting the Italian culture" and were replaced by brand-new words; however, more often than not said new words were utterly ridiculous (to say the least) and many people couldn't help but laugh when talking. Speaking dialects (or one of the minority languages such as German, Sardinian, Slovene, Croatian, etc.) was forbidden by the authorities, and in many cases the native speakers of said languages were forcibly italianized while local toponyms were replaced with their Italian equivalents. This "italianization" process even applied to popular cartoons: Mussolini initially thought about banning popular foreign comic strips such as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, but was later persuaded not to by his own nieces, who enjoyed them contrary to their father's wishes. Thus, Donald Duck became Paperino ("Lil' Duck" in Italian) while Mickey Mouse was rechristened Topolino ("Lil' Mouse"); the fun is that, nowadays, these characters are still known in Italy by those names!
Meanwhile, the E.I.A.R. (Fascist Italy's public radio, as well as the only one allowed to broadcast) did a good job spreading the knowledge of the Italian language; the modern Italian industry of dubbing — today one of the best — owes much to Mussolini, who made it compulsory (also, since a good part of the population was illiterate, putting subtitles on films would have made little sense).
As for children, all Italian scout associations were disbanded in 1928; youth organisations such as the Opera Nazionale Balilla (named after a 18th-century national hero) or the Gioventù Italiana del Littorio (the Party's own youth organisation) were established; school-aged children were also sent to state-owned colonie (summer camps) during holidays — these were either mountain summer camps or seaside resorts. University students were enrolled in the Gruppo Universitario Fascista, the Fascist equivalent of today's fraternities (minus the booze).
The so-called sabato fascista (Fascist Saturday) was a festival (let's call it this way) specifically aimed to children; they would gather in the various youth organisations' buildings in order to listen to the Duce's speeches and to be indoctrinated by public officials. Sometimes, they would even take part in mock military drills (every boy had his own little rifle). Mussolini also tried to have the adults' free time organised by a state-owned entity, the dopolavoro (literally: "after-work"); every city had a number of buildings, reserved to the members of the dopolavoro, complete with ballrooms, bowls clubs, etc. However, it never gained much popularity as Italians still preferred their everyday meeting places to the ones offered by a totalitarian government.
PropagandaMussolini had a keen interest in cinematography - not only did he establish the Cinecittà studios (in 1937) in order to rival with Hollywood but was also one of the first dictators to make great use of cinema for propaganda purposes. Cinema and radio were very powerful and (for the time) innovative tools which allowed the régime to have a (somewhat) good grip on Italian society. A dedicated ministry notable for its ridiculous acronym, the MIN.CUL.POP. (Ministero della Cultura Popolare - that is, "Ministry for Popular Culture"; the "CUL" part sounds like the Italian word for "arse"), was established.
The Fascists didn't want people to think too much, so they kept the populace entertained with cinema; nearly all of the films of that era were comedies, romantic films (the so-called telefoni bianchi, literally "white telephones") and, of course, sword-and-sandals epics glorifying the régime and showing its purported "ancient" roots.
Opposition newspapers had already been banned while the source for every article was provided (and approved) by the Agenzia Stefani (Fascist Italy's only news agency); propaganda posters were also widely used as well as slogans like: "Credere, obbedire, combattere!" ("Believe, obey, fight!") or "Fascismo è libertà" ("Fascism is freedom"). Mussolini also loved public speeches, having held countless adunate oceaniche (literally, "oceanic rallies". These were basically public speeches during which Mussolini would rant about pretty much everything, while the massive crowd below his balcony would have been told to cheer).
Naturally, a huge Cult of Personality of Mussolini was established: the Duce was shown as the most brilliant statesman in the World and a genius excelling in every activity he undertook, from sports to flying planes, and endlessly working for his people's benefit. It was not a chance that one of the most repeated fascist mottos was: "the Duce is always right" (Il Duce ha sempre ragione).
Newspapers were painstakingly instructed on a daily basis on how to report the Duce's various activities and which photos to publish. Mussolini himself (a former newspaper editor) spent hours reviewing the news and personally giving instructions to his zealous propagandists.
Eventually, the praise of Mussolini became so emphatic that it was grotesque. Apparently, nobody in the Fascist hierarchy put too much thought into what would have happened had the Duce ever been proved wrong.
In the mean time, the O.V.R.A. watched carefully on the populace to take care of possible dissenters...
Architecture and public worksMussolini dreamed of recreating imperial Rome, and Rationalist architecture suited perfectly his needs. Architects such as Marcello Piacentini (who was to Mussolini what Albert Speer was to Adolf Hitler) and Gio Ponti designed countless public buildings in this style. Rome's historical centre was hit particularly hard by the Duce who - among the other things - opened via della della Conciliazione (the boulevard in front of St. Peter's, arguably the ugliest in the city) and via dei Fori Imperiali, excavated the Circus Maximus, started the construction of the E.U.R. district (which was planned for the Universal Exposition of 1942) demolishing countless Medieval and Renaissance neighborhoods in the process and forever ruining Bernini's carefully planned perspective. The neighborhoods' inhabitants, on the other hand, were unceremoniously dumped in paltry council houses located at the outskirts of the city. The Pontine Marshes, which were located south of Rome, were reclaimed in the early '30s and new, depressing, model cities were built in their place: Pomezia, Littoria, Aprilia etc., etc., etc. Many hospitals, schools, Case del Fascio ("Houses of the Fasces": they were the Party's local branches), Post Offices and council houses were built in that period - in most cases, they're still standing and can be seen (they're easily recognizable due to their style).
This went down in history as one of the biggest blunders ever committed by a dictator and directly led to the downfall of Mussolini and his regime.
Mussolini did not (or, perhaps, 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 alongside an ally it didn't like to be associated with was bound to be mediocre.
More worryingly for the regime, after having fought two wars in three years, most of the civilian population was war-weary and had actually met with relief the initial decision of the Duce not to intervene in the conflict, even seeing it as another proof of his genius. Moreover, Nazi Germany was deeply unpopular out of the most fanatical fascist circles: as Paolo Monelli, one of the most famous journalists of the time put it, if the regime had told the Italian population that a war was inevitable and let them choose the enemy, Italians would have overwhelmingly chosen to fight the hated Germans, who were still widely considered as the natural enemy of the Italian nationnote . Thus, had the war not been brought to a successful conclusion quickly, its unpopularity would have eventually transferred to Mussolini and his cronies, facilitating their demise. This was only exarcebated by a colossal misstep of war-time propaganda, who presented it as the "Fascist War", only making it easier to identify the humiliating defeats suffered by Italy with Fascism.
Finally, most of the Italian generals (except the ones loyal to the ''Duce'') were sceptical 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 Mussolini, once again victim of his own (very big) ego, refused to listen to reason and demanded the army be mobilized 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 320,000 (not including civilians); by the end of the war, more than 450,000 people had died.
On 10 June 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, Imperial Japan joined the Axis Pact on 27 September 1940.
On top of it all, General 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"). The Greek Army, though, was on the edge of collapse by the start of February (having taken 83,000 casualties to the Italians' 102,000, with an army less than one-fifth the enemy's size), critically low on supplies of every type and only stuck with two more months worth of ammunition. Extensive British material aid had extended Greece's lifeline, but they were bound for defeat eventually, German intervention or none.
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, who feared that he could be the lynchpin of a coup) and another army ten times the size of the British opposition was comprehensively defeated in North Africa during Operation Compass. The British took 100,000 prisoners in the first disaster suffered by Italy in the conflict and had to stop their advance only because they ran out of petrol and ammunition.
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 Mussolini to ask for help to Germany. Naturally, the Germans had to invade Yugoslavia first, and at dawn, on 6 April 1941, the invasion began; fighting lasted eleven days before Yugoslavia surrendered officially on 17 April and was later partitioned between Italy, Germany, and Hungary. Germany invaded Greece at about the same time as Yugoslavia; the Greeks, having nearly every adequately equipped soldier fighting the Italians in Albania, offered almost literally zero resistance while the Germans swept aside their small border garrisons and captured most of the country in two weeks. A desperate last minute attempt to sweep the Italians off the Balkan Peninsula by the Greek and Yugoslav armies failed, and the Italians were able to capture tens of thousands of Yugoslav troops, occupy much of Croatia as well as all of Montenegro and Slovenia, and advance further into Greece. Greece officially surrendered to the Axis soon after Yugoslavia. Some territory was annexed by Germany, some by Bulgaria, but most went to Italy.
As for Yugoslavia, 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 Mario Robotti), where between 1,500 and 4,000 people died. Thousands of others would be killed by the Italians in reprisals during the bloody partisan war. Greece, Slovenia, Montenegro, and part of Croatia's coast were annexed directly. The rest of Croatia, plus Bosnia and Herzegovina, became part of an Italian and German backed puppet state headed by Ante Pavelic, a handpicked pawn of Mussolini's who had before the war been a Croat general and terrorist run out of Yugoslavia for fascist activity. His regime would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in various genocides, with Italian backing.
Meanwhile a German expedition force was hastily sent to North Africa to support the Italians. It was called the Deutsches Afrikakorps and it was commanded by an aggressive young general, Erwin Rommel. Soon the British found themselves in full retreat towards the Egyptian border.
On 22 June 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 alongside 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 "demoralizing 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 Prince 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 4 - 19 May 1941; after nearly a month of bloody fighting on the mountains, they ran out of water and ammunition. 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". This was little consolation, as 200,000 Italian and Colonial soldiers became prisoners of war.
During the battle of El Alamein (23 October - 5 November 1942) the Royal Italian Army was fighting along the Germans, and later 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 25 March 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 19, 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.
However, all the tactical acumen of Erwin Rommel and all the valor and the stubbornness of the Italian common soldiers could not change a fundamentally helpless strategic situation, determined by the command of the sea lanes between Italy and North Africa by the English Fleet and by the absolute Allied air supremacy.
Despite the desperate efforts of the Italian Navy (which was basically wiped out in the Mediterranean Sea in the process) and of the Transportgruppen of the Luftwaffe to supply them, the Axis troops lost control of Libya, ending the Italian domination of its oldest colony and - after the Allies invaded French Algeria - were confined in a progressively shrinking bridgehead in Tunisia. Finally, over 200,000 German and Italian troops surrendered to the triumphant Americans and Britons.
This was the last straw for the Italian people: the Fascist war had been lost and it was all too clear that the next target of the Allied onslaught would be the Italian mainland, which was already under the relentless assault of the USAAF Bomber Command.
On March 1943, there was the first open show of defiance against the regime in decades: a general strike was declared in the factories of the Italian North and thousands of workers joined it, scaring away the squads of blackshirts frantically sent to crush the strike with a relentless stone-throwingnote .
While the reason of the strike was formally a request for better rations and salaries, this sent a chill down the spine of the Italian ruling class. After twenty years of endless repression, the Communist and Socialist underground organizations were still able to mobilize huge numbers of workers.
On 25 July 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 Badoglio (yes, him again!): the Armistice was signed on 8 September 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) and the Marzabotto massacre (1,830 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 Cephalonia 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 became the Duce and head of government of the Italian Social Republic (or R.S.I., for Repubblica Sociale Italiana), a republic operating in opposition to the Kingdom of Italy in the north with its government based in Salò. (In practice Mussolini essentially functioned as the Gauleiter of Lombardy). He also remained Duce of a new incarnation of the National Fascist Party called the Republican Fascist Party, which was the ruling party of the Italian Social Republic throughout its existence. He had most of the Grand Council members who deposed him killed. The Italian Social Republic had its own armed forces as well as a National Republican Guard to replace the Carabinieri and Voluntary Militia for National Security, which often fought against the Italian partisan formations and occasionally engaging in war-time atrocities alongside their German counterparts. The national republican forces were contemptuously nicknamed repubblichini (literally, the "little republicans", but the intended meaning is more the "petty" or "miserable" republicans) by the population. At this point in history Italy had plunged into a civil war, which left a bitter legacy that still resonates in Italian politics nowadays.
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 with MAS-38 submachine guns on 28 April 1945 and hung their bodies in public. On meat-hooks. Upside down. At a gas station. While a large crowd cheered and threw rocks, shot, swore and spat at him. This is what later persuaded Hitler to ask his henchmen to burn his body — he didn't want his corpse to be defiled or put on display by his enemies.
Italy was liberated at the end of the war in Europe, with the German troops surrendering. The monarchy was abolished by the 1946 Italian institutional referendum, and the Italian Republic was declared with a new constitution enacted on 22 December 1947, which contained Provision XII: "It shall be forbidden to reorganize, under any form whatever, the dissolved fascist party" (that is, the National Fascist Party and Republican Fascist Party). Despite this, neo-fascist parties remain in Italy, and some like the Italian Social Movement have won elections in the past.
The events were probably triggered by the acts of violence (forced Italianization, 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 neighboring 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 and 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 maintain a "good neighbor policy" with Yugoslavia (which still claimed other parts of the Italian territories as war compensation) and did not resurface until the early '90s, when the first systematic investigations began and the findings were brought to the public.
Actually, even the Germans (who never had qualms about mocking their nominal allies and blaming them for their own mistakes) did praise the fighting skills and abilities of the Italian common soldiers, 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 honorably that the British singled them out for the honor 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. secret police and M.V.S.N. militia 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, 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 characterization even applies to many works produced by Italians, unless they are set in the German-occupied Italy after the collapse of the regime. In this case, fascists are usually depicted as Les Collaborateurs or as murderous and traitorous thugs, accomplices and at the service of the German enemy.
Fascist Italy in fiction
- Naturally played with in Hetalia: Axis Powers. The "Italy" of the title is essentially Fascist Italy and manages to be more of a "cheese eating surrender monkey" than France is usually depicted. There's also Romano representing the southern half of Italy (even though Rome, from which the name "Romano" derives, belongs to Central Italy). Interestingly enough, Mussolini himself never makes a direct appearance whatsoever. Which can come off a bit of a surprise when one considers the presence of Germany's boss and Russia's in the World War II arc.
- While everyone involved is technically Japanese, the Anzio school in Girls und Panzer is based on Fascist Italy. The main characters beat them without taking any casualties.
- Porco Rosso is set during the interbellum, with Fascism and the main character's opposition to it being an important part of the plot. The O.V.R.A. makes an appearance mid-film as one of the antagonists.
- 1900, a Bernardo Bertolucci's film whose second half is set during the rising of fascism and ends with an insurrection of the Italian peasants during the final days of the war.
- The 1951 film Achtung! Banditi! tells the story of a partisan unit that joins forces with the local workers to stop the SS from moving to Germany the plants of an ammunition factory. Funded by a public subscription and directed by a member of the Italian Communist Party, it wants to emphasize that ''la Resistenza'' was a mass movement of the entire Italian population. People of all ages and sexes and from all social upbringings work together to fight the Germans. In the end, even a unit of fascist soldiers joins the fight against the SS, helping the partisans to break through the Nazis encirclement and run for the hills. This is less a subversion of the usual characterization of post-armistice fascists than Truth in Television, as the fascist troops that are shown in the movie are mostly members of the R.S.I.s Armed Forces, a purportedly apolitical organization hastily formed with mainly young and inexperienced conscripts press-ganged into its ranks, which notoriously had a very low morale and suffered from an heavy desertion rate. The fanatical Black Brigades, the paramilitary wing of the repubblichini that was composed only by hard-line fascists and that was responsible for most of the atrocities committed during the civil war, are shown in passing forcing the workers to break a strike at gunpoint, molesting the women and helping the SS to execute the prisoners.
- Amarcord is a semi-autobiographical example by Federico Fellini. When Mussolini visits the protagonist's town, a woman boasts that 99% of its residents are members of the Fascist Party. Of course, most of the townspeople are regularly portrayed as idiots.
- Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Apart from Nicholas Cage's grating faux-Italian accent, the sappy romance and Penelope Cruz's wooden acting, the film has been widely considered a travesty of history (where Italian troops are portrayed as opera-singing, mandoline-playing womanisers) - especially if one takes into account the tragedy on which it was based, the massacre of the Acqui division. Unsurprisingly, the film was the subject of much criticism in Italy, where it managed to raise both a media outcry and a parliamentary debate.
- Captain America's arch-enemy, the Red Skull, was changed from German Nazi to an Italian Fascist for the ill-regarded first movie.
- The Children Are Watching Us: Made in Fascist Italy, by Vittorio De Sica in 1942. A Melodrama about a husband and a cheating wife that completely ignores the then-raging war.
- The Conformist, another film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci based on a best-seller by Alberto Moravia.
- El Alamein: The Line of Fire is an award-winning low-budget film depicting a young soldier and his introduction to war. Unfortunately for him, he arrives shortly before the second battle of el Alamein. Very much about the weariness of soldiers in a losing war. While downplayed, disillusion with the regime is also a recurring theme.
- Il Federale (literally, The Head of the local Fascist Federation, but the English version was simply titled "The Fascist") is a 1961 film set during the second half of World War II. Primo Arcovazzi, the titular character, played by Ugo Tognazzi, one of the leading Italian comedians of his time, is a member of the blackshirts who must find and arrest Professor Bonafè, a renowned anti-fascist and the man who has been chosen by the democratic opposition as the future prime minister of a liberated Italy. The film is actually an inversion of the usual depiction of the Italians who remained faithful to Mussolini after the armistice and joined his Repubblica Sociale Italiana. Arcovazzi is more a naïve idealist dumbed by Fascist propaganda than a fanatical assassin. Moreover, while ignorant and boorish, he is personally brave and has a strong sense of duty. In short, a good man fighting for the wrong side in a civil war.
- Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo depicts an uneasy relationship between German and Italian troops housing at a desert hotel. The Germans arrive first and secure all the good rooms. The Italian commander is depicted as a mostly nice guy who actually sings opera in the shower.
- General Della Rovere: Set in 1944 Genoa during the German occupation. The local German commander inserts an Italian con artist into a prison, hoping to use him as The Mole to find out stuff about La Résistance.
- Hornets' Nest is set in 1944 during the German occupation of Italy.
- The first part of Roberto Begnini's Life Is Beautiful is set in Fascist Italy.
- The Lion of the Desert subverts the usual portrayal of Italians as inefficient bumblers. Mussolini's troops are seen committing horrendous atrocities (mass shootings, poison gas, concentration camps) against Libyan insurgents in the 1920s. Still, they're defeated in almost every engagement by Omar Mukhtar; the movie was funded by Gaddafi, though, so take it with a bit of salt. Interestingly enough, this film used to be banned in Italy.
- La lunga notte del 1943 ("The long night of 1943") is a 1960 independent movie and one of the first Italian films to deal with the civil war that erupted after Italy's surrender to the Allies. Unsurprisingly, as it is Inspired by the Real Life murder of a Fascist high officer and the subsequent retaliation by the repubblichini that set off the most ferocious phase of the civil war, fascists are shown as little more than gangsters engaged in a power play.
- Malèna, starring the luscious Monica Bellucci as the object of a young boy's idolatry.
- Open Doors: A liberal judge seeks to prevent the imposition of a death penalty case in 1937 Palermo, the death penalty having been reintroduced by the Facists
- Ossessione: Another film made in Fascist Italy, in 1943 right near the end. It's the first adaptation of American novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.
- Il Postino
- Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, a notoriously offensive adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom is a definite aversion to the traditional portrayal of Italian fascists. Here, they're portrayed as being particularly Squicky psychopaths rather than the bumbling fools of other media.
- Ettore Scola's A Special Day tells the story of a neglected housewife (Sophia Loren) and her gay neighbor (Marcello Mastroianni) who stay at home on the day of Adolf Hitler's visit to Rome.
- Tea With Mussolini
- Titus, Julie Taymor's version of Titus Andronicus is a bizarre yet believable combination of Fascist Italy and Imperial Rome. Think alternate-history Rome which has gradually morphed into Fascist Italy.
- Two Women: More Sophia Loren. Set around the end of fascist Italy, as a poor Italian woman and her teenaged daughter flee the city to escape Allied bombing raids, only to find tragedy in the countryside as Allied troops approach.
- The Frank Sinatra vehicle Von Ryan's Express starts with Allied POWs in an Italian prison camp just as Italy officially surrenders. Then they try to make their way through German-occupied northern Italy to Switzerland and freedom. One Italian soldier (the former second-in-command of the prison) is portrayed sympathetically as their guide, the rest of the prison guards are portrayed as complete buffoons, and most Italian civilians are avoided because they're potential Nazi collaborators. One woman does indeed try to sell them out.
- What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) takes an interesting approach. The members of the Italian Army are happy to surrender the moment American scouts enter the village of Valerno. Their only condition is that they are allowed to celebrate a festival with the villagers. As a whole, the Italians are depicted as friendly, fun-loving though proud bunch who are more than happy to help the Americans when the Those Wacky Nazis crash the party and catch them fraternising with the enemy.
- Umberto Eco (who grew up in Fascist Italy) uses it as a setting for the extensive flashbacks in Foucault's Pendulum and The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana.
- Lieutenant-Commander Charles Lamb's autobiography, At War In A Stringbag, is an account of the war between Britain and Italy as seen by one of the Royal Navy pilots who destroyed the Italian fleet at Taranto.
- The fourth and fifth volumes of Spike Milligan's war autobiography are set in Italy. Mussolini - His Part in My Downfall deals with Milligan's war in Italy, and his being wounded in the opening overs of Monte Cassino. subsequent volumes deal with his posting away from the front lines and a career in Army entertainment, and his first great romance with an Italian ballerina, in which he learns how ordinary Italians lived under and after Mussolini.
- Alberto Moravia's 1951 novel The Conformist, whose principal character is a member of Mussolini's secret police.
- Centomila gavette di ghiaccio by Giulio Bedeschi and Il sergente nella neve by Mario Rigoni Stern deal with the tragedy of the Italian Army in Russia (in which both authors served); these books are nowadays considered classics in Italy.
- The garden of the Finzi-Continis, by Giorgio Bassani, chronicles the relationships between the narrator and the children of the (Jewish) Finzi-Contini family; the story's set between Mussolini's rise to power and 1938, immediately after the issue of the Racial Laws. It was made into an award-winning film by Vittorio De Sica.
- Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières follows a group of Italian soldiers during World War II. One chapter is devoted to painting an extremely uncomplimentary word-portrait of Mussolini.
- Don Camillo: Fascist Italy appears in flashbacks in a number of stories. Both Peppone and Don Camillo had for instance been victimized by Fascist activists before Mussolini's rise to power. In Comrade Don Camillo, the brother of one of the Communist delegates had been a Blackshirt, and was killed in the action on the Eastern Front.
- Captain Bertorelli represents the Italian army in 'Allo 'Allo!. True to stereotype, he is an arm waving lothario whose men flee at anything that even sounds like combat and are a mix of petty thieves and slovens. The Italian army is treated as a joke by both the Germans and the Resistance. He's also a Miles Gloriosus of the first order.
- Fallout: New Vegas has Caesar's Legion, which is essentially Fascist Italy as a group of roaming bandits, representating a non-racialist form of fascism with an obsession with recreating ancient Rome. Caesar even bears a considerable resemblance to Mussolini
- Mafia II is one of the few games to feature Fascist Italy at all, in the very first mission of the game, Vito Scaletta fights the Italian troops with help from fellow paratroopers and the local Sicilian Mafia.
- Fascist Italy is also one of the playable factions in the Hearts of Iron series.
- Battlefield 1942 : The Road to Rome is set during the Allied invasion of Italy. It features the Royal Italian Army as the Axis faction in half of the maps (namely Anzio, Operation Baytown and Operation Husky).
- The maps Operation Battleaxe, Gazala, Tobruk, Operation Aberdeen from the original Battlefield 1942 are all set in the Italian colony of Libya.
- The Breakthrough expansion pack for Medal of Honor: Allied Assault has a few missions set in WW2 Sicily, with the player fighting against Italian units (whose in-game uniforms are wildly inaccurate).
- The first mission of Medal of Honor: Vanguard takes place during Operation Husky and has Italian Soldiers as the enemies, although after the first mission, German Soldiers replace them for the remainder of the game.
- The first two missions of Medal of Honor: Airborne take place during Operation Husky and Operation Avalanche; Blackshirts and Italian troops are also present as in-game enemies (only in the first mission, though - they're later replaced by Germans).
- In Hidden & Dangerous 2, the player has to infiltrate an Italian airfield.
- Sniper Elite games feature the Italian military in several entries. They make their debut in Sniper Elite III's campaign set in North Africa, complementing the German Afrika Korps in several levels. They are more heavily featured in Sniper Elite 4, which actually takes place in Italian territory.