Fascism’s seizure of power
The first political factions to enable Fascism’s rise to prominence were the Liberals, and to a lesser extent the Social Democratic Party and the Italian National Association as part of the national bloc. The next key people in enabling Fascism’s rise would be certain generals, the United States ambassador and finally the King himself.
While the national bloc did very well during the 1921 elections, including the Fascist Party, it wasn’t an extremely spectacular victory. Violence would enable the Fascists to expand their power amongst continued fear over the reds and the impotence of the parliamentary system.
While the authorities had been relatively impotent in responding to red violence, Fascists had often been tolerated when they fought the Socialists and sometimes, they had received aid from local police or military. During the 1921 elections their alliance with governmental parties had allowed them to get away with even more violence.
Then in 1922 came their chance. Socialists called for a general strike and the Fascists responded by fighting and defeating them on a local base even taking over local governments.
Finally, the Fascists planned an outright coup to take over the national government, first ensuring the approval of US ambassador Richard Washburn Child and acquiring the support of business leaders who feared the Marxist alternative.
General De Bono and Captain Balbo were already Fascists and were amongst the key leading organisers while Generals Fara and Ceccherini played an important supporting role.
The march on Rome was a risky endeavour (so much so that Mussolini stayed in Milan ready to flee… how typical). The prime minister, Facta, wanted to declare martial law and if the king had agreed, the army likely would have followed the government and their commander in chief, in spite of the sympathy for Fascism within certain sectors and the previously mentioned role of some higher officers in the march.
But the king did not sign the martial law order and prime minister Facta resigned. That enabled the king to constitutionally appoint Mussolini as the new prime minister and task him with forming a new government. The Fascists still liked to pretend this was a coup. Totally a coup!
The reasons for this decision have always been debated but it seems the king feared civil war with the Fascists and probably preferred using them against the Marxists then fighting what he and most of the moderates viewed as the lesser threat. Advise from certain generals may have influenced his decision also.
Mussolini as prime minister
Fascist violence went through an interesting development. They got away with some against the Socialists in 1919 yet suffered a massive defeat trying to outdo them. Multiplied (anti-Socialist) violence after their defeat throughout 1920 with some local support, then received additional legal protection by allying with the government parties for the 1921 election and finally they got away with a pseudo-coup in 1922. Obviously, having taken over the government with approval of the King and the army things could only get worse.
Mussolini claimed he could have outright installed a Fascist regime by force but pretended to be willing to work with other parties in parliament. Only the Far Left voted against him.
Mussolini actually formed a broad coalition with only 3 other Fascists as ministers. One article described it as the Fascists only getting 4 ministries, but Mussolini got 2 additional ministries besides being prime minister, so they did get 6. While serving as prime minister Mussolini also became minister of the interior and minister of foreign affairs. Being both prime minister and minister of the interior gave Mussolini rather firm control over the police.
Mussolini additionally received dictatorial powers for a year from parliament in accordance with the law.
Aldo Oviglio (a former member of the Radical Party turned sort of Conservative yet also a Freemason), Alberto de’ Stefani and Giovanni Giuriati were the other Fascist ministers. They received the ministries of justice and public worship, finance and lands freed by the enemy respectively. Justice and Finance are obviously 2 crucial posts.
Other ministries were given to the parties that had partaken in the National Bloc (Social Democratic Party, Italian Nationalist Association and Liberal Party), the Christian Democrats, certain independents and military men. While the Christian Democrats had not supported Mussolini during the elections, they did join his coalition government. This marked the first time that the Christian Democrats or any Church-aligned group cooperated with Fascism. The Social Liberals didn’t even get any ministries yet only some in the party opposed Mussolini while others actually provided him support.
Mussolini would soon be able to add 2 since independent philosopher Giovanni Gentile joined his party in 1923 handing Fascism the ministry of education and Minister Luigi Ferderzoni would join the Fascist Party together with the entire Italian National Association, giving them the ministry of the colonies also (this merger would boost both Fascist prestige and membership).
Therefore in 1923 the Fascists ended up holding 8 ministries and pretty much all of the really important ones. The coalition parties received wonderful posts like Minister of Communications, Minister of agriculture, Minister of Public Works and Minister of Labour and Social Security.
Mussolini would kick out the remaining Christian Democratic minister in 1923 and he did some reshuffling with the liberal ministers as well.
The squadrismo/blackshirts were integrated into the state as a legal militia in early 1923. Thousands of Communists and pro-Communists Socialists were illegally arrested and then released again.
Legal reforms were finally passed that important judges had long advocated for, creating one centralised court of cassation (which gave the Fascists the chance to appoint a new president for the court and retire many judges they didn’t like as part of the streamlining reform).
Preparing for the next election and the Acerbo Law
While Mussolini was consolidating power he also wasted no time preparing for the next election and ensuring his party became the majority party.
For the 1924 election the Fascists formed a National List. It was the clear successor to the National Bloc. The Fascists (with the Italian Nationalist Association now absorbed into the party) once again join up with a faction of Classical Liberals (but not as subordinate candidates on a Fascist dominated list) and with the Social Democratic Party group replaced with submissive Social Liberals the next group to enable Fascism. Finally some dissident ex-Christian Democrats Nationalists would end up on the list.
The Fascists could use more violence than ever before for the next election but they decided to use electoral reform as well. Proportional representation had resulted in an extremely splintered Italian parliament with the Socialists being a large threat and as such there was fertile ground for electoral changes. The Fascists used that to promote the so-called Acerbo law (named after Fascist Acerbo who came up with it) which would give the group that won the most votes 66 % of the seats if they won at least 25 % of the vote
The Acerbo law had been approved by Mussolini’s council of ministers and a cross party committee approved it 10 to 8, with the Christian Democratic members having called for amendments to make the minimum vote percentage higher (33 %) or the number of seats granted lower (60 %) but the Fascists had opposed any such compromise. Next it needed to be approved in parliament as a whole where Mussolini could count on most Liberals and Socialists opposition which did little to rally or unite parties against it. Of course, he could trust on the reliable use of (the threat of) violence by having the Squadrismo present as source of intimidation (they were now a legally recognised paramilitary force after all).
Dealing with the Pope and the Church
One important party with regards to the vote on the Acerbo Law was the Christian Democrats who had unsuccessfully tried to moderate the proposed law. Mussolini had kicked them out of the government for being unreliable. He also stepped up violence against the party and extended this violence to the Church in general, threatening with a full-blown war on the Church. Fascists had already engaged in violence against Catholic political groups in 1921.
At the same time, he expanded his cultural Catholicism and moderate Conservatism and instead of following the anti-clerical program of 1919 started to support Christian symbols in public buildings and religious education while opposing Freemasonry. The latter was a win-win for Mussolini; while many early Fascists were Freemasons, the lodges couldn’t exactly fit into an emerging collectivist dictatorship. Through all this Mussolini tried to make the Christian Democratic party look irrelevant to voters while playing a good cop bad cop routine with the Church.
The Christian Democrats consisted roughly of two large factions. The moderated clericalists under Alcide De Gasperi who had favoured a coalition with (rather Conservative) Liberals and the Christian Democrats who favoured cooperation with the (moderate) Socialists under Luigi Sturzo. The Vatican supported the moderate clericalists who prevailed. Sturzo while known as a clerical Socialist and favouring cooperation with the (preferably moderate) Left propagated the Centrist (but indeed Left-leaning) ideology of Popularism that was distinct from both Christian Left/Christian Socialism and Christian Right/Christian Conservatism. The party included several smaller factions such as National Conservatives and Catholic syndicalists.
Alcide De Gasperi had been willing to join Mussolini’s cabinet but split with him over violence against other parties and anti-constitutionalism. Sturzo remained the fiercest opposition figure however. Fascist propaganda specifically targeted him. Pope Pius XI caved as Sturzo was pressured to resign as secretary of the party. The party was left divided and mostly abstained in voting on the Acerbo law, though 14 Fascist sympathisers did vote in favour. A pro-Fascist faction soon split and formed the National Union.
Pope Pius XI has been criticised for this, yet it has been largely a footnote in most historical narratives based on the KGB myth that Pope Pius XII was pro-Nazi or stories about Catholic and Clerical Fascism. This is really ironic considering Mussolini’s power grab and the Acerbo Law have quite a few similarities with what happened with the Enabling Act in Germany, yet also a few key differences.
Both Mussolini and Hitler used violent squads, both appealed to anti-Communism yet could also attack Catholic groups, both appealed to disillusioned moderates and both consolidated power after becoming head of government as part of a coalition. Finally, both used their paramilitary with a given legal status (SA and SS were made auxiliary police in February 1933) to intimidate the moderate parties during the crucial vote.
Yet Mussolini’s March on Rome ended with him being put into the prime minister’s seat (and minister of the interior and foreign affairs with dictatorial power bonus) while Hitler was put in jail after his beer hall putsch. Mussolini became head of government while his party held about 7 % of the seats in parliament, Hitler held 33 % at the time. Mussolini was handed power rather easily while Hitler had to plot for months. Mussolini could claim 5 ministries for his party quickly, Hitler had to struggle for 2 ministerial positions. Neither the (authoritarian Right leaning) authorities in Bavaria nor the (authoritarian Right leaning) President von Hindenburg were too indulgent off him. At least, until the Reichstag fire where Hitler finally managed to convince the mainstream that he was Germany’s saviour.
Mussolini was basically handed power on a platter while Hitler had to use the maximum amount of plotting and propaganda. Mussolini could easily convince the elite he was a better alternative compared to the Marxists just 2 years after proclaiming himself the Lenin of Italy (without switching parties) yet it took Hitler 3 years at least.
Hitler managed to get 44 % of the vote during his biggest election victory in march 1933, Mussolini 65 % in 1924. Contrast this with the Fascist Party holding about 10 % of the seats prior to the 1924 election. Hitler needed legal emergency powers in a way Mussolini didn’t, but they were largely assured with the Reichstag Fire decree and the Enabling Act being an important addition.
The Reichstag fire decree had been key because it had declared a state of emergency and not martial law, suspending civil liberties and allowing the central government (of which Hitler was the head) to take over state governments while Frick and Goering controlled the ministries of the interior and much of the police.
The Reichstag fire decree was in accordance with the constitution that allowed the president to pass such decrees that could be cancelled by a majority in parliament. But the Nazis won 44 % (an immense victory by the standards of Weimar) and their authoritarian leaning coalition partner the DNVP 8 % giving their government a majority (which was Nazi dominated).
In fact, after the Communist party had its mandates in parliament revoked, the Nazis had a parliamentary majority in parliament all by themselves meaning they could keep the decree in force all by themselves, support Hitler’s government all by themselves and pass legislation all by themselves. They controlled the police, had taken over the state governments and weren’t bound by constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.
Nazi power was largely assured with the march 1933 elections together with the Reichstag fire decree while Fascist power was ensured simply through the victory of the National List in the 1924 elections and helped by Mussolini’s executive power and military support. The Acerbo Law and Enabling Act would be of secondary importance. The Acerbo Law in fact was mostly pointless in hindsight.
The greatest irony is how the Italian People’s Party largely abstained with regards to the Acerbo law while the Catholic Centre Party in Germany voted entirely in favour of the Enabling Act (together with all other parties except for the Social Democrats). I suppose party discipline and deference to the ruling government were more German rather than Italian?
Yet, with the Centre Party, the Vatican didn’t force a key opposition figure to resign. In fact, there was no Vatican pressure to vote for the Enabling Act at all. Discredited pseudo-historian and famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens have bizarrely tried to link the Centre Party’s vote to the Reichskonkordat signed nearly 4 months later. An utterly ridiculous claim which ignores the testimony of the members of the Centre Party themselves, the fact that the Liberal parties voted in favour and that the Supreme Court didn’t challenge its constitutionality and one which is simply not supported by any existing evidence.
Cornwell acknowledged that Catholicism had been an exceptional and early force of opposition against Nazism (a part often brushed over by anti-Catholic critics who invoke him). The German bishops even excommunicated Nazis. This is in contrast to Italy where Fascism had its origins in dissident Far Left teaming up with other dissidents and moderates and where the Church initially treated it with indifference before joining the King, the USA and the secular Centre and Right in giving it a chance.
Cornwell likes to pretend that this local opposition by national bishops and politically active Catholics was betrayed by an authoritarian papacy. This was because his revival of KGB disinformation was a cheap attack on John Paul II. That local opposition collapsed after the Reichstag fire along with all other opposition.
Hitler consolidated his seizure of power by successfully playing good cop bad coup towards the Centre Party during a climate of fear and uncertainty without any Vatican interference, less than 2 months after his ascension as chancellor wasn’t viewed as too big a deal. Catholic opposition simply failed. Even though the Centre Party was one of the few parties to keep its voting percentages intact during the 1933 election.
The Reichskonkordat signed on the 20th July has been falsely called the first treaty signed by Nazi Germany both by anti-Catholic (and Germanophobic) Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Hitchens. Simply a lie since the four-power pact of Nazi Germany with not just Fascist Italy but the UK and France had been initialled on 7 June 1933 and signed on 15 July 1933.
The importance (or lack thereof) of Pope Pius XI
Had Pope Pius XI decided to accept Fascist persecution instead, rejected any conciliatory gestures by Mussolini, supported Sturzo and pressured all the members of the Italian People’s Party to vote against the Acerbo Law: If all or almost all of them had obeyed, including the Fascist sympathisers in parliament, had listened to the Pope and voted against the law, even while facing intimidation by the Blackshirts, then the law would have been defeated by a small margin.
But, as the constant attempts to amend and moderate the proposal showed, a moderated version would have likely still been approached had the government settled for that and the Fascists would have still held an advantage going into the 1924 election. But if the Pope had fought against any such law change favouring the Fascists and gotten the entire party to vote against even a more moderate electoral reform, then the Fascists would have lacked that advantage for the next elections also.
Yet, even if proportional presentation had been kept, the Fascist-led lists won nearly 65 % of the vote anyways. Pope Pius XI would have needed to actively instruct Catholics to not vote for the Fascists lists, but this wouldn’t matter for the majority of Liberal, Social Liberal or Socialist votes who switched to the Fascists. They had always voted for parties that the Pope disagreed with. Only the Christian Democratic voters were the only people Pope Pius XI could (possibly) influence.
The Italian Socialist Party got only 5 % of the vote in 1924, and its offshoots the Unitary Socialist Party and the Communist Party got nearly 6 and 4 % respectively, together acquiring only around 15 % off the vote compared to the 24+ % the (pre-split) Socialist Party had acquired in 1921. This 10 % shift t Fascism consisted entirely of anti-clericals and atheists.
The Liberals and Social Liberals who weren’t on the National List lost many votes as did the Social Democrats who had been a part of the National Bloc in 1921. Note of these were clerical voters.
Assuming that the overwhelming majority of Christian Democrat voters who in 1924 defected and voted for the Fascists, had stuck with their party and opposed the Fascists had Pope Pius XI told them to do so (this assumes these voters could be fully controlled by the Pope and were not at all influenced by the pro-Fascist atmosphere) the Fascist Nationalist List would have still received close to 55 % of the votes and seats in parliament. (The National List in this case would only contain pro-Fascist Liberal and Social Liberals and no Christian Democrats making the list less watered down). As such pro-Fascist forces would have still held a clear majority. Only 20 % of the population had voted Christian Democrat in 1921.
Pope Pius XI had had no role in enabling Fascist violence, the March on Rome or Mussolini acquiring government power. He only helped neuter the Christian Democrats as an opposition force in 1923 which may have mattered a bit or perhaps barely if at all.
But Pope Pius XI had shown cautious optimism regarding Mussolini not too long before becoming Pope and he was eventually willing to accept Mussolini’s overtures. After the Liberals, Social Liberals, army, business elite, the US ambassador, the King, secular Nationalists and some Christian Democrats he also reached an understanding with Fascism.
This moderate stance compares unfavourable to the fierce Catholic resistance against Nazis trumpeted by honest historians. Yet it was strangely in line with secular moderates in Italy and across the West. The Pope was rather late and secondary in the trend and his enabling role minimal at best.
The same would again prove true in 1924 after the murder off Giacomo Matteotti from the Unitary Socialist Party, who had called for the 1924 election results to be invalidated and the Aventine Secession that followed in response. While most non-Fascist parties abandoned the chamber in an attempt to pressure the king to dismiss Mussolini the Communists instead continued opposition within the chamber splitting the opposition from the get go. The army and police were still with Mussolini, the King was still hesitant to oppose Fascism and dismissing Mussolini would have required a majority vote of no confidence.
Mussolini’s Nationalist List had won 65 % of the vote and the results hadn’t been invalidated. The only fear was that some Liberal candidates on the list, former Italian Nationalist Association turned Fascists and soft Fascists would switch robbing Mussolini off a majority.
But Mussolini handed his ministry of the interior to former Italian Nationalist turned Fascist Luigi Federzoni, to placate his more moderate supporters. Federzoni would help Mussolini establish a full dictatorship starting in 1925.
The Italian Liberal Party, the Peasants’ Party of Italy, and the Lists of Slavs and Germans didn’t leave the chamber either. A united secession, even of secular non-Fascists did not exist.
Pope Pius XI’s only real role in it was opposing cooperation between the Christian Democrats (who had been reduced to less than 10 % of the vote during the 1924 election, though becoming the largest opposition party) and the slightly more moderate Unitary Socialists.
But a closer cooperation wouldn’t have changed the fact that Mussolini held a majority within the chamber, controlled the government and had support from the army and king as well as a strong populist base. Dreams off the secessionists to unite for an alternative government were just that, dreams.
Some plans were made to engage in radical anti-Fascist insurrection but those weren’t carried out. The occasional Communist inspired anti-Fascist violence only increased polarisation.
Mussolini would soon ban all opposition parties yet Cornwell managed to blame the Lateran Treaty signed several years later in 1929, saying a precondition was the dissolution of the Christian Democratic Italian People’s Party which happened in 1926, together with the ban of all opposition parties (and again the party had been decimated in the 1924 elections).
Hitchens also managed to claim that the Lateran Treaty was the first treaty signed by Fascist Italy (nearly 7 ears after the March on Rome… even though there was the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the treaty of Rome with Yugoslavia in 1924, Anglo-Italian Agreement of 1925, the First (1926) and Second (1927) Treaties of Tirana… am I forgetting any?
Primary responsibility lay with the King. It is worth considering what the alternative truly was though. The risk of civil war was more palpable in 1924, after Fascist consolidation of the government and increased support.
The fall of Fascism did indeed carry the risk of either a red dictatorship or complete chaos. Democracy had been to ineffective in Italy.
Some of the moderate opposition figures had called on the king to establish a temporary military dictatorship. This was interestingly enough supported by historian Erik Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and more recently by Ben Shapiro. It does appear like it would have been the more obvious alternative.
If Pope Pius XI was to be blamed for anything, he should be blamed for not actively supporting that. But at the time, Fascism appeared moderate compared to the horrors in the Soviet Union. Fascism wouldn’t really become friendly with Nazism before 1936 nor racist.
At the time it was more moderate than Communism on virtually every front. The suggestion that in hindsight anti-Communists were wrong and should have taken the risk of supporting the Reds instead ignores the fact that a Soviet state in Italy could have also worked with the Nazis under Molotov-Ribbentrop.
Sturzo was ironically the one who popularised the term Clerical Fascist. He had been critical of what he viewed as “filo fascists” in the Vatican. He also used the term filo fascist to describe those who defected from the People’s Party in 1921 and 1922, while had used the term “clerical fascists” to describe those who stayed in the party after the March on Rome but advocated working with the fascist government.
The Vatican had had no meaningful involvement in either group. Only failing to actively fight them. Pro-Fascist sentiment spread from secular moderates to grassroots Catholics.
Therefore, I fully concur with Roger Griffin who has warned against the “hyperinflation of clerical fascism” and his statement that clerical fascism can at most be a faction within fascism”, which he correctly defines as “a revolutionary, secular variant of ultra-nationalism bent on the total rebirth of society through human agency”.
Clerical Fascism may be accurately used to describe religious movement which are in fact semi-Fascist though.
Fascism was anti-clerical, but once again similar to Napoleon it was also capable of protecting Catholicism from the more radical revolutionaries and allying with the Church in supporting patriotism, law and order and a certain amount of tradition values.
Anti-communism, ambivalence regarding Liberalism and opposition to lose morals would generally create some common ground between the two. Yet Fascism emphasised extreme ultra-nationalism and statism. This would always lead to some tensions with the more otherworldly, politically independent and universal tendencies of Christianity and specifically the Catholic Church. Fascists in Italy could express how Protestantism would have been easier for them to deal with. Though ironically the UK, the British Union of Fascists could attack the established Anglican church while appealing to discriminated minority Catholics. With Anglican reverends attacking their church and hoping for Catholic cultural restoration on the mainland. But even then, the British Union of Fascists clashed with the Catholic Church over its support for eugenics through forced sterilisation.
Fascism as such is nearly always anti-clerical but also supportive or in alliance with Christian culture to an extent even while promoting secular Nationalism and secular mysticism. This places it perfectly in between dogmatic Progressive and Marxist revolutionaries on the one hand and Reactionaries, Traditionalists and Integralists on the other. Fascism in the end is Modernist, revolutionary and a (relatively) moderate form of social Darwinist. This also causes them to clash with Reactionaries. Integralists favour (non-Socialists) trade unionism and localism while fascism defends a centralist state. Authoritarian Conservatives use traditional religion as the basis for their philosophical views, while fascists based their views on vitalism, non-rationalism, or secular neo-idealism.
Fascist mysticism was also distinctly spiritual without being religious, unlike occult and neo-Pagan tendencies within Nazism being closer to a Western person’s interpretation of Buddhism.
The Spanish Falangists which, spawned a specific variety of Fascism, contained anti-clerical tendencies as well but they were more moderate and further weakened over time. The Polish Falangists took inspiration from them over Italian Fascism but were actually firmly Catholic in a traditional sense. Falangism would not always be anti-clerical unlike regular Fascism.