Italy’s Fascist War
Philip Morgan explains why Italians have tended to gloss over the period 1940-43, when Mussolini fought against the Allies, preferring to remember the years of German occupation 1943-45.
In June 1940, after nine months of an embarrassing and uncongenial stance of 'non-belligerency', the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, declared war on Britain and France. It was to be a 'revolutionary' war, a Fascist imperialist war which would result in the fundamental redistribution of territory and resources, and the realization of Fascist aspirations for Italy to dominate the Mediterranean area.
The Italian armed forces failed to make any lasting military and territorial gains in any of Italy's many theatres of war, and were driven out of the colonies Italy already possessed. Nazi Germany bailed Italy out in Greece and the Balkans, and in North Africa, in 1941. The East African empire, including Ethiopia, was lost in 1941, and by May 1943, Allied troops had expelled Axis forces from North Africa altogether, opening the way for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. A large Italian army sent to fight Germany's war in the Soviet Union was smashed by Russian offensives during the batdes for Stalingrad in late 1942 and early 1943. Abandoned by the Germans, its disintegration and flight was, after Greece, the most humiliating and demoralizing experience of Italy's war.
In July 1943, when Allied forces had successfully landed in Sicily, Fascism's supreme corporate body, the Grand Council, passed what was effectively a motion of no confidence in Mussolini. The King and head of state, Victor Emmanuel III, dismissed Mussolini as prime minister and had him arrested. Mussolini was replaced with Marshal Pietro Badoglio, a politically astute character who had garnered position, honours, prestige and a personal fortune under the Fascist regime. He had relatively clean hands, however, having resigned his top military position as chief of the Supreme Command in late 1940 after being made the scapegoat for Italy's disastrous attempted invasion of Greece in October 1940. He eventually negotiated an armistice with the Allies in September 1943. But this did not take Italy out of the war, as the Allied expectation was that it would co-operate in military action against its former Axis ally, Nazi Germany, which was strongly resisting the Allied advance in the south.
Both the negotiations for the armistice and its implementation were botched by Badoglio's government, and as a result, the monarchy and the armed forces were seriously discredited as national institutions. The King abandoned Rome to the Germans and fled south to the part of the country which was in Allied hands. Hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers both at home and in the Italian-occupied Balkans, deserted by their officers and left with no clear instructions on what to do, were now captured by their ex-ally and interned in Germany for the remainder of the war. The Allies continued their painfully slow advance up the peninsular, while the Germans occupied northern and central Italy, where they restored Mussolini as the head of a Fascist statelet, the Salò Republic, the government ministries of which were dispersed in the small quiet towns along Lake Garda.
Thus the outcome of the failed armistice of September 1943 was the continuation of the war on Italian soil; the invasion, occupation and division of the country by two foreign armies simultaneously; the (temporary) return of Fascism; and a civil war between Italians who collaborated with, or resisted, the Fascist Republic and Nazi occupiers, from late 1943 until the liberation of the country in spring 1945.
The armistice has rightly been seen, both by contemporaries and by historians, as a more important and defining event in modern Italian history than Mussolini's first fall from power in July 1943. The relative weighting of the two events is one reason why Italy's Fascist war of 194043 has often been overlooked. Postwar recollections and historical writing have tended to concentrate on the events of 1943 to 1945 too, rather than on the preceding period. The immediate post-war political system in Italy was democratic and parliamentary, the antithesis of Fascism. It defined itself through the redemptive war of liberation from Nazi occupation and its Italian proxy, the Fascist Republic of 1943 to 1945, deliberately and understandably wanting to detach itself from the country's all too recent Fascist past. The armed resistance to German occupation was seen as the Italian people's self-liberation from the thrall of Fascism. Glorification of the resistance as the foundation of the postwar anti-Fascist democratic Republic conveniently served to bury the memory of Italy's Fascist war, including the imperialist wartime occupation of parts of the Balkans, which was nasty, brutish and short.
Italian forces had waged a violent counter-insurgency campaign against Slav and Greek resistance to Axis rule, attacking the civilians held responsible for protecting the partisans, and committing atrocities which emulated and sometimes even surpassed the occupation methods of their Nazi ally. Yet the focus on 194345, rather than on the earlier period, allowed Italians to be portrayed, and to portray themselves, as victims of war, invasion and occupation, instead of as perpetrators and occupiers. One wonders whether Italy will ever properly take account of this unpalatable aspect of its recent wartime past if such a sense of national victimhood persists. The indicators are not good in this respect. In 2005, the Berlusconi government, which included ministers drawn from the National Alliance, heirs to the wartime Fascist Republican Party, inaugurated a new national day of remembrance for the several thousand Italians killed during the war by Communist Yugoslav partisans in the deep natural ditches and chasms of the area around Trieste on Italy's contested north-eastern border. The state was prepared only to commemorate the Italian national victims of a 'foreign' totalitarianism. It deliberately remained oblivious both to the vicious nature of the Fascist wartime occupation of Yugoslavia, and to what came before, namely two decades of forced 'Italianization' of Slav territory annexed to Italy after the First World War.
By extension, in drawing a veil over the events of 1940-43, Italians also annulled the previous twenty years of a Fascist government which had existed since the March on Rome in 1922, which allowed them to see the Fascist era as much an occupation as that of the Germans in 1943-45, something that the Italian people suffered from, not something they were responsible for. So the forgetting of Italy's Fascist war betokened a more fundamental postponement of the nation coming to terms with its Fascist past. There was no Italian Nuremberg trial after the war, and to this day, no Italian has been convicted of war crimes committed in the colonial empire, the USSR or the Balkans. There were many reasons for this, to do with Italy's changing of sides in 1943 and also its place in the Western bloc during the Cold War years, which allowed its postwar governments to refuse the extradition of Italian war criminals indicted by the new Communist Yugoslav state. But one reason was the Italians' refusal to accept that they could have behaved badly, as 'Fascists', during the war.
It has been assumed, perhaps too readily, that there was a direct, linear connection between the impact of the Fascist war on the Italian people and the first downfall of Mussolini in July 1943. Mussolini's decision to go to war in June 1940 was probably a popular one, since like him, most people expected that the war would be short and victorious, on the back of the dramatic German military successes in western and northern Europe. Entering the war when it was considered to be practically over, was therefore taken as a sign of Mussolini's political canniness. Once the illusion of a short victorious war became the reality of a prolonged and uncertain one, Mussolini's political touch was questioned, and the myth of a charismatic, infallible Duce began to lose credibility. How far Mussolini's stock as leader had fallen among the Italian people can be gauged from the almost unanimous reports by the police's network of spies and informers of the derisory popular response to a speech delivered by the Duce in December 1942. A spectacular own-goal in terms of tone and content, the speech - one of the few he made during the war years - was meant to reassert Mussolini's authority after a period of debilitating illness. The dictator's gastric problems made him look and behave like an old man, and his evident physical decline was itself a factor of his shrinking appeal.
The expectation of a short war rationalized the lack of preparation for a long one, and had immediate repercussions for the Italian 'home front'. The introduction of rationing schemes for basic foodstuffs came too little too late, to prevent short-ages in the supply of essential items and an uncontrollable inflationary spiral. The government's increasingly desperate attempts to regulate and control the production and marketing of food lagged behind the hikes in prices of scarce items, and only served to intensify the problems of supply and demand which they were meant to resolve.
As a result, a black market quickly developed, which proved impossible to eradicate. It transformed the bulk of the population into small-time criminals, engaged in the myriad transactions of buying, selling and bartering which became the focus of most people's daily routine. The authorities tolerated black marketeering, in part because to stop it would have involved arresting most of the population, in part because they realized that, whatever the social and economic costs, at least some kind of supply system was functioning. People did not starve, but they were certainly hungry. Many started to skip work and turn up for only part of their shifts, in order to search for food. This was a sign of something that was beginning to occur more generally in wartime conditions, people putting their private before their collective interests, their own good before the general good. Those who exposed the reality of the situation were silenced: thus the university professor who acted as a consultant for the Ministry of Agriculture was eventually sacked for his regular over-meticulous and overaccurate surveys of the nation's wartime eating habits and its nutritional deficits.
Some interesting social inversions occurred under these circumstances. Middle-class incomes and savings were destroyed by inflated food prices and scarcities, as was middleclass leisure time. Maids were impossible to keep, unless town and city matrons could offer above-ration levels of board and lodging. The wives of professional men, like their working-class counterparts, now spent the whole day in search of food for the family meal. The countryside became a better place to be than the cities, because it was closer to the food supply and was safer from bombing.
Plans for the evacuation of vulnerable city dwellers to safer parts of the country certainly existed. But most evacuations were spontaneous, with city workers and their families finding places to stay in the surrounding countryside, and then facing long commuter journeys to and from their places of work on increasingly congested public transport. Again, as elsewhere, evacuation led to inverted social and economic interaction between country and townsfolk, the latter now temporary and unwilling inhabitants of rural areas. Some industrial workers found themselves back among their relatives, lodging in villages from which their fathers and uncles had migrated for urban factory employment a generation before. The Fascist government did little to regulate the movement of evacuees, and could only make a virtue of necessity by rationalizing evacuation as the realization of its longstanding policy to 'ruralize' Italy and return Italians to the purity of agricultural life.
Even some of the proponents of blanket bombing raids on civilian targets during the war feared that they might have counterproductive effects on enemy civilian morale, stiffening rather than weakening popular resolve. The Allied bombing of Italian cities, though, was as demoralizing as intended. But people blamed not the American 'gangsters' who were bombing them, as urged by Fascist propaganda, but their own government for inadequate anti-aircraft and civil defence arrangements. In letters, and in the reports of police informers on the public mood, Italians expressed their anger and scorn for a regime predicated on war which was incapable of protecting them from bombing raids, and from the aftermath, shattered homes and infrastructure, lost jobs, traumatized minds. When people in the northern industrial cities of Milan and Turin heard that Rome had been bombed, for the first and only time, in July 1943, just before Mussolini's removal, their response was, apparently, a kind of grim but exultant satisfaction that the location of the government and bureaucracy had finally been given a taste of what they had been suffering. This represented a quite remarkable breakdown in national solidarity.
It is usual to locate the widespread disaffection with the Fascist war in the awful winter of 1942-43, when there were reverses on both the home and fighting fronts: an intensified Allied bombing campaign against the cities of northern Italy, and serious Axis defeats in the USSR and North Africa. But it was likely that the cumulative effects on popular morale and livelihoods of food shortages and high prices, bombing and evacuation, had induced general war weariness among Italians by the summer of 1942.
Discontent at the war and its effects did not, however, translate into any concerted action against the Fascist regime. The impact of the war on ordinary Italians induced demoralization, and a political apathy and inertia which meant that their horizons, naturally enough, never extended beyond the daily struggle to obtain food and the other essentials of life. They might have wanted an end to the war, but did not have the energy, resources and the will to bring this about. Perhaps this is one explanation as to why there was no popular involvement in the downfall of Mussolini in July 1943.
Another explanation lies in the deliberate exclusion of popular involvement in the plans of those who were conspiring to act against Mussolini in early 1943. The Duce's responsibility for Italy's disastrous war effort finally brought to the surface longstanding resentments among leading Fascists, directed at the nature of Mussolini's personal dictatorship. Here was a leader who literally placed himself above and beyond the fray, in Olympian isolation. Mussolini was unwilling to communicate with his subordinates in the Fascist hierarchy in any productive way. He was reluctant to seek their advice, let alone take it, ultimately because he despised them for their mediocrity, and thought that he, alone, could carry through the Fascist mission to make Italy great.
In January 1941, Mussolini suddenly decided to dispatch to the fighting fronts all the ministers in his government. The initiative expressed more than anything else, his belief that they were superfluous to the running of the country during the war. He and a few civil servants could do the job. The move, and the marginalization it implied, was understandably resented by those it targeted. For some of the conscripted Fascist kingpins, like Giuseppe Bottai and Dino Grandi, this enforced period of military service was the point at which they lost all respect for a Duce whose political genius they had once believed in and banked on.
The significance of this break in the relationship between Fascist leaders and Mussolini should not be underestimated. The dictator was induced by them to concede the calling of the Fascist Grand Council, nominally Fascism's collegial decision-making body. In its protracted meeting of July 25th, the Council endorsed by nineteen votes to seven, a motion put forward by Dino Grandi, that Mussolini should devolve his dictatorial powers, including a de facto supreme command of the armed forces, to the constitutional organs of the state. It is at least arguable that the proposers and supporters of this motion of no confidence in their leader did not envisage the end of Fascism, rather a Fascism without Mussolini, or one with Mussolini as a nominal figurehead. But it was a clear invitation for the King to act. In the event, Victor Emmanuel, who had been kept abreast of Grandi's conspiracy, decided to put aside his habitual procrastination and to do something. The internal Fascist coup against Mussolini was overtaken and superseded by a monarchist and military coup that resulted in the dismissal, arrest and imprisonment of Mussolini after the Grand Council meeting.
The King and his military conspirators had no intention of calling on the people and the anti-Fascists to effect the change in government. They wanted to take Italy out of the war and the alliance with Nazi Germany, and realized that this would never be done while Mussolini was in charge. They were preoccupied with ensuring a conservative monarchist succession to the Fascist regime, rather than an anti-Fascist, popular or revolutionary one. The strikes against the war and its effects on their livelihoods and conditions of work staged by workers in the northern industrial centres in March 1943 were, and are, usually held responsible in some way for the fall of Mussolini. The strikes were undoubtedly a serious challenge to the credibility of the Fascist regime. But it held, and handled the strikes extremely well in labour relations and public order terms, never allowing the action to expand into wider and less containable street protests. The real impact of the strikes was on how they altered the outlook of the conservative establishment towards the regime. In this respect, they appeared to herald the end of Fascism's usefulness in keeping the masses down, but also the possibility of a terrifying social revolutionary outcome to the crisis of Fascist rule. The strikes were, therefore, a further stimulus to action by the king, and the conservative forces behind him, rather than to popular anti-Fascism.
So Mussolini was overthrown by a palace conspiracy and coup, not by some popular uprising. The popular move against Fascism, which took shape in the armed resistance to the Fascist Republic and German Nazi occupation, was postponed for another crucial few months.