Travel to Rome

THE RISE AND FALL OF FASCISM

Italians always loved a good entertainer who could stir their emotions and divert them from themselves…. They were always delighted by a talented painter, musician, sculptor, architect, actor, dancer, as long as he did not engage their higher faculties. They respected and admired great scientists, especially if their discoveries were abstract and incomprehensible. They endured and feared a forceful leader, but they always thoroughly enjoyed his fall…. It is true that in other countries, great men have also occasionally been persecuted and put to death. Nowhere else, however, has this happened with the same discrimination, regularity, and determination.

Luigi Barzini, The Italians (1964)

Benito Mussolini was born to a blacksmith’s family in a small town near Forli, Emilia-Romagna. The region is known for its left-leaning tendencies today, and Mussolini fit the bill; he was a revolutionary, going unwashed and unshaven for weeks, and at one point living under a bridge in a cardboard box. He read rabble-rousing revolutionary literature voraciously and, like any good charismatic leader, skipped off to Switzerland to avoid the draft. Then he returned to Italy to become the editor of a Socialist newspaper, Avanti! (Let’s Go!).

The era that set the stage for Fascism was the turn-of-the-20th-century industrial boom in the North. The carmaker Fiat, still Italy’s largest private employer, was founded in Turin. The agricultural South was mostly unaffected, and millions of southerners took off in this period for the United States, Northern Europe, and later Australia. The rise of industrialization was accompanied by restlessness on the part of laborers. Mussolini appealed to that crowd in his Communist propaganda, a genre that also typically denounces warmongers. Who drives us to war betrays us, read one of his headlines.

But in 1914, he realized that he could gather more readers if he supported intervention against the Austrians in what would become World War I. He did, and was thrown out of the party, but he had chosen the winning side. The popularity of such Futurist poets as Gabriele D’Annunzio and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti showed that Mussolini’s young audience was eager to be rid of unscrupulous Socialist leaders, such as Giovanni Giolitti, and their cozy relationships with the enlightened industrialist families of the left: the Agnellis, Olivettis, and Pirellis. The kids wanted lightning-quick modernization, and they wanted danger.

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