Welcome to this week’s History Thread!
Today’s picture: On October 28-29, 1922 Benito Mussolini and his fascist Blackshirts carried out their March on Rome, consolidating fascist power in Italy. The culmination of three years of political ferment, it was a show that the fascists were now the dominant force in Italian politics. It was also, in many ways, a near-run thing; one historian called it “a colossal bluff” that, due as much to the failings of Mussolini’s opposition as the Blackshirts themselves, somehow worked.
Mussolini had been planning a seizure of power for several months, though he was initially reluctant to attack Rome directly. Instead, throughout the fall of 1922 his squadristi seized power in various towns and cities in northern Italy where his political power was strongest. The initial hope was that, by showing their strength through such tactics, King Victor Emmanuel would invite Mussolini to join the government in some capacity, perhaps even as Prime Minister.
However, Mussolini was ultimately persuaded of the need for direct action, first by his more fanatical followers, Italo Balbo and Michele Bianchi among them. Secondly, because of a planned political rally by Gabriele d’Annunzio, the protofascist writer and political activist, in conjunction with the Liberal Party to commemorate the anniversary of victory in World War I. Mussolini viewed d’Annunzio, whose antics at Fiume a few years prior did much to inspire his own, as one of his principle rivals and it’s likely that this spurred him to decisive action. On October 24, during a party conference in Naples, Mussolini unveiled the plan for the March and declared “we want to rule Italy.”
The Italian government, as it was wont to do, vacillated. The King initially determined to resist Mussolini’s march, by force if necessary, but his decision-making was erratic. Luigi Facta, the Prime Minister, consistently underestimated Mussolini and refused to take any precautions (such as securing communications centers or lines of transport) which might have nipped the advance in the bud. It didn’t help that many military and police officials sympathized with the fascists, which complicated any plans to resist. But, as events showed, there was enough remaining loyalty to the government that Mussolini’s victory need not have been so decisive.
The preliminaries to the “March” began on the night of the 27th, as regional fascist groups began seizing towns and cities across the country. Swarms of fascist militia embarked, some by train and some by car, for Rome; Mussolini himself remained at party headquarters in Milan, waiting for confirmation of success. The following day the squadristi began capturing towns surrounding Rome, along with communications centers and disarming soldiers and police in their barracks. By the end of October 28th the March had seized most of their objectives and the King sent an emissary out to negotiate.
The March wasn’t an unqualified success, partly due to poor coordination among the squadristi columns and partly because some government forces determined to resist. Most dramatic, perhaps, was the clash in Cremona, a town in northern Italy where a local party boss ordered an attack on the local Army barracks. Here the military resisted, resulting in a pitched battle where eight fascists were killed and the town remained, temporarily at least, in government hands. There were also small-scale actions by leftist groups and an offer by the Socialist Party to organize a general strike in support of the government. All of this suggests that, had authorities decided to fight, the March might well have been stopped.
But ultimately, a failure of nerve resulted. Belatedly, Prime Minister Facta prepared to declare a state of emergency in Rome, urging all-out resistance to Mussolini’s forces. But the King backed down. He later claimed that he did this to avert civil war, a not-unreasonable explanation given that much of the country was already under fascist control, but also a premature admission of defeat. Marshall Armando Diaz, the commander-in-chief of the Italian Army, probably contributed the decisive blow. Having already expressed sympathy with Mussolini, he now told Victor Emmanuel that “the army will do its duty, however it would not be wise to put it to the test.”
On October 29th, 1922, the King dissolved Facta’s government. He invited Mussolini, who had belatedly arrived in Rome to claim ownership of the March, to become Prime Minister. And thus Italy’s two decade nightmare began.