The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Today’s far-right rise echoes Mussolini’s a century ago

Failing to grapple with the rise of fascism 100 years ago makes extremism likelier today.

Italy's newly elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during the swearing-in ceremony in Rome. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)
7 min

A century ago, Benito Mussolini began a dictatorship that would last more than 20 years. It started on a night in late October 1922, when he sent his loyalists, armed with clubs and guns, to occupy key government buildings around Rome and Milan. Their goal was to force the fascist party into power, using violence if necessary. It worked. On Oct. 28, the king called Mussolini and asked him to come to Rome to take over as prime minister. Only then did Mussolini’s loyalists march into the city, representing his strength and power.

In the aftermath of World War II, Italy’s multiparty republic was carefully crafted by a coalition of left-leaning political parties, with checks and balances intended to stop another dictator like Mussolini from taking such extreme power again. But today, with the election of Giorgia Meloni — a far-right leader whose party Brothers of Italy won more than 40 percent of the vote and who traces her political beginnings to Silvio Berlusconi’s authoritarian administration from two decades ago — many are worried. Meloni’s rhetoric is distinctly anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and pro-nationalist, and she has threatened to end poverty relief, while also emphasizing that women’s proper roles are as mothers and wives.

Meloni and her party have rejected the label of “fascism,” however they do embrace the descriptor “post-fascist” and employ iconography and political views reminiscent of fascism. But fascism is more than a rightward shift of political ideology — it is a vision of government with totalitarian control. To help understand what is at stake with the present political shift, it’s helpful to revisit fascism’s birth.

In 1919 Benito Mussolini founded what would become the fascist party, aligning himself with local leaders-turned squadristi to help secure his authority around a country reeling from worker strikes and political upheaval. When Mussolini was elected to parliament in 1921, the fractured leadership of various parties sought to form partnerships with him, rather than denouncing his violent tactics — a move that miscalculated his quest for control. Within months Mussolini rallied his loyalists saying that the government should either be “peaceably given” to the Fascisti or they “would take it by force.”

Mussolini didn’t have to employ a violent coup to take control. Rather, he capitalized on both fear and desire. Urban elites wanted to see the standing of Italians in the world elevated — hence Mussolini’s slogan “Bring back the Roman Empire!” And he also catered to the agrarian fascists who, historian Paul Corner explains, were largely concerned with “destroying unions and socialist organizations …. It was a defense of profit.”

Once in power, Mussolini’s charisma helped him gain broader popularity and acceptance. Called Il Duce — “the leader” — he told his fellow Italians they were a great nation and he wanted to help them take their rightful place as a global power. His propaganda certainly helped as well. Il Duce had one of the first propaganda film campaigns in the world, and he began suppressing dissenting views in print and radio media as well. Acting at the behest of a relatively weak monarch, he also installed allies in top positions and began enacting legislation to take control of nearly every facet of Italian life.

Those who resisted were kept in line, often through violence. Squadristi were welcomed to use force against antifascists, which they did at first. But by 1925, legislation made it illegal to organize, and intimidation via threats against family, work or self kept people subdued. Corner calls this “coerced consensus.”

It worked. Italians were so cowed that they didn’t have the ability to rise up in effective numbers, and eventually younger Italians grew up surrounded by propaganda — from school curriculum to newspapers — as well as images of Il Duce and symbols of fascism. For many, it became hard to imagine a different future or get involved in making one. While there were always quiet antifascists, their work had been pushed far underground or was relegated to small groups of trusted friends for fear of retaliation.

Those who tried to emerge as anti-fascist leaders were quickly squelched. Fascist leaders sent those they deemed a threat into exile on remote islands, while local squadristri kept others in line through torture, such as being fed castor oil through a funnel. But the most powerful tool the fascist leaders used was fear of arrest, harm to family or losing their jobs or homes.

It wasn't until years into World War II, on July 25, 1943, that Il Duce was finally ousted and the antifascists reorganized. However, this was short-lived as Mussolini was reinstated 45 days later in a puppet government when Germany occupied Italy until the end of the war.

Even under Germany’s control, the anti-fascist resistance continued. Its army was a ragtag group of no more than 200,000 soldiers, including 35,000 women. With limited resources, they staged guerrilla attacks such as bombings, assassinations and sabotage against Nazi and fascist targets during the German occupation.

But this group also spent the occupation looking ahead, planning a more democratic postwar government, with free elections and greater representation for women. And after the Allied forces defeated Germany, antifascists created a republic with relatively strong regional and local governments and proportional representation in Parliament, making it harder for one party to centralize control.

In the decades after the war, national identity aligned itself with the anti-fascist victors without grappling with the powerful rhetoric Mussolini had used for two decades. In 1946, author and known anti-fascist Natalia Ginzburg worried that the “older generation” was “in love with lies,” and she warned that children had to be taught of the ills of fascism and not “pamper[ed] … with plush dolls … and pretty pink nurseries … to smother their childhood with veils.” She saw older generations perpetuating a romanticized myth about fascism even in the years immediately after the war.

She was right to worry. In the ensuing decades, many Italians defined themselves in relation to Hitler citing Mussolini’s alliance with the Axis power as his “one mistake,” notes Corner. But in doing so they overlooked the death toll of fascism in Italy, Ethiopia and elsewhere under Mussolini. And few of Il Duce’s many monuments have been touched, while propaganda films from the past are treated like historical documentation. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on totalitarian regimes, says this adds up to a “normalization of the past.”

The far-right swing of Italian politics just weeks before the 100th anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome reveals the persistence of this indoctrination of right-wing fascist values. Meloni’s party seems to share much of the ideology of past strongmen.

Perhaps the biggest danger in the resurgence of right-wing movements in Italy and across the globe is a normalization of extremism. Ben-Ghiat sees the most important lesson as learning about, and reckoning with, the past. There are many differences between the conditions in which Mussolini came to power and the modern day, she acknowledges. But she also warns that those who want to ignore an ugly or difficult history — in Italy or elsewhere — often have a political agenda: “They want people to become extremists.”