Italy is one of Europe’s great nations, and Mussolini’s rise to power helped shape the first half of the twentieth century. So the significance of Italy’s contemporary political scene should not be overlooked, explains Dr Christian Goeschel.
Italy is often ignored today as a serious political force. It is seen as part of the Eurozone’s PIIGS – a dismissive term for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain and their troubled economies. Its domestic politics are ridiculed, not only because of the often bizarre behaviour of the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
But such an approach is a serious mistake. The politics of Italy helped create what Europe is today. Its parties and personalities give a clue as to how European – including British – politics may evolve over the coming years.
It was just four years after the end of the First World War, in late October 1922, that the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III appointed the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini as Prime Minister. In retrospect, this was one of the most significant turning points in European History.
Mussolini was Europe’s first Fascist dictator and Italy was the first country where Fascism, a new political phenomenon, came to power. Here was a totalitarian experiment that promised to bring stability to Italy and turn it into a great power.
Fascism was attractive to wide sections of society. It was ruthless and violent against the Left, which had risen to power almost exactly five years previously in Russia: a nightmare for many middle-class Italians. At the same time, Fascism appealed to a sense of law and order. Many traditional institutions, above all the monarchy, remained in place. This gave the new Fascist government a sense of legitimacy, stability, and respectability.
Over the next few years, the Fascist regime consolidated its power. Oppositional parties were banned, their leaders locked-up or exiled. Censorship was tightened. New repressive laws, targeting the opposition, were brought in. Millions of Italians joined the Fascist party. But Mussolini’s government never had total control over Italy, an overwhelmingly Catholic country with huge regional differences.
The cult of Mussolini emerged over the course of the 1920s. Mussolini speeches, pictures and statues were omnipresent in Italy. The image of Mussolini as the most powerful man in charge of Italy remained a highly effective myth which papered over the cracks of the regime. Nevertheless, despite all the inner weaknesses of the Fascist regime, it waged a brutal war upon Abyssinia in 1935 and entered the Second World War in June 1940 as Nazi Germany’s principal ally.
Within Europe, Mussolini’s rise to power gave a tremendous boost to the Right. Most significantly, Hitler and the Nazis would probably not have come to power in Germany without the template of the Italian Fascist capture of power. As the Fascist regime gradually consolidated itself throughout the 1920s, Hitler and the Nazis became increasingly attracted to Mussolini and the Fascists. The Fascists’ twofold strategy of seizing power was extremely alluring for the Nazis. First, there was extreme political violence stirred up by the Fascists against the Left; second, there was a quest for conquering power through seemingly legal political activity.
The story of Mussolini’s rise and its impact on Germany is a timely reminder of Italy’s central role in European politics. For at least two decades, many commentators have written-off Italy because of frequent changes of government, corruption, organised crime, record unemployment and the huge budget deficit.
But the political marginalisation of Italy, coupled with a patronising romanticised version of the peninsula and its people, is misleading. Most dismissive commentators forget that Italy has long been the political laboratory of Modern Europe. Furthermore, of all the EU’s Southern European member states, only Italy has had a democratic government for the entire post-war period.
Many of the most significant political innovations that reshaped Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries first emerged in Italy. Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian who spent much of his life as an exile in England, pioneered modern nationalism as a powerful political ideology. In fact, Italy was one of the first nation states to be created in the nineteenth century. And, as we have seen, after the end of the First World War, Italy pioneered another significant political phenomenon: it was the first country where a Fascist movement came to power.
But Italy’s role as the political laboratory of Europe did not stop with the downfall of Fascism. After 1945, it witnessed the rise of the Christian Democrats who dominated politics until the early 1990s. Italy also had the largest Communist party in Western Europe. More recently, after the end of the Cold War, Italy’s political system exploded spectacularly.
In 1994, the media mogul Silvio Berlusconi – recently convicted in the final instance for tax fraud – pioneered a new form of politics that is self-serving and populist. There has also been a worrying advance of far-right parties.
It is time to stop marginalising Italy – after all, it was a founding member of the European Economic Community and the G7 – and instead look more closely at Italian history and politics. Some of the recent developments in Italy, such as the rise of anti-European and anti-immigrant populists, have since been mirrored in Britain.
But there is a more positive sign. A modern, outward looking, centre-left politician has moved straight from being mayor of Florence to becoming Prime Minister of Italy. Will the rise of 39 year old Matteo Renzi also have an echo in the United Kingdom?