Mussolini gradually turned his premiership into a dictatorship. A month after coming to office he obtained dictatorial powers that were supposed to last only until the end of 1923. Although the constitution theoretically remained in force, Mussolini took over the administration.
He created a fascist militia almost 200,000 strong, which owed complete allegiance to him. He enlarged the regular army and required its members to take an oath of personal loyalty to him. Before his dictatorial powers expired, he secured from parliament a new electoral law that provided that the political party that received the largest number of votes in a general election.
If that amounted to at least one quarter of the vote, should automatically receive two thirds of the seats in parliament; the rest of the seats would be divided proportionately. In the election of April 1924 the fascists polled 65 percent of the votes cast; the first all-fascist cabinet was then appointed. Meanwhile, local administration was made secure by the appointment of fascist prefects and sub- prefects in the provinces.
Early in 1924 the leader of the opposition to Mussolini, the socialist Giacomo Matteotti (1885-1924), published The Fascists Exposed, in which he reviewed the outrages the fascists had committed on their way to power. It seemed probable that further revelations were in store, exposing some of Mussolini’s cabinet members as corrupt. On June 10 Matteotti was murdered; the crime was traced to Mussolini’s immediate circle.
This scandal rocked Italy, and for a moment it seemed that Mussolini would fall. But he dismissed from office those who were involved and pledged himself to restore law and order. In protest against the murder and the failure to vigorously prosecute those who had participated, opposition deputies walked out of the Chamber. Since they were then refused readmission, they thereby played into Mussolini’s hand. In effect, the murder of Matteotti marked the beginning of Mussolini’s true dictatorship.
Next, a series of new laws tightened control over the press, abolished secret societies like the Freemasons (whom Mussolini had loathed since his socialist youth), and replaced all elected local officials by men appointed from Rome. Opponents of the regime were arrested and exiled to islands off the Italian coast. Early in 1926 Mussolini was empowered to govern by decree. Three attempts on his life led to a new law providing the death penalty for action against the king, the queen, or Mussolini. All opposition political parties were abolished in that same year, and the Fascist party was left as the only legal political party in Italy.
The Italian state and the Fascist party were increasingly coordinated. Mussolini was both the duce (leader) of the fascists and the capo di governo (chief of state). At one time he held eight cabinet posts simultaneously. The members of the Fascist Grand Council, about twenty of the highest party functionaries, all appointed by Mussolini, held all the significant posts in the administration that were not held by Mussolini himself.
In 1928 the Grand Council was given important constitutional duties: preparing the lists of candidates for election to the Chamber, advising Mussolini, and proposing changes in the constitution or in the succession to the throne. The Grand Council thus became a kind of third house, above the other two houses of parliament, the Senate and the Chamber.
Mussolini believed that the interests of labor and capital should be made to harmonize with the overriding interests of the state, and representation should be based on economic interests organized in “syndicates.” Such an idea was not new. The French syndicalist Georges Sorel had already argued in this vein. But Sorel believed in syndicates of workers only. Mussolini believed in producers’ syndicates as well as workers’ syndicates.
In 1925 fascist labor unions were recognized by employers as having the sole right to negotiate labor contracts. In April 1926 the state officially recognized producers’ and workers’ syndicates in each of six areas— industry, agriculture, commerce, sea and air transport, land and inland waterway transport, and banking—plus a syndicate of intellectuals, making thirteen syndicates in all. Each syndicate could bargain and reach contracts and could assess dues upon everyone engaged in its economic field, irrespective of membership in the syndicate. Strikes and lockouts were forbidden.
In 1928 a new electoral law provided for a new Chamber of Deputies with 400 instead of 560 members. The national councils of the thirteen syndicates could nominate a total of 800 candidates. Each syndicate had a quota, half to be selected by the employers and half by the employees. Cultural and charitable foundations could nominate 200 more candidates. When the total list of 1,000 was completed, the Fascist Grand Council could either select 400 of them, or strike out names and add names of its own, or even substitute an entirely new list.
The voters would then vote in answer to the question: “Do you approve of the list of deputies selected by the Fascist Grand Council?” They could vote yes or no on the entire list, but they could not choose from among the candidates. If a majority voted yes, the list was elected; if not, the procedure was repeated. Universal suffrage was abolished, even for this very limited form of election. Payment of a minimum tax or dues to a syndicate was required of each voter; women could not vote.
In 1938 the impotent Chamber of Deputies replaced itself with the Chamber of Fasces and Corporations. Nothing remained of the old parliamentary constitution that had been set up by Cavour except the Senate, nominally appointed by the king but actually subservient to Mussolini. This new structure was the corporative state (so named because each of the seven syndicate areas had been declared a corporation). But despite much oratory by fascist sympathizers about the corporative state and its virtues, it appears that the new bodies never had much to do with running the economic or political life of Italy, which remained firmly under the direction of the fascist inner bureaucracy.
During the 1930s the fascist version of the planned economy made its appearance in Italy. A concerted effort was launched to make Italy more self-sufficient in agriculture. In 1932 official figures reported that domestic wheat production could supply 92 percent of the nation’s normal needs, and the drive was enlarged to include other cereal products. The government subsidized steamship and airlines, encouraged the tourist trade, and protected Italian industries with high tariffs on foreign products. Marshes were drained and land was reclaimed. Enormous sums were spent on public works, and great strides were made in hydroelectric power. Public transportation became efficient.
The state also reached into the life of the individual at almost every point. Though Italy was overpopulated, Mussolini made emigration a crime. Beginning in 1926 he pursued a vigorous pro-birth policy, encouraging people to marry and have the largest possible families by reducing their taxes, extending special loans, taxing bachelors, and extending legal equality to illegitimate children. He hoped in this way to swell the ranks of his armies and to strengthen his claim that Italy must expand abroad. Text- books in the schools, books in the libraries, professors in the universities, plays on the stage, and movies on the screen became vehicles of fascist propaganda. The secret police endeavored to discover and suppress all opposition movements.
In 1929 Mussolini settled the Roman question— that of the annexation of the Papal States without the pope’s consent—by entering into the Lateran Pact with the papacy. This treaty recognized the independence of Vatican City, over which the pope had temporal power. Mussolini also recognized Catholicism as the state religion. He gave up the power to tax contributions to the church or the salaries of the clergy, and paid $105 million to compensate the papacy for Italian confiscation of papal territories. On its part, the church agreed not to engage in politics in its publications.
Yet although many church officials viewed the fascist movement sympathetically, difficulties arose after these agreements had been concluded. In an encyclical, Pope Pius XI (r. 1922-1939) indicated his disapproval of Mussolini’s economic policies and of the corporations as “serving special political aims rather than contributing to the initiation of a better social order.” Mussolini now charged that the church’s Catholic Action Clubs were engaged in politics and dissolved them. The pope denied the charges and denounced the Fascist party’s practice of monopolizing the time and education of the young. In 1931, however, a further agreement was reached, and the clubs were reopened.
Mussolini’s wish to re-create the glories of ancient Rome plus domestic population pressures impelled him to undertake a policy of adventure in the Mediterranean, which he called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) as a sign that he was the heir to the Caesars. In time he would send settlers into Libya, which he called Italy’s Fourth Shore. This policy of expansion began in 1923, after five Italians working for the League of Nations were assassinated as they marked out the new frontier between Albania and Greece. Mussolini thereupon bombarded and occupied the Greek island of Corfu, just off Albania, and refused to recognize the League’s right to intervene until British pressure led to a settlement of the matter.
Most important, Mussolini alienated Italy from its earlier allies, France and Britain. His policy of adventure led him to military aggression in Ethiopia, in Spain, and in Albania. It drove him into an alliance—a Rome-Berlin axis—with another fascist, Adolf Hitler, and led him to voice loud claims against the French for Corsica, Tunisia, Nice, and Savoy. Mussolini’s grandiose fascist ideology spurred Italy to win a larger degree of self-sufficiency, to rebuild its seaports, and to create a merchant fleet and navy.
The Italian alliance with Germany was also responsible for the official adoption of anti-Semitism in 1938. With only seventy thousand Jews, most of whom had long been resident, Italy had no “Jewish problem” of the kind Hitler was alleging existed in Germany. Italian Jews were entirely Italian in their language and sentiments and were distinguished from other Italians only by their religion. Many of them were prominent fascists; many others were antifascist. There was no widespread sympathy in Italy for the government’s adoption of Hitler’s racial policies, yet Hitler’s dominating influence led Mussolini to expel Jews from the Fascist party and to forbid them to teach or to attend school, to intermarry with non-Jews, or to obtain new licenses to conduct business.
Opportunistic, ruthless, quick-witted, Mussolini loved power, but he also genuinely cared about Italy. Although the lives of many improved under his regime, the lives of others were brutalized. Many commentators then and since would find him simple, a man floundering beyond his depth; other commentators would find him shrewd, careful, and well aware of how his unpredictable yet emotionally exciting personality could make him attractive to many and keep him firmly in power. The policies that carried him into war in alliance with Germany in 1940 would end in his death in 1945, hanging upside down on a communist gallows, his personality still an enigma.