“This Mussolini, can he be trusted?” the worried King of Italy asked his generals on the eve of the Fascist Duce’s later fabled 1922 “March on Rome.” What happened next was a shrewd mixture of public bluster and behind-the-scenes politicking.
On March 23, 1919---but four months after the armistice that ended the Great War--- 100 young toughs, ex-Italian Army war veterans, former Socialist politicians, and newspapermen met in Milan’s Piazza San Sepolchro in industrial northern Italy to form a new political party. By the fall of 1922, the Fascists numbered over 300,000 members.
Dissatisfied with the territorial gains gleaned from Liberal Italy’s participation in the war on the Allied side during 1915-18, these angry young men---typified by one Benito Mussolini, 39---who shared all of their above listed attributes---formed the Fasci di Combattimento, which theirDuce/Leader himself defined as “The Bundles of Battle.” He was referring to the ancient Roman Imperial symbol of an axe surrounded by rods bound together, as their past and present symbol of authority and power.
Mussolini had served in the First World War as a combat wounded Bersaglieri/sharpshooter, a member of one of Italy’s most elite formations. Other members of the new Fascist Party included the Alpini/mountain troops, and also the more renowned Arditi/assault soldiers, who mimicked the famed German Army storm troopers of 1918.
The Italian version, however, were far more colorful than their German cousins, reportedly going into battle armed with daggers in their clenched teeth and grenades in both hands on the very tail end of artillery barrages, so as to take the unsuspecting
Austro-Hungarian enemy by total surprise. More than half of the Arditi’s members were tough peasant boys, while the very meaning of the word Ardito was “audacious man.” Indeed, they were.
Formed in June 1917 as special forces, they ran on campaign, rather than marched, and one of their commanding officers asserted that, “You are the first, the best…the future owners of Italy…the new Italian generation, fearless and brilliant. You will prepare the great future of Italy! The smile of the beautiful Italian woman is your reward!”
This was pretty heady stuff for the young soldiers of that era. The Arditi wore the fearsome skull and crossbones on their caps, gave stiff-armed Roman salutes with unsheathed daggers, chanted “A noi!To us!” and sang Giovinezza/Youthfulness. Not only did Mussolini---then the editor of the fiery newspaperIl Popolo d’Italia/ The People of Italy---adopt all of these martial trappings for his new Fascists, but, indeed, 25 Arditi soldiers guarded his offices in Milan, and four times burned down those of the rival Socialist paper, Avanti!/Advance!
Fearing these very soldiers, traditional, Liberal Italy had disbanded the Arditi in December 1918, within a month of the end of the war, but Mussolini promptly reorganized them into Fascisti squadrismo/squads, roving bands of men---wearing black shirts and trousers, and red fez caps---who terrorized their political opponents all over Italy with physical violence.
They all shared the anguish of what poet, war pilot, and political activist Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) defined as Liberal Italy’s “mutilated victory” from World War
I that denied her the fruits of victory. One of these was the Adriatic seaport city of Fiume in the new state of Yugoslavia that all Italians felt should rightly become the spoils of victorious Italy. On Sept. 12 , 1919, D’Annunzio led a small force of former Arditi in a swift occupation of Fiume, in opposition to the Italian government of the House of Savoy’s King Victor Emmanuel III (1869-1947), who’d been on the throne since the assassination of his father in 1900.
Secretly, both His Majesty and the regular Italian Army favored the occupation, but it also put them in direct confrontation with their fellow Allied victors of World War I---France, Great Britain, and the United States. “Where an Arditi is,” the occupiers boasted, “there is a flag. No enemy shall pass. The Arditi are the real vanguard of the nation,” they proclaimed.
Nevertheless, it was imperative that the King---who at 5’3” was nicknamed contemptuously as “Little Sword”---reassert his authority, as among both the ranks of the Arditi and the other Fascists were many republicans, who wanted nothing better than to see the antiquated, 900-year-old ruling House of Savoy swept aside (as it was by a popular vote in 1946, after World War II.) His most ardent supporters were the royalist officers of the Italian Army, but even many of these had Fascist sympathies, he knew.
Initially, ex-Socialist Mussolini (1883-1945) had been one of these fiery republicans, asserting that, “The King is nothing more than a useless citizen,” and in 1912 even made the anti-nationalist proclamation that, “The Italian flag is fit only for a dung heap!” He’d also opposed Liberal Italy’s imperialist war of aggression in Libya against the Turks in 1911 that witnessed the first usage of aircraft in modern warfare.
What caused Mussolini’s politics to veer from far left to hard right was the coming of the First World War in 1914, when Italy balked at joining its first set of allies, the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and chose neutrality instead.
This was also the position of Socialist Mussolini, who was then editor of Avanti! His later critics charged that it was French gold received in bribes that led Mussolini to come out in 1915 for Italian intervention in the war on the Allied side instead, as she did that May. Enraged, the Socialists expelled him from their party, and Bersaglieri Cpl. Mussolini was wounded at the front when a mortar exploded. Notably, he was twice visited in the hospital by His Majesty, and was feted as a political celebrity among both enlisted men and their officers. He thus arrived on the national scene as a war veteran.
During D’Annunzio’s Arditi Fiume occupation, he and the Fascist Duce---who united all Fascists around his person under the spell of his fiery oratory and inflammatory newspaper editorials---several times discussed the possibility of a joint “march on Rome” to seize political power by simply taking the capital by force and kicking out the longtime Liberal Party government cabinet. The main questions were: What would the King, the Army, and the Carabinieri/military police (who used carbines) do?
Mussolini had other, pressing concerns as well. First, he feared that D’Annunzio would march without him, and thus upstage him a second time, as he’d done earlier at Fiume. He also worried that his younger Fascist lieutenant---the red-haired “Iron Beard” Italo Balbo---would likely move on his own.
Then came the thunderclap of “Bloody Christmas Eve,” Dec. 24, 1920, as the King ordered the Italian Army and Navy to crush the Arditi forces in Fiume, and by Jan. 5,
1921, D’Annunzio’s occupation was over. This disaster marked the end of the Arditi’s support for the colorful poet-soldier, and the massive start of their real swing toward Mussolini and his Fascists.
Mussolini---a quiet, thoughtful, shrewd political planner as well as a revolutionary--- drew several conclusions from the Fiume debacle. While the police would often overlook Fascist depredations in favor of attacking their traditional leftist enemies the Socialists, they would, however, fire on opponents of the monarchy. More importantly, the Duce observed, so would the military. Therefore, he must win over the King, the police, and the armed forces by a clever mix of both public bluster and behind-the-scenes, old-fashioned political maneuvering to attain appointed or elective office by legal means.
In the national election of May 1921, the Duce himself was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in Rome to one of 35 Fascist Party seats (held in the 1990s by his granddaughter, actress Alessandra Mussolini.) Although he rarely attended its sessions because he held the chamber in contempt, Deputy Mussolini nevertheless appreciated the free railway ticket that the post entitled him to on the state railroad system that he later reformed, and also that he was held legally immune from prosecution while in office.
In 1921, his party posted at the middle of the list of deputies. Ahead of the Fascists were 159 Liberal Democrats, 146 Socialists, and 104 Popular Party members; while behind it were 26 Agrarians, 11 Communists, 10 Republicans, and 12 members of
many German-Italian and Slavic-Italian splinter groups. Clearly, in order to be appointed to office as prime minister by the King---Mussolini’s initial goal during 1919-
22---the Duce’s fourth place Fascist Party would have to enter government in a coalition cabinet with other parliamentary parties and their leaders.
But Mussolini also faced a problem unique to him, and that was that his party was the only one that had organized---and sometimes even armed---groups of violent adventurers
dedicated to wreaking murder and mayhem across the land in order to seize power, not be granted it. His biggest fear, again, was that his plans for gradual success would be overtaken by both them and other events, that he would be forced to take Rome, as, indeed, he was.
Later, he said that his basic decision to launch a Fascist “March on Rome” was taken by him alone on Oct. 12, 1922, after a stormy rally at Cremona of Sept. 24th at which his massed supporters chanted “To Rome! To Rome!” He made this known to his subordinates at a party summit meeting of the Milan Fascios on the Via San Marco on Oct. 16th, and made a five-part plan to execute it at Florence on the 21st.
The formal Fascist Militia---incorporating all the various Arditi bands and squads---emerged on the 24th, during a massive rally at Naples. In a national proclamation of the 27th that began with, “This is the situation,” Mussolini ended with the declaration, “Fascism wants power, and will have it!”
He also claimed to have appointed the four Quadrumviri leaders of the march---headquartered at Perugia’s Brufani Palace (see map) that would begin in towns and villages, and then converge in several mobile columns on Rome. These four men were: Gen. Emilio de Bono, 58 (1866-1944), former commander of the regular Army’s 9th Corps, his chief military advisor (who opposed the march, asserting that it would take six months to plan and execute); Deputy Cesare Maria De Vecchi (1884-1959), who was used as an emissary (along with naval Capt. Count Costanzo Ciano) with His Majesty; Party General Secretary Michele Bianchi (1883-1930), the man closest to the Duce; and the rebellious Balbo, 25 (1896-1940), who wanted to wrest the national leadership from the elder Mussolini, along with the young Dino Grandi. (1895-1988.)
To arm their ragtag army of 26,000 Fascist-Arditi, illicit stores of arms and ammunition were received secretly from sympathetic police stations and some Army barracks, while armories---and even museums---were raided for antique firearms. The overall array of weaponry included shotguns, muskets, powder-loaded pistols, golf clubs, scythes, garden hoes, tree roots, table legs, dynamite sticks, dried salt codfish, and even an ox’s jawbone!
Horses, carts, trucks, wagons, bicycles, and even a racecar with a machine gun mounted were employed for transport, along with the more mobile trains, while many more moved toward the capital on foot.
Aside from His Majesty, 55, Mussolini had to out bluff the country’s Liberal Party leader of all of 1922 thus far, Premier Luigi Facta, 63, who wanted to crush the brewing rebellion with force. So did the Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. (later Marshal) Pietro Badoglio, 47 (1871-1956), and also Gen. Emanuele Pugliese, commander of the well-armed and loyal 12-28,000-man garrison of Rome (estimates vary wildly), which had machine guns, armored cars, and even artillery.
The nervous, jittery Duce feared, too, that if he managed to have Facta fired by the King, His Majesty might reappoint the 80-year-old former Prime Minister Giovanni Gioliitti to office. “If that happens,” Mussolini moaned, “we’re fucked!” as the old man
was known as an anti-Fascist hardliner, ala Gen. Badoglio, who roared, “On the first shot, all Fascism will collapse!”
The King---who’d had 20 prime ministers thus far during a 22-year reign, and six governments in the past three years---wasn’t so sure. His Minister of War---the First World War hero Gen. Armando Diaz (1861-1928), who was pro-Fascist (like the King’s own mother, Queen Margherita), told him that, “The Army will do its duty, but it would be better not to put it to the test.”
Meanwhile, troops and barbed wire surrounded the King’s own 16th Century Quirinale Palace above Rome, where 200 cavalry on white horses paraded alongside turreted armored cars with candy-striped towers. Roma’s seven hills, 15 gates, and 17 bridges over the river Tiber were all patrolled as well.
His Majesty was a shy, timid man mainly interested in saving his throne and his dynasty from civil war, and from his rival cousin Amadeo the Duke of Aosta, 53, who was known to be flirting with the Fascists to be named Regent. Victor Emmanuel III threatened to abdicate as the German Kaiser and Russian Tsar both had done during 1917-18, no idle threat that. He believed that the Italian middle class would accept Mussolini and his Fascists as the lesser of all evils, and he was right.
Gen. Pugliese meanwhile demanded that martial law be declared, and Premier Facta---President of the Royal Council---induced the King to promise a State of Siege order at 9
PM on the 27th, only to have His Majesty refuse to sign it the next day, the 28th, at 9 AM. Facta resigned, and now began the hasty political negotiations of a host of former Italian
premiers to return to office---all of them desiring the Fascist Party Duce as their number two man as vice premier. He balked.
Mussolini had remained calm in Milan the previous few days, working in his office, driving in the countryside, and being seen at the theater on two nights running, as if nothing was happening, but kept a getaway car waiting nonetheless to take him to safety in nearby Switzerland if things went awry. His office telephone was tapped by the police.
The celebrated March on Rome was duly launched at dawn in pouring rain, and at nine degrees above zero cold, on Oct. 28, 1922. When he learned that the King had refused to order martial law that same day, Mussolini knew that he’d won, even though a reported seven Blackshirts had been shot down by Army troops at Cremona. In all, a dozen people died, but after the march, the Fascists inflated that death toll figure to a whopping---and false---3,000 to make their “struggle” appear all the more heroic to posterity.
His own Milano newspaper office building main entrance was barricaded with huge rolls of newsprint paper and barbed wire, and guarded by a curious mixture of Fascists, police, and Army troops. His second floor offices featured hand grenades in desk in-trays, and the flustered Duce himself was seen brandishing a rifle. Melodramatically, he wrote in his 1928 Autobiography, “There was a rapid exchange of shots…I had my rifle loaded, and went down to defend the doors….Bullets whistled around my ears.”
In fact, the Milan police chief refused to arrest him, and the mayor and commander of the Royal Guard jointly asked for a truce, thus withdrawing their men a further 200 yards away. The immediate crisis thus passed.
Even as the new Fascist Militia---organized in Imperial Roman cohorts and legions, with consuls and zone commanders---began marching, they were soon seizing telephone switchboards, telegraph offices, waterworks, post offices, and other government
buildings all over Italy.
The now confident, buoyant Mussolini refused three phone calls from the palace to come to Rome to form a new coalition government cabinet, with him in the top spot as Italy’s youngest ever premier. He demanded that the King’s military aide---Gen. Arturo Cittadini---send a telegram dictated by him, so that he would have the official request in writing. Like the King, the cautious Duce also had fears, mainly of being arrested and shot as a rebel in Rome.
His Majesty offered to send a special train for him, but instead, Mussolini with five aides, took the regular Milan-Rome night sleeper express over the night of Oct. 29th-30th. Thus, his personal “March on Rome” consisted of a single 14-hour train ride in a railway carriage. He arrived in Rome and moved into a suite at the Savoy Hotel, ironically. He’d almost flown by air, and even thought about leaving the train outside the city so that he could enter on horseback, then decided against it, so as not to look overly ridiculous.
He saw the King at 11:45 AM that day in the Quirinale Palace reception room to become Liberal Italy’s 60th premier in its history since 1870. It was later alleged that he
boomed out in greeting, “Your Majesty, I bring you the Italy of Vittorio Veneto,” an Italian World War I victory, but claimed himself that he actually said, “Your Majesty will forgive my attire. I have come from the battlefield,” which he had not. The King found him “ A man of purpose,” and the Duce said that the new duo went forward “From that
day onward,” as the team that dominated now Fascist-Savoyard Italy for the next 23 years.
Initially, Mussolini took appointed office not only as premier, but also as foreign minister and interior minister, and in the latter post appointed Gen. De Bono as his new chief of police, with Balbo heading the Fascist Militia. He had Premier Facta escorted out of office by an 11-man Fascist honor guard because he’d “lost a son in the war.”
His first cabinet meeting was held in his second floor suite at the Savoy, a long way from his cheap apartment at 38 Foro Bonaparte, where he’d left his family back in Milan.
As he’d told his brother Arnaldo, “If only our father were alive!” His wife Rachele---upon hearing the news---exclaimed, “What a character!”
The next day---Halloween, Oct. 31, 1922---his marching columns finally arrived in Rome (allowed in by the Army and police), the day after his appointment, and not before. On Nov. 1st, he had them march out again to the train station, so that they could all return home. However---as he’d earlier told Capt. Count Ciano by phone---“The Blackshirts must be down there in Rome, with the physical sensation that they came in with flags flying, as victors. There must be an aura of violence and heroism,” but, in reality, it had mostly been sham comic opera, and there was no doubt in any impartial minds that even a resolute stand by but 400 Carabinieri would have turned back the Fascist marchers in full retreat, much less the Army!
The withdrawing Fascisti columns marched with palm leaves fluttering ahead past the Quirinale Palace in a five-hour parade beginning at 1 PM that day, as the King, his new
premier, and Gen. Diaz reviewed it from the royal balcony. His Majesty declared that, “Mussolini has saved the nation. The House of Savoy must be grateful.”
The Roman population agreed. The lire fell in value, but the stock market improved. The Eternal City was swept by a holiday mood, with flag-armed crowds demonstrating their approval in front of the Quirinale, and all florist shops quickly selling out their wares. No martial law was declared, and Fascism was seen by most as the last resort to the feared alternative of anarchy and Red revolution, although there was, indeed, no such latter threat at all. His enemies the Socialists failed to declare a general strike of public transportation.
Benito Mussolini---the blacksmith’s son from the village forge of Forli---had been brought to office by the successive falling of several Liberal governments, a general apathy to politics, and the fear of high taxes and social reform on the part of the landed gentry classes that financed the Fascist Party.
The new first lady of Fascist Italy later told a story about an early visitor to her now famous husband, a Carabinieri sergeant, “Who had brought a truncheon. He wanted to beg the Duce’s forgiveness for having arrested him during a demonstration in Forli, and to offer him the truncheon he’d whacked him with.
“’I forgave him---and took the truncheon,’ said my husband philosophically.”
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