The fascist movement, which emerged in Italy after the First World War, aimed to establish a revolutionary dictatorship that would use force as necessary to turn Italy into a new civilization. However, the effects of fascism in Italy varied. From the viewpoint of the Italian people, the effects of fascist authority were felt differently depending on socioeconomic class, political views, gender, sexual preferences, and ethnicity. Numerous Italians experienced economic hardship and a loss of fundamental human rights due to a repressive fascist administration.
Others perceived fascism as bringing stability, prosperity, and national pride (exemplified by the 1936 invasion of Ethiopia), for which authoritarian rule was a price worth paying. The historical division between the north and South of Italy and between rural and urban areas can be seen in how the impact of fascist power differed geographically. Italian society underwent an external transformation due to fascism, as seen by establishing a one-party state that claimed to control all spheres of life, including the family, the economy, education, and leisure activities. This is shown in the way the fascist state manipulated information, the numerous scripted rituals and spectacles that dominated public life, and the development of a cult around the leader, Benito Mussolini. Fascism may have substantially altered Italian society, but to what extent is debatable. Despite propagandized images of society as one with fascism, Mussolini’s failure to forge a nation of true fascist believers and “warriors” is frequently cited as evidence of his failure. This is because of how quickly consensus for the regime disintegrated after Italy’s disastrous involvement in the Second World War as an ally of Hitler’s Germany.
Police State Fascist Regime
When Mussolini was appointed prime minister in October 1922, authoritarian control did not come immediately. Blackshirt squad violence, typical of the tactics the Fascists had used to seize power, assisted in lessening the influence of parliamentary opposition without outlawing it entirely. A fascist parliamentary majority, which was elected in April 1924 in part due to fascist intimidation, was able to enact several measures that destroyed the institutions of liberal democracy beginning in 1925. With the help of Fascist Party organizations, the regular police forces and the OVRA secret police (founded in 1927) were now tasked with eradicating political opposition and policing the populace, indicating a reduction in squad power (including the Militia). The police began to enjoy expanded authority as of 1926, which reduced their accountability for their conduct.
Italians were more frequently watched than in the past and were vulnerable to spies and informers, so most of them started to be cautious about what they said in public. However, the working classes or clandestine opposition groups were the principal targets of police repression. Due to their engagement in union militancy or left-wing politics, many had been the target of police action under the previous Liberal administration. However, under the fascist administration, they endured even worse conditions, with many receiving prisons or solitary confinement sentences (exile in a remote part of the country or penal colony). Middle-class people who supported the government were less likely to be victims of the fascist police state. Such people’s high social position and spotless criminal and political records could work in their favor when relatively harmless criticism of the dictatorship made it to the authorities.
Finance and Employment
Fascism used war images and metaphors to influence economic output in its attempts to “nationalize” the Italian people, as evidenced by the heavily propagandized but ultimately futile “battles” for national autarchy in producing raw materials and wheat. According to the Fascist Charter of Labour of 1927, Mussolini argued that the prior struggle between employers and employees was resolved as both became “producers” for the country while opposing socialism.
The “Corporate State,” established in the 1930s and had representative organizations for companies and employees in each economic sector, only ostensibly represented this. In reality, the system favored employers over employees. Following the Great Depression, big business gained from government intervention to preserve failing businesses and fascism’s planning for a protracted war and foreign occupation. Despite state aid programs, the standard of living fell for many employees and their families. Fascist unions didn’t do much to defend them from layoffs and pay reductions. Despite the propaganda’s exaltation of rural life, the regime’s economic policies disproportionately affected the masses of peasants.
The administration of Mussolini made significant educational investments to produce more fascists in the future. In primary schools, where politically “reliable” teachers made sure that students were instilled with fascist “values,” such as strict obedience to authority, a spirit of sacrifice and heroism, and protection and enhancement of the Italian “race,” ideological penetration of education was particularly evident. Although working-class children were less likely to participate if they left school early to find employment, fascist party youth organizations supported the process of ideological instruction through higher education with activities focused on pre-military training for boys and forms of civic service for girls. Resources were few in Italy’s poorest regions, especially in the South and rural areas, which impacted the scope and appeal of organized youth activities. However, there is little question that the fascist government was most effective in subduing young children’s and teenagers’ minds. Having been taught that their leader and fascism were impregnable, many were horrified when Mussolini lost his position of authority during World War II.
Activities for Fun and Culture
The activities that people in fascist Italy engaged in during their free time were largely the same as those found in other Western countries. However, most were impacted by the regime’s efforts to control leisure time in some way (partly in competition with the Catholic Church). As was shown above, organized leisure activities and schooling were virtually ever separated for kids and teenagers. In contrast, less emphasis was placed on ideological indoctrination during company after-hours clubs’ activities (which were controlled by the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro). These clubs partially met welfare and consumer demands by providing discounted household goods and entertainment to their members.
The state monitored news and outlawed all overt criticism of fascism. Still, until the late 1930s, it did not actively seek to have the content of literary works, theatrical plays, or commercial motion pictures unduly “fascistized.” Fascist newsreels and documentaries, however, were shown in theatres. Additionally, many citizens were required to participate in state-organized spectacular rites (ceremonies, parades, etc.) that were intended to instill a sense of patriotism and valor in the public domain. However, given the context in which displays of dedication were necessary for surviving, it is doubtful how profoundly felt such engagement was, particularly among the adult population.
Sexual Mores and Gender Roles
Fears over men’s status and power in a society where gender roles didn’t seem to be clearly defined contributed to the growth of fascism. In line with his demographic strategy to raise the birth rate, which would justify colonial expansion, Mussolini wanted women to resume their traditionally subordinate roles as wives and mothers. This entailed restricting access to contraceptives, promoting marriage (as evidenced by the establishment of a bachelor tax), and toughening up the penalties for performing unlawful abortions. The “fight for births” failed to reverse a long-term demographic decline despite the nation’s most prolific mothers parading at official events. This partially reflected fascism’s inability to suppress female emancipationist inclinations.
Additionally, the dictatorship was reluctant to implement a broad prohibition on women’s employment and access to higher education and the workforce out of a desire to maintain support among the middle classes. Fascism, on the other hand, upheld conventional norms in the sexual and family spheres to the point of oppressing anyone who did not follow them. This explains why homosexuals are persecuted, especially among men, and why many receive confino sentences. It also explains why the state treats adultery in a discriminatory manner toward women while favoring men.
Fascist War and Defeat, Conclusion
Even though the effects of the fascist rule on Italian society varied depending on the policies of the regime toward different classes or groups, it can be argued that during the latter years of the dictatorship, the most striking effects became apparent to the Italian people as a whole. The political and strategic alignment with Hitler’s Germany, as well as the exclusion of Italian Jews from mainstream Italian society in 1938—many of whom, ironically, had been enthusiastic fascist supporters—were all signs of the intensification of policies intended to “fascistize” society and enhance its warrior “qualities.” A vicious anti-Semitic propaganda campaign also accompanied these policies. Similar to this, Italy’s support for Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War amounted to an ideological conflict that, unlike Ethiopia’s invasion in 1935, demanded human sacrifice but provided no territorial benefits.
The Second World War exposed the fallacy of propaganda emphasizing Italy’s invincibility by exposing a string of military failures and the economy’s collapse. While many Italians rejoiced over Mussolini’s subsequent overthrow in July 1943, the Nazis, who had seized Italy after their erstwhile ally submitted to Anglo-American forces in September 1943, brought out the worst aspects of fascism in the Italian Social Republic (1943–45). Many supporters of the Social Republic sought to revive the violent revolutionary fascism of the former movement, which had existed before Mussolini’s ascent to power in 1922 because they felt that the previous fascist dictatorship had not been sufficiently radical. This helps to explain the Republic’s ruthless suppression of partisans and anti-fascists, as well as its collaboration with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. The collective memory of Italy highlights the misery brought on by Mussolini’s disastrous partnership with Nazi Germany. However, Italians are more split when asked how life was under Mussolini’s control before the Second World War, reflecting the diverse effects of fascism addressed in this essay.