March on Rome under scrutiny

Richard J. B. Bosworth

Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič

It’s 100 years since Mussolini took political control of Italy. Given a period of violent tensions across large parts of Europe after the First World War, what specifically lay behind the rise of fascist totalitarianism? And how does the Duce’s leadership compare to that of other contemporary authoritarianism? Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič interviewed Richard J. B. Bosworth, who has written extensively on Mussolini and fascist Italy, for Slovenian Eurozine partner journal Razpotja.

Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič: This year, we remember the hundredth anniversary of the March on Rome, which marked the beginning of the first fascist regime in history. In Slovenia, two years ago, we commemorated the hundredth year since the anti-Slovene pogroms in Trieste. There is, therefore, awareness that fascism was a political factor in the ‘eastern borderlands’ of Italy before the Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party), formally established in November 1921, came to power a year later in Rome. How important was the mobilization against national and ethnic minorities for the rise and success of Mussolini’s political project?

Richard J. B. Bosworth: You are right to remember the burning of the Narodni Dom (National Hall) on 13 July 1920, justified by Francesco Giunta, the local fascist boss, who described the struggle of the Fasci di Combattimento (the forerunner organization to the PNF) within Italy as a struggle between one Italian and another, while ‘the struggle in Trieste is contested between Italians and foreigners’. Four weeks earlier, Mussolini had stated, ‘we must cleanse Trieste energetically’. The Duce was an able and inventive journalist; he came up with a metaphor of ethnic conflict that was to have, and still has, a terrible history. It wasn’t for nothing that Triestine fascists made up 18% of the party’s national membership early in 1921.

Italy was not the only country confronted with such issues at the end of the First World War, which began as a conflict between empires but concluded, or rather variously continued after 1918, as a conflict of nation states. Wilsonian self-determination may have sounded like an American pledge to freedom. But throughout the inter-war period, every European ‘nation’ was confronted with the problem of ‘foreigners’ (to use Giunta’s word) living within their borders and co-nationals living in other states. Liberal Italy entered the First World War with an ‘irredentist’ aim, in other words, pioneering the idea of a nation state that would rule over all Italians – easy words with difficult and, in fact, murderous results….