How far did Fascist Italy succeed in realising its totalitarian ambitions?
In many respects World War One created a social and political tabula rasa for post-War Italy, as it did elsewhere in Europe. Old elites were overthrown, fewer men led to more female involvement in economic life and a widespread revulsion at the unprecedented horror of war. In several critical respects, however, it was the single, decisive factor in the emergence of the Fascist movement which dominated Italian life until 1943. Importantly, and uniquely, this movement was designed to dominate society, not merely the political aspect of society. Unlike an authoritarian state, where social and economic institutions exist which are not government controlled, Mussolini’s fascist state aimed to be a totalitarian state, totalitarianism being an extreme version of authoritarianism. This aim was summed up succinctly by Mussolini on 28 October 1925:
‘Everything within the state,
nothing outside the state,
nothing against the state.’[footnoteRef:1] [1: Simonett Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini's Italy (California, 2000), p.60.]
As will be shown, this, Mussolini’s definition of a totalitarian state, was a far cry from the state which he actually created. Mussolini’s first public use of the term ‘totalitarianism’ can be dated to a speech in June 1925.[footnoteRef:2] The term had, however, been coined by his opponents in 1923[footnoteRef:3] to, in the words of Philip Morgan, ‘describe Fascism’s attempts not just to defeat its enemies, but to destroy them completely so that it could dominate everything.’[footnoteRef:4] Condemnations of Mussolini’s regime as ‘totalitarian’ quickly became a badge of honour and his 1925 speech was the first time a political regime had publicly justified and legitimised itself as totalitarian. This essay will examine the totalitarian ambitions of Fascist Italy. It will show that rather than create a fully totalitarian state what Mussolini succeeded in creating was an authoritarian state. What he succeeded in doing was building a personality cult based on charismatic leadership. He did not succeed in building a totalitarian state with a strong doctrine. By aiming in practice to consolidate his power in practical terms by supporting existing power structures, rather than through appointing ideological supporters in the fascist party, Mussolini succeeded in undermining the growth of his fascist party and its ideology. This ‘subversion’ of his Fascist party was reinforced by his greater affinity with nationalist doctrine which placed parties, including the Fascist party, as subservient to the state. In doing both, he destroyed any possibility of an ideologically fascist movement creating a genuine totalitarian revolution – if such a thing could ever happen[footnoteRef:5] - by replacing existing power structures across Italy. [2: Philip Morgan, Fascism in Europe, 1919-1945 (Routledge, 2003), p. 126.] [3: David Roberts,...