25 April is remembered in Italy as Liberation Day, the anniversary of the fall of Fascism when the National Liberation Committee of Upper Italy proclaimed on the radio that they had officially seized power. Over the following week, many Fascist leaders, including Benito Mussolini were executed, ending over two decades of fascist rule, and nearly half a decade of war. In 1946, 25 April was declared a national holiday.
25 April is the culmination of decades of anti-fascist struggles in Italy. We commonly tell the story of Italy as a German ally who collapsed in the aftermath of World War II but overlook the stories of resistance that occurred in parallel with the rise of fascism and were important in its demise. The death knell of Fascism in Italy owes much to the brave Italians who fought against fascism even onto its darkest days.
Rise of Mussolini
After World War I, Italy’s economy was ruined. Though a victor in the war, Italy did not secure the same gains that Britain and France did. The global economy was already very weak. Labour Strikes and peasant agitation were on the rise. As in most parts of Europe, the elite feared the rising revolutionary movements. These movements also had a long radical history, inspiring revolutionaries across the world, including Bhagat Singh in India.
Benito Mussolini was a former socialist politician. He was ousted from his party for his support of Italy’s entry into World War I. He joined the Italian army as a soldier. On his return, he was recruited by the British Security Service, MI5, to publish pro-war propaganda. MI5 hoped that Britain would benefit from Italy’s entry into the war. He was paid 100 pounds per week, (equivalent to nearly Rs. 8 lakhs today). With this, he was able to publish propaganda. His propaganda glorified war, and demonized anti-war protesters. He then formed the Fasces of Combat, a political party that organized former war veterans promising to build a people’s state for Italy. He promised that he would go beyond socialism, and build a nation based on unity. The Fasces was a bundle of sticks tied together and symbolically represented the strength in unity. A single stick can be broken easily, but a bundle is strong.
He built up a mercenary squad, the Black Shirts. Initially, the squad had 200 members and grew to tens of thousands. After World War I, he worked with industrialists and used the Black Shirts to break strikes and suppress uprisings. This made him popular. He was seen as capable of doing things the state was not. He became a symbol of order and discipline, having soldiers at his command.
He wrote about the failure of socialism and became popular amongst the middle classes in Italy. Initially, he made promises that had some pro-worker elements. In time, his stances became more militant, anti-worker, and centered around his personality.
Beginnings of Resistance
Anti-fascist resistance began immediately. In response to Mussolini’s Black Shirts, many workers, socialists, anarchists, and communists formed a counter-movement called Arditi del Popolo, or the People’s Boldness. The Ardito, initially consisting of nearly 20,000 people, took to ground-level violence to fight the fascists.
The Ardito had many successes but were ultimately defeated by the joint action of the Black Shirts and the Italian State. They were condemned by members of the Parliamentary left, who felt they were being counterproductive and who hoped to use legal means to fight Mussolini’s Black Shirts. Their leaders were either arrested by the state or killed by fascists. They began to fade from 1922, and the group ceased to exist from 1924. Though they were dismantled, the Ardito del Popolo is famous as the world’s first militant anti-fascist group. They were symbols of resistance in the decades to come.
As the Ardito declined, Mussolini became bolder. In 1922, he led a march of 25,000 Blackshirts on Rome, staging a coup d’etat. He proclaimed that the age of socialism was dead and a new order celebrating courage, unity, strength, and nation were at hand. Using the powers of the state, Mussolini removed the last vestiges of the Ardito from Italy.
Over the next decade, many anti-fascist groups tried and failed to come together to build a common program to fight Mussolini. Internationally, both fascist and anti-fascist struggles sprouted across Europe. Mussolini became the face of the new world order.
Cracks from within
Mussolini’s vision was totalitarianism. Using his Secret Police, he waged a war against all dissident voices in Italy. Some resistance continued the fight from abroad. For example, the Concentrazione d’Azione Antifascista (Anti-Fascist Action Concentration), was founded by expatriated Italians in France. Many resistance groups grew among the Slovenes and Croats in areas annexed by Italy during World War I. Some of the most successful agitations were conducted by these groups. As Mussolini’s Secret Police kept uncovering and destroying systems of the resistance, many anti-fascist Italians left their home and began organizing campaigns in remote mountainous regions.
Anti-fascist resistance kept getting broken down in Mussolini’s Italy, but each time, resistance grew up again. The draconian nature of Mussolini’s state showed that it was never able to completely get rid of resistance. Mussolini welcomed this, as his fascism was an eternal war against aspects of society that would protect the weak and helpless.
As Mussolini brought Italy into World War II, stories of repression by the Secret Police grew. As Italy began losing in World War II, the strength and confidence in the fascist state began to weaken. Italy began losing wars in Africa, which eventually led to the Allies invading from the south. Mussolini suffered a massive blow with the capture of Sicily in Southern Italy, where Mussolini was arrested and deposed. As Italy was losing in World War II, Germany came to Mussolini’s rescue. Germany conquered Northern Italy and declared Mussolini the leader of the new Italian Social Republic in Northern Italy. The new arrangement resulted in the Italian Civil War, where anti-fascist forces, known as the Partisans, would fight Mussolini and his remaining followers in Italy. In April 1945, the Partisans won the civil war, leading to the 25 April Liberation.
The 25 April Liberation was followed by the execution of Fascist leaders. It was not a revolution, but it led to some changes. The following year, a referendum was held regarding the status of the monarchy. Owing to their dubious role in the fascist years, the referendum went against the monarchy and Italy became a Republic. Most of Italy’s conquered territories in Europe and Africa were given independence. It is important to remember the long struggle the people of Italy went through in fighting fascism in their time.
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