This week marks the 90th anniversary of the March on Rome. In late October of 1922, Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts mobilized across Italy to march on the capital and demand power. By the time they arrived on October 29, the Italian government had caved to Fascist demands in order to avoid a violent confrontation. Mussolini became Prime Minister and, soon, dictator.
Although many excellent English-language biographies of the Duce are in print - including those of RJB Bosworth and Dennis Mack Smith - George Seldes’ classic 1935 account of Mussolini’s climb to power, Sawdust Caesar, remains special. Seldes’ tale reaches across time to detail how the fascists began their campaign by organizing gangs of thugs who ruled the streets, violently breaking strikes by the powerful Italian trade unions and destroying the offices and printing presses of Italy’s socialist party. Soon these squadristi turned their clubs and castor oil on the Italian Popular Party, precursor to the Christian Democrats, led by the Sicilian priest Luigi Sturzo.
All the while, the big men of Italian politics hesitated to intervene - or even quietly encouraged the demagogue. Their commitment to free elections and the rule of law was weaker than their alarm about the lower classes filling the ranks of the Socialists or the Popolari. They stood aside as the Duce dismantled Italian democracy and assumed total power. With that, they too found themselves shunted aside. It would take American arms to free Italy from fascism.
Recalling anniversaries like these is a useful antidote to the hyperbole that attends our own politics. No matter who wins the upcoming vote, he won’t ban the losing party. Or censor its papers, or have them beaten on the streets, or make them drink castor oil. As we move into the climax of this very excitable season, let’s all take a deep breath and thank God we live in a nation and time where our freedom isn’t REALLY in danger.