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On the warm Monday evening of April 4, 1921, in the grand hall of the Piatto della Marfisa in the northern Italian town of Ferrara, a 37-year-old, one-time schoolteacher-turned-political journalist and former Socialist Party activist named Benito Mussolini addressed an audience of 15,000 men, women and children on the subject of their nation’s future as it was to be determined in the following month’s general election.

“People of Ferrara!” Mussolini began, turning to cast his blowtorch black eyes over his audience, arms folded across his ill-fitting wartime army tunic. “We Fascists have a great love for the working classes…. That love does not lie in burning incense or in creating new idols and gods. It consists in telling upon every occasion and in every place the plain truth, and the more this truth is unpalatable the greater the need to speak it.

“How does it come about that we Fascists are said to be sold to the bourgeoisie, capitalism, and the government?” Mussolini inquired. “Even our enemies know it to be ridiculous. This impressive meeting would move a heart harder than mine, and proves that we shall vanquish the calumnies of our opponents, who wrongly believe in the eternity of their fortunes, while in reality they have barricaded themselves in a castle that will fall with the first puff of breath of a Fascist revolt.

Fascism has proved sufficiently elastic to be used as a term of abuse across the political spectrum.

“And this Fascist revolt—we might even use the more sacred and serious word revolution—this Fascist revolution is inspired by indestructible moral values that transcend the merely material…. We Fascists say that above all the competition and the differences which divide men, there is a single reality common to all, and it is the reality of the nation and of the land to which we are bound, as the tree is bound by its roots to the soil which nourishes it.”

Mussolini’s audience was spellbound. He had clearly mastered the orator’s art of pausing at strategic points, stepping back for a moment from the podium, and of varying the effect of his words by dropping his voice. Basking in the applause, he turned to snap out a series of stiff-armed Roman salutes, having at one time remarked that he considered both the traditional wave and the handshake to be “unmanly” and “fey.”

Then Mussolini reached the climactic summation of his speech:

People of Italy! We are confident that our flags, after having saluted the dead, will smile on us, because we have found the true path that had once been forgotten. We have cast off all those craven politicians who have filled our heads with their lying fables. We, oh Italians of Ferrara, have no need to go beyond our borders, beyond the seas, in order to find the promised world of wisdom and of life…. We have no need to imitate others, because all the brilliant original minds of all branches of civilization and of all doctrines are to be found in Italy.

The crowd, which by then had hoisted dozens of patriotic banners, gave the speaker a long standing ovation.

Encouraged, Mussolini’s voice rose as he announced:

Here, O people, is your history! Here, O people of Ferrara, is your life! Here, O people of Italy, is your future! And we, who have undertaken this hard battle, which has cost us tens and hundreds of lives, we do not ask you for your treasure, we do not ask for your blood. [Another roar of approval erupted.] We only ask you for one thing, namely that you shall shout out with us “Long Live Italy!”

The speech at Ferrara represented the first of many delirious mass rallies by Mussolini and his nascent party over the next few years, and as such can be said to mark the true origin of the modern fascist movement. Mussolini’s remarks were notable, too, for deploying many of the themes and oratorical techniques that came to characterize the cause as a whole. There was the vainglorious appeal to the audience’s morals; the selective reminder of their nation’s illustrious past, with a concomitant warning about the future; the denunciation of her perceived enemies from within and without; the speaker’s identification with the “common man” in his eternal struggle with the political elites; the resulting desire for cultural regeneration and unity of purpose; and, above all, an agenda long in its broad espousal of a radical nationalism transcending class lines but short on specific policy proposals.

Fascism was born in the trenches of the Great War, and it took as its particular foe the ranks of the established, patrician political class. 

In Italy’s general election that followed on May 15, 1921, the Socialists won 122 parliamentary seats, while the newly-formed Fascists took 35. As often happened in the Italian legislatures of the time, no single party commanded a working majority, leading to a year of failed political alliances and worsening levels of street violence. Out of the chaos, some 20,000 Fascists marched on Rome on the night of Oct. 27, 1922, to demand the resignation of the ineffective Liberal prime minister Luigi Facta. The following morning, the Italian King, Victor Emmanuel III, bowed to the inevitable and appointed Mussolini, who wore a richly tasseled fez for the occasion, as the head of a new, Fascist administration.

Early Manifestations

Although a defining moment, this was far from the first manifestation of fascism as a legitimate political entity. The Jacobin movement in late 18th-century France could be seen as a foreshadowing of the fascist state with its totalitarian approach to government and ruthless suppression of opposition. According to the British historian David Thomson, the Risorgimento of 1871,with its violent annexation of outlying provinces into the Kingdom of Italy, similarlyprovided a logical, chronological link to “the nemesis of Mussolini’s Fascism.” William L. Shirer wrote of a continuity of views of Kant and Hegel, through Bismarck, to the likes of Mussolini and Hitler. In 1909, the Italian poet-turned-political agitator Filippo Marinetti published his Futurist Manifesto, in which he denounced the “entrenched mediocrity” of successive governments that he believed had corrupted his nation’s public institutions. Marinetti advocated for a new, forward-looking Italian society that would “glorify war—the world’s only hygiene,” and in general exalted patriotism, dynamism and constant change while denigrating hidebound tradition, complacency, unearned privilege and stagnation—what some might now refer to as “the swamp.”

Fascism has been applied equally to the Marxist-Leninist regimes in Cuba under Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh’s rule of Vietnam.

After front-line service in the Great War, Marinetti founded the Partito Politico Futurista, which in 1920 merged with Mussolini’s still loosely defined party. The involvement of the playwright-warrior Gabrielle D’Annunzio and the conductor Arturo Toscanini gave the Italian fascist movement a veneer of artistic sophistication. A significant number of ex-soldiers, unable or unwilling to readjust to civilian life, furnished the cause with a well-deserved reputation for violence. According to the historian Nicholas Farrell, “Many wore black shirts at meetings, and carried clubs, knuckle-dusters, riding crops, and black flags…. They were united by the war and the vittoria mutilata; by nationalism; by the new; by anti-clericalism (not God necessarily); and by a hatred of both socialism and privilege.”

Since then, the word fascism has proved sufficiently elastic to be used as a term of abuse across the political spectrum. It has been applied equally to the Marxist-Leninist regimes in Cuba under Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh’s rule of Vietnam. The term has also been used to disparage Western leaders from Winston Churchill to Donald Trump. In 1944, George Orwell reflected on the definition of fascism: “The word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless…. Those who recklessly fling the word in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal, and anti-working class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathisers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist.’”

At least as Mussolini envisioned it, fascism was a distinctly modernist concept. It was born in the trenches of the Great War, and it took as its particular foe the ranks of the established, patrician political class and its allies in the church, whom they blamed for the Italian state’s steady decline almost from the moment of its formation in 1871. Like communism, fascism regarded violence as morally justified, if not imperative, in the interests of national survival. It was militaristic, nationalistic, spiritualistic (as opposed to narrowly Christian, or Roman Catholic), and it believed that what was important was not the pursuit of material wealth but of moral fiber.

At least as Mussolini envisioned it, fascism was a distinctly modernist concept.

The clearest statement of fascism’s core principles, the Dottrina delFascismo, co-authored by Mussolini in 1932, wrote that “Our ideal man is an individual insofar as he is [of the] nation and patria, and that moral law which clasps together individuals and generations in a tradition and a mission which suppresses the instinct for the limited life of a short-term pleasure to establish as a duty a superior life free of limits and space; a life in which the individual, by means of the abnegation of self, the sacrifice of his own interests, even of his own life, achieves that wholly spiritual existence in which lies his value as a man….”

The movement took its name from the classic Roman symbol of unity—an ax bound in rods, or fasces—and Mussolini himself frequently applied the word to reflect a sense of individual citizens coming together in like-minded alliance. He exalted the communal quality of the state, not merely its entrenched or vociferous right wing, as we might conceive it today. One of the Italian Fascist Party’s guiding principles lay in its belief that the central government should use its powers of taxation to curb the excesses of capitalism, a proposition more suggestive of a Bernie Sanders than of a Donald Trump.

In fact, fascism, as Mussolini applied the word, was not “right-wing” or “far right,” at all. It was nationalist, certainly, in the sense that it extolled the values of ancient Rome, while simultaneously demanding a social and cultural renaissance that would be largely agrarian and populist, not bourgeois and intellectual. It favored a distinctly Italian art, music, literature and language. But it was not specifically racist. In 1932, Mussolini told the German journalist Emil Ludwig: “Naturally there is no such thing as a pure race, not even a Jewish one…. Race: It is a sentiment, not a reality; it is 95 percent emotion. I don’t believe that it is possible to prove biologically that a race is more or less pure….”

The Dottrina del Fascismo added that “a race does not exist, but only a people and an Italian nation. There does not exist a Jewish race or nation, but a Jewish people. There does not exist, the gravest error of all, an Aryan race.”

Mussolini and the Church

The rise to power of the Fascist Party under Mussolini, known in his youth as a mangiaprete—priest-eater—did not, perhaps, bode well for the Roman Catholic Church. But again, we should be wary of accepting the received wisdom that sees the Italian state of 1922-45 as a radically secular, right-wing dictatorship. Once in power, Mussolini’s first education reforms made provision of a copy of the Bible and a crucifix compulsory in every classroom and revived the long-abandoned teaching of Scripture in primary schools. When Emil Ludwig inquired in 1932 if Mussolini believed in God, he replied: “In my youth I did not believe at all…. But in recent years the belief has gathered strength in me that there may well be a divine force in the universe.”

His differences with the state church were political, not spiritual. Mussolini came to see the diplomatically active Pope Pius XI as the head of a sort of shadow Italian government, writing that the church should be left free in “all that concerns the salvation of souls,” but warning, “We shall fight them...the moment they try to trespass in the political, social and artistic fields.” In an attempt to regulate this division of power, Mussolini advanced the three agreements that collectively became known as the Lateran Accords of February 1929. As a result, the Vatican became an independent state that recognized and was recognized by secular Italy—1.75 billion lire changed hands by way of compensation for the loss of the pope’s temporal power—while Mussolini decreed Catholicism “the religion of the land” but agreed that other faiths were “tolerated.”

Mussolini’s differences with the state church were political, not spiritual.

Although fascism has come to be used as a uniform pejorative term for both the Mussolini and Hitler regimes, the German version of the movement was quite distinct from the Italian. Whatever else can be said of them, the Nazis were not modernists. Their party’s essential philosophy, if it could be so dignified, lay in its seemingly paradoxical marriage of political and cultural conservatism, underpinned by a highly selective reading of Germanic folklore, with convenient technological innovation. At bottom, Hitler and his singularly unappealing henchmen aspired to recreate the mythical Aryan race.

Both the German and Italian strains of mid-20th-century fascism did, it’s true, come to espouse an odious and ultimately genocidal anti-Semitism as an instrument of state policy. For Hitler, the justification—if it may be called that—of his regime’s systematic extermination of his nation’s ethnic minorities lay in his preoccupation with sex and the adulteration of German blood.

While it scarcely mitigates the horror of the resulting policy, Mussolini’s own gradual embrace of anti-Semitism was of a less pseudo-biological and more politically cynical nature. Following the Anschluss of March 1938 and Hitler’s triumphant visit to Rome, the Italian leader seems to have accepted the wisdom of bringing his state’s fundamental domestic policies into alignment with those of his principal ally. It was the price of friendship with Germany. Italy’s first anti-Semitic laws were soon in place.

Despite the 1938 laws and the subsequent exclusion of about 7,000 “Israelites [and] other undesirables” from the armed forces, along with a small number expelled from Italian schools and universities, Italy remained a place of comparative safety for both local Jews and European Jewish refugees until Mussolini’s abrupt fall from power in July 1943. Subsequently installed as a puppet dictator under German supervision, Mussolini conspired in the deaths of an estimated 7,680 of Italy’s 44,000 Jews, the majority of them deported to Auschwitz.

Flirting With Fascism

In time, the blueprint of Italian Fascism was emulated to one degree or another by the Yugoslav Radical Union, the Russian Fascist Organization, the National Romanian Movement and Francisco Franco’s Falangist Party, which dominated Spanish politics from 1937 to 1977.

The Italian constitution enacted in December 1947 formally outlawed the fascist movement as organized by Mussolini, although a number of successor groups have emerged to carry on its legacy. The regimes of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay and Luis García Meza Tejada’s Bolivia have all, in their way, flirted with variants of Mussolini-like fascism, united not so much by racial theory as by an extreme—and on occasion brutally violent—distaste for the spread of Soviet-style communism. At various times, the British National Party, the National Front and today’s United Kingdom Independence Party have all been accused of pandering to a broadly populist, authoritarian, xenophobic and, at base, anti-immigrant sentiment.

It is hard to apply the term fascist with any reasonable degree of historical accuracy to the late U.S. administration of Donald Trump.

It is hard to apply the term fascist with any reasonable degree of historical accuracy to the late U.S. administration of Donald Trump, who seems not so much to have been distinguished by a quasi-mystical ideology of the sort embraced by Hitler and Mussolini as to have been simply making it all up as he went along. Trump was once a Democrat, then a Republican, and then, in time, a president with a policy agenda dominated by economic nationalism, unfettered capitalism, the merits of a strong military and greatly enhanced border controls, and above all by the self-aggrandizement of the president himself.

Today, a century after Mussolini galvanized the masses in his speech at Ferrara, there are extremists at work on both the left and right whom we may be tempted to stigmatize as “fascist.” But within that term of opprobrium there lies an unusually wide range of opinion: wide in the surrounding political context, and wide in the comparative extremism of the views expressed. Fascism and fascist have been promiscuously applied as terms of abuse for those whom we regard as moral pariahs. The danger is that we cheapen the insult by constant repetition and reckless misuse. The danger, in the end, is that the word fascist will lose its power to shock.

The “religious conception of life, which aims to create a truly spiritual society,” as Mussolini once defined the movement, may no longer be a serious contender in our modern Western politics. The very word fascism cannot be used without reflexive scorn in most civilized conversation. But traces of its original incarnation still survive.

The danger is that we cheapen the insult by constant repetition and reckless misuse. The danger, in the end, is that the word fascist will lose its power to shock.

In April 1945, Mussolini was executed by Italian partisans and strung up by his feet to be abused by a mob in the main square of Milan. Less well known is the fact that in 1957 the centrist Christian Democrat administration of Adone Zoli returned Mussolini’s body to his widow Rachele, who reinterred her husband in a splendid marble tomb in Predappio, the small central Italian town where he was born in 1883.

Between 100,000 and 150,000 tourists make the pilgrimage to his tomb each year, and often leave effusive remarks in the visitors’ book on the nearby lectern. A friend recently sent me the wording of one such tribute that appeared in January 2021, the beginning of the centenary year of the movement Mussolini made notorious the world over. “Fascism is the only remedy for the madness of humanity,” it read.

I am told that many of these visitors have no qualms about standing at attention in front of the mausoleum’s entrance, often dressed in black shirts, and snapping out a fascist salute.

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