March on Rome

March on Rome
March on Rome

The October 1922 March on Rome entered into the mythology of Benito Mussolini's National Fascist Party as the moment when the Fascists conclusively demonstrated their power over the Italian government and people.

In fact, they had already displayed their collective ability to destroy law and order, to undermine parliamentary rule, and to attract the support of Italians fearful either of falling out of the lower middle class or of losing their extensive property holdings pending a socialist revolution.

Thus, the march symbolized the transfer of power and authority that had already occurred when the king had refused to proclaim martial law against the Fascists and had then invited Mussolini to become prime minister.

Immediately after World War I, Italians received universal suffrage. Electoral politics acquired a new tone as peasants and workers began to vote. The failure of the Popular Party and the Italian Socialists (PSI) to cooperate in the chamber of deputies, despite their shared concern for Italy's poor and working class, created an opportunity for Mussolini and fatally weakened parliamentary democracy in the country.

In the elections of 1920, the PSI had acquired control over Milan, Bologna, 25 provincial councils, and 2,200 district councils. These victories dislodged and irritated traditional elites. Some smaller landed proprietors also sympathized with the Fascist efforts to eviscerate the PSI, as many had managed to secure land only in recent years and feared that they would have it taken away.

Given the notable labor strife and class conflict in urban, industrialized areas, Mussolini attracted the support of major industrialists, including Alberto Pirelli and Giovanni Agnelli (Fiat).

Meanwhile, nationalists continued to harbor bitter feelings about the government that had accepted the Treaty of Versailles, which had awarded Italy almost none of the territory that it had expected to gain upon allying with the Triple Entente during World War I.

They wanted to erase memories of the snubs suffered by Italy at the hands of her erstwhile war partners. A large number of veterans and lower-ranking soldiers undertook paramilitary activities on behalf of the Fascists as well as appearing in Fascist rallies.

By late 1920 the Fascists had control over life in much of northern Italy. Local Fascist leaders such as Italo Balbo used intimidation to wrest control of cities and towns from elected socialist governments. By mid-1921 the Fascist militias were often assistants to the official police forces.

Conservatives and government officials generally ignored the Fascist contributions to public violence; indeed, many appreciated the militancy and virility of the Fascists as crucial to the restoration of Italian national honor.

Mussolini adeptly shifted his rhetoric and program in the interests of retaining his new group of supporters. He virtually eliminated references to class conflict and social revolution, replacing them with evocations of the need for discipline and strong leadership in Italy.

The queen mother and the duke of Aosta avidly supported the Fascist movement. He also placated the Roman Catholic Church by avoiding anticlerical rhetoric and by cultivating good relations with the new pope, Pius XI (elected in 1922), who worried about communism far more than any possible threat from the Fascists.

Having amassed such support among propertied and influential Italians, Mussolini could contemplate seizing power. This proved unnecessary, however, since the existing government had already lost control over the country.

While heading to Naples for the Fascist Party Congress in late October 1922, Mussolini threatened that the Fascists would seize power following a mass march to Rome if they did not receive at least five ministerial posts. Prime Minister Facta asked the king to declare martial law in order to prevent such a march, but the king refused.

Instead, he suggested a coalition government. Mussolini rejected the proposal, anticipating a complete victory if he was patient. This expectation was fulfilled on October 29, 1922, when King Victor Emmanuel asked him to form a government.

The March on Rome of approximately 30,000 Fascists thus served little practical purpose except as a celebration of having achieved power. Mussolini himself reached the outskirts of Rome by rail. Wearing a suit and walking into Rome at the head of his ill-clad band of Fascists, Mussolini looked every inch the bourgeois politician on whom the traditional elites of Italy could rely.