by Charles Tocci
The specter of fascism hazes our view of Italy. The black shirts, Mussolini’s outsized visage under a fez, and the fascist salute bound around the public imagination as free-floating symbols. This fuzzy relationship between the past and history hampers our ability to clearly understand and learn from the Mussolini regime. It obscures the lived experience of millions of Italians under fascism from its emergence in 1919 through its installation as the Italian state in 1922 to the end of World War II.
John M Foot, professor of modern Italian history at the University of Bristol, reconstructs the microhistories of Italian life under fascism in his new book, Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism. In clear and compelling writing, Foot brings us into the experience where “[i]ndividual and collective violence became commonplace. Politics and violence became inseparable.” This upends notions that Mussolini was a benign and beneficial ruler for Italy or that fascism oppresses all its citizens equally. Instead, what emerges is a stark picture of how domination came to organize everyday life and provide continual opportunities for those willing to use force in the service of the state. Blood and Power draws on the stories of a number of Italians from different walks of life to illuminate existence under fascism, reconstructions made possible by the voluminous detailed files the state maintained on citizens.
We used Blood and Power as a springboard to discuss the public memory of fascism, nonviolent resistance, and what this history means for the Italian diaspora.
Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tocci: One of the historical misunderstandings people have about fascism is something like, “well, if I personally don’t feel oppressed by the state, then this can’t be fascism.” But Blood & Power illustrates everyone had a relationship to the violence that became inseparable from politics. How did that become acceptable to so many Italians during the era?
Foot: Fascism’s contribution to Twentieth Century politics—there are many of them —was very original in its organized violence for political ends. It organized itself as a miniature military operation, as a party militia, and that had never been done before. And it was very, very effective. They acted as an army of occupation but it was very small groups. They were willing to do anything and that was something that neither the state, which kind of stood by, or the people they’re attacking had any real answer to at that time.
A few times you discuss individuals or groups that tried to work for nonviolent responses to the fascist violence, but they were either poorly organized or ineffective. Do you see opportunities where a nonviolent response could have been successful, or a counterfactual where it might have played a bigger role?
Many of the leading socialists were nonviolent, and said, “turn the other cheek.” What happened to them was that they were swept away! But the other kind of classic response of the workers’ movement to violence is a general strike. They very much believed in this organized Marxist idea that the power of the working class would overcome the fascists. It never worked. The general strikes generally played into the hands of the fascists. They would use them for propaganda or use them to crush unions further, so that that was a very ineffective tactic. It showed that people were floundering around with this new organization—the squadistri, the black shirts. They didn’t really know what to do.
When they tried to beat the fascists in elections, they usually could, but that didn’t make any difference. The fascist never won an election. The most they got in a free election, and even that one was very violent, as in 1921; they got thirty-five deputies, and even then because they were in other lists. They weren’t standing on their own. The fascists were never going to win an election.
What is at the core of that resilience behind the success for the fascists?
Take the way they operated in 1921-22. They’d arrive in a town. They would target buildings and individuals. They had no regard for the law. They had no regard for morals. They had no regard for mercy. If the state had been willing or able to crush them—in a normal situation you would have thought the police would arrest them or the army would stop them—but by that time there was so much collusion and connivance, and actual interlinking between fascism, the state, and the army that this was never going to happen. They were unbeatable, partly because they had the state behind them.
The way they acted was without any sort of compunction for the norms of liberal society and that had never been seen before. It would be seen again in Nazi Germany, in Spain, and in Portugal. It set out a marker for a successful overthrow of a democratic state.
Your book was well timed with an upsurge of talk about fascism internationally. There’s Meloni and the Brothers of Italy, Trump and the January 6th insurrection, and we just had the election in Brazil that removed Bolsonaro. But what were unique conditions that help usher in the Mussolini regime?
I think it’s unique that the First World War [was] a war that will never happen again in that way. Mussolini called it “the trenchocracy,” that particular creation of a violent group of young men. And then there was the fear of the Bolshevik revolution, which was very real in Italy. There [was] a very powerful upsurge in left wing organization and action in 1920. It’s this radical combination of some parts of socialism, radical nationalism, violence, anti-democracy, and anti-liberalism all coming together for the fascists to take state power, which is really the crucial moment. The liberals thought they could control this: “You know these people are kind of pretty horrible. They’re pretty violent compared to the way that we operate. But we can control them. They’re quite useful to us.” But that was one of the great miscalculations in history.
In terms of today, there’s certainly a debate to be had about new forms of fascism. But I think we need to be careful not to just use that word. Everyone means something different by that word that no one really agrees what that word means. But certainly when I was at home watching CNN and January 6th, I just thought “March on Rome.” It had a lot of similarities, but also it was in some ways less effective and less organized.
What we have now is a kind of global authoritarian populism working within democracy, and in a very dangerous way, undermining democracy from within democracy. It’s borrowing from fascism, but it’s also very modern, using social media and other forms of communication. I can see why the debate should be had, but I don’t think it really gets us anywhere.
You’ve got someone like Meloni, who directly comes out of that tradition. She joined the near-fascist party as a teenager, but she’s become a much more moderate politician to get elected. But if you dig into her entourage and her party, you find a lot of people with Mussolini on their walls. Are they fascists to a certain extent? Yes. Are they operating within democracy? Yes, so it’s not straightforward. History never repeats itself in the same way.
Has anything been more wrong than the guy who said it was the “end of history”—democracy triumphs!— in 1991?
I think Fukuyama has even backed off on that. I remember growing up with the sense that after the Berlin Wall fell, we were living out the string. All the big things were done!
I wonder when it starts to change, when the moment is that we’ll look back on. It’s too early to tell. What’s the first piece of the jigsaw that comes down? Is it Russian democracy, which probably never really had that many roots, anyway? The idea that democracy would flourish in Eastern Europe hasn’t proven to be the case in many countries.
There’s a very interesting debate going on about what Trump is and the global connections, because authoritarians borrow off each other. Often I think people forget that, and Italy is seen as a bit of a joke that borrows from a little stereotype about Italy not being a serious country, or you know, food and dancing around with musical instruments or something. But you simply don’t get German fascism without Italian fascism.
Were there any particular stories that you couldn’t fit into the book that you wished had?
The book is structured around individual biographies. The idea of the book was to take a certain number of people, trace their stories, and then write the general history around that. It was quite complicated to try and get that right. I started off with a lot more people and some of them have to fall by the wayside.
One of them was a guy called Guido Miglioli, who’s a radical Catholic, and he was one of the main targets of fascists early on. He was from Cremona, which was a very strong fascist center, where there was a guy called Roberto Farinacci, who was a very violent squadistra. Miglioli organized peasants in strikes and was a powerful, vocal pacifist. Farinacci targeted him immediately: burned down his house and forced Miglioli into exile in Russia.
There was Francesco Zanardi, who was mayor of Bologna. He was called the “mayor of bread” because he organized all these bread ovens for the poor and cooperatives, among other things, from 1914-1920. Zanardi was a very moderate figure, but very popular in the city. Fascists hated him, so Zanardi was targeted very early on. And I tell a bit of that story, but the archives are great material because the fascists followed people everywhere and kept everything. You can trace people’s lives, like every train they took because the secret police followed them right through the Thirties. Zanardi gets kicked out of Bologna. He gets arrested. He gets sent to internal exile, and then every time he comes back to Bologna, they try to beat him up. He’s in his eighties, you know. So it’s just amazing these stories of people who go through these odysseys.
In the introduction you write about your Italian family members. What do you think the memory of the fascist era means to Italian diaspora communities? And what are our responsibilities to this history?
We’re talking about a couple of generations back now. How does that memory get transmitted? How does it not get transmitted? The story I tell about my great-grandmother was one that was told to me by my dad. I never knew her. I think there’s some really interesting stuff going on now about people looking back at their great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers. It’s something that happened a bit more in Germany, but it’s happening in Italy. Barbara Serra, the broadcaster, made a film for Al Jazeera about her fascist grandfather (Fascism in the Family).
Italy didn’t go through a de-fascistification program. Even some of the big fascists were just hanging around. They became a part of life. People like Dino Grandi still had a newspaper, and he’d been a pretty important fascist. He’d got away with it because he deposed Mussolini at the end.
There are a lot of fascinating stories. A lot of immigrant communities were quite enthusiastic about fascism and there’s been some interesting work on that. Some of them are anti-fascist, some of them weren’t. You’ve got embarrassing bits of memory like the Balbo monument you’ve got right on your doorstep (Chicago). There’s the myth of certain fascists who are somehow seen as non-fascist, and that Italian American myth was particularly powerful with Balbo because of the flights across the Atlantic.
Chicago’s major Columbus statue, the one in Grant Park, was a gift from Mussolini to the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Columbus statues have become a real flashpoint across the United States and even into Canada. What thoughts do you have about how we should represent the Italian diaspora in our public history?
You’re deep in the culture wars there and that’s a global issue. I live in Bristol, where we took down a statue and threw it in the river, which is pretty incredible. Columbus for some people is a hero and for some people he’s an imperious murderer. Those are great debates to have and you can talk about the monuments, about how to contextualize them.
Balbo is interesting because he kind of gets away with it, partly because of the aviation and partly because he [died] in 1940. He’s got a good reputation, which is really weird, and I actually go [after that] a bit in the book. He’s remembered to be against the anti-Semitic rules, but it isn’t really true. There are monuments to him in Italy as well. In my opinion, they shouldn’t really be there.
But that intertwining of fascism and democracy is really interesting, and of course, the diaspora is so vast that it affects every corner of the world. The Second World War was a disaster for the diaspora in Britain. Italians were rounded up and put in camps, even the anti-fascists. And there’s some terrible stories, like the Arandora Star. Terrible things happened because of Mussolini, and I suppose those memories should be talked about more.
We haven’t talked about this much, Meloni’s election is interesting from the point of view of anti-fascism, in the sense that the reaction to it has been very muted. I think that’s due to generational change in the sense that there’s hardly anyone left from the Second World War. They were such a presence in Italian society and politics. In 1994, I was in Milan when Berlusconi brought the first ex-fascist into the government. There were huge demonstrations, but nothing with Meloni. Really, anti-fascism isn’t a driving force anymore, and I don’t think that’s going to come back. How do you educate a new generation about what fascism was?
Especially if parties sympathetic to fascism are in power and directing what education looks like.
Meloni is very clever. When she’s asked about her connection with fascism, she doesn’t talk about it. She says, I’m against all regimes. I’m against communism. I’m against socialism. It’s a very clever strategy for normalizing and making everything the same. The answer to that should be, but Italy really had fascism. It didn’t have communism in power. But no one ever puts that answer to her, so she can get away with saying some bland thing about all regimes with that normalization. It’ll be really interesting to see how they deal with memory. That’s going to be a fascinating test for them.