The following talk was given at Memorial Library on Thursday, 4 August 2022. For an overview of the afternoon read Libby Theune’s “Summer Scholars Share Insights on Interwar European Politics.”
The call for applications for 2023 Mosse-Friends Fellowships is now open.
First, let me thank Skye Doney, of the George L. Mosse Program, and Libby Theune, of the Friends of the UW-Libraries, for inviting me to be here today. This means a lot to me, and I’m really honored and excited to speak to you here in Madison.
Well, let’s move on the title of my paper: Nationalists and Fascists in Interwar Italy.
Today, our readings and interpretations of fascism are usually rather sloppy, considering it more authoritarian than totalitarian, a phenomenon which was embraced not only by all of interwar Europe, from France to Romania, from Scandinavia to Greece, but also a global ideology diffused from Brazil to Japan and still lively in the second post-war age (from Perón to Trump), as an immortal being perpetually threatening our democracies.
My research is crucial for avoiding such a trivialization and shining a brighter light on Italian Fascism, the European history of the interwar dictatorships, and right-wing radical movements and parties.
Nationalists and/or fascists provided the leading elements in all the most significant European dictatorships of the far right. Despite this, it is amazing that nobody has as of yet analyzed this relationship in Italy, namely in the country not only where fascism was born, but also in the first country where a fascist party seized power, influencing — directly or indirectly — all the other European antidemocratic right-wing movements.
The Italian Nationalist Association was founded in 1910. Within a few years it had acquired a clear ideology, giving shape to a well-codified doctrine that was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, monarchical, authoritarian, and imperialist. This ideology aimed to shape a strong state, hierarchical, led by a charismatic leader whose intent was to discipline the Italians and throw the country into the international imperialist struggle. The nation they dreamed of, the Grande Italia, had to follow the stages of the race, rooted in the ancient Roman past, and save European civilization from Bolshevik and democratic degeneration.
After 1945, in their memoirs, former nationalists explained their involvement in the Fascist regime by talking about a constant and latent division between themselves and the fascists. Nationalists claimed to have represented the conservative, moderate, and legalitarian wing of fascism and to have worked within the regime, defending the monarchy and institutions and trying to avoid fascist extremist fringes that prevailed.
Can these considerations be accepted?
For many years, historiography did not pay much attention to the topic, considering nationalists and fascists to be two sides of the same coin. Nationalists were simply a pre-fascist ideology.
From the 1960s on, however, fascism became the main subject of studies as a form of radical and palingenetic nationalism, which was different from the nationalist movements and parties founded before the First World War. Fascism was considered a new and original ideology, very different from the authoritarian and conservative right.
In the last twenty years, this discussion has returned and taken a central place within contemporary studies. Nationalism has definitively acquired a specific identity. But today the research tends to highlight the transfers, transactional exchanges, reciprocal influences, and processes of hybridization and cross-fertilization between ideologies, political cultures, movements, and parties. So, the research shows the relationships between nationalist movements in Europe and, following this approach, the process through which fascists, conservatives, and nationalists converge in the field of anti-liberal, expansionist, and imperialist goals. Fascism, in this way, ends up being a phenomenon that synthesizes right-wing ideologies, movements, and parties in its concrete action.
In my research, I have refocused attention back to the Italian case, that is, where the process of hybridization and the fascistization of Europe started. I have analyzed the relationships between nationalists and fascists starting in 1919, when Fascism was born, up to 1943, when the Mussolini government was overthrown. I have examined the nationalists’ political and ideological role within the fascist regime and their relationships with other fascist leaders, keeping in mind the prosopographical methodology alongside the history of institutions, ruling classes, intellectuals, and political cultures.
In general, I have been able to distinguish four phases within the relationship between nationalists and fascists.
The first phase lasted from 1919 to 1924, when the assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti (1885-1924) created a very deep internal crisis within the Fascist party and the Mussolini government.
This phase can be further divided into two unique moments:
The first ends with the March on Rome (1922). Here, the relations between nationalists and fascists were defined, besides a few moments of friction, sometimes even acute, by collaboration. The two parties, along with their paramilitary organizations, acted closely together in attacking and destroying representatives of the socialist, liberal, and Catholic parties.
At the same time, at the ideological level, the nationalists began attempting to influence Fascist ideology by shifting its still ideologically heterogeneous and republican positions towards the right and towards its own doctrine.
The Nationalist Association was an elite party, consisting essentially of intellectuals, journalists, university professors, and students. It was linked to the traditional circles of the monarchy, the army, right-wing liberalism, and the reactionary Catholic world. According to the Nationalist Association, Fascism was to become an army of masses led by a leader committed to implementing the nationalist doctrine.
With the March on Rome and the formation of the first Mussolini government (in which the nationalists also participated), the two parties began to compete locally for control of national territory. Numerous clashes occurred, even with exchanges of gunfire. To put an end to this situation, the two ruling classes decided to quickly merge which instead only made matters worse as the struggle moved to within the Fascist party. Many squadrists, eager to bring about the revolution and therefore already skeptical of Mussolini’s strategy of dialogue with traditional forces, refused to welcome the nationalists into the party. The result was a deep crisis within the party which was about to end the Mussolini government following the assassination of Matteotti.
With the Matteotti crisis begins the second phase that ends in 1929, with the Lateran Treaty with the Catholic Church. Faced with Fascist squads that appeared to be uncontrolled along with a weak government, Mussolini decided to rely on nationalists to restore order in the country. They thus became essential within both the Fascist party and the government (two leading former nationalists, Alfredo Rocco (1875-1935) and Luigi Federzoni (1878-1967), were the directors of the two key departments: Justice and Homeland Security). In the party, the former nationalists helped end the internal dissent (with the expulsion of many early fascists), while in the government (and in Parliament) they enacted a series of legislative measures that transformed the Italian liberal state into an illiberal authoritarian dictatorship. Their actions were always directed by Mussolini and the secretaries of the Fascist party, above all Augusto Turati (1888-1955).
However, in this phase, some ideological differences arose between what the nationalists wanted to be implemented and what Fascism and Mussolini were progressively achieving.
The third phase occurs throughout the 1930s and onwards into the war, during which period the nationalists’ political relevance progressively diminished. They were mostly employed in administrative and bureaucratic positions, as simple executors of the Duce’s decisions: as parliamentarians, prefects, and diplomats. However, their relations with the traditional world and the bourgeois world were crucial in strengthening the Fascist state within those sectors not yet completely penetrated by the regime: the world of high culture and the Senate. Federzoni’s appointment as president of the Senate presents a typical example. He worked alongside the Fascist party secretary Achille Starace (1889-1945) and with the president of the Fascist Union of Senators Giacomo Suardo (1883-1947) and succeeded in transforming the Senate into a totalitarian and fascistized chamber.
Up until the conquest of Ethiopia, the nationalists were also crucial within the world of culture. They were secretaries of the Department of Education, presidents of academies and cultural institutions, university chancellors, and deans of faculties. Just as had happened in the 1920s, their actions were oriented towards regimenting high culture and reorienting its initiatives under the exclusive direction of the government. Meanwhile, they helped spread a precise idea of Fascism, rooting it in the secular history of the Italian nation. In a word, according to the nationalists, Fascism was implementing the secular goals of the nation (while fascists argued that they were bringing about a revolution that aimed to shape a new, entirely fascist civilization). This view did not compromise the regime’s totalitarian aims (for example, youth education was always left as an activity exclusive to the party) but allowed for the legitimization of the regime to the eyes of those traditional (and still prestigious) sectors of Italian society (like the academic world), that in this way were fascistized.
The war years represent the final phase, during which the nationalists no longer held an active political role. Despite this, they approved of the war, at least until 1943. Only in the spring of 1943, with the allied troops at the gates of the country, did they abandon the myth of Mussolini and formed a plan to put the fate of the nation back into the hands of the monarchy.
What is clear from my research is that the nationalists fully participated in the Fascist totalitarian state’s creation, as both protagonists and the faithful executors of the head of government’s will. But in my work I also highlight that, within this scheme, a whole series of deeply different positions emerged with respect to what Fascism was bringing about, especially in the 1930s, when Italy began to accelerate towards totalitarianism. These positions never led to dissent and even less to disillusionment with Fascism (except in very few cases). The nationalists remained convinced until the end that fascism had been nationalized, that — despite the differences — it was still accomplishing (and in part it indeed was) much of which they had dreamt since the beginning of twentieth century.
To mention just three aspects, the restoration of internal order, the Lateran Treaty, and the conquest of Ethiopia demonstrated that this was the right path. It didn’t matter if their political weight and presence were gradually diminishing. The nationalists, especially from the end of the 1920s on, had no role in the shaping of the New Italian Man, in the concrete implementation of the totalitarian state, based on the continuous cross-class mobilization of the masses, or in the anti-bourgeois campaign, in the foundation of the Chamber of Fasces and Corporations (which put into practice the myth of corporatism) or in 1939 Giuseppe Bottai’s (1895-1959) school reform.
With respect to Fascism, they indeed had a profoundly different idea on three key concepts: nation, State, and party. For the nationalists, the nation was a perennial entity, an immutable presupposition that had always existed. They had an organic and naturalistic conception of it, where the single individual had no role, they just had to fulfill the millennial wishes of the nation, which transcended those of the individual. The nationalists’ idea of the nation, therefore, was an idea without a people, one that ended up evading the problem of the nationalization of the masses. The nation of fascists, instead, was a voluntary and humanistic concept that took shape through collective action, gathered into the State. For Fascism, the State creates the nation, whereas for nationalists it was the opposite: the nation created the State. Regarding the State, the nationalists sought to shape a simple barracks, made up of passive and obedient individuals and not an instrument of continuous mobilization comprised of active and faithful militants. In this way, the party had the sole purpose of forming the ruling class, and was composed of very few select members (just as the Nationalist Association was). The nationalists considered Fascism to be the most recent phase of the greater history of Italy, which had begun in antiquity and the Roman classical past. Fascism for them only had the aim of implementing what the Risorgimento had left unfinished and making Italy a great imperialist nation on par with France and England. It simply had to restore the nationalist spirit and shape a strong state. After this, in their opinion, Fascism would disappear and become just another moment within the history of the nation.
The Fascist positions were totally different. The regime sought to shape a new universal civilization that used ancient Rome (but also Catholicism) as a model to give shape to a new, perfect, definitive civilization, capable of totally imbuing the surrounding reality and ending the passage of time. In this way, the war also had different purposes. The concepts of a new order, of revolutionary and social war, which the propaganda of the regime (and above all the circles close to the new generations) recalled, were completely absent in the nationalist debates. According to the nationalists, the war had to be fought to recover possession of national lands and prestige: namely Malta, Nice, Corsica, Savoy, and Dalmatia, and to return to making the Mediterranean an Italian sea as it was in ancient Rome.
So, what are my conclusions?
My research underlines some key elements that I will try to summarize here:
In 1919, the nationalists were the true winners of the war, but they lost the peace because they did not fully understand the new reality of mass politics. They remained elitists, believing they could nationalize fascism and lead the regime’s evolution from above. The history of nationalism is the history of elites (more intellectual than political), who were unable to understand that the war had determined the active participation of the masses and that, therefore, in the post-war period the political game was played via consent and not repression. Imbued with a rigid doctrine, they did not have the capacity to capture the consensus of the population through what George L. Mosse called the new politics, that is a way of conducting politics based on irrationalism, myths, rituals, and liturgy. They tried to model this new politics, though unsuccessfully: they had no charismatic leader able to give shape a modern mass movement (in 1919, the attempt with Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) during the Fiume occupation had failed). In a word, they spoke an old-fashioned language. Nationalism, therefore, appears as the end of a process, the point of arrival for a long journey that, like a river, flows into the Fascism sea, that is a new ideology, born of war and initiated as a response to society and mass politics, which aimed to fuse the masses into a totalitarian system based on the concepts of believing, obeying, and fighting.
Fascism fascistized the nationalists. It used them instrumentally for its own purposes, using their political-intellectual competence and their relations with the traditional classes to serve the regime’s needs. The nationalists thus became the perfect bureaucrats of the regime, feeling themselves fascist until the end, indeed more fascist than the fascists (because in their opinion the regime was carrying out what they had been hoping for since 1910).
On the ideological and political level, this process of fascistization reveals a hybridization trend. Fascism took something of the nationalist ideology and the latter did the same with that of the fascists, defending and spreading with their work elements that were absent in their doctrine. But at its core, this hybridization always had the purposes, will, and goals of Fascism, which tended not so much to use the myths of nationalism, but to fascistize them within its own ideology. In this way, nationalism ultimately strengthened Fascism rather than containing the regime.
Therefore my research, which will shortly be published as a book, goes in a different direction from that which part of historiography has been advancing in the last twenty years. The English historian Aristotle Kallis has in fact underlined how the old nationalist right and the new Fascist right intersected and overlapped in interwar Europe, giving shape to an ideological-political synthesis that pushed the fascists towards compromise and tactical revisions with respect to their original revolutionary spirit and the old nationalist right to radicalize their ideas. Following this trend, other historians have come to argue that until 1939, the conservative right was to prevail in the game of hybridization.
My work, instead, shows that in Italy, things did not progress in that same way and that generalizing does not always mean a better understanding. So, it criticizes both the tendencies to expand the concept of fascism and to read Italian Fascism as a regime very close to other global authoritarian experiences.
Furthermore, in addition to showing how the nationalists ended up becoming Fascists, my study also shows (recalling what Stanley Payne pointed out 40 years ago) that the nationalist right differed from Fascism not by being more moderate or more conservative, but by being more rightist. It was tied more to the existing elites and structure for support. It was unwilling to fully accept cross-class mass mobilization and the implied social, economic, and cultural change demanded by Fascism. In some respects, with regards to violence, authoritarianism, militarism, and imperialism, however, the nationalist right was just as extreme as Fascism.
The nationalists were a sort of bridge. Mussolini and the Fascists were aware of this and used them to ferry Italy from the liberal state to the Fascist state and to deeply fascistize the traditional conservative, liberal, bourgeois, and industrial world, because the nationalist language was more related to the language spoken by and within these circles. But the end goal of the Fascists always remained that of giving shape to a new, wholly Fascist totalitarian regime. On 26 February 1923, when the Nationalist Party merged with the Fascist, nationalism spontaneously flowed into the Fascist political religion because it represented the most modern answer to the dilemmas of mass politics. In that moment, the foundations for overcoming nationalism itself were laid in Italy.
Donatello Aramini has a PhD in Contemporary History. He is a lecturer in Contemporary History at the Department of Political Sciences, Sapienza University of Rome. He has taught History of contemporary Italy and the history of journalism at the Roma Tre University and University of Cassino, and was a 2011 Mosse-Friends Fellow. He is a member of the editorial board of Mondo contemporaneo. His research examines nationalism, Nazism, racism and the history of historiography. He is the author of the book George L. Mosse, l’Italia e gli storici (FrancoAngeli, Milan, 2010) and is currently working on two monographs on nationalism and fascism and on the myth of Rome in fascist Italy.