John Foot, Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism (Bloomsbury 2022), 432pp. John Foot, Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism (Bloomsbury 2022), 432pp.

John Foot’s Blood and Power explodes the myths of Mussolini’s fascism in a powerful book drawn from contemporary experiences, finds Chris Bambery

John Foot’s Blood and Power was written to mark the centenary of Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism taking power in October 1922. Violence was central to fascism, before it took power and during the dictatorship, as Foot argues, ‘it was fundamental, visceral, epochal and life changing’, and lay at the very heart of the two decades of Fascist rule’ (p.3).

From the moment the first fascist squads took up arms they celebrated the violence they employed. A crucial moment came in November 1921, after the Socialist Party had achieved great success in local elections, including winning a majority of Bologna’s city council. The new Mayor, Ennio Gnudi, stepped out onto the balcony of the council building to address crowds of Socialist Party supporters. As he did so, firing began and pandemonium broke out. Blackshirts attacked the town hall in order to stop the left taking control. The Socialist ‘red guards’ were no match for them, especially when the police joined in on the fascist’s side.

Eleven people were killed that day, and Gnudi never became Mayor of Bologna. The election was cancelled by the representatives of the central government, the prefect and police chief, both of whom were informed at least three days earlier of the fascists’ violent intentions, but did nothing, a pattern repeated over and over. The fascists had achieved a spectacular victory and would continue to employ violence to the end.

By the summer of 1922 they were in control in much of the country. The left had no coherent answer. The new Communist Party dismissed the idea that Mussolini could take power and relegated the fascists to being just another pro-capitalist party, a stance that was to be repeated eleven years later in Germany.

The fascists did receive reverses in Rome and Parma at the hands of the Arditi del Popola, anti-fascist ex-soldiers. But both the Socialists and Communists refused to support them for sectarian reasons. Fascist violence continued. It was only after Mussolini took power that the fascists dared to strike in Turin, the centre of the working class. Piero Brandimarte, head of the Blackshirts in the city, described the ferocious massacre of at least eleven antifascists in December 1922 as ‘pure revenge, organised and led by me … we wanted to inflict a terrible lesson on Torinese subversives’ (p.138).

Myths of Italian fascism

The myth of the regime was that it came to power with a revolution, the March on Rome, in October 1922. In reality, the army kept the Blackshirts away from the capital, but when the government tried to get the king to declare a state of emergency, the military told him they would not enforce it or engage the fascists. The king then invited Mussolini to form a government, and he arrived in Rome by sleeper train. Only then did the fascist squads enter the capital, to be addressed by Mussolini who ordered them home, although they went on the rampage, hunting down leftists and anti-fascists to inflict revenge.

So it was not quite the comic opera as it is often portrayed. Some fifty people died; it was a very violent event, a coup which destroyed parliamentary democracy and would inflict on Italy a brutal one-party state which suppressed free speech and any association independent of the state.

After the moderate socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, who had defiantly stood up in parliament to relentlessly condemn fascist terror, had been abducted off the street in Rome, stabbed to death in the car and then buried in the country outside the city in June 1924, mass protest erupted and the regime seemed fragile. The murderers, it transpired, were men in Mussolini’s entourage.

Mussolini bided his time, sensing the opposition, which withdrew from parliament to attempt to set up a rival assembly, would do nothing more than issue words, in which he was correct. He then made a speech brazenly accepting responsibility for the violence, and implicitly Matteotti’s murder, stating: ‘If all of the violence was a result of a specific historic, political and moral climate, I have created that climate with propaganda since the intervention’ (p.153).

One of the myths about Italian fascism was that, unlike its counterpart in Germany, it was not antisemitic, but as Foot shows, while Mussolini would not turn on the Jews until the late 1930s, antisemitism was always present among the squadristi and their leaders. Post war, many Italians accepted a new myth of the ‘Good Italian’ contrasted with the evil German Nazi, that Mussolini’s was a soft, even benign, dictatorship contrasting with Hitler’s. It took a long time to address the complicity of individual Fascists and the Fascist state in relation to the Holocaust. The brutal violence, including the mass use of chemical weapons in the colonial wars in Libya and Ethiopia, plus Italian war crimes in occupied territories, particularly Yugoslavia, was similarly ignored.

Bismarck once observed that Italy had a big appetite but small teeth. It did not have the industrial and military power to match Nazi Germany’s genocide, but the genocidal impulse was there. The invasion of Ethiopia was a key turning point. It had to be justified on dreadful, racist lines, and then antisemitism emerged in full view, culminating in the 1938 race laws prohibiting Jews from participating in public life, excluding them from schooling for instance. These laws were not imposed on Mussolini by Hitler, they were 100% Italian.

With their citizenship removed, Italian Jews were sent to the death camps largely by Italian fascist forces, those loyal to the rump regime of Mussolini’s 1943-1945 Italian Social Republic, which had nominal control of German occupied Italy. Those same forces were central to fighting the Italian resistance, the partisans.

Through Foot we hear the voices of Italian Jews who survived. Few if any would have mourned Mussolini’s execution after he was arrested by partisans trying to flee to Germany. Few either would have objected when his corpse and that of other fascists were displayed in a piazza in Milan, where earlier, the corpses of those killed in a German ‘reprisal’ killing following a resistance attack had been hung up.

Fascism and the post-war Italian state

The new Italian Republic showed no determination to cleanse itself of former fascists, including mass killers. It meant Italy never dealt with its fascist legacy even to the limited degree West Germany did. That meant fascism continued in a softer way; times were different. Thus there was the creation of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the party formed by supporters of the former dictator Benito Mussolini, many of whom took part in the 1943-1945 the Italian Social Republic and the Republican Fascist Party.

In the epilogue to the book Foot argues: ‘Fascism will not return in the same form; yet it may still make a comeback in some way.’ As if on cue, the centenary of the March on Rome more or less coincided with the appointment of someone from within the fascist tradition as prime minister of Italy, heading a coalition with other right-wing parties.

Giorgia Meloni is not leading a black-shirted mass of fascist squadristi – though openly fascist groups are part of her Fratelli d’Italia and its members have been involved in racist attacks – but she does come from the fascist tradition, having joined in 1992. The MSI’s emblem, the tricolour flame, is incorporated into the FdI emblem, and the party uses the headquarter building of the MSI in Rome. She has praised Mussolini and the MSI founder, Giorgio Almirante, who under Mussolini was a regular contributor to the antisemitic La Difesa della Razza (The Defence of the Race) and a minister in the Italian Social Republic.

Today, the Italian elite does not feel driven to hand political power to an adventurer like Mussolini nor does it have to rely on fascist squads to quell an insurgent working class. In 1922 Italy had, four years earlier, emerged from World War One feeling it was more a defeat than a victory. Italian nationalists and ex-officers felt Italy had been cheated from the gains Britain and France had offered in 1915 when it agreed to join them. The war had divided Italian society with the left opposing it. The resulting bitterness encouraged fascist violence.

Nor has today’s Italian bourgeoisie been left scared for its future as it was in 1919 and 1920, the Red Years, when the workers took over the factories and the land, and seemed to be on the verge of revolution. However, socialist leaders compromised, and almost immediately the fascists sought revenge, receiving funding from landowners then industrialists, and enjoying the sympathy of the army and police. Today parliamentary democracy has not disintegrated so that it has become impossible to form a stable government, as it had when Mussolini appeared as a saviour for the bourgeoisie. But we do not know the future, and fascism has made a limited come back in Italy in a certain way. We cannot afford to be complacent about its future prospects.

Blood and Power is not a conventional history of Italian fascism, there are a number of those. Instead, as Foot writes at the beginning of the book: ‘It tells the story of the 1920s and 1930s largely through the story of real people – fascists, anti-fascists, socialists, communists, anarchists’ (p.3). This is no bad thing. It makes for a book which grabs your attention from the off, and from a human angle explains terrible events which still cast their shadow today.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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