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Bench Warrantless

The left likes to compare George W. Bush to Hitler and Mussolini, but is there a lesson to be learned from Il Duce's rise?

12:00 AM, Jun 28, 2004 • By JOEL ENGEL
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Of all the fire-breathing Italian demagogues to emerge after the war, only Mussolini articulated, maintained, and sold a vision of Italian nationalism and greatness that the masses could believe. His widest appeal, he realized, would be to the million war veterans; he figured that if he could get their support he could lead all of Italy. Which is why he formed his own political movement known as the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento--Italian Combat Leagues--which soon became known as the Fascist party, its followers called Fascisti. Their uniform was the black shirt--an homage to D'Annunzio--and their primary tactic was the violent disruption of rallies held by other political parties, especially the socialists.

The years 1920 and 1921 were misery in Italy--leftist-led labor strikes, food riots, and full-fledged tax revolts. Life for average Italians became a kind of earthly hell, with the police and army powerless to protect them.

If he had planned it this way, Mussolini couldn't have given himself a more glorious opportunity. He sent out his bands of armed Black Shirts, like hired guns in the Old West, to restore order in the streets and factories. Naturally, his most generous employers were industrialists and big landlords, anxious to again make profits. But on his own, with a wink and a nod from Rome, he also took it upon himself to destroy communist and socialist groups, and left-wing trade unions, most of which were Catholic. That's how his National Fascist Party consolidated its own power, by reducing the power of the Church, the left, and the government. For the elections of 1921, the liberal government even brought the Fascists into an electoral coalition as a way to keep the beast fed, and the Fascists won 35 seats, including one by Mussolini himself. Government ministers, and King Victor Emmanuel, hoped Mussolini would be happy with what he'd achieved, and they planned to continue using his Black Shirts to put down threats from the left. But the left never stopped trying to incite revolution, so with the government unable defeat them, that job fell to the Fascists.

WHAT DID the average Italian man want? Not revolution. No, he wanted only to earn a decent living and to drink wine and make love to his wife under a warm roof that didn't leak. He wanted life to be bearable again and orderly--for the trains to run on time--and by promising that, Mussolini was like Spartacus two thousand years before, his army of admirers and followers growing with every battle won. When he stood before the cheering throngs at Fascist rallies, they called out "Il Duce"--The Leader--because that's what he was to them, the man who would lead them out of turmoil and despair.

Throughout 1922, several parliamentary governments were formed and quickly collapsed under the weight of unrest and uncertainty. Then came October. In the lengthening shadows and falling leaves, tens of thousands of black-shirted Fascists gathered from all over Italy and descended on Rome, an occupying force awaiting word from its commanding general. Mussolini threatened Victor Emmanuel with all-out civil war if the king didn't name him, Il Duce, to lead the next government. In response, Emmanuel began mobilizing his army against the Fascists--martial rule. But his ministers and generals said that that would be madness, and convinced him to appease Mussolini by making him prime minister of a coalition government; that, they said, would defuse the situation.

Over the next five years, under the guise of law and order, Mussolini whittled away at the constitution. In 1924, a leading socialist deputy was found murdered, with no one claiming responsibility but no one denying it, either; the man was, after all, a leftist. In the same way, all opposition parties and leaders were harassed and threatened by Mussolini's secret police, and soon the press was ordered to endorse the governmental position or face the consequences. Whatever outrage there was dribbled out in whispers, because the factory workers and the landlords and the moneyed interests were more content; the average man could again work at a job that paid him a little, not too much, but enough for a bottle of wine and a bowl of pasta and a warm place to make love to his wife, and Italy was once again a unified country.

YOU CAN FILE THE LESSONS of Mussolini's rise under "H" for Hegel, the idea that extreme movements always beget extreme counter forces. It was the far left, by relentlessly chipping away at the foundations of Italian life, that gave birth and power to the far right--as it did a decade on when Hitler rode nearly the same path under similar circumstances.