The March on Rome 1922: how Benito Mussolini turned Italy into the first Fascist state
In late October 1922, Benito Mussolini, the charismatic leader of the growing Fascist party in Italy, seized power with the help of his armed squads and exploiting widespread fears. RJB Bosworth reveals how the March on Rome set the country on a path to totalitarianism
The night of 27–28 October 1922 was a restless one for the Amendola family in their Rome flat. It was raining heavily, perhaps a portent of approaching winter. The eldest of four children in the family, Giorgio, was approaching his 15th birthday. More than 50 years later, he would record his memory of those days. Giorgio was far from the only person to chronicle the extraordinary events of October 1922, but what gives his account added potency is the fact that his father, Giovanni, was one of the most powerful men in Italy.
Giovanni held the post of minister of colonies in Italy’s government – and as the rain tumbled down, that government was on the brink of collapse. Ever since Italy’s states had coalesced into a unified nation in the 1860s, successive governments had been plagued by infighting and weakness. Things were little different in the autumn of 1922. The administration in which Giovanni served found itself pulled this way and that by various competing political interests, each jockeying for power.
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Luigi Facta, Italy’s prime minister, was a Liberal. Socialists had had their party since 1892, although, in recent months, its supporters, enthused or embarrassed by the Russian Revolution, had split into three: communist, maximalist and reformist. Catholics had established their Partito Popolare (Popular Party) on 18 January 1919. Most ominously, on 9 November 1921, an ex-socialist journalist named Benito Mussolini, who had been expelled from his party in November 1914 when he favoured Italian participation in the First World War, rallied his followers into a “National Fascist Party” (PNF).
It was known to be anti-Marxist and patriotic and to find its major base among the middle and lower middle classes. Just what else “Fascism” meant was scarcely yet established. But the Fascists had one undeniable characteristic: they were unapologetically violent. And, for the Amendola family, that proclivity for brutality would have terrible consequences.
Why did the March on Rome happen?
As the power of the Fascists had grown in the three years following their formation in the spring of 1919, so had Mussolini’s appetite for power. By the early weeks of October 1922, he and his chief associates had decided that they could not wait for a “parliamentary solution” to the question of who should hold power in Italy. Armed action, Mussolini stated, was “needed at once or we shall never do it”. What followed – the “March on Rome” – would change the course of Italian history, and send shockwaves coursing across the globe.
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Mussolini’s armed “squads” had already, over the past few months, marched into a number of northern Italian cities and seized municipal power. Now, on 24 October, the party’s national directorate assembled in Naples, and set about fine-tuning plans to launch an attack on the capital. As all this unfolded, looking on with growing concern was the tall, stalwart, fiercely anti-Fascist figure of Giovanni Amendola.
At 40, Amendola was a year older than Mussolini, also a patriot and anti-Marxist. Like Mussolini, he hoped that Italians would rally behind a religion of the nation following its reunification in the previous century. But Amendola wanted this modernised state to be democratic and liberal, earnestly accepting the rule of law and a free press, and eschewing murder and corruption. Had events panned out differently, it is easy to imagine Amendola as a long-serving Italian prime minister.
Timeline: the rise of the Fascists
23 March 1919
At a rally at Milan’s Piazza San Sepolcro, Benito Mussolini founds the Italian Fascist movement.
9 November 1921
The National Fascist Party – the political expression of the movement – is founded with Mussolini as its head.
28 October 1922
Mussolini’s bid to seize power, the March on Rome, gets under way. By lunchtime, Fascist squads are pushing into the capital.
31 October 1922
King Victor Emmanuel III formally appoints Mussolini prime minister.
16 November 1922
In his first speech to the Chamber of Deputies, Mussolini declares: “I could have shut down parliament and set up a government exclusively of Fascists. I could have. But, at least at this early stage, I have not wanted to.”
14 January 1923
The king approves a law that, in practice, converts Fascist squads into a Party Army rivalling that of the nation.
4 March 1923
The upper bourgeois, monarchist, pro-clerical Italian Nationalist Association accepts “fusion” into the National Fascist Party.
6 April 1924
The “Big List”, a coalition composed of Fascists and those willing to fellow-travel, wins a vast majority in a general election.
26 June 1924
Under the leadership of Giovanni Amendola, at least 130 non-Fascists withdraw from parliament. They are deprived of their seats on 9 November 1926.
3 January 1925
In a speech to the Chamber of Deputies, Mussolini says: “I, and I alone, assume political, moral and historical responsibility for all that has happened… When two sides fight and cannot compromise, force is the only solution.” He therefore announces his dictatorship.
28 October 1925
Speaking at La Scala, Milan, Mussolini proclaims: “Our formula is this: ‘All for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing and no one against the state.’” His dictatorship was therefore pronouncing itself totalitarian.
So, on 27 October, fired by fear of a Fascist strike on Rome, Amendola – along with other leading figures in the government – attempted to impose a “state of siege” to repel Fascist squads that were assembling outside the capital. For the siege to hold, the government needed the support of the army and of King Victor Emmanuel III, who had been away on his estates shooting small birds. Both appeared to have been secured, and so placards proclaiming the intention to oppose a Fascist attack were pasted up around Rome.
Despite this, on that wet night of 27–28 October 1922, Amendola’s son Giorgio remembered being disturbed twice by the telephone – the latter call well after midnight – then his father was suddenly called away to the Ministry of the Interior, where police activity was coordinated. Something was going wrong.
That something was the actions of the king and the prime minister. As the Fascists had ratcheted up the pressure, these two men’s will to resist had all but collapsed. Amendola soon learned to his disgust that the state of siege was being revoked; Luigi Facta had resigned almost as soon as Victor Emmanuel had returned to Rome on the evening of the 27th. What’s more, it soon became apparent that the army could hardly be relied upon to stand in the Fascists’ way. Key military leaders advised the king that “the army will do its duty, but better not put it to the test”.
What happened during the March on Rome?
By lunchtime on the 28th, young Giorgio watched as city workers began tearing down the proclamations. Later a few Fascists – who, over recent days, had been milling around in the countryside outside Rome – began to push through the streets of the city. But where was Mussolini? It soon became clear that the Duce (leader) had been a busy man. While his colleagues had been in Naples finalising the plan to march on Rome, he had retreated to his journalist’s office in Milan in order to play hard ball with an increasingly panicky government.
Would Mussolini accept office under some Liberal, such as Antonio Salandra, who had taken Italy into the First World War in May 1915? No, came the response from the Milan telephone. By the morning of Sunday 29 October, it was evident that Mussolini was to become his country’s youngest prime minister, despite the PNF only numbering 35 members in the Chamber of Deputies.
That evening Mussolini took the express sleeper from Milan to the capital, framing his cabinet when on board. At 7.30pm on Monday 30th, he mounted the stairway of the Quirinale Palace to present his list to the king. His premiership dates from the next morning.
The Fascist squads were now the masters of Rome. In working-class zones around the city, they assaulted and burned socialist meeting places. Nineteen anti-Fascists died during these days of confusion and of Fascist battle cries about their santi manganelli (holy clubs) needing to be hammered down on their bestial Bolshevik enemies. On 31 October, with Mussolini anxious to be seen to restore public order, Fascists in the city were disciplined into a triumphant march.
Giorgio Amendola and a school friend went to watch. He remembered it as a “miserable spectacle”, the Fascists by no means dressed in the same uniforms. They could not even remember the words of their anthem, Giovinezza (which had been a song of the crack Alpini corps and was not yet properly updated to celebrate Mussolini). How disgraceful it was that the king, with Mussolini at his side, hailed these hoodlums from the balcony of the Quirinale Palace, the boys thought.
“Disgusted, we abandoned the big square and decided to finish our day at a brothel in the Via Capo le Case,” wrote Giorgio. “We found it crowded because the ‘black-shirts’, in view of the festa, did not have to pay the fee. It was my first experience. The dark girl who dealt with me was especially gentle when she knew that I wasn’t one of them: ‘I’ve had to go with so many shits, I’m really pleased finally to have a clean boy,’ she murmured.”
The March on Rome had ended in triumph for the Fascists. Mussolini was now the most powerful man in Italy. Some historians are convinced that, from 28 October 1922, there was “at once the regime”: that the brutal autocracy that cast a long shadow over European geopolitics in the 1920s and 30s arrived fully formed. But, actually, it wasn’t until January 1925, following much nudging by irritated “revolutionaries” among the squads, that the Duce declared himself dictator in a speech to Italy’s Chamber of Deputies.
In the intervening two years, Mussolini was the head of a coalition government. Among its membership, the most telling figures were the minister of war, Armando Diaz, and the aristocratic Piedmontese minister of the navy, Paolo Thaon di Revel (who the king had given the remarkable title of “Duke of the Sea”). They were proof indeed that Italy’s officer corps were soft on Fascism. Mussolini’s colleagues also numbered Catholics and liberals, as well the internationally celebrated philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who became minister of education.
In our own times, fascism is always viewed as virulently anti-liberal, the enemy of every aspect of liberal democracy, be it the rule of law, parliamentarism, the market and opinion free from state interference, individual property ownership and peaceful dealings between nations. In 1922, this destiny was not necessarily clear. Then, even Amendola, the most rigorous of his country’s new-generation liberals, thought that the regime ought to be allowed to get on with governing, at least for the next months. Maybe the violence of its arrival in power would be curbed in office.
As early as 8 November, Mussolini demanded that “Sunday riots” in the provinces cease, blaming them on “nasty local partisan passions”, thereby seeming to dismiss the ideological thrust of squadrism. After all, in the months before 28 October, Mussolini and his followers had changed many ideas that they had announced during the formation of the Fascist movement on 23 March 1919. From avowed Republicans, they had turned monarchist. From critics of the Vatican, the Fascists switched to defend religion. From a modish feminism, at least among some enthusiastic revolutionaries, the PNF became sternly patriarchal; Fascist “revolution” never did much to interfere with the traditional structures of the Italian family.
In 1919, Mussolini, the socialist converted by war to the nation, talked about imposing swingeing taxes on war profiteers, targeting such industrialists as Giovanni Agnelli of Fiat, the Pirelli and Olivetti families. In time, such radicalism diffused into a “third way” for society, which the regime called Corporatism. Altering social geography from the Marxist horizontal, where the working class was destined to oust the bourgeoisie that presently stood above it, corporatism promised a vertically arranged society where everyone employed in heavy industry or education, for example, was united in their work’s cause. Each corporation was linked to others, bonding a fully united nation.
The global allure of fascism
How events in Italy energised Europe’s far right in the 1920s
The ghost that hovers in the background of any discussion of Italian Fascism’s impact on global politics is always Adolf Hitler. War and genocide are automatically assumed to be the hallmarks of Fascism. Indeed, in October 1922, Hitler, an unusual German rightist in admiring Italy, country of artistic glory, watched events in Rome.
When, a year later, he tried to seize power in his Beer Hall putsch, he invoked an Italian model and was delighted when fans called him the “German Mussolini”. According to the historian Ian Kershaw, throughout the next decade, Hitler’s workroom in the Brown House at Munich was “adorned with a monumental bust” of the Duce.
Across Europe, Mussolini had plenty of other admirers. When, on 13 September 1923, the aristocratic General Miguel Primo de Rivera mounted a military coup in Spain, claiming he was ending parliamentary corruption and muddle, King Alfonso XIII hailed him as “my Mussolini”. Then and later, plenty of rightists praised the Duce, a number eventually winning subsidies from Rome.
Even in the mid-1930s, Italian Fascists could wonder whether US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was Mussolinian in inspiration. Young Italian Fascists flirted with adding Joseph Stalin to their list of Mussolini imitators, while Kemal Atatürk (who in 1923 became the Republic of Turkey’s first president) was another deemed to be making a nation on his model. Atatürk disdained such parallel and, despite his regime’s having a domestic death toll vastly higher than Mussolini’s until Italy entered the Second World War, far more non-Italian historians are willing to praise him than endorse the Fascist dictatorship.
In our own times, Fascism is a word of ubiquitous usage and unclear meaning, except that it is a label most people pin on those they dislike and oppose. So Donald Trump, a billionaire proponent of the market, a lifetime enemy of state “regulation”, is often deemed to be one, despite scarcely wanting to endorse the Italian formula of 1925 that nothing and no one is against the state.
The aftermath of the March on Rome
So, in the immediate aftermath of the March on Rome, Mussolini’s Fascist regime was characterised by shapeshifting and compromise. There was at least a degree of uncertainty about the new prime minister’s next moves. Yet, over the following three years, any hopes that these moves would nudge the regime in a liberal direction, one that would accommodate dissenting views, were to be well and truly dispelled.
A sign that the Duce was tightening his grip on Italy’s institutions arrived on 14 January 1923, when King Victor Emmanuel approved a law in practice converting Fascist squads into a party-army rivalling that of the nation. Then, on 10 June 1924, just two months after securing a resounding victory in the general election (securing 374 seats out of 535 in the Chamber of Deputies), Mussolini’s squadrists kidnapped and murdered the rich, moderate and outspokenly anti-Fascist socialist, Giacomo Matteotti.
In protest at the killing, at least 130 non-Fascists, under the leadership of Giovanni Amendola, withdrew from parliament. Italy was now well on its way to becoming a one-party state. When, on 28 October 1925, Mussolini delivered a speech at La Scala, Milan in which he declared: “Our formula is this: ‘All for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing and no one against the state’”, he was merely confirming what many had already begun to suspect: that Italy had become a totalitarian dictatorship.
Amendola would feel the full force of the dictator’s growing appetite for violence. First, he was publicly attacked by Fascist hitmen in central Rome in December 1923. Then, on 20 July 1925, he was beaten even more savagely in rural Tuscany. He would die from his injuries in 1926.
The March on Rome in October 1922 had triggered a chain of events that propelled Italy towards dictatorship and totalitarianism – a transformation that would have enormous ramifications for global politics. In those early years, Giovanni Amendola had refused to back down, positioning himself as one of Mussolini’s most ferocious and high-profile critics. And for that he paid the ultimate price.
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
RJB Bosworth is an emeritus fellow at Jesus College, Oxford and one of the world’s leading experts on Fascist Italy
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