Mussolini Seizes Dictatorial Powers in Italy

Benito Mussolini’s seizure of power in the 1920’s led to a dictatorship that destroyed political freedom in Italy and threatened international peace and stability during the 1930’s.

Summary of Event

Italy made slow but notable progress in human rights during the first decades of the twentieth century. Under a constitutional monarchy, Italians shaped a limited parliamentary democracy similar to those of other Western European nations. By the early 1900’s, the working class had won the right to organize and strike. Socialist labor unions vigorously advanced both economic and political goals. A lively, diverse press gave voice to a wide range of political opinion, although the more radical publications were often restrained by government censorship and the moral condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church. Universal male suffrage, enacted in 1913, underscored the nation’s political progress. Women, although denied the vote, acquired important legal and property rights in 1919. The emergence of mass political parties after World War I heralded the prospects for democratic reform. [kw]Mussolini Seizes Dictatorial Powers in Italy (1925-1926)
[kw]Dictatorial Powers in Italy, Mussolini Seizes (1925-1926)
[kw]Italy, Mussolini Seizes Dictatorial Powers in (1925-1926)
Fascist Party (Italy)
[g]Italy;1925-1926: Mussolini Seizes Dictatorial Powers in Italy[06290]
[c]Government and politics;1925-1926: Mussolini Seizes Dictatorial Powers in Italy[06290]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;1925-1926: Mussolini Seizes Dictatorial Powers in Italy[06290]
Mussolini, Benito
Victor Emmanuel III
Matteotti, Giacomo

Benito Mussolini.


The post-World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period years offered new opportunities to create a more equitable, democratic society. The war also jeopardized Italy’s progress by creating grave economic and political instability. Conservative government leaders, businesspeople, and landowners feared a communist revolution similar to the one that took place in Russia in 1917. Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party National Fascist Party (Italy) compounded the political crisis with its revolutionary program and its violence against political opponents. Mussolini, a former Socialist Party leader and newspaper editor, had founded the Fascist movement immediately after the war. His virulent nationalism, anticommunism, antidemocratic politics, and appeal to violence attracted a large following of war veterans and political malcontents. Fascist paramilitary units, known as squadristi, carried out “punitive expeditions” against their rivals, primarily the Socialist Party Socialist Party (Italy) and labor unions. Their brutal assaults and destruction of property, often unopposed by local government authorities, brought the country to the brink of civil war in the early 1920’s.

The political crisis in Italy culminated in October, 1922, with the “March on Rome.” March on Rome Benito Mussolini orchestrated this threat to occupy the nation’s capital with his party’s paramilitary forces. While threatening armed conflict, he negotiated with influential business and political leaders and pressured King Victor Emmanuel III to invite him to form a new government. Mussolini assumed the position of prime minister and organized a coalition cabinet, filling the ministerial posts with members of his own and other conservative parties. Although the Fascists were a minority party, they achieved political dominance in the parliament following the elections of April, 1924. Under a new election law, the party receiving the most votes was given two-thirds of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Mussolini’s new government contended with a large, but divided, parliamentary opposition on the political left—democrats, socialists, and communists. One of his most persistent and outspoken adversaries was Giacomo Matteotti, leader of the reformist Socialist Party and a member of parliament. Matteotti gained a reputation as Mussolini’s most dangerous critic by carefully documenting specific cases of abuse and corruption in the government. His report on the 1924 elections revealed widespread election fraud and violence by the Fascist Party. Despite personal threats from Fascist leaders, including Mussolini, Matteotti continued to denounce the government from his seat in parliament and to collect information about financial improprieties of government officials.

Matteotti’s disappearance on June 10 immediately raised allegations of government involvement, and several witnesses later verified his kidnapping by Fascist squadristi. Although Matteotti’s body was not discovered until mid-August, most of the public assumed that his abduction and murder had been sanctioned at the highest level of Fascist Party leadership, perhaps by Mussolini himself. The Matteotti affair provoked a spontaneous outpouring of popular protest against the government. Labor unions organized political strikes and public demonstrations. More than one hundred deputies from opposition parties refused to participate in parliamentary proceedings, declaring that Mussolini had lost all moral and political right to govern. The “Aventine Secession” Aventine Secession —alluding to similar protests during the ancient Roman Republic—gave the outward appearance of solidarity on the political left. Even leading conservatives, who had previously supported Mussolini’s government, now called for his resignation.

The overwhelming protest initially paralyzed Mussolini, belying his reputation as a man of action. He attempted to mollify the political right—the king, influential businesspeople, and senators—by reshuffling his cabinet and replacing Fascist ministers with well-respected conservatives. This compromising outraged Fascist militants, especially the local party leaders, who demanded a “second wave” of violence to destroy the remnants of political opposition and the pretense of parliamentary government. They confronted Musolini and threatened him personally in several heated party meetings. Defiance to his authority within the Fascist Party as well as in the government compelled him to take action.

On January 3, 1925, Mussolini made a dramatic speech in the Chamber of Deputies in which he assumed complete responsibility for the violence committed by the Fascists, including the murder of Matteotti. He challenged the members of the parliament to impeach him, and with a threatening overtone he announced that the situation would be “cleared up all along the line” in the following forty-eight hours. This speech marked the beginning of Mussolini’s dictatorship. Within hours, local authorities began closing down the meeting halls of opposition groups and suppressing antigovernment publications. More than one hundred political dissidents were arrested. The squadristi unleashed a “second wave” of violence, destroying opposition presses and using intimidation and physical assaults to silence protest. The anti-Fascist opposition, contentious, divided, and unable to agree on a course of action, offered little effective resistance to Mussolini’s seizure of power.

Mussolini’s personal dictatorship gradually took shape over the next two years. He established his authoritarian rule through rigorous enforcement of existing laws, new restrictive legislation, and special executive decrees. After several unsuccessful assassination attempts against Mussolini in 1925 and 1926, the government passed a series of “exceptional decrees” Exceptional decrees (Italy) that formally outlawed all political parties, banned anti-Fascist organizations and publications, and canceled all passports. The participants in the Aventine Secession were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and barred from taking their seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Local elected governments were eliminated and replaced by state-appointed administrators.

The exceptional decrees created the Special Tribunal for the Defense of the State, Special Tribunal for the Defense of the State a military court that functioned outside the normal judicial process and allowed the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of more than five thousand government opponents. The death penalty, which had been abolished in 1890, was reintroduced. Giovanni Amendola, Piero Gobetti, Antonio Gramsci, and several other prominent anti-Fascists died as a result of street beatings or lengthy prison terms. Hundreds of others fled the country in order to escape the squadristi violence or imprisonment.

The government decrees sanctioned the operations of a secret state police, identified by the sinister, but apparently meaningless, acronym OVRA. OVRA Under the efficient direction of Arturo Bocchini, the police monitored antigovernment activity and used their authority to place individuals under house arrest or send them into “internal exile” in remote villages or on coastal islands. Mandatory identity cards allowed the police to control personal movement, employment, and access to public services. By 1927, Mussolini’s regime had eliminated most vestiges of political freedom in Italy. Discarding the parliamentary designation of prime minister, he referred to his position as “head of state” and adopted the title Il Duce—the Leader. Through his dictatorship, he sought to fulfill his own maxim: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”


Mussolini’s seizure of power marked a disturbing political development in the modern world. It repudiated more than a century of European progress toward greater political democracy and individual liberty and introduced the term “totalitarian” into modern political vocabulary. Although Mussolini’s regime never achieved the totalitarianism of Adolf Hitler’s Germany or Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, the results of Mussolini’s dictatorial rule proved devastating to a free society. The ban on political parties and elections destroyed democratic politics, the abolition of labor organizations stripped workers of their right to seek economic redress, and the purging of the state bureaucracy and the courts ensured total government acquiescence to Mussolini’s authority.

The establishment of the Special Tribunal allowed the regime to bypass regular judicial procedures and arrest, imprison, or exile thousands. Many Italians defied the government by leaving the country on their own accord. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Italy lost some of its most talented citizens to emigration, including the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi and the renowned orchestral conductor Arturo Toscanini. The elimination of a free press, strict control of the media and education, and the use of secret police to stifle political dissent further eroded individual freedoms.

The goal of creating a totalitarian state represented an unprecedented degree of government intrusion into the daily lives of citizens. Even organized sports, recreational programs, youth groups, artistic activities, and professional associations fell under government supervision. Only the conservative institutions that lent timely support to Mussolini in his first years—the military, the monarchy, and the Roman Catholic Church—retained a large degree of autonomy under the Fascist regime.

Mussolini’s success in Italy inspired similar “fascist” movements in several European countries. Each had its own identity, but they all shared an affinity for political violence and an abiding contempt for democracy and individual civil rights. In Germany, the Nazis imitated and refined the methods of the Italian Fascists. Their success brought Adolf Hitler to power in 1933 and marked the beginning of an unparalleled disaster for human rights and international peace.

Mussolini’s belligerent foreign policy effectively destabilized international relations at a time when most nations were seeking ways to ensure peace. In the years following World War I, European diplomats had worked diligently to limit armed conflict through the newly founded League of Nations, naval disarmament treaties, and collective security agreements. With his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Mussolini challenged the League of Nations and revealed its impotence against military aggression. He defied the Geneva Convention’s ban on poison gas and used it with devastating results against Ethiopian troops. His military assistance to Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War helped destroy democratic government in Spain and install a dictatorial regime that remained in power for more than thirty-five years. Mussolini’s military success in Africa encouraged Hitler’s ambitious plans for German territorial expansion. With the Pact of Steel in 1939, the two men cemented a military alliance that brought on the greatest human catastrophe in modern history, World War II. Fascist Party (Italy)

Further Reading

  • Bosworth, R. J. B. The Italian Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of Mussolini and Fascism. New York: Arnold, 1998. Places fascism within the broader context of the social and cultural times in which it developed. Written by an authority on Italy’s history.
  • _______. Mussolini. New York: Arnold, 2002. Lauded as a definitive new biography of the life of the infamous leader. Detailed, exhaustive study includes footnotes and bibliography.
  • Cannistraro, Philip V., ed. Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. The standard reference for individuals, institutions, and events in Italy under Fascist rule. Includes informative entries on the anti-Fascist movement. Features an appendix that contains a complete listing of government ministers who served in the Fascist government.
  • Lyttelton, Adrian. The Seizure of Power in Italy, 1919-1929. 2d ed. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987. Brilliant study is one of the best works available in any language on Mussolini’s seizure of power. Focuses on the intricate personal and institutional relationships that brought Mussolini to power and maintained his dictatorship for almost twenty years.
  • Mack Smith, Denis. Mussolini. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. One of the best of several modern biographies available in English. Thoroughly researched from a wide range of archival and secondary sources. The author’s highly critical, even derisive, assessment of Mussolini strips away the mythology of Il Duce and Fascist revolution to reveal a corrupt, unscrupulous, and often inept political leader.
  • Matteotti, Giacomo. The Fascisti Exposed: A Year of Fascist Domination. New York: Howard Fertig, 1969. First published clandestinely in 1923, this report documents in detail the terrorism of the squadristi, the complicity of government authorities in the Fascist violence, and the political corruption during Mussolini’s first year in power. This impressive exposé established Matteotti’s reputation as Mussolini’s most dangerous critic and eventually led to his murder by Fascist agents.
  • Salvemini, Gaetano. The Fascist Dictatorship in Italy. New York: Howard Fertig, 1967. First published in 1927 by one of the most important anti-Fascist historians. Weaves pointed commentary with extracts from contemporary documents (some taken from Matteotti’s exposé) to underscore the criminality of the Fascist movement and its leadership.
  • _______. The Origins of Fascism in Italy. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Written in 1942 and based on Salvemini’s lectures at Harvard University, this book remained unpublished until after the author’s death. Goes beyond the author’s earlier polemic against the Fascist regime and explores the conditions in Italy that made Fascism possible. Chapter 26 provides a good summary of the political infringements that resulted from the creation of Mussolini’s totalitarian state.
  • Seton-Watson, Christopher. Italy from Liberalism to Fascism, 1870-1925. London: Methuen, 1967. Although somewhat dated, this remains among the best surveys of modern Italy up to the Fascist period. Traces the triumph of Fascism to the failure of liberalism during the post-World War I political crisis. Includes an annotated bibliography and a helpful listing of the many Italian governments and their cabinet ministers during the years 1871-1925.

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