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Mussolini and black shirt fascists marching with Italian flags.
Niday Picture Library/Alamy

March on Rome: uncomfortable moment for Italy as Giorgia Meloni becomes prime minister a century after fascist takeover

Between the end of October and the beginning of November 1922, Benito Mussolini’s so-called march on Rome took place in Italy. This moment was of global importance. It marked the first fascist takeover of power in the world, set in place a regime which would govern for 20 years, and inspired other far-right movements. The recent election victory of far-right leader Giorgia Meloni has led to much discussion about the roots and ongoing presence of fascism in Italian society.

It could reasonably be argued that without the march on Rome, Hitler’s rise to power might never have happened, and the second world war would not have taken place. It has been the subject of much historical and political debate. Some called it a bluff, some a farce, some a coup. Italian fascists claimed that the march had been a revolution. For them, 1922 was year zero.

From October 27 1922 onwards, blackshirted fascists (known as squadristi) attacked and occupied government buildings, barracks and prisons across Italy. They were often heavily armed.

The local insurrections came on the back of violent activity that had effectively destroyed local democracy in numerous towns and cities and driven many socialists and trade unionists underground or into exile.

The plan was then to take the capital itself, and thousands of blackshirts began to march, or take trains, towards Rome. Given this situation, King Victor Emmanuel III (the head of state) was faced with a choice – mobilise the army against the fascists, or give in. He chose the latter option and Mussolini was appointed prime minister.

It seems likely that the king felt he could not count on the army to remain loyal in the face of the march. But there was also an element of self-interest. By appointing the head of an insurrection as prime minister, the king legitimised fascist violence and set himself up as a co-leader of the state.

Once thousands of blackshirts finally reached Rome, the king saluted them from his balcony as they filed past. There was then an orgy of violence in the capital itself, directed largely against oppositionists, the free press and anti-fascists. Dozens of people were killed. Others were threatened. Many saw their homes trashed and sacked. It was a warning. Mussolini was in charge of this violence, and could unleash it at any time – a threat he made explicitly in parliament soon afterwards.

The Liberals who voted for Mussolini’s government (the fascists had only won 35 seats in the previous elections) assumed that they could control the blackshirts. But this was a fatal error. Soon, fascism would turn on the Liberals themselves, who were beaten, intimidated and killed.

Within a few years, the world’s first fascist dictatorship was in place, and Italian democracy had been destroyed. Mussolini had never accepted the results of the 1919 elections, and had vowed to overturn those “shameful” results by any means necessary. He did not claim those results were fraudulent, just that they were politically unacceptable and “anti-national”.

Mussolini would rule until 1943, when he was arrested on the orders of the king as Italy’s war effort fell apart. His ignominious end saw him hung up by his feet in front of a baying crowd in Milan, after being shot by Communist partisans as he tried to escape disguised as a German soldier.

Brothers of Italy rise to power

Exactly a century later in 2022, a new prime minister has come to power in Italy. Her name is Giorgia Meloni. As a teenager, she joined the youth wing of the neo-fascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano.

The party went through splits and name changes over the years and now calls itself Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) – a reference to a line in the national anthem. Within the Fratelli d’Italia symbol is a flame, which, according to some, represents the permanent flame on Mussolini’s grave, in his birthplace of Predappio in central Italy.

Meloni doesn’t like to talk about fascism. She has criticised the movement’s destruction of democracy and its anti-semitic measures, but when asked for more, she slightly deflects the question. She says she is against all regimes, be they communist of fascist.

Giorgia Meloni in parliament, surrounded by people clapping.
Meloni is greeted in parliament on her first day as head of the government. EPA

Meloni has grown up in a democracy, and has come to power through legitimate elections, not violence. But you don’t have to dig too far to find more explicit Mussolini love and nostalgia or the regime of the 1920s and the 1930s amongst her followers, and amongst many of her ministers and deputies. Even just the fact that she doesn’t publicly denounce such tendencies in her followers is an issue.

Italy as a nation has nothing planned to mark the 100th anniversary of the march on Rome. Perhaps this anniversary will be completely ignored, although it is being marked at a local level by conferences, commemorations and discussions. In Predappio, as on every such occasion, many will gather to pay homage to Mussolini’s tomb. They will do so undisturbed by the police, despite laws against the “reconstitution of the fascist party”.

Does this matter? Isn’t fascism something very much about the past rather than the present? Yes and no. The normalisation of an ambiguous attitude to fascism is something we should be worried about. But Italian democracy is robust and the constitution is expertly drawn up with these dangers in mind.

That said, most Italians have no living memory of fascism at all. Anti-fascism has therefore been in decline for decades. In 1994, when post-fascist politicians entered Silvio Berlusconi’s first government, there were huge anti-fascist marches in Milan and elsewhere. This is no longer the case – and perhaps this lack of active opposition to fascism is the most worrying trend of all.

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