The main street here in the city of Siracusa in Sicily is named after the politician Giacomo Matteotti, who, in the 20th century, openly criticised Benito Mussolini and the fascists in the Italian parliament. Matteotti as socialist and party leader was critical of the rise of fascism, violence, electoral fraud, and corruption. In 1924 he published a book which would later be given the English title Fascist Exposed: A Year of Fascist Domination. He was then at that time dragged into a car by some of Mussolini’s henchmen, who stabbed him to death. Later, the body was found some miles outside Rome. Some of the killers came from the fascists’ secret police. Matteotti’s colleagues, the anti-fascists, eventually tried to get Mussolini arrested, since he must have been behind it – but they failed, as Mussolini spoke well for himself and had the support of the king and the elites. This was a historical turning point in Italy, where politicians now were killed for their opinions – fascism had taken hold.
In Italy, Giorgia Meloni has now become Prime Minister. She has previously expressed her admiration for Mussolini. Is Italy now moving towards the extreme right with some neo-fascist features? Meloni was elected exactly 100 years after Mussolini’s famous march on Rome in October 1922 – probably when fascism was seriously established in Europe.
Our times are reminiscent of the run-up to what happened historically before the Second World War. Both Putin and Zelenskyy seductively muster more warfare. And politicians like Biden, Stoltenberg, von der Leuven and other NATO allies cheer and cheer for a war – which no-one really will “win”. What propaganda are we not exposed to? The danger is also now that this will escalate with nuclear weapons and catastrophic consequences for the whole of Europe. Were Crimea and Donbas really that important to the Ukrainians and the world – or are there other forces at play?
To illustrate the environment and atmosphere of the war, also note the films reviewed here at Modern Times Review and the Norwegian Movies on War festival, as well as Sergei Loznitsa’s new archive-based documentary The Natural History of Destruction, which deals with the massive bombing of British and German cities during the Second World War – and poses the timely question of whether it is morally acceptable to kill civilian populations as a means of war? Do I need a reminder of today’s bombing of the cities in Ukraine, Syria, or Gaza?
Mussolini ‘grew’ on the tasks
But back to how war breaks out, to fascism. Italian fascism is well described in the new documentary The March on Rome by Mark Cousins. It begins with Donald Trump being asked if he recognizes Mussolini. The film ends by recalling today’s right turn with Italy’s Meloni, Hungary’s Orbán, and Germany’s xenophobic party AfD.
Interestingly, 38-year-old Mussolini came to power in 1922 because others wanted him there. And according to Daniel Guérin’s book Fascisme et grand capital. Italie-Allemagne (1936, published under the English title Fascism and Big Business in 1973) he had the support of the Banca Commerciale Italiana, which pushed him into the circles of power, helped by the magnates of the Italian Industrial Confederation, the Agricultural Confederation, and personalities such as Senator Ettore Conti or entrepreneurs such as Antonio S. Benni and Adriano Olivetti. They all supported fascism and gave huge sums of money. Mussolini was thus the candidate of the plutocracy and trade organisations.
What is wrong does not cease to be wrong even if the majority supports it.
Mussolini ‘grew’ on the tasks. He started the famous «Marcia su Roma», the march of black-clad fascists who left Naples to seize power in Rome. He himself was unsure if they would be able to do this, so he actually came later with train from Milan (intending to flee north if things went wrong) – and then after agreeing with the elites in a hotel room in Rome, he then showed himself marching symbolically with the king in the streets of the city.
To make himself important, Mussolini was also concerned with aesthetics. Big speeches with public assemblies and processions were part of the package to incite people to participation. And people were delighted. As the mentioned film reveals, Mussolini had several times read Gustave Le Bon’s The Psychology of the Masses (1896).
Mussolini also opportunistically now allied himself with the king, the church, and the capital – the groups he had previously criticized as a republican, non-Christian, and socialist. He also provided his own archives with corruption details on other fascist leaders. As a former teacher (he preferred to be called ‘Il professore’ by his wife Rachele) and journalist, he handled both knowledge and the media. And aesthetically, symbolism with uniforms, architecture and bodily willpower applied. Also the italian Futurists supported him, as their founder, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti glorified war – a violent dynamic that should have a purifying effect, in which weapon technology and metal should almost “merge” with the modern human body.
The film also shows Mussolini as a rhetorical master: «Fascism is a religious belief. If fascism were not a faith, how else would its followers have both the stoicism and courage?» He appealed to the ‘spirit’ rather than the intellect. The intellectuals have always been despised by (neo)fascists – but also by most people I can add …
Now it was a while since the Roman Empire, but the fascists dreamed of becoming a new ‘master race’. With Marc Cousin’s continuous commentary in his film, we also hear and see how the ‘propaganda film’ A Noi (55 min., 1922) by director Umberto Paradisi promoted the filmed march as a symbolic turning point (like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, see later).
Only halfway through The March on Rome, archive clips are shown where Hitler and Himmler come down to Italy in 1938 to show off with Mussolini on balconies, in dinners with the elites, or with an inspecting gaze during military exercises. The documentary shows many telling archive clips – also gatherings with Italian crowds who are wild with excitement for what is promised them. Mussolini saw himself as invulnerable among the people, protected by God.
In the misery
Is it possible to understand what makes most people hail leaders who lead them into violent carnage – and a growing murderous military industry?
It often starts somewhere else. In the 1920s, Italy suffered, among other things, from high inflation. People fell into poverty. Mussolini, therefore, declared himself a ‘deflationist’, and in 1924 he ‘printed’ state money, according to Gueren’s book, to help both industry and banks that had failed – for example he got both Banco di Roma, Banco di Napoli, and Banco di Sicilia on their feet again. Mussolini’s state continued with ‘subsidies’ beyond the hard 30s – and eventually owned three-quarters of the Italian economy via shares.
As Mussolini wrote in 1921, according to Guérin, he assumed that in the coming decades, the Italians would «feel the need for a dictator. We are waiting for a saviour who will lead us out of our misery, but no one knows where he will come from». Guerin also wrote about Hitler’s statement from the same period: «Our task is to give the dictator, when he appears, a people ready for him.» While several people stood behind the myth that built Mussolini, the cult around Hitler in Germany was promoted by Goebbels, who said: «Belief in the leader is surrounded, one might say, by a mysterious and enigmatic mysticism!» – Yes, what big propaganda apparatus doesn’t also a Putin, Stoltenberg, Biden, or Zelensky have today – with media that are far more effective or distributed than the speeches at the local squares.
For Mussolini, the madness lasted until april 1945, when the partisans killed him. We see him in the film lying in the square in the middle of a crowd happily, kicking the corpses of him and his mistress.
But fascism was still not ’rounded off’ with the fall of Italy. Despite Mussolini’s argument that their fascism was not an export, similar dictatorships followed or already existed in Europe – such as in Turkey, Poland, Portugal, and Spain. The trend today is also more and more towards authoritarian state leadership.
Riefenstahl and Hitler
Sontag refers to the monumental and the obedience of the masses to the ‘leader’ as a common feature of both communist and fascist art. For «all totalitarian regimes, the function of art is to ‘immortalise’ the regime’s leaders and doctrines», she claims. And as Goebbels said in 1933, the leaders felt like artists, where the artist’s task was «the task of art and the artist [being] to form, to give shape, to remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy.»
But we should not forget, as Sontag points out, that National Socialism and fascism stand for attitudes that live on today, such as «an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect […]». These are (fascist) longings that many people recognize. And many want a guru, or desiree spectacles.
Riefenstahl wanted to seduce. As stated in this essay, Riefenstahl said: «What is purely realistic, slice of life, what is average, quotidian, doesn’t interest me..» No, neither did Mussolini and Hitler. The oppression is deliberately aestheticized and staged. The masses express ecstasy, «the leader gives the masses orgasm», as Sontag writes.
Riefenstahl helped to plan Hitler’s big party congress in 1934, where she recorded the Triumph of the Will of the mass assembly that paid tribute to the ‘leader’. From Hitler, she had unlimited access to resources and money for this film. This historical event served as the setting for a film that would then appear as an ‘authentic’ documentary. The party congress is «hailed as a saving high point in German history», as Sontag writes. The goal was simply a seductive propaganda to later make way for the use of military force to create the Third Reich. As is well known, Mussolini also had expansion plans…
What about Giorgia Meloni here in Italy: What neo-fascist traits can be found among the trio of Meloni, Berlusconi, and Salvini today? As is well known, Meloni’s slogan is «God, the family, the fatherland» – like Mussolini’s. Her progressive party Fratelli d’Italia was established in 2012 – the name is taken from Italy’s national anthem. A song that sings about waking up, collecting the country – Italy is calling, be ready to die! Meloni also calls for more (‘italian’) births, as Mussolini did. But this does not apply to migrants today – let me also mention that Berlusconi previously suggested almost to ‘cleanse’ the country of immigrants.
Now Meloni has sued the famous journalist Roberto Saviano for defamation as he appeared on TV and explained the inhumane refugee policy of Meloni and Salvini against NGOs and ships trying to help refugees. His rage was caused by the little 6-year-old Joseph who died as doctors didn’t come for help. The ongoing trial could send Saviano to prison for up to three years.
Mussolini openly declared that his regime was totalitarian – will the new leading trio in Italy be able to say that they have no such traits?
Let me remind you of the slogan. God: Meloni is not alone in pointing to the sky when oppressing others. The family: People allow themselves to be somewhat selfishly seduced where they fear that the strangers will take their jobs. And the fatherland: With globalisation’s constantly shifting identities, many seek security in the ‘fixed’ values of tradition – with a desire for a leader, ‘Il Duce’ or ‘Fuhrer’.
According to the writer Timothy Snyder, such more or less fascist such leaders of the past or today can have the following outcome: one-party rule, leadership cult, media control, cult around the empire, conspiracy theories, war of annihilation and genocide.
Will this fascistic traits be back on the scene in Europe? Will more than the ‘former actor’ Zelensky throw ‘innocent’ Ukrainians into the fight for ‘freedom’ against the evil Russian? Where did all the sins that Ukraine bestowed, such as corruption, killings in Donbas, violence and human rights violations, go? A state that recently outlawed Russian as a language and a third of parliament’s pro-Russian parties — in a country where 17 percent are native speakers of Russian? Is this neo-fascist, or is it more and more a copy of today’s Russian totalitarianism – which we also despise?
While people fearfully allocate money for a huge weapon escalation where bombs replaces every form of communication, I will recall what Leo Tolstoy once wrote: «Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.»
The trio of Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi in Rome will probably become another strong role model for nationalism, a one-dimensionality where the national ‘protecting’ walls are getting higher. Here at. Modern Times Review, we don’t share the attitudes of a ‘war winning game’ in the mass media or the majority at the moment. As Gandhi once wrote: «In matter of conscience, law of majority has no place.»