National Review: The Totalitarian Temptation Remains
This article was originally posted at National Review.
Naples, Italy — In the days leading up to the Allied occupation of Naples during the Second World War, many residents fled to underground shelters and catacombs to escape the bombing raids that pounded the city. What some of them left behind amounts to a grim warning about the power of a utopian ideology to deceive and denigrate the human mind.
In the shelter I visited recently — a labyrinth of frightfully narrow passages and tiny caves at least 100 feet underground — our tour guide pointed out a drawing scratched onto one of the walls. It was a crude portrait of the fascist leaders who had plunged the world into war: Hirohito, Hitler, and Mussolini. Under the drawing was the word “Vincerò!” — I will win! Not even with the collapse of the Axis powers in sight, living like a rat in a sewer system, would the underground artist lose faith in his political religion.
A hundred years ago, on October 28, 1922, Benito Mussolini orchestrated the March on Rome, when 30,000 black-shirted followers coerced King Victor Emmanuel into effectively granting him control of the government. Within weeks, Mussolini installed the first fascist regime in Europe. “One day,” he said to his mother when he was a brooding and violent young boy, “I shall astonish the world.”
Mussolini kept his word. His achievement — the transformation of Italy from an insecure constitutional monarchy into a militarized totalitarian state — impressed a young Adolf Hitler. His charisma — as described by journalist Luigi Barzini, “there was something about him that startled and fascinated almost everybody” — allowed him to bend an entire nation to his will. For two decades Mussolini enjoyed absolute power: He was Il Duce, the leader, the “new man” of the early 20th century, as beloved and feared as any Caesar of the Roman Empire. “His powers were limitless,” writes Barzini in The Italians. “Where his legal prerogatives ended, his undisputed authority and immense personal prestige began.”
Also like the Caesars of old, Mussolini understood something about the human need to worship. In this case, the object of veneration would be the nation-state, embodied in a singular individual, a benevolent superman. As Mussolini proclaimed: “Fascism is not only a party, it is a regime; it is not only a regime, but a faith; it is not only a faith, but a religion that is conquering the laboring masses of the Italian people.”
Mussolini himself had no use for religion; he adopted his father’s atheistic and anti-Catholic outlook. He once derided Christ as “a small mean man who in two years converted a few villages and whose disciples were a dozen ignorant vagabonds, the scum of Palestine.”
The problem for Mussolini, though, was how to avoid a direct confrontation with the Catholic Church, which retained a deep cultural loyalty among ordinary Italians, whatever the quality of their personal faith. Mussolini had introduced the concept of a “totalitarian” political ideology. How could the church be accommodated if fascism could tolerate no rivals? As Mussolini wrote in The Doctrine of Fascism:
Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual. . . . The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people.
Talks between the church and the government began in 1926 but stalled over Fascist education policies. The talks resumed, however, and on February 11, 1929, in a dazzling ceremony at the Lateran Palace, Mussolini signed protocols making Vatican City a fully independent enclave within Rome. Its citizens were exempt from Fascist law. Catholic authority over marriage was restored, as was compulsory religious education.
Thus, there were practical limits to Mussolini’s totalitarianism. As biographer R. J. B. Bosworth summarizes it: “Mussolini’s dictatorship had not, would not, and could not storm the citadel of Catholicism.” In praising the protocols, the papal paper, L’Osservatore Romano, declared that “Italy has been given back to God and God to Italy.” Yet Mussolini also got what he wanted: a way for the Italian people to somehow retain spiritual inspiration from Catholicism while directing their most important loyalties to the regime. Indeed, the idolization of the state continued apace: Militant nationalism was the new creed.
Fascist youth organizations — whose motto was “Believe, obey, fight” — were modeled on the Society of Jesus. The anniversary of the March on Rome was stage-managed into a pseudo-religious event, with an early-morning Mass and the mingling of Italian military, Fascist militias, and Catholic priests. Celebrations of military battles, such as the battle of Vittorio Veneto, followed a similar pattern. “Commemoration of Fascist martyrs freely confused Fascism with Christianity,” writes Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes, “which the presence of so many clerics at such rituals did little to dispel, while Fascist memorabilia owed much to pious kitsch.”
Mussolini himself, despite his personal disdain for the church, was careful to cloak Fascist doctrine in the language of murky spirituality: “Fascism is a religious conception in which man is seen in his inherent relation to a superior law and to an objective will, which transcends the individual and makes him a conscious member of a spiritual society.”
Under the fascist view, citizens derive their sense of purpose and meaning from the regime: It is the state that “makes them aware of their mission,” “harmonizes their divergent interests,” and “leads men up from primitive tribal life to that highest manifestation of human power, imperial rule.” It was a short step from the idolization of the regime to the deification of its supreme leader. “The real novelty of his ambition,” writes Bosworth in Mussolini, “lay in his pretensions to enter the hearts and minds of his subjects, and so install Fascism as a political religion.”
Because he had seized complete control of the media, Mussolini portrayed himself as the only man who could rescue Italy from economic disaster, defeat her enemies, and restore her rightful place on the world stage. “I want to make Italy great, respected, and feared,” he said. As the nation’s youngest prime minister, he always appeared virile and self-assured. Pictures of him swinging a hammer, laying bricks, and cutting corn — usually bare-chested — appeared daily in the newspapers. Glasses that he drank from and pickaxes that he swung during his tours were considered holy relics. “There might be anti-Fascists, but there were few anti-Mussolinians,” writes Christopher Hibbert in Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce. “He was not only a dictator. He was an idol.”
Mussolini’s personality cult reached its apex in 1936, when Italy brutally invaded and occupied Ethiopia. The world listened with outrage to accounts of defenseless natives choking on poison gas and being cut down by machine guns. Yet Mussolini had defied the League of Nations — a badge of honor for most Italians — and conquered. Paeans gushed from the Italian press. “Homer, the divine in Art; Jesus, the divine in Life; Mussolini, the divine in Action,” wrote journalist Asvero Gravelli. To others, he was “infallible,” a “titan,” a “genius,” and “divine.” After listening to Mussolini announce from his balcony that Ethiopia had been defeated and that Rome was once again the capital of a great empire, his collaborators were nearly overcome. “He is like a god,” one said. “Like a god?” the other replied. “No, no. He is a god.”
How could the Italian people, who lived amid the headquarters of the universal Catholic Church — whose Catholic-Christian identity was assigned to them at birth — transfer their deepest devotion to a pagan regime led by an irreligious despot? Italy, after all, was one of the victors in the First World War. Its post-war economy was bad, but not as bad as that of Germany. Nevertheless, its domestic conditions made it ripe for exploitation. Widespread poverty, war veterans with no hope of meaningful work, strikes, street violence, the threat of communism, political divisions, and a profound sense of disillusionment — all played a part in the story of a nation of 40 million souls looking for a political savior.
Mussolini, a performer more than a politician, assumed the role. He invented the modern totalitarian state. He took away the freedoms of the Italian people by giving them dreams of a nationalistic paradise nourished by imperialistic glory. He made it seem that Fascism was the evolutionary pinnacle of Western civilization.
In truth, Fascism proved to be a mutation: a wretched distortion of the political and religious ideals of the West. Mussolini’s hubris became his undoing. The democratic forces of the West punctured Italy’s fascist delusions, and the Italian people finished the job. Ousted from power, Mussolini tried to flee the country. He was caught, shot, and hung to cheers and mockery.
Yet Mussolini had legions of devoted followers who clung to hope — a hope severed from reason — like the artist crouching in a cave beneath the streets of Naples. Or like Manlio Morgagni, a journalist, mayor of Milan, and member of the Italian senate. When Morgagni got the news that Mussolini had been forced out of office, he committed suicide. “For over thirty years, you, Duce, you have had all my loyalty,” he wrote in a note. “My life was yours. . . . I die with your name on the lips and a plea for the salvation of Italy.”
Joseph Loconte is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Grove City College and Senior Fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He’s also the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. The trailer for the forthcoming documentary film series based on the book can be found at hobbitwardrobe.com.