Excerpted from Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy by Michael R. Ebner. Published by Cambridge University Press.
This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Fascism.
During the high tide of “squadrismo,” members of the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento movement, who would form the official Fascist party by 1922, mobilized tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of Italian men who carried out thousands of acts of brutal violence within their own communities and neighboring cities, towns, villages, and hamlets.
Before this “takeoff” in provincial fascism, the Fascists were initially an urban phenomenon, motivated primarily by nationalism. They desired revenge against the Socialists and others who had not supported Italy’s participation in the Great War. Even before the war’s end, veterans who would later become Fascists were calling for the extirpation of Italy’s “internal enemies,” whom they held responsible for Italy’s crushing defeat to the Austro-Hungarian and German forces at the 1917 Battle of Caporetto. Fascist attacks against Socialists, according to Benito Mussolini, were like assaults “on an Austrian trench.” He declared, “This is heroism…This is the violence of which I approve and which I exalt. This is the violence of Fascism.”
The rise of fascism in the provinces of the Po Valley, in northern Italy, occurred in reaction to the remarkable postwar growth of Socialist power. During the biennio rosso (red two years), between 1918 and 1920, Socialists made huge electoral gains nationally and locally, while labor unions unleashed a wave of strikes unprecedented in Italian history. In the Po Valley, the Socialists established a virtual “state within a state,” winning control of municipal government, labor exchanges, and peasant leagues (unions). Socialists also founded cooperatives, cultural circles, taverns, and sporting clubs. Such working-class organizations exercised their power largely through legal means—elections, boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations—which nonetheless often led to clashes with police, with injuries and deaths on both sides.
Political culture and the social order had been radically altered, with rough peasants and workers occupying the halls of power and red flags hanging from town halls. For landowners, life in this new “red” state meant higher wages, higher taxes, reduced profits, lost managerial authority, deteriorating private property rights, and the threat of social revolution. Moreover, displays of red flags, busts of Marx, and internationalist slogans offended nationalist and patriotic middle-class sentiments. Conservatives denounced the “red terror” and “atrocities” of this period, though the landowners and middle classes were in little real physical danger. They were not physically assaulted, nor were their homes, offices, or private property damaged or destroyed. Yet, from their perspective, they lived in a world turned upside down. The Socialists had virtually “taken over,” and the liberal state appeared to have lost control of law and order.