Taras Grescoe’s latest book is Possess the Air: Love, Heroism, and the Battle for the Soul of Mussolini’s Rome. He lives in Montreal.
On Sept. 12, 1919, a short, bald, bow-legged former parliamentarian rode into the city of Fiume in a red sports car at the head of a column of mutineers from the Italian army. For 16 months, Il Duce, as he was known to his followers, turned the port on the Croatian coast into a pirate city-state. Black-shirted veterans, who hailed their leader’s balcony orations with straight-armed Roman salutes, terrorized the local population. Opponents were forced to choke down castor oil, and schoolchildren were gunned down for failing to shout, “Viva Italia!” At the height of the occupation, it was widely believed their leader could have marched on Rome with 300,000 veterans and seized control of the Italian state.
It wasn’t to be. Fiume would prove to be Gabriele d’Annunzio’s last hurrah. Italian troops eventually besieged the city, d’Annunzio’s legionaries surrendered, and the decadent poet-novelist would live out the rest of his life in a kind of internal exile in his sprawling palazzo on the shores of Lake Garda. The occupation would go down in history as d’Annunzio’s ultimate beffa – a prank and spectacular feat of daring by a brilliant self-promoter. Although he and his followers were responsible for creating the aesthetics and thuggish tactics of what would become Fascism, the occupation of Fiume was a sideshow, one that would have no long-term impact on the history of Europe or the world.
What it did do, though, was provide cover for something much more virulent. Europe was transfixed by d’Annunzio’s occupation, but six months earlier, in a rented hall in Milan’s Piazza San Sepolcro, a former schoolteacher named Benito Mussolini, who had been expelled from the Socialist party for his support of Italy’s entry into the First World War, presided over the founding of the Fasci di combattimento, a movement that “declared war against socialism … because it had opposed nationalism.”
This inauspicious meeting, attended by just more than 100 veterans, intellectuals and pro-war syndicalists, marked the true birth of Fascism, the most noxious and genocidal ideology of the 20th century. Three years later, Mussolini, who eventually usurped the title of Il Duce from d’Annunzio, would carry out his successful March on Rome, where the King would appoint him Prime Minister. In the name of fighting Bolshevism, the Fascisti would kill 3,000 socialists, torture tens of thousands of Italian citizens and run an equal number out of their communities. Within three years, Mussolini was in a position to declare himself “personal dictator” of Italy. In the two decades that followed, Italian Fascism, by a conservative estimate, sent one million people to an early grave.
“The March on Rome,” Adolf Hitler would later acknowledge, “was one of the turning points in history. The brown shirt probably would not have existed without the black shirt.” The German version of Fascism would launch a global conflict that killed as many as 85 million people, about 3 per cent of the world’s population at the time.
A century after Fascism was born, authoritarians are once again on the rise around the world. The failure of American leadership has produced a global moral vacuum that has emboldened the leaders of Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, Russia, the Philippines, India and other anocracies and authoritarian regimes to strong-arm neighbouring polities and victimize migrants, religious minorities, indigenous populations and LGBTQ citizens.
To consolidate their power, the “killer clowns,” as British journalist George Monbiot labels such self-serving buffoons as Boris Johnson, cater to the basest prejudices of their electorates. Tweet by tweet, Donald Trump – a would-be strongman only precariously held in check by the institutions of U.S. democracy – has torn apart the web of international agreements painstakingly woven by the generations who lived through the rise of dictatorships and were determined to prevent the return of global conflagration.
I’ve spent the past three years researching a book about how people responded to the first iteration of populist authoritarianism, Italian Fascism. As I immersed myself in newsreels, archives and eyewitness accounts of everyday violence, I was repeatedly chilled by the consonances with our time.
At a moment in history when Italians were feeling powerless and betrayed by the political establishment, Mussolini held forth a muscular program for restoring national pride – he wanted to Make Italia Grande Again. Unlike Mr. Trump, who has built nothing, Il Duce spent 20 years remaking Rome in the image of his paragon of ancient glory, Caesar Augustus. Il Duce excoriated, and eventually shut down, the free press and established a one-way conduit to the Italian people through radio broadcasts and speeches from his balcony on the Palazzo Venezia. Mr. Trump, who communicates with his base via Twitter and Fox News, has focused on disparaging what he calls #fakenews from the White House and his Mar-a-Lago resort. Mussolini encouraged, and selectively reined in, the violence of his Fascisti thugs, implying that only his authority prevented them from running amok. Mr. Trump has whipped up supporters at his rallies to eject protesters and has offered approval for the white supremacists who murdered and maimed at Charlottesville. Even the Italian dictator’s mannerisms – chin and chest thrust out, arms crossed, shouting down opponents – eerily echo those of the U.S. President.
During the course of my research, I repeatedly asked myself: Are we living through a replay of the circumstances that birthed Fascism in Europe a century ago?
The answer: Not exactly. These are very different times. In the 21st century, we face monster storms, wildfires and rising sea levels spurred by ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions; the relentless slow boil of population growth; international migration brought on by conflict and environmental degradation; and the very real threat from never-dismantled nuclear arsenals. All of which foster a climate of anxiety exploited by strongmen who appeal to people who feel powerless in the face of change.
“History,” as U.S. historian Timothy Snyder writes in his slender but crucial 2017 volume On Tyranny, “does not repeat, but it does instruct.” History also offers us lessons in what to watch out for, and how to act, in a time when right-wing demagogues are once again on the rise.
For Mr. Snyder, who painstakingly documented mass killings by the Soviets and Nazis in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus in Bloodlands, “most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given”: A complicit population obeys in advance, instinctively anticipating the wishes of a repressive leader. “When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle,” he warns, “the end has come.” Such was the case in Italy in the early 1920s, when local police and the military rode in the same trucks as Blackshirts in murderous “punitive” raids against labour leaders. (Mr. Snyder suggests this is a real and present danger in the United States, with its armed state militias, highly militarized police forces and privately run prisons.)
The challenge lies in preventing things from ever reaching such a state. And that can only be achieved through the unglamorous work of defending the institutions that make democracy function, among them an independent judiciary, a free press and a vital civil society. Many Italians acquiesced to totalitarian dictatorship because they were disgusted with liberal politicians who had proved corrupt, ineffectual and all too willing to lead their country into a costly war.
“Italians felt the need to get rid of their free institutions,” the brilliant historian Gaetano Salvemini observed, at the very moment when they “should step forward to a more advanced democracy.”
We can learn a lot from the Italian anti-fascists who sacrificed their careers, their freedom – and in some cases, their lives – to oppose the hate, violence and warmongering they saw taking over the public life of the country they loved. Salvemini’s rigorous policy was to heap contempt on every Blackshirt he met and relentlessly expose their hypocrisy and lies in the voluminous writings he produced when he was forced to flee into exile. The Florentine anti-Fascists Nello and Carlo Rosselli, after a daring motorboat escape from island exile, organized an effective campaign of resistance and propaganda from Paris, before being gunned down by the goons of the Italian secret police on a roadside in Normandy.
The subject of my book, Italian-American poet Lauro de Bosis, took another path. At a time when the Fascists had choked off all sources of information from the outside world, de Bosis organized a samizdat-style series of chain letters denouncing the regime, then bombarded the heart of Fascist power in Rome with anti-fascist manifestos from the cockpit of a small plane, before flying off into the night.
These are shining examples of resistance, but they also lay out a blueprint we can follow in our everyday lives. Here are some lessons I learned from the original anti-fascists. Don’t take freedom for granted – vote in elections at every level and value, protect and participate in the free institutions that underlie democracy. Systematically denounce expressions of xenophobia and hatred (even if they are camouflaged in spurious philosophical language, as is the case with Quebec’s Islamophobic Bill 9, which would force new immigrants to take a “values test.”) Don’t be befuddled by propaganda and misinformation; read widely – preferably books and legitimate journalism – and verify authorship, which these days means avoiding the echo chamber of prejudice-confirming blather on cable news and social media. Practice kindness, dialogue and connection, and cultivate real relationships with the people who surround you, rather than succumbing to the politics of division. Finally, stand up for, and stand by, the people that populist demagogues seek to exclude and scapegoat, whether they are Mexican migrants in El Paso, Tex., or observant Muslims in Montreal.
De Bosis, whose daring flight maddened Mussolini, turned himself into the anti-d’Annunzio. His act of courage was not designed for personal glory, but to puncture a toxic status quo – the illusion that an authoritarian dictatorship controlled everything, including the sky over Rome.
“It is those,” Mr. Snyder reminds us, “who were considered exceptional, eccentric, or even insane in their own time – those who did not change when the world around them did – whom we remember and admire today.”
And that is why, in the 21st century, the most admirable thing any person of conscience can do is to resist, with words and actions, the would-be authoritarians who marshal fear and hatred to prevent us from doing what we know is right.