For Benito Mussolini, life was an eternal struggle. Shaped by a social Darwinist worldview and following Georges Sorel’s philosophy of the virtue of violence, Il Duce (the leader), as Mussolini was known, regarded war as men’s essential purpose in life. It was through war that he intended to revolutionize Italian society and politics, destroy Italian vices like corruption, regionalism and individualism, and create the “new man” — a masculine, athletic peasant-soldier. Il Duce was convinced that “the character of the Italians must be forged in combat.”
However, in January 1940, he confessed to his son-in-law and then-foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, that so far he had failed in this task: “Have you ever seen a lamb become a wolf? The Italian people is a race of sheep. Eighteen years is not enough to change them. It takes a hundred and eighty years or maybe a hundred and eighty centuries.”
The New Man in Fascism Past and Present
However, it is not only Mussolini’s militaristic and violent rhetoric that put violence, war and struggle at the core of fascism. Il Duce and the fascist regime also followed up with violent action. Whether it was the bloody clashes between the fascist blackshirts and the Socialists in the 1920s, the brutal oppression of native rebellions in Libya in the 1920s and 1930s, the war crimes in Ethiopia or the atrocities committed during the Second World War, violence and war were fundamentally linked to the history of fascism. It is then not surprising that scholars who have attempted to define fascism emphasize the violent characteristics in an effort to capture the essence of the only “genuine ideology” of the 20th century, as Mussolini proudly called it in 1932.
A Mutilated Victory
Thus, the question arises: Where does “peace” fit in? Or was “peace” totally alien to fascist thinking and ideology? According to Johan Galtung, the founder of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, we can distinguish between a “positive” and a “negative peace.” Whereas the former refers to a constructive resolution of conflict and the creation of a social and political system that serves the needs of everybody, the latter refers to the absence of violence. How did fascists perceive a positive peace as promoted by Western democracies and new institutions such as the League of Nations after World War I? Did fascists’ long-term plans entail references to peace — at least in the sense of Galtung’s negative peace?
Thomas Nipperdey began his history on 19th century Germany with the now famous words: “At the beginning was Napoleon.” When analyzing Italian fascism’s relationship to peace, one could make a similar statement: At the beginning was World War I. A majority of fascists, including Mussolini, Dino Grandi and Achille Starace, were staunch interventionists who were totally disappointed and appalled by the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference. They regarded the treaties as a betrayal to their own war commitment and perceived them as unjust terms that were forced onto Italy by Great Britain and France. When referring to these agreements, they commonly used the words “mutilated victory,” a slogan coined by Italian nationalist and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.
When assessing the slogan’s devastating consequences for Italy’s political scene, it can only be compared with the infamous German Dolchstosslegende — the stab-in-the-back myth used by the German far right (including the National Socialists) against the Weimar Republic. On the one hand, Italian fascists used the mutilated victory myth against Italian liberals, whom they blamed for a failed negotiation strategy in Paris and consequently labeled traitors to the Italian nation. On the other hand, it was used to attack Western democracies accused of trying to stop Italy from taking its rightful place on the international stage.
Interestingly, the phrase itself exposes the fascists’ preference for martial rhetoric. Instead of using the term “peace treaties,” the slogan “mutilated victory” implies an ongoing struggle as well as powerfully evoking those who returned from the war wounded. These soldiers who sacrificed themselves for the greater good of their fatherland had been shamefully betrayed by both Western democracies and liberal Italian politicians. Therefore, it is not surprising that one of the main goals of Italian fascism was to seek a revision of the postwar peace order and thus turn a “mutilated victory” into a “true victory” for Italy.
The Rejection of Peace
The fascists’ attitude toward the Paris Peace Treaties is just one example that illustrates their overall stance toward the peaceful order democracies sought to create following World War I. In 1932, when the regime in Rome celebrated its 10-year anniversary, the government published the “Doctrine of Fascism,” written mainly by Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile. It contained one of the rare references to peace in an official government document, stating: “Fascism does not … believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace. It therefore discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. … War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it.”
This rejection of peace was not solely confined to the international arena; it also applied to domestic politics. The government attempted to infuse this anti-pacifistic attitude, which became a guiding doctrine for the fascists’ social and political agenda, into the every-day life of its citizens. The Italian new man was meant to embrace a fighting spirit, accept all kinds of risks and should not shy away from self-sacrifice. This concept of life mirrored the philosophy of Futurists such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who intended, as he outlined in his “Futurist Manifesto” of 1919, “to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness” and embraced “courage, audacity and revolt.”
This concept of life stood in contrast to the bourgeois lifestyle, which the fascists rejected as individualistic, feminine and weak. A bourgeois society, according to fascist doctrine, was only able to survive if it created what fascism despised the most: long-lasting peace. For Mussolini, the embodiment of such a society was Great Britain. He explained to Ciano that he had “studied the different generations of the English people. He observed that 22 million men faced 24 million women and that 12 million citizens were over 50 years old and thus have crossed the line of belligerent desires. Consequently, the static masses dominated the youthful-dynamic ones. That means: quiet life, ready for compromises, peace.” Compromise and peace, however, were, in the fascist worldview, obvious signs of weakness, cowardice and decay.
This quote leads to a final point. Whether in domestic affairs or in international politics, fascists rejected any kind of status quo. They defined their movement as dynamic, led by a charismatic leader who was energetic and powerful and always moving forward. Mussolini himself, portrayed as the nation’s soldier number one and a reincarnation of the condottiere — a leader of mercenaries in Renaissance Italy — claimed that he was born to never let the Italian people rest. A positive peace, however, would maintain and safeguard a certain status quo and thus undermine the fascists’ constructed self-image of a dynamic movement. Robert Paxton argues that a fascist movement must constantly renew itself and challenge the status quo. If it fails to do so, it turns into a normal form of dictatorship. Thus, one could conclude that if a fascist regime accepts a positive peace, it has ceased to exist.
Is peace, therefore, just another area where we could define fascism as an essential anti-movement? Such a conclusion, however, would be too simple. Historian Roger Griffin convincingly argued that it would be misleading to understand fascism purely as an anti-movement. On the contrary, fascists seduced the masses by promoting the idea of the rebirth of the nation, coined by Griffin as a form of palingenetic ultra-nationalism. Fascists were not nihilists by nature but wanted to create a brighter, better future for the nation by leading it out of whatever crisis it currently faced, which, in turn, means manufacturing a crisis if none can be found.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.