John Foot, Blood and Power—the rise and fall of Italian fascism
During the Italian winter of 1920-21 fascist squads armed with an array of lethal weapons—often provided by landowners or army officers—went on “punitive expeditions” in the countryside. They terrorised trade unionists and socialists, and physically destroyed their organisations, buildings and printing presses.
In his new history of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, John Foot quotes a socialist MP speaking in the Italian parliament in March 1921, giving an account of a typical fascist attack. The MP says,  “In the dead of night, while most gentlemen are in bed at home, the lorries of the fascists turn up in small villages… Naturally, they are accompanied by the local landowners, guided by them, because otherwise it would be impossible to recognise, in the dark, in the middle of the countryside, the small house of the trade union leader, or the local [union-controlled] employment office.
“They gather in front of a small house and the order is given… surround the building. They are twenty, and sometimes a hundred of them armed with rifles and revolvers… They call the name of the union leader and ask him to come outside. If he doesn’t respond, they say, we will burn your house, your wife, your children… The union leader comes downstairs. He opens the door. They grab him, they tie him up, they put him on a lorry. They torture him in a horrible way and pretend to murder him, to drown him. Then he is abandoned in the middle of the countryside, naked, tied to a tree. If the union leader is a brave man, and does not open the door, and uses weapons in his defence, then he is immediately killed in the dead of night. One hundred against one.”
Foot tells the history of Italian fascism through the eyes of individuals, above all through its numerous victims, as a way of bringing home the brutal reality of its violence and terror.
So, for example, the MP who made the speech above, Giacomo Matteotti, was murdered three years later by a secret fascist squad with close links to Mussolini himself. Matteotti—seized in public in broad daylight and taken away to be killed—would become one of the regime’s most famous victims.
In the wake of the First World War Italy had seen an immense wave of working class militancy, rural unrest and even army mutinies. These biennio rosso (two red years) of 1919-20 cast to the margins of political life the small groups of Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian fighting bands) set up by Mussolini—a former socialist turned pro-war nationalist.
But, the leadership of the Italian Socialist Party baulked at directing the upsurge from below towards all-out confrontation with Italian capitalism. The resulting disorientation and demoralisation among the workers emboldened the ruling class which then sought to deal a hammer blow to their class enemy. The fascists would provide the cutting edge of this wave of reaction that began in late 1920.
And after smashing socialist and working class organisation in the rural areas and smaller towns, the fascist militia were by 1922 increasingly confident to turn their attention to the bigger cities. The fascists could now begin to bargain with the ruling class for access to state power. By the time Mussolini was appointed prime minister by King Victor Emmanuel III on 31 October 1922, the spine of the Italian working class had already been broken.
The fascists were in no sense an ordinary political party. Foot describes them as a “militia party”, organised as a private paramilitary army to destroy all working class organisation, whether it was reformist, revolutionary or even Catholic.
Foot’s key theme is the constant reality of the organised, pervasive violence at the heart of Italian fascism. This was its whole purpose. It may seem a rather redundant aim: is it necessary to point out that fascism involves violence, murder and terror at its very core? Indeed, it serves to recognise the scale of the drive to downplay and deliberately obscure the crimes of Italian fascism.
A sustained attempt has been made to present Mussolini and the fascist regime as a relatively benevolent dictatorship, with little resort to violence to ensure its rule, instead able to draw on wide popular support. The infamous 1938 racial laws and the regime’s complicity with the Holocaust are excused as regrettable mistakes resulting from a misguided alliance with Hitler’s Nazi regime, or even that they were somehow forced on Italy by Hitler.
So the author of a monumental 6,000-page biography of Mussolini—more a monument to Il Duce, as some noted—Renzo de Felice, provided sophisticated academic cover for such arguments. For example, he claimed that Italian fascism rested on a social consensus by the early 1930s and that Italian fascism had little in common with German Nazism, not least due to a supposed absence of appeals to biological racism in the Italian case.

Silvio Berlusconi, the four-times Italian prime minister from the mid-1990s to 2011, could provide cruder political legitimacy to such arguments. In 2003, for example, while speaking to newspaper interviewers he claimed that “Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday in [internal] confinement”, and that his fascist regime was “benign”.
Yet such historical revisionism can only be sustained, as Foot suggests, by a series of evasions and a staggering historical amnesia. Firstly, it relies on ignoring the violence that preceded Mussolini’s arrival to power. “Fascism was built on a mound of dead bodies, cracked heads, traumatised victims of violence, burnt books and smashed up cooperatives and union headquarters,” Foot points out.
It was this vast exercise in violence that then allowed the creation of a highly repressive police state that underpinned the fascist regime and which, by the early 1930s, left any opposition seem impossible. Any attempt to discuss the popular basis of support for the regime that forgets this appalling reality cannot be taken seriously.
Downplaying the monstrous crimes of the Mussolini regime must also involve a shameful amnesia towards fascist Italy’s colonial record. Most significant here is the October 1935 invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The war and occupation that followed were justified by appeals to a racist framework, with Mussolini declaring Ethiopia a “barbarian country… unfit to remain amongst civilised people”.
Italy imposed racial laws on the country that implemented a version of apartheid racial separation, right down to banning “mixed marriages”. As Foot says, Italy imposed its will on its colonies with “extreme racist violence”.
So for example, after a failed assassination attempt in 1937 by members of the Ethiopian resistance on the fascist “viceroy for Ethiopia”, Rodolfo Graziani, the Italian occupiers launched a bloody massacre in Addis Ababa. An orgy of violence and murder by the occupiers that lasted three days killed 19,000 Ethiopians—one in five inhabitants of the city. Overall, the six-year invasion, war and occupation took the lives of 750,000 Ethiopians.
Such genocidal colonial violence, in turn, radicalised the regime’s racial politics at home. It was an internal dynamic that drove this development, which cannot be reduced (and excused) by the growing external alliance with Hitler’s Nazis.
In 1938 the Mussolini regime announced a Manifesto Della Razza (Manifesto of Race). It called on Italians to be racist and, invoking biological pseudo-science, proclaimed that “Jews do not belong to the Italian race”. The manifesto paved the way for the 1938 racial laws which effectively removed citizenship from Jewish Italians and drove them out of the institutions of the state, economy, education and the public realm. Foreign Jews were ordered to leave the country.
The regime also established an anti-Semitic magazine, La difesa della razza (The defence of the race), which published 118 editions over five years. Its editorial secretary was Giorgio Almirante—take note of the name. To enforce its anti-Semitic legal discrimination, the fascist regime ordered a new census of Italy’s Jewish population. The resulting lists were later used by the Nazis to round up, deport and murder Italy’s Jews.
After the Allies invaded southern Italy via Sicily in July 1943, Mussolini was ousted by his own Grand Council of Fascism which, with the backing of the king, looked to open negotiations with the Allies. In response, German troops flooded into the northern Italian cities and established a Nazi occupation.
German paratroopers freed Mussolini from Allied captivity and the Nazis re-installed him as the head of a puppet regime known as the Italian Social Republic (Republlica Sociale Italiana, or RSI).
Under the Nazi occupation, alongside a brutal war against anti-fascist partisans of the Italian resistance, round-ups of Jews took place, often with the willing participation of the Italian authorities. The path to Italian complicity in the Holocaust was prepared by the earlier legal measures of segregation imposed on Jews. As Foot observes, “Italy’s shameful racial laws… paved the way for an Italian holocaust”.
In the city of Ferrara in the north, for example, Jews were rounded up on multiple occasions between October 1943 and October 1944—the first group of Jews from Ferrara reached Auschwitz in February 1944. Just one of these actions were conducted by the Nazis themselves. In December 1944 the local fascist paper demanded Ferrara be “completely freed from the Jews and their property”.
Yet, despite the clear evidence to the contrary, a powerful myth has been propagated that displaces the responsibility for the fate of Italy’s Jews solely onto the Nazis, downplaying the active involvement of the fascist regime in Italy. Di Felice even claimed Italy was outside of the “shadow cast” by the Holocaust.
The rehabilitation of Mussolini’s regime was not simply the result of nostalgia. It had the corresponding goal of delegitimising the legacy of anti-fascism, most identified with the Communist Party (PCI) but more broadly with the entire post-war settlement which institutionalized a series of gains for Italian workers even as the PCI was excluded from national political office.
Indeed, the cumulative effect of this historical revisionism has been to increase the opportunity for Mussolini’s political successors to enter the public arena.
Mussolini was famously captured by partisans in April 1945 and executed. But many of his lieutenants escaped justice and were able with relative ease to re-enter public life.
Some of the second-rank figures of the RSI launched a new party in 1946, the Italian Social Movement (MSI). A pivotal figure in the history of this party was Giorgio Almirante, the former editor of La defense della razza and an undersecretary at the culture ministry of the RSI. Almirante would sit in the Italian parliament for 40 years and lead the MSI in 1947-50 and again from 1969 to 1987.
The MSI had a deeply and deliberately ambiguous attitude to the fascist regime, refusing to condemn Mussolini’s rule wholescale but claiming to now accept liberal democracy, summed up in its slogan “do not deny, do not restore”.
Today, Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia—now the biggest party in the newly elected Italian parliament—is the old MSI reborn. Meloni has repeatedly praised Almirante and claims that the 1938 racial laws were a mistake, to be blamed on Hitler’s influence rather than the product of the internal dynamic of fascism.
Foot’s highly readable and morally powerful book is a clear, well written reminder of the reality of fascism. As such it is a valuable contribution to arming all those horrified at Mussolini’s political grandchildren returning to the historical stage.
John Foot, Blood and Power: The rise and fall of Italian fascism (Bloomsbury 2022, £25)
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