“The Italians considered themselves defeated among the winners of WWI. They fought bad and turned out to owe everybody”

A cycle of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. Part 9: Italy

Realnoe Vremya continues a cycle of interviews with Russian scientists dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. Now it is the turn of Italy, Candidate for Historical Sciences, Senior Researcher of the Institute of Military History at the Russian Academy of Sciences German Gigolayev is telling our newspaper about it.

Fascism was very different from Nazism, including in economic policy”

Mr Gigolayev, Nazi Germany is often called here fascist, though Fascism was born in Italy, which also participated in the Second World War and was the Nazis’ ally but later, in 1949. Is the difference between these two ideas big?

Fascism was very different from Nazism. In essence, both regimes were based on mobilisation, but in general there were a lot of differences, particularly in terms of the creation of regimes. For Hitler’s Germany, two years were enough to build a totalitarian Nazi regime, while the establishment of Fascism took much time in Italy. The demolition of the liberal state didn’t happen with the coming of leader of the fascist party Benito Mussolini to power in 1992 but approximately in 1926. And if we look at the eradication of the remains of the liberal Italian state, here we are talking about even the year 1928 when already the non-alternative election took place.

Moreover, the difference between the regimes was in economic policy. Unlike the Nazis, when in power, Italians fascists didn’t start dealing with mobilisation and nationalisation of the economy right away, a lot of what was nationalised by the Italian government during the First World War was even privatised again, for instance, telegraph lines, the post. And in the 20s, Mussolini’s government followed a liberal economic policy, though with a focus on big capital, leading Italian banks.

The change of the liberal course for nationalisation happened only during the world economic crisis in 1929-1930. Italy’s economy in leading sectors (heavy industry, metallurgy) then collapsed by a third and more, and the biggest national banks were taken under state control by buying them out — Bank of Rome, National Credit and leading industrial enterprises. So large corporations, unions of entrepreneurs started to be built in the country, it is what Mussolini and his supporters dreamt about in the 20s.

Mussolini and the Blackshirts during the Marche in Rome in 1922. Photo: wikipedia.org
The demolition of the liberal state didn’t happen with the coming of leader of the fascist party Benito Mussolini to power in 1992 but approximately in 1926. And if we look at the eradication of the remains of the liberal Italian state, here we are talking about even the year 1928 when already the non-alternative election took place

The Italians considered themselves defeated among the winners of WWI, though they were among the winners”

What was the key political idea of Italian fascists? Politics was foremost here anyway.

The Nazis and Fascists almost didn’t have ideological discrepancies, but from a perspective of mentality, Italy isn’t Germany. The Catholic church had a great influence on the Italians, and though many of them were conformists, the Italians weren’t ready to obey all instructions from the top and sabotaged them. And Mussolini understood it — he was anyway a smart, well-read person, not lance corporal like Hitler. This is why citizens weren’t prosecuted for not obeying some state instructions, at least before 1943 when Italy was partially occupied by Germany. Yes, of course, Italy had state anti-Semitism, but it wasn’t that of Germany. Italian Jews started to be sent to concentration camps only in the 40s.

If we go back to our question, the key idea of Italian Fascists was nationalism, the idea of the nation’s supremacy, but it wasn’t the idea the Germans had. Hitler and the Nazis saw the nation’s supremacy from a perspective of race, standing up for the blood purity, while Italians saw state supremacy, not race, as the idea. And people had to serve this state. Mussolini himself thought that nation was defined not only by blood but also by a human’s way of thinking. This is why, back to anti-Semitism and Jews, we can note that the latter occupied quite important posts in the 20s, even “racial laws” appeared in 1938. And Mussolini’s first lover, by the way, was also Jew.

Fascio in Italian means a bundle, as it is known. Can we therefore consider that this bundle was a union of all classes of Italian society for the sake of idea?

The term fascio can be used in different ways. It is also a union, a union of cells united by ideas, it is what the fascist movement of Italy began with. The term also speaks about corporatism as the key element of society for the Fascists, as it really proclaims cooperation of all classes for the sake of a great idea — the revival of Italy’s greatness and its liberation from corruption and national humiliation.

Because it seems to Italian nationalists as early as after WWI that Italy was the weakest among big powers. And to unite, it even succoured to somebody’s help (the same Germans), lost in the colonial war. The Italians also considered themselves defeated among the winners of WWI — they fought, but they fought unsuccessfully and in addition turned out to owe everybody and after the Treaty of Versailles received much less than what they had been promised. So Fascism, in some philosophers’ opinion, is also a logical course of events for Italy.

Italian soldiers before heading off to Ethiopia. Photo: wikipedia.org
As for Ethiopia, Mussolini obtained Hitler’s support, first of all. And, of course, these wars were the demonstration of the idea of global supremacy — Mussolini always had the idea of considering the same Mediterranean Sea his own

“Mussolini yearned about the Roman Empire”

Why did the people support Mussolini and Fascists? What especially influenced it?

The Italians supported Mussolini mainly in the 30s. A new generation grew up, wars of conquest began — Italy finally was quits with the same Ethiopia. In the 20s, Italians had more of typical expediency, and just some classes sincerely supported Mussolini — they saw him as a guarantee of order after the unsuccessful rule of the left wing. But the 20s were also for Europe a period of good economic growth, or stabilisation of capitalism in other words. Plus, Mussolini’s populism influenced people.

Mussolini’s political opponents were decapitated too. The left wing had tried to rule Italy in 1919-1922, but there were a mess and hesitation in their government, and the Social Party was split into even three parties, which demoralised Italy’s working class after the Fascists came to power. So in the 20s, not that people were glad about Mussolini in power but satisfied because, first of all, there was a good economic situation in the 20s.

In addition, the Italian fascists’ foreign policy in the 20s was quite weighed up. Mussolini regulated relationships with Yugoslavia, established diplomatic relationships with the USSR. In a word, everything was relatively successful here.

But everything changed in the 30s. You’ve already said about the crisis that led to the nationalisation of the economy, Mussolini’s military plans appeared at the same time as well. Why did Italy’s aggression towards the same Ethiopia arise in 1936 or earlier in Libya in 1931?

As for Ethiopia, Mussolini obtained Hitler’s support, first of all. And, of course, these wars were a demonstration of the idea of global supremacy — Mussolini always had the idea of considering the same Mediterranean Sea his own. He yearned about the Roman Empire, how could he deal with national self-identification if not by yearning? How could he explain to the Italians who they were? Of course, he had to explain to them they came from the Roman Empire. Italy, by the way, had military plans in the 20s too, but the war of the liberal government for Albania was unsuccessful, while Mussolini managed to agree with the kind of Albania on use of its minerals and almost controlled this country. But the 30s were marked for a more nervous international situation, thus both crises and wars.

Photo: wikipedia.org
The Italians had quite good aviation, the fleet was at a good level, at a better level than Germany and the USSR had. Corruption impeded from equipping and providing the army

Soviet tanks T-26 just turned the small Italian tanks upside down”

Did the military actions in the 30s with Italy’s army mean the readiness of its economy for a war?

No, the Italian economy wasn’t ready for a big war. The Italians hardly handled the Ethiopians, while the war in Spain finally illustrated that the economy of Italy was weak for military purposes. Italy made progress in military mobilisation of the industry, but it didn’t catch up with Germany, France, England. The crisis made an impact too, Italy always had serious disproportion in regional development. In terms of industry, the north of the country was developed (and it was developed at the level of France), while the south was, in fact, a semi-feudal household. Mussolini perfectly understood it, this is why he didn’t join WWII in 1939, he did it a year later.

Your colleagues said that soldiers of the Italian army didn’t have a great desire to fight for the country’s greatness? Is it true?

The Italian army really had problems with troops. There were people with a strong fighting spirit, of course, there were detachments of the Blackshirts (Editor’s Note: a militarised group of Fascist party members) — they at least knew the ideas they were fighting for. But in a real military environment even they not always showed their fighting qualities, rather the other way round. While the majority of Italian soldiers, especially from the countryside, didn’t understand why they needed this all. Especially if they were sent to spill blood to some snowed Russia or somewhere else far from home. The mentality of conformism and lower ideological excitement was probably the case here, because of which there was a misunderstanding of goals of the war.

Besides, the Italian army had problems with training of troops, their armament and equipment. Italy lacked contemporary armament. If we are talking about tank troops, the Italians used small tanks in Spain. And when there was a clash with Soviet tanks T-26, they just turned the Italian tanks upside down. Italians’ got normal lightweight tanks only before the war, but they didn’t manage to launch their mass production. The Italians had quite good aviation, the fleet was at a good level, at a better level than that of Germany and the USSR. Corruption impeded from equipping and providing the army.

To be continued

By Sergey Kochnev