Monday, March 6, 2006

Mussolini: Power, Propaganda and the Revival of the Roman Empire

Daniel Neuman
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

Almost exactly 2000 years after the start of Roman Empire Mussolini sought to reestablish the same ideals, power, and patriotism of Ancient Rome. It was a meteoric rise to power for the shrewdly opportunistic Benito Mussolini, as well as the newly united country as a whole. He ascended to become “Il Duce” by capitalizing on the fears and instabilities of a depressed population. This was possible only through his iron fisted will and control of the media. His public displays, speeches, and propaganda had two core purposes, which he very skillfully achieved. The first was the to unite a factionalized and divided country under the patriotic ideals of romanita’, which was the greater culture and heritage of Ancient Rome. The second was complimentary, to fully restore the Rome to its “rightful” world empire. Fascism developed as a means to this end. Under Mussolini’s tutelage and shear will, fascism became a miraculous success story as a powerful rival to capitalism. Mussolini was hailed as a savior, even outside Italy in the US and Europe. This was especially true during the destitution of the Depression in the US. In this sense, fascism was seen as an attractive alternative to the failures of liberal democracy in stemming the tide of economic ruin. Mussolini ultimately was a master communicator, who was the right man to connect, unite, and uplift a struggling nation. He portrayed himself as the successor of Augustus, another master of propaganda, who was also a true provider for his citizens. Much like Augustus, Mussolini ventured upon a grand public building program, including the Via dell‘Impero and the city of EUR, which symbolically embodied and connected the ideals of the Ancient Empire to the Modern Empire. To better understand these symbols with their permeations of propaganda it is important to also understand the background to his rise to power.

The makings of the man were very humble to start. His father was a blacksmith and a fervent socialist, his mother a schoolteacher. He was a troubled youth, expelled from school several times, despite his good grades. He was quite brilliant, but rebellious and a bully much like his father. After school he returned as a schoolmaster himself, but was promptly fired for his controversial style. A voracious reader of Marx, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, he soon gained prominence locally as an impressive orator. He then worked in propaganda for a trade union, proposing strikes and advocating violence as a means to enforce demands. A pacifist, he moved to Austria to avoid the draft, but was arrested for vagrancy and deported.

Upon return he moved to Forli to work as the editor of the Socialist newspaper La Lotta di Classe, “The Class Struggle.” His background here in media, combined with a forceful personality and a potent rhetorical voice later formed the basis of his highly successful propagandistic campaigns. He called himself the “antipatriotic,” preaching against and imprisoned for opposing Italy’s invasion of Turkey in 1911 with pacifist propaganda. Restless, he moved to Milan to become editor of the official Socialist newspaper, Avanti!, as well as becoming a powerful labor leader. As Italy approached entry into WWI , he became more outspoken, calling for the proletariat to unite into “one formidable fascio” in preparation to seize power, saying the only acceptable war was a class war to overthrow the government. With this in mind, and swayed by Marx’s teaching that class revolution usually follows war, he abruptly polarized his stance and openly advocated war. This prompted his resignation and expulsion from his editorship and the Socialist party.

From here he began his steep rise to power and gave birth to fascism. He started Il Popolo d’Italia in 1914 to advocate the prewar cause and the virtues of nationalism and militarism. His inner hope was that war would lead to the collapse of society and government, that would ultimately cede power to him. To organize this ambition, he founded the political movement of the Fasci di Combattimento in March 1919. His plan to win the prime minister post failed that year, but he did enter Parliament to posture for the future. With a crippling nationwide labor strike in 1922, time was ripe for Mussolini to make his move. He assembled 40,000 belligerent Blackshirts, his Fascist disciples in Naples with the intent of leading a March on Rome. With the parallel rise of anarchism and communism, combined with the failure of the liberal government, the shrewdly calculated Mussolini made a bold gamble. He threatened a violent coup with the March on Rome. Stuck between the crumbling of the existing democratic government and more radical threats of anarchism and communism, King Vittorio Emanuele III had no choice but to invite Mussolini to form a new government. The March on Rome now became a celebratory entry of propaganda displaying the destiny of Italy. Its significance is not to be disseminated from the triumphal entrances back into the capitol by victorious ancient emperors.

Mussolini was the right man at the right time for Italy. His rise was the product of a general feeling of anxiety and fear among the middle-class of postwar Italy, arising out of a convergence of interrelated economic, political, and cultural pressures. He was an imposing charismatic leader and a revolutionary agitator:
“His physique was impressive, and his style of oratory, staccato and tautophonic, was superb. His attitudes were highly theatrical, his opinions were contradictory, his facts were often wrong, and his attacks were frequently malicious and misdirected; but his words were so dramatic, his metaphors so apt and striking, his vigorous, repetitive gestures so extraordinarily effective, that he rarely failed to impose his mood,” (Britannica).
For the depressed Italian people, these were the necessary qualities to impel change, especially in light of the “mutilated victory” at the hands of the Versailles Treaty, where the great Allied powers shamefully disregarded Italy. Despite “winning” WWI, the political climate was much the same as in destitute Germany. It is then not hard to see how authoritative charismatic leaders like Mussolini and Hitler could captivate a nation with promises of grandeur.

With the national humiliation from this, Mussolini sought to make a statement the world would not forget. He envisioned the literal rebirth of the glorious Roman Empire. His dream was the “Mare Nostrum,” “Our Mediterranean,” to extend from Palestine to Egypt, sweeping across Africa to Libya and Kenya. Although never fully realized, this rhetoric of empire building reawakened an aggressive nationalism that fueled Italy’s growth and restored dignity. Fervent nationalism led to blind following of Mussolini, as he was free to cultivate his own legend of “Il Duce.” Self proclaimed, “ Il Duce was a man who was always right and could solve all the problems of politics and economics,” while also being, “Italy’s man of destiny,” (Lazzaro). His background in media here was vital. With absolute, yet secretive control of the media to give the impression of a free press, Italians wholeheartedly followed him. However, his building plans, like the Master Plan of 1931, and economic revitalization were so successful that the US and Europe hailed him as a genius.

However, the world stared in horror as Mussolini finally acted on his promise to bring empire to Italy. In 1935 Mussolini invaded Ethiopia The League of Nations responded in unusual cohesion to impose sanctions on Italy’s resources. This was eventually the a major factor in Italy’s downfall as it was ill equipped and unprepared for a large scale modern war. Mussolini gave little care to world opinion and viewed sanctions as a slap on the wrist. If this was the worst the world could do to stop him, then a dominant Roman Empire was not just a dream. With the conquering of Ethiopia the following year, Mussolini in fact did declare the reestablishment of the Empire. This was commemorated by the monumental construction of the Via dell’Impero.

The Via dell’Impero was built in the feverish pace of 11 months to establish a direct link between the Ancient Empire and Modern Empire. The broad thoroughfare physically connected the most identifiable ancient symbol of the Coliseum with Mussolini’s Fascist headquarters in Piazza Venezia. More importantly it was a figurative symbol to seamlessly show the continuance of the Roman Empire. Dedicated in 1936 to a raucous crowd of 400,000, on the anniversary of the March on Rome, Mussolini declared:

“A great event has taken place…the fate of Ethiopia has been sealed. Our gleaming sword has cut through all the knots, and our African victory now shines with a pure light…Italy at last has her Empire, the Fascist Empire.”
These powerful words were enough to heal the wounds of a fractious and needy nation, as he commenced a revival of the mythical nation it once was. His vision of pan-romanita’ across Italy was realized with the inauguration of the Via dell’Impero accompanied by his speech. Romanita’ now was the “spirit of neither ancient nor modern Roman civilization, but rather uninterrupted continuation of glory through the centuries,” (Lazzaro). Furthermore though, “the endgame of romanita’ was empire,” as the “mission to spread Roman virtues and values throughout the world,” (Lazzaro).

Construction of the Via dell’Impero had drastic consequences, however. Mussolini’s propaganda machine had an affinity for inaugurating works on meaningful anniversaries, such as the March on Rome or Augustus’ birthday. With this, construction occurred with great haste and negligence towards ancient ruins with little documentation. The Via dell’Impero highlighted this, as Mussolini unearthed and carved out a vast swath of the Forum. The wanton demolition destroyed ruins, 8th century BC tombs, churches, and a Renaissance garden. This destruction was not controversial though because of his all consuming propaganda which permeated every aspect of culture. Mussolini used language to diminish the significance of the destroyed ruins, calling them “huts and tiny churches” (Lazzaro). Despite this horrific negligence in caring for the ancient past Mussolini was a major patron and propagator of archaeology, exhibitions, and scholarship of Ancient Rome. His main purpose, here, was to unite the people with images of, again, past and present.

Visual imagery substituted for a common language and culture. The She-wolf was a favorite symbol that recalled the mythical foundations of Rome and nurtured its destiny. Italians were to identify with Romulus and Remus, as they were too her offsprings, and thus equivalent to people of destiny. Mussolini even started the Fascist Youths, who were “sons and daughters of the She-wolf.” The other most recognizable symbol was undoubtedly the fasces, which are a bundle of rods that are much stronger when fastened together. The fasces represented strength in numbers, unity, authority and the exercise of power. They were plastered everywhere: architecture, art, stamps, toys, furniture, and other everyday items. In 1926 the fasces became the official emblem of the Fascist regime. To underscore their importance Mussolini erected the Victory Monument in Bolzano to resemble the classical triumphal arch with giant fasces in place of columns.

Another grand symbol of Mussolini’s historical propaganda was the rebuilding of the Ara Pacis, which was Augustus’ “visual message of peace and prosperity to celebrate the establishment of empire and dynasty,” (Lazzaro). The Ara Pacis was a vital to Mussolini’s own legend. He did all in his power to emulate Augustus. Thus, restoring a monument that stood for all of his ideals placed Mussolini closer to Augustus’ deified status.

The restoration was also a rushed event, as its completion was to honor the bimillenium of Augustus’ birthday. To bridge the two Empires, the Ara Pacis was then encased with a modern fascist arch complete with monumental fasces. In effect, Mussolini saw this to symbolically suggest he was Augustus’ successor. Through the early years Mussolini actually did an admirable job at this. Much like Augustus, he initiated a massive building program for public use. Of course it had just as much to do with propaganda as welfare, though. The effect was profound. It gave the people a sense of pride and patriotism to him and the state. This included city beautification, excavations, construction of piazzas, university campuses, highways, and even the entire city of EUR. Combined, these appropriations served “to express imperial power and to mark the past, define the present, and inspire the future,” (Lazzaro). The understanding of this never failed to impress as no public work was accomplished subtly.

The Via del Mare certainly does not differ. This last visual image shows the full circle nature of Mussolini. He constructed this highway as a direct physical link, connecting the capitol of Rome to EUR and eventually Ostia Antica. Here, he again overlays the past, present, and future, symbolized by the modernist EUR. The Espsizione Universale di Roma was ordered to be made in an “audaciously modernist design” with “arches and columns so heavily encoded with social and political meaning,” (Lazzaro). Here, classicism is melded with modern form and function, to create an awkward juxtaposition of stark, militant facades and classical arches and columns. The satellite city was in construction for a 1942 world exposition that never came because of WWII. The expo was to highlight and celebrate the values of fascism for the entire world. It seemed like a good idea as Mussolini transformed and reinvigorated Italy with a military-industrial complex economy in the 1930s while the rest of the West was mired in the Depression. However, the lofty goals of fascism’s “excellence” could not be showcased as it crumbled in the war. Today EUR is still a highly functioning center. It houses many government offices and is an upper-middle class neighborhood. Its importance to the future is parallel to the past of Ostia.

Ostia Antica was the port city and virtual lifeblood for Rome at the delta of the Tiber. Connecting Ostia to EUR and Rome was a pinnacle accomplishment for Mussolini. It was under his reign that Ostia took on new significance and excavations were reenergized with great zeal. This was all part of Mussolini’s plan to create scholarship and national interest in the Ancients. Always close to his heart, though, were the ulterior motives of preaching the Fascist doctrine simultaneously. The importance of uncovering the hidden treasures of Ostia was to emphasize the great culture and heritage of the Ancients, which the Italian people now have the responsibility to carry on. The Via del Mare well served and fostered this focus.

The Via del Mare shows how Mussolini came full circle in transforming Italy by revitalizing the past to propel the future. He wanted to make history now: make history relevant and make history himself. Victors always write the history books. Had Mussolini succeeded in securing the empire he envisioned, we too would view him as a deity that surrounds Augustus. With his rhetorical and media savvy skills anything is possible. Everything had a well calculated propagandistic purpose to create an all consuming culture, lifestyle and heritage that was the fluid continuance of Augustus’s Empire to Mussolini’s Fascist Empire.