How was life during Fascist Italy? We’ve already discussed the Italian fascist dictator and the rule of Mussolini, but now let’s learn a bit more about everyday life in Italy during the fascism and the fascist dictatorship of Mussolini. How did Italians live in fascism, insights, and fun facts about this period between 1922-1945.
Life in Mussolini’s Italy
Life in Mussolini’s Italy was somewhat different from other dictatorships. The fascist dictatorship in Italy differed from the one in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia. Many similarities are to be found in Fascist Italy, such as people having little control over their personal life, or that the state-controlled as much of them as it could.
The Police State
As in any dictatorship, in Fascist Italy as well, those who opposed the state got their punishment. All Italians were expected to obey Benito Mussolini and the Italian Fascist Party. The rules were enforced by the Blackshirts (this is the nickname for the Fasci da Combattimento). This was basically the fascist police that was made of ex-soldiers usually, and their job was to bring into line those who opposed Mussolini.
After 1927 when the OVRA secret police (the Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism, or in Italian, la Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Ripressione dell’Antifascismo) was created, together with the regular police and the Fascist Party organizations, they were benefiting from enhanced power, which also made them less accountable for their actions.
When the Italian Fascist Party actually took over control in the country, the police, the secret police, and the Blackshirts ( Camice nere) first went after peasant leaders in the countryside, showing aggression to any potential challengers.
An example of punishment in Fascist Italy
The Blackshirts favored way to make people obey was to tie someone to a tree, force 1-2 pints of castor oil down his throat, and then force him to eat a live frog/toad. Usually, this punishment was enough to ensure that people kept their thoughts to themselves.
The Blackshirts also murdered the socialist Matteotti, who was criticizing Mussolini’s rule. The motto of the Blackshirts was “Me ne frego”, which means I don’t give a damn. As you can imagine, this was possibly their answer to explanations when they caught civils that weren’t following the rules.
There were many anti-fascists in the country who simply left Italy, setting up a shop (or anything similar) in Paris or in European cities to escape persecution.
While the Blackshirts weren’t as feared or as brutal as the SS in Germany, they did maintain the expected silent behavior in Italy. Benito Mussolini said once “Italy wants peace and quiet, work and calm. I will give these with love if possible and with force if necessary.” The message of this speech is clear, you obey or you’ll be forced to obey.
While in Germany the Gestapo and the SS and in Stalin’s Russia used more murderous punishments, these were practiced rarely in Italy.
Economy and Labour in Italy
Mussolini’s policy of alimentary sovereignty
In the effort of Fascist Italy to nationalize the Italian masses, they applied the metaphors of war to economic production. It was a highly propagandized yet largely unsuccessful battle for national autarchy in wheat and raw materials.
Although the regime wasn’t successful in achieving complete self-sufficiency, alimentary sovereignty had a significant impact on every life in Italy under Mussolini. Fascist food policies reversed important trends in food habits and nutritional levels from the era before and during WW1. Doing this by holding down imports and encouraging the consumption of an austere diet based on bread, polenta, pasta, fresh produce, and wine.
If you think about it, this is still Italian food politics as if we consider the facts, Italy since focusing on its own food products instead of imported ones. And of course, it’s focusing on the quality of the local food. See for example that 99.99% of any food advertise in Italy highlights that this product was made in Italy.
Employers and employees in Fascist Italy
Under the rule of Mussolini, he claimed to cater to the needs of workers, while rejecting the socialism that the previous conflict between bosses and employees was now overcome as both became producers for the nation. This however wasn’t actually true, as the fascist regime favored employers over workers later on as well.
As we know, in the 1930s economical crisis Italy fell in as well. At this time, big businesses benefited from the state’s intervention to save failing companies and fascism’s preparation for long-term warfare and occupation of foreign territory. We’d like to highlight here the African mission when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935.
In spite of the Italian state welfare measures, large numbers of workers and their families were impacted and have seen a decline in their living standards. The truth is, that the Italian Fascist party did really little to protect them, the workers, which resulted in the impoverishment of large masses.
Fun fact: The delay of Italian trains
One of the rationalizations for fascism was that Mussolini brought organization and discipline to Italy. As a demonstration of this, they were saying that the trains were running on time. As you may know, if you’ve traveled in Italy these days, Italian trains are a phenomenon. You’re really lucky if you catch one that’s not late or canceled. So even if we’re measuring it with present days, it’s still something that’s not really working well in Italy. Imagine how it was in Fascist Italy then…
The Italian rail system in Italy was vastly improved under Mussolini since previously it was completely devastated by WW1. It is true though, that the larger, commercial express trains did a better job of keeping the timetables during the leadership of Mussolini, but local and daily trains were often delayed at that time too.
Even the Belgian foreign minister of that time said once that they were always kept waiting for more than 45 minutes at the level-crossings because the trains were never on time. However, obviously, no one would’ve dared to report this during Mussolini’s dictatorship.
The education in Fascist Italy
The Italian Fascist Party invested much in education, as a means of developing future generations of fascists. Mussolini’s ideological penetration of education was especially visible in primary schools. There, politically reliable instructors were ensuring that children were raised in fascist values. This included teaching the spirit of sacrifice and heroism, strict obedience to authority as well as the protection of the Italian nation.
In Fascist Italy, organizations assisted this process of ideological instruction also at university. Here youth had to participate in activities focused on pre-military training for boys and different forms of civic service for girls.
As you can imagine, in the poor parts of the country and rural areas the resources for these activities were limited. Also, those who were coming from the working class and couldn’t do higher education skipped these scholarly activities.
In anyways, many children and teenagers were left traumatized by Mussolini’s fall from power during WW2, as they were grown up believing that the Italian fascist leader and fascism itself were invincible.
Leisure and Culture under Mussolini
The citizens living in Fascist Italy spent their free time engaged in pursuits that were no different from those undertaken in other Western countries. Obviously, most of them were somehow affected by the fascist dictatorship’s attempt to exercise control over leisure activities.
The activities of company after-work clubs, that were overseen by the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro were less focused on ideological instructions. These after-work clubs partly catered to the welfare and consumer needs as well, by offering members household goods and entertainment activities at discount prices. Also, mass leisures such as literary texts, theatrical productions, or commercial films were not fascistized excessively until the late 1930s.
As we’ve mentioned in the article about Italy during the rule of Mussolini, cinemas, and newspapers were obligated to print or screen the fascist propaganda, it wasn’t everything strictly streaming the ideology. Though, in the public sphere, large numbers of citizens were obligated to participate in state-organized spectacular rituals, ceremonies, and parades.
Italy and Foreigners
I was reading magazines from the period to document for this article and to my surprise, Italians did not portray English or Americans in a bad light. Actually reading a magazine the positive spin they placed on American movie actors and the member of the Royal family in England you would never think a war was coming between the nations…..
Fun fact about alcohol in Fascist Italy
Wine production was key in Fascist Italy, as we’ve mentioned also food sovereignty. At the time, wine was really important for the economy – as this was also often promoted by the Italian Fascist Party. However, at the same time, drinking alcohol was seen as a barrier to becoming an ideal fascist man and it was feared as a potentially disruptive activity.
As we know, Mussolini has never drunk wine. Repeated emphasis was made on his abstemiousness, austere diet, and almost ascetic lifestyle. Yet, when it came to the Italians, wine drinking was consumed publicly in bars, osterias, trattorias, and similar places. These were the spots where drinking songs carried political messages. These spots were also the locations where fascists and anti-fascists often got into conflict after a few glasses. Sometimes these ended also in a violent way, sometimes they remained in verbal forms. Anyways, bars were where people gathered and spoke about politics, which together with alcohol meant issues as well.
More facts about Fascist Italy
Italian families were expected to have at least 5 kids
Under Mussolini, young girls and women were praised for domesticity and motherhood. They were also expected to be submissive to men. The family unit and the importance of children factor in Fascist Italy explained how women were treated. All this can be explained easily. Mussolini simply wanted to grow the Italian population, and have a large number of future generations of fascists.
The larger a family was, the better it was for fascism. To boost the willingness of people to grow their families and have more kids, the Italian Fascist Party worked out a great method. It’s similar to what’s today used in some European countries where the birth rate is low. Those families who had more children were eligible for tax breaks. On the other hand, those men who were single got taxed heavily. Also, women who bore a large number of children got publicly rewarded during the time of Mussolini.
Too liberal women were considered mentally ill
With the population growth plan, the emphasis on motherhood and family left little space for Italian women to do something else. Women in fascism, between 1922 and 1943 were admitted to asylums for “deviancy”. This basically meant that they were insufficient mothers in the eyes of the fascist state. Those women and girls who dared to refuse to submit intimately were also deviants. They were also punished for not giving in to their partners.
Trapped phones and screen conversations in Fascist Italy
As you can imagine, telephones weren’t widely available in Fascist Italy, or nowhere else in the world at that time. Mainly, the elites of the country had access to use phones, and this came in great for the fascist state to get information and screen business dealings or political conversations.
The OVRA, the fascist secret police, headed by Arturo Bocchini kept dossiers on people throughout Italy to screen them, and they trapped phones all over the country to get information and screen people.
Religion under Mussolini – The church was as political as everything else
Benito Mussolini himself was an atheist, but he knew very well that he needs the support of the Catholic Church and the Vatican if he wanted to be successful. After years of decrying the power of the Catholic Church, at a point, he started to use religion and Catholicism to his advantage. With this, he ensured his power over the simple-minded even more. He also declared Catholicism the official religion in Italy.
When it comes to religion, we must also highlight that until Mussolini didn’t get involved with Hitler and his views, there was no state-mandated anti-semitism in Italy! This happened just in the middle to late 1930s’ when Mussolini took citizenship away from Jewish people. Within new legislation in 1938, Italian Jews were prohibited from holding public offices, marrying “Aryans” owning substantial land, and more. Also, at this time, foreign-born Jewish people were deported. However, Mussolini was bad but not as bad as Hitler. Under Mussolini Jews were harassed but not killed in concentration camps. That happened when Mussolini lost his power and the Germans took over. Only at that point trains started taking people to the concentration camps
Daily life in Fascist Italy overview
While it’s undeniable that life in Italy under Mussolini’s rule wasn’t pleasant. As a dictatorship in Italy, it did impact both daily lives as well as human rights, economics, freedom, and more, many do still claim, that life in Fascist Italy wasn’t as bad as life under Hitler or Stalin.
Since fascism was really Italian-focused, holding some core views based on family, production, and the Italian population itself, many have found Italy during fascism livable and evolving. We must highlight that we’re talking about the times before WW2. While every dictatorship tends to have its good part, the focus on Italian production in food and goods did leave a positive impact on nowadays Italy, and what’s now considered traditional, many of these things started in the Fascist era.
We can not state that life in Italy under the dictatorship of Mussolini was better or worse than before or after. It was a chapter in Italian history that had its good impact and also really bad ones. Also, everything has to be placed from a historical perspective. Just 60 years before the Pope was killing opposers and till 1800 he had real torture chambers set up by the church. I visited one of these torture chambers in Narni that was active till the mid-1800. According to the church manual “La tortura poteva essere reiterata più volte nel corso del processo, anche per cercare torture più efficaci ed invasive”