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                                        Paul Corner

                                    University of Siena

Renzo De Felice`s contention that fascism was, by the early 1930s, very much a regime

based on the mass consensus of the Italians was widely contested at its publication, but

seems subsequently to have acquired a surprising degree of acceptancei. Surprising in

the sense that, while a majority of German historians reacted violently to the thesis of

Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners and many still spend a great deal of their

time trying to establish and document areas of dissent in what is admitted to have been

an overwhelming consensus for Hitler – that is, to put it bluntly, to rescue something

honourable about Germans and about Germany from the horrors of Nazism – , in Italy

the idea that there was a consensus for fascism seems to be welcomed almost with a

sigh of relief. It is as though, if we were all agreed about fascism, then it must not have

been so bad after all; history must have treated the fascist dictatorship too harshly.

Without too much effort we are back to the well-worn clichés of il fascismo bonario

(‘kind-hearted fascism’) and la dittatura all’acqua di rosa (‘rosewater dictatorship’)

and collective guilt (if ever felt) turns into collective absolution. Far from being a past

which does not pass, we have a past which presents no problems, reflecting a

complacency in respect of the fascist experience generated by a kind of complicity. By

the same token, it has been noticeable for some time that there is more than a slight

stigma attached to antifascism, particularly middle class and intellectual antifascism -

heroic no doubt on occasions, but essentially a deviation from the norm, above all

unbearable in its claim to sole possession of the historical moral high ground, in reality

nothing more than 'the vulgate of the winners'. Some may argue that this is an

understandable reaction to an excessive post-war emphasis on the antifascist resistance

as the moral basis of the republic, and consequently to an excessive demonisation of

fascism, yet the ease and the rapidity with which the theory of mass consensus has

moved from the level of historical debate to that of the new common sense invites

suspicion. Why is it that so many Italians seem happy to accept - indeed, determined to

insist - that their parents and their grandparents were - to adapt a phrase - Mussolini's

willing accomplices?

In part, of course, the answer lies in a popular and superficial view of Italian fascism as

essentially innocuous. This view rests to some extent on what might synthetically be

termed the 'Mussolini buffoon' concept, but depends principally and more seriously on

the often-expressed idea that Mussolini's only great mistake was his involvement with

Nazi Germany, with consequent entanglement in the Second World War. A corollary of

this is that Italian fascism really had few of the attributes of its northern ally and should

not be considered on the same terms. Fascism was not Nazism; this is the persistent

chant of those who wish to dismiss as derogatory the generic category of

“nazifascismo”. Willing accomplices, it is said, are very different from willing

executioners. After all, we are told, Italian fascism was not responsible for the

Holocaust; even if Italy had its racial laws, they were not serious and many Italian Jews

escaped deportation because other Italians helped themii. Thus insistence on the ways in

which fascism differed from Nazism (undoubtedly legitimate in many, but certainly not

all ways) serves to put Italian fascism in a more favourable light. Indeed, the more it is

possible to differentiate it from the atrocities of Nazism, the more fascism can be made

to appear essentially harmless. Mass consensus for fascism is not so difficult to

understand therefore; above all, it is not so reprehensible. In a way, it is the very

existence of Nazism which eases Italian consciences and gets fascism off the hook.

This position, evidently self-justificatory and self-exculpatory, has always existed in

respect of fascism. But it has had a new impetus given to it recently as a result of the

current political situation within Italy, which has seen historical argument turned into

acrimonious political debate, much on the lines of the German Historikerstreit. The

very evident desire of the new right (in part neo-fascist, if now formally post-fascist) to

attack the legitimacy of the 'first' republic has provoked not only forays against alleged

communist permeation of Christian Democratic government (‘consocietivismo’) but

also attacks on the antifascist roots of the republic. And one of the best ways of

attacking the antifascist tradition has been through the use of the concept of mass

consensus for fascism. Within a more general process of psychological “removal” in

respect of recent history, of an attempt to keep the skeletons permanently in the

cupboard, the fascist phase is presented as a normal moment of national development, a

moment in which Italians concurred with their rulers and which does not justify the

vilification accorded it by history. The “normalisation” of fascism - a historical revision

in a direction favourable to fascism, that is - inevitably appears to undermine the

authority of the antifascist position.

The same result has been achieved by recent attempts to arrive at some kind of national

“pacification” after the bitter ideological struggles of the post-war era. This has

frequently involved a welcome attempt to understand the motivations of all contending

parties - fascists and antifascists, partisan resistance fighters and those who supported

the fascist puppet state (the Repubblica sociale italiana or Repubblica di Salò). But the

effect has been to suggest that, since everyone had their motives, since even some

fascists acted in ‘good faith’, all points of view are therefore acceptable and should be

considered on the same level. At this point there occurs what has been termed a kind of

'dulling of conscience and of historical memory'iii; understanding becomes forgiveness

which becomes acceptance and justification, after which all historical condemnation of

fascism is declared to be “ideologically based” and is to be rejected. This has produced

a view of the past which is strangely devoid of values; necessary distinctions become

blurred and then cease to exist. It seems that, as time passes and it becomes easier to

forget the torments of war and the responsibility of fascism for that war, it has also

become easier to propose the idea that it was the antifascists, and not the fascists, who

were fundamentally out of step with their times.

Assessments of fascism based on current political battles (and De Felice, who died in

1996, is clearly at the mercy of his own supporters in this respect) should not be

allowed to deflect from the complexity of the problem, however. Was there a mass

consensus for fascism? And if so, what was the nature and the extent of that consensus?

Revisionism, with its tendency towards an at least partial rehabilitation of fascism,

emphasises the elements of compromise, collaboration and consent at the cost of other,

less palatable, aspects of the regime. Sometimes it even seems legitimate to ask the

question, whatever happened to dictatorship? And even when the repressive aspects of

dictatorship are acknowledged, they are minimised and pushed firmly into the

background. It seems that loss of political liberties for more than twenty years was

really a relatively unimportant feature of life, which, when all is said and done, went on

much the same, despite this loss.

The intention of this article is twofold.. The first is to suggest that, in the current rush to

assert mass consensus for Italian fascism, the aspect of repression has been grossly

neglected. The second is to insist that, in any attempt to evaluate popular attitudes

towards fascism, it is necessary to take into account many other aspects of fascism

besides direct repression - aspects which are not directly repressive but which

nonetheless constitute instruments of a fairly rigid social control. We are not so much

concerned, therefore, with the direct question of whether there was consensus or not,

but more with the conditions in which attitudes towards the regime were formed and

choices made. Indeed, in the light of the factors examined here, it is suggested that it

may be necessary to revise fairly drastically the meaning which is usually given to the

term 'consensus'. This does not imply any intention of underestimating the political

novelty represented by fascism and its great mobilising capacities or of attempting a

return to the picture, painted by many émigré antifascists in the late 1920s and early

'30s, of an Italian people constantly straining at the leash in order to be rid of the

regime. The relationship between oppressors and oppressed is obviously far more

complex than such a picture would suggest.

In his biography of Mussolini, De Felice`s approach to the question of consensus is, in

fact, moderate and cautious: '...we believe that – when everything is considered – it is

correct to say that the five years from 29 to 34 were for the fascist regime and … for

Mussolini as well, the period of greatest consensus and greatest solidity'iv. While

asserting that the high point in the popularity of fascism came briefly with the

proclamation of Empire in 1936, De Felice sees the years preceding this moment as

being those of stability and relative calm, with a population all-in-all ready to accept

fascism and to go along with the regime. This judgment, which - it must be stressed - is

far more tentative and qualified than is often supposed, is based on a fairly

comprehensive examination of popular opinion as shown through reports from various -

mainly official or party - sources and from a survey of the economic situation, again

conducted largely through official publications. The picture presented could be

criticised as being slightly haphazard in its approach and somewhat selective,

particularly in its choice of sources, but there is undoubtedly ample evidence to justify

the author's conclusions - within his own terms of referencev. This is an important

qualification because it is precisely here, perhaps, that De Felice's approach needs to be

questioned. His view is curiously one-dimensional. Put very simply, he looks for open

protest against fascism, finds very little, finds instead many ready to give vocal and

material support to the regime, and thus concludes that there was a consensus for the


In some ways, he undoubtedly has a point. The history of Italy prior to World War One

is marked by frequent, spontaneous, often bloody, popular protest against authority.

This kind of protest does die out after the biennio rosso, at least if we are to believe the

reports of the prefects; the army ‘massacres’ of protesting peasants do become a thing

of the past. This may have more to do with changes in society - changes which had

made the necessity for organization of protest obvious (and here both the experience of

the war and of Italian socialism would have had an effect) - than with lack of

discontent. More probably, as we shall see, it reflects the consequences of fascist

victory, which ensured that there was no political space for protest and that hostility to

the regime could never get a foothold and emerge as open rebellionvi. Certainly it has to

be recognised that, in the Italy of post-1925, there were many pressing reasons for not

voicing protest. The defeat of the working class and the peasants at the hands of the

fascist squads had been heavy and humiliating; there had been little that was glorious in

the collapse of socialism. People were left to reflect on political obtuseness and lack of

vision, and on deep divisions which had become even deeper with defeat. The Popular

Front mentality, which might have done something to heal divisions, established itself

only with great difficulty in Italy and was never really able to heal the splits on the left

provoked by analyses based on ideas of social-fascism. There was, in fact, very little to

inspire an active continuation of the struggle. And, where protest is punishable and

apprehension is virtually assured, people are inclined to keep quiet. Mussolini himself

made no bones about this. Echoing Machiavelli, he warned `I declare that I want to

govern, if possible, with the consent of the greatest number of citizens possible; but,

while waiting for the formation of this consensus, for its growth and its strengthening, I

am taking to myself the maximum of available force. Because it may turn out that, by

chance, force will create consensus - and in any case, should consensus be lacking, there

is always force.`vii

Mussolini's statement inevitably prompts the question, can lack of protest in these

circumstances be taken as a sign of consensus for the regime? In fact, the

methodological problems of measuring consensus under dictatorship are very great.

What does lack of protest mean? In a sense, the more efficient a totalitarian dictatorship,

the more it will appear to have the consent of the population. Following the line

proposed by James Scott, the unearthing of 'hidden transcripts' of dissent would, of

course, be a great helpviii. As with Nazi Germany, efforts have been made in this

direction, but the results remain inconclusive, and it may be legitimate to doubt the

extent to which totalitarian regimes do throw up such transcripts. Even so, Scott's

suggestion warns us against too ready an acceptance of the public transcript of events

and attitudes as the only truth. This is of particular relevance when dealing with a

regime such as fascism, which combines the exercise of authority with the search for

adulation and acceptance. Public expressions of support were precisely what fascism

wanted, and it is hardly surprising that there were those ready to provide them: the

benefits of doing so were obvious. And, as far as fascist claims to enjoy popular

consensus are concerned, a regime that requires unanimity of support will generally

claim that it has that unanimity; it is part of the game, to assert as reality what may in

fact be wishful thinking.

The public transcript – in this case the fascist transcript - has to be treated with great

caution, therefore. And it is as well to be aware of what is public. For example, the

provincial reports from prefects to the Ministry of the Interior (documents on which De

Felice, like many other historians, bases many of his judgments) are internal and

confidential documents, but are also very much public transcripts in the sense that they
are written for a small but very influential audience (Mussolini was his own Interior

Minister as many prefects learned to their cost). Prefects in fascist Italy, like prefects

anywhere, tended to try to show diligence by listing the number of operations against

subversives, criminals, or whatever, while at the same time playing down difficulties in

order to show that their provinces were under complete control. Thus popular

demonstrations, where they are admitted, are always presented as being exclusively

economic in origin and never as containing political content. The same can be said of

many other documents produced by fascist officials - party chiefs, union leaders and so

on. The knowledge that total consensus was the required end could easily induce people

in authority to minimise problems, give a favourable gloss to their own activities, and

even perhaps on occasions to report a consensus which was not really present.

Absence of well-recorded, serious popular protest against fascism is, therefore, a

dubious indicator of consensus, just as repeated assertions that everyone is behind the

duce are not necessarily to be taken at face value. But it is fairly obvious that, as long as

we remain at this level of consideration, we are moving in the realm of the

undemonstrable. There is the risk of encountering what Scott calls ‘the political

equivalent of the Heisenberg principle' - that is, the difficulty of demonstrating that

what is not present (i.e. protest) would have been present, had it not been for those

factors which prevented it from making itself evidentix. In the light of this, it is perhaps

more instructive to ask a slightly more complex question - not only: Why no, or so little,

obvious protest? but also: What happens to those who do step out of line under

fascism?, and, closely linked: What do people think will happen to them if they don't
obey the rules? The answers to these subsequent questions which may help us to give an

answer to the first.

The role of direct repression

Under totalitarian regimes people's fears are obviously related to the question of

repression, sometimes to that of terror. Few would seriously put in doubt that, in Nazi

Germany, the prospect of what might happen to you if you did overstep the limit was

sufficient to discourage most forms of open opposition. The list of possible fates was

fairly long - from beatings to unemployment, from prison to the camps to

straightforward execution. And you might simply just disappear, as many did. Terror

was a huge force in discouraging unauthorized activities - and even wayward thoughts -

and it is not hard to credit stories of people becoming literally paralysed with fear when

they found themselves unexpectedly confronted by the Gestapo. The most potent

weapon of all was, perhaps, the uncertainty of one's fate. Terror was linked to fear of

very real reprisals but also to the world of rumoured nemeses, in which the victim's own

imagination was brought powerfully and terrifyingly into playx.

According to most accounts, this kind of terror was less obvious in fascist Italy. After

the first fascist onslaught between 1921 and 1922, where the violence of squadrismo did

very clearly constitute a kind of terror, the explicit use of violence became less

common, even if it was always present as a threat. One of the 'legacies' of agrarian

fascism to the fascist movement in general was, in fact, the resolution of contentions
through the use of force or the threat of the use of force. Throughout the ventennio, the

politics of fascism were always the politics of the bully; the black-shirts never left

anyone in doubt that violence against opponents was an acceptable method of action, a

constituent part of fascist `style`, something frequently and proudly described as

'exquisitely fascist'. The attempts of central government after the March on Rome to

stamp out what had become the technically `illegal` violence of its own hotheads were

never totally successful, as a succession of ‘unauthorised’ political murders made

clear.xi As we shall see, Mussolini preferred, where possible, to use the police to control

dissent, but the threat of a return to the violence of the squads, like the menace of the

return of socialism, was utilised when requiredxii.

That said, the impression which is now current at popular level is that Italian fascism

was a fairly tolerant regime, in which it was possible to be relatively independent,

providing a certain lip service were paid to the fascist authorities. Reference is often

made to (in reality, limited) cultural and intellectual freedoms, but also to the jokes

about fascism and about Mussolini which were in common circulation - jokes which are

said to demonstrate not only a healthy cynicism about the regime but also a certain

laxity in permitted behaviour. Equally, historians have drawn attention to the persistent

mugugno - the generalised moan about things - which was a commonplace of everyday

life apparently, registered by the authorities but usually allowed to pass without any

serious repressive action. Indeed, it is said that a certain irreverence towards fascism

was seen by the authorities as something of a safety valve in releasing tensions and

controlling discontent.
The emphasis placed on what might be termed 'fascist tolerance' should not be allowed

to mislead about the extent of real repression, however. It is instructive that, in a recent

study of Nazi terror, the same point is made about Nazi tolerance of jokes and minor

complaints directed at the regime. Eric Johnson writes: 'Most ordinary Germans knew

that they could get away with telling political jokes, complaining about Hitler and other

Nazi leaders, listening to illegal BBC broadcasts, and dancing to swing music. They

simply had to be careful...'xiii. Johnson provides very detailed accounts of the ways in

which Germans broke the rules and documents the fact that, even when the authorities

moved to suppress minor illegal activities, people usually escaped with a few nights in

prison and a warning. Often the authorities simply could not be bothered to pursue

matters. Yet thousands did die in the camps, even before the war. The point to be made

is that a relative laxity in the face of small acts of resistance to authority - acts which in

no way endanger the structure of a regime - does not preclude a savage repression in

other areas. In fact, in Germany, most Germans might not fear that the Gestapo would

murder them for telling jokes about Hitler, but, as Johnson shows very well, Jews,

gypsies, homosexuals, communists had every reason to fear a horrifying end for very

much less. Terror, which might sometimes appear arbitrary and indiscriminate, was in

fact highly selective, as the targeted groups learned to their cost.

A tolerance of innocuous anti-regime activities committed by the majority is not by

itself, therefore, a sufficient reason for assuming that repression is not an important

factor in maintaining control; Germans knew they had to be careful and not overstep the

limits. If this conclusion is applied to the Italian case, it suggests that the often cited

laxity of the regime (the regime bonario) could well accompany a considerable level of
direct repression within Italy. It reminds us that the absence of an Italian Auschwitz (but

there were around 50 internment camps for Jews and other political prisoners in Italy by

the end of 1940xiv) should not lead us automatically to assume that there was not harsh

repression under fascism.

Yet this is precisely what has happened. Emphasis on consensus seems to have

distracted attention from the role of repression. While no one denies the existence of

some repression, for many it has become a secondary issue, unimportant and to be

liquidated with the technique of the purtuttavia...('yes, but...'). But a very considerable

repressive mechanism was constructed by fascism. Mussolini himself boasted in his

famous Ascension Day speech of 1926 that fascism had greatly increased police

numbers and this was reflected in an undoubted rise in the level of police control.

Criminal statistics would also seem to bear this out (while also testifying to economic

hardship)xv. In a society of uniforms, the police were always present, in one guise or

another. Many arrests sprang from relatively minor public order offences - drunkenness

in particular - where often individual dissatisfaction with everyday conditions of life

boiled over into political protest. Examples of people being arrested for shouting “Down

with the duce” or “Long live socialism” when leaving the osteria late at night are not

difficult to findxvi. This seems to have been protest which does indeed constitute in

some way a `hidden transcript` - the expression of rage and frustration when the bonds

of rational control have been loosened. In most cases, it appears, arrest for such

offences, particularly for what was known as “denigration of fascism”, would result in a

night in the cells and a note in the police files. Second offenders might be dealt with

more harshlyxvii.

A much heavier hand was used against more serious opposition activity, however.

Rather surprisingly, in the context of a chapter dedicated to demonstrating the existence

of a consensus for fascism, De Felice quotes (albeit in the footnotes) a figure of some

20,000 police operations against opponents of the regime in an average week in late

1930 - resulting in arrests, the seizure of arms and opposition pamphlets, and the closure

of meeting placesxviii. This suggests a consensus for fascism that was at best somewhat

strained. Twenty thousand interventions per week is certainly not a small number; it

mounts up to well over a million in the course of a year. Moreover it demonstrates a

very high degree of sensitivity towards any form of opposition - something which had,

in fact, been one of the defining characteristics of fascism from the outset. To this

number it is necessary to add operations by the other repressive forces, represented in

every locality by the fascist militia (the MVSN) and the carabinieri.

The recent publication of a massively documented history of the OVRA, the fascist

secret police, confirms this vision of extreme sensitivity to oppositionxix. Formed

officially in 1927 (and based, like so much of fascist repressive legislation, on the

exceptional legislation of the First World War), the OVRA (which took this name only

in 1930xx) developed a vast and capillary network of agents both in Italy and abroad and

proved very successful in infiltrating antifascist groups and disseminating mutual

suspicion among Mussolini's opponents. Emigré organisations in France, Belgium and

Great Britain were penetrated by spies and agents provocateurs without great difficulty

and often reduced to silence. Within Italy, the police frequently attempted to instigate

antifascist operations, particularly bomb attacks, in order to convince the population at
large that the antifascists were, in reality, dangerous antisocial criminalsxxi. The

organisation used all the usual means of recruiting agents. Some were blackmailed into

collaboration with threats of exposure of financial or sexual transgressions, some were

found among disillusioned socialists or communists anxious to atone for past errors,

some were recruited from poverty-stricken dissident fascists who saw cooperation with

the secret police as a chance of economic survival and political rehabilitationxxii. The

OVRA, whose director, along with the chief of police, reported every morning

personally to Mussolini, demonstrated a typically totalitarian obsession with detail in its

investigations and built up over the years a huge data bank of files on political suspects

in Italy and abroad. It was particularly efficient in crippling the Partito Comunista

d’Italia and the liberal antifascist organisation Giustizia e Libertà during the early 30's.

Between 1930 and 1934 (De Felice’s 'years of consensus'), more than 6,000 militants of

these organisations were arrested as the result of a great increase in police activity in the

face of economic recessionxxiii. Methods used to interrogate and break down suspects

seem to have been worthy of any police state. Torture was common, as were beatings;

psychological pressure was frequently brought to bear, involving friends and familyxxiv.

The objective was, of course, the confession. One antifascist, with direct experience of

the methods of the OVRA, recounted:

The agents provocateurs who succeed in infiltrating our organization are the people

who propose the formation of armed groups, bomb attacks, etc and who, by denouncing

the colleagues with whom they have been in contact, provide the police with their

material for indictments. And these are the crimes to which the colleague must confess

as he is being beaten up.
After the police have succeeded – through beatings, starving, never-ending

interrogations, torture, etc – in getting the declarations they want, if the accused does

not confirm before the judge the confession extorted from him, he is sent back to the

police so that he can be made to ‘confirm’ the confession with the usual methods. This
kind of treatment has been used for months in certain cases…

On several occasions, these procedures produced suicides and 'strange deaths' in police


In reality the OVRA had a dual function. Its first was the repression and the discrediting

of antifascist opposition; but its second was to deter, to inculcate fear in all those who

felt they might possibly be the targets of repressive action. This was to be the kind of

fear characteristic of terror - fear of a largely unknown and untouchable organisation

which did not seem to respond to any of the fixed categories of justice and public order.

As the periodical of the antifascist exiles in Paris, the Becco giallo, put it; 'We don’t

know where it has come from, but the nightmare of the OVRA has entered into the

flesh, the blood, the bones of many. There are those who see its shape in every shadow;

who shudder at every movement of a curtain; who go into a cold sweat at the creek of a

piece of furniture or the squeak of a door'xxvi. The writer considered that this fear was

based on an exaggerated vision of the capacities of the secret police, but was forced to

add 'it is the myth which counts, and unfortunately the myth of the OVRA holds sway

over the fear of the antifascist masses'. In this respect, it is worth suggesting that those

who argue that fascist repressive measures were only aimed at antifascist opponents of

the regime and did not touch the great majority of the population go rather wide of the

point. This may have been what happened, but it must be recognised that the existence
and the fear of repressive mechanisms were precisely the factors which would impede

and discourage the open expression of opposition to fascism. After all, antifascism was

not, as it sometimes seems to be represented, a kind of pre-constituted category into

which people either fitted or did not fit, but a sentiment capable of being expressed or

suppressed and remaining silent. It is obvious that organs like OVRA were designed to

make people remain silent.

People feared not only the police, but also the judicial system which they might find at

the end of their interrogations. Under liberal governments, of course, the magistracy had

traditionally been closely linked to the executive. Always tending towards

conservatism, the magistracy had had little difficulty in adapting to the needs of the

fascistsxxvii. Even before the March on Rome, during the years of squadrist violence, the

courts had distinguished themselves for acquitting the fascist aggressors and convicting

the socialists who tried to defend themselves from fascist violencexxviii. The Special

Tribunal for the defence of the fascist state, instituted in 1926, featured judges who

were army officers or consuls of the fascist Militia and defending lawyers who were

always, after 1928, 'of demonstrated national sentiment' (for ‘national’ read ‘fascist’)

and also, on occasions, police informersxxix. If the number of death sentences passed

was relatively small, many of the 13,000 people who passed through the courts between

1927 and 1940 received heavy prison sentences. Some, like Antonio Gramsci, did not

survive the experience.

It is difficult, therefore, to accept the judgment of Pierre Milza, in his recently-published

biography of Mussolini, even though it is a judgment which is typical of many:
Totalitarian in its project of creating a ‘new man’ and in the fascistisation of civil

society, fascism never corresponds in one essential way to the definition which Hannah

Arendt and company give to totalitarianism, in the sense that it never attempts to

dismantle what there was of a State of Law and to give birth at any time to a real police


The evidence seems to point very much in the opposite direction. Beneath an apparent

laxity and an overt paternal benevolence, fascism had constructed both the mechanisms

of the police state and the judicial system to go with it. The internal logic of fascism, by

which fascism provided its own legitimisation, guaranteed that the case against

opponents of fascism was proven before it was even contested. As Adrian Lyttelton has

put it, referring to Justice Minister Rocco's justification of the 1926 Public Safety Law:

With this flat repudiation of all doctrines of natural law or individual rights went the

abolition of all distinctions between the State as a permanent entity and the Government

of the moment. The safety of Fascism and the safety of the State were treated as


In accordance with these premises, all vestiges of the responsibility of the executive for

its actions were annulled. The citizen was left without redress; the police were no longer

required to produce reasons to justify the imposition of restrictions on liberty. The

police authority, for example, enjoyed absolute discretion in granting authorization to

form associations or to exercise certain professions...

As Lyttelton concludes, 'November 1926 saw the birth of a 'police state''xxxi.

Certainly, Mussolini was not Hitler or Stalin - and here it is possible to agree with Milza

- but (again we meet the consequences of favourable comparison) it is not necessary to
be the worst kind of police state in order to qualify for that definition. Intolerance of

opposition and repression of opposition of all forms were fundamental characteristics

of fascist rule; public order was the prime concern of Mussolini throughout the

ventennio. Only this can explain the fact that every morning began in the same way -

with a meeting with the chief of police.

The role of the Partito Nazionale Fascista and the fascist trade unions

If the impact of direct repressive mechanisms on Italian society needs to be re-

emphasised, that of less obvious and direct methods of social control should not be

neglected. The readiness of the OVRA to utilise private family questions - infidelities,

financial difficulties, personal weaknesses, and so on - in order to induce people to

collaborate has already been noted. But it was not only the OVRA which used these

methods. The research carried out in the archives of the PNF in both Turin and Pistoia

illustrates to a remarkable degree the extent to which the party also used its influence

over the private sphere in order to maintain strict social controlxxxii. The Party was

undoubtedly one of the principal vehicles of social advancement, but ordinary people

often needed to join the party simply in order to gain employment, and this was not

always easy. One report of a police informer in 1933 speaks of '...a strong concern and

an active discontent [among workers] because of the combination of the difficulty of

obtaining the fascist card and the necessity of having it in order to get a job to live with

less difficulty'xxxiii. But even possession of the card did not resolve all problems; indeed,

by attracting the attention of the party, the individual might make him or herself more

open to control. Local party organisations kept records on a very large number of
individuals - often enrolled fascists - and these records document in detail the political

history of those who had invited scrutiny, the problems they may have created, and, in

particular, their family circumstancesxxxiv. The same records outline the action taken

against those considered in some way troublemakers. Frequently, where it was judged

necessary to intervene against an individual, the party would issue a general warning

which involved both the individual and the family of that person. An opponent would

be warned not only that he would lose his job, but also informed that his children would

not find work if certain attitudes or activities judged hostile to the party did not cease.

Here, as with the OVRA, exploitation of the family would seem to have been an

important element in fascist control of dissent. It is hardly necessary to stress that

fascism was utilizing one of the central structures of Italian society, one of the

institutions to which people owed most loyalty, and where, in a sense, people were most

vulnerable. While people might readily risk their own skin in operating against the

regime, it was far more difficult to do so when the consequences were likely to be felt

by the family. And fascist threats were clearly not idle threats; the party, given its

pivotal role in local society, could very easily transform its words into actions. Many

families were forced to transfer to other districts as a result of PNF pressures of this

kind; many others very probably recognized that it was better to toe the line and keep

quiet. Such pressures obviously permitted no appeal; falling foul of the party could have

consequences which were difficult to reverse. In such circumstances, people became

vulnerable to the blackmail of the regime; reinstatement in 'normal life' could be always

be regained by offering information about colleagues and fellow workers.
The role of the fascist union in regimenting the working class was very similar to that of

the Party. In many circumstances, as reported above, it was necessary to belong to the

union in order to gain employmentxxxv. This was particularly so in the cities of the north,

where the employment exchanges were run by the sindacati and the fascist union card

was therefore an essential requirement for work in the large factory. Obviously this card

was in the gift of the fascist authorities - something which gave the fascists enormous

possibilities of leverage and control in relation to the working classxxxvi. It is true that,

during the years of the crisis, enrolment in the fascist unions increased markedly in most

sectors. De Felice explains this through a lengthy quotation from Piero Capoferri, the

fascist chief of the Milan unions, who (in his memoirs published in 1957) attributed this

increase to a better functioning of the unions in respect of the workers. He argued that

changes made in these years - for instance in the way in which workers were

represented in legal controversies and in the speed with which these controversies were

resolved - meant that they felt themselves better protected. This may have had some

impact. Undoubtedly the fascist unions understood the importance of making gestures

towards the workers; particularly during the crisis, they remained consistently

ambiguous in their attitudes, trying to please both bosses and workers. Nonetheless it is

difficult not to think that, in a moment of heavy unemployment, the key question for

most workers was likely to be access to and stability in employment. The precise

interpretation to be given to De Felice's conclusions in this respect remains unclear,


The progressive increase in the enrolled in the unions confirms this judgment-testimony

of Capoferri, even if, undoubtedly, a part of the newly enrolled was determined by the
greater chances that those organised in the union had to find work again, if sacked, than

the restxxxvii

We are inevitably left asking 'yes, but what part? 90% or 10%?'; there is a big and very

significant difference. Given that it seems unwise to put too much trust in the testimony,

written with the benefit of hindsight, of the fascist leader involved, the suspicion must

inevitably remain that, in years of severe unemployment, the blackmail effect of a

hostile labour market would be stronger than any perception that the fascist unions had

become more favourable to the workersxxxviii. This would confirm the impression,

formed in relation to other aspects of the regime in the early '30s, that economic crisis

did a great deal to help fascism by making recourse to party and union institutions

virtually unavoidablexxxix. Workers might not like fascism, but the fascist union was the

only means available to them for making their case in contested questions concerning

pay, for arguing a point about a sacking, or for seeking some new employment. They

simply had no alternatives. In such circumstances, therefore, it is perhaps forcing the

evidence to see a pragmatic enrolment in the unions, dictated by necessity, as

enthusiasm for fascismxl. Crisis compelled conformity. In this respect, it may be no

accident that the 'years of consensus' coincide so precisely with the years of severe

economic hardship.

The role of welfare organisations and fascist assistenzialismo

As Tim Mason pointed out in respect of Nazism, repression, `neutralization`, and

integration are not mutually exclusivexli. Indeed, repression and neutralization of
opposition can lead to eventual acceptance and integration. After years of dissimulation,

the face may come to fit the mask. Central to this process of adjustment is often the

question of access to benefits. Mason suggests that many people must have accepted

some aspects of the Nazi regime while rejecting others, exactly as people do in non-

dictatorial political systems. In a very effective comparison, he has argued that Nazism

combined the workhouse with the supermarket, and that, by looking at what the

supermarket offered, Germans may have been induced to accept some kind of partial

compromise with the Nazis. Benefits might thus “blur the edges” of opposition. The

concept is undoubtedly useful. Even if Italian fascism could never remotely offer what

the German “supermarket” might offer German workers, small benefits in a country of

generalised poverty might induce some form of acceptance of fascism.xlii That said, it is

still legitimate to question the terms on which this “acceptance” took place. Consensus

suggests, perhaps misleadingly, a voluntary adhesion to a program, something done

from choice, determined - precisely - by what is on offer. And fascism clearly did

everything it could to make it look as though the people had chosen the benefits of

fascism spontaneously. But, again, it is necessary to ask, what happened to those who

chose not to accept, or who, for a variety of reasons, were considered not acceptable by

fascism and excluded? In short, what was the price of access to, or exclusion from, the


The field of fascist welfare and social assistance is perhaps one of the best areas in

which to seek an answer to these questions.xliii Fascism boasted that it had developed a

system of social services which was among the most advanced in Europe - a claim

which has been reproduced rather uncritically in much of the subsequent literature on
the subject.xliv Certainly the various schemes for social insurance against illness

(tuberculosis in particular), unemployment, industrial accidents and old age, brought an

enormous number of people into the orbit of the state; more particularly in this case,

into the orbit of the variously named fascist organizations, or enti, which had

responsibility for directing these operations. The system erected had profound

mobilising implications, requiring the participation of a large part of the population.

With certain notable exceptions, almost all dependent labour was involved, paying

obligatory contributions and, at least in theory, enjoying the right to benefit. This - the

right to benefit - was generally defined as deriving from work, from participation in

production, and not from citizenship; social security was `in the interests of the worker

but always bearing in mind the superior needs of the Nation...; the citizen worker [is

the] depository of the highest social obligation after that of bearing arms: the social

obligation of work`.xlv The criteria of inclusion were based on concepts of national

efficiency, and ultimately national strength, rather than on those of a social justice based

on reaction to poverty or need. And indeed, where the question of poverty was

confronted - and it was generally addressed with strong overtones of moral stigma - the

response was always given in terms of `national solidarity` which required that the less

fortunate be looked after in order that they should become more worthy of the nation.xlvi

If one is to judge from their internal publications, the various enti seem to have been

almost endlessly active. This was particularly true during the years of the crisis when

assistance to the unemployed, especially in the cities of the north , was at its highest,

putting the fascist organizations at the centre of the social picture. While the level of

this type of assistance declined after the crisis, public intervention in many other areas
of day-to-day life was expanded continuously during much of the 1930s. Local officials,

apparently permanently obsessed by statistics, never tired of listing the fact that they

had assisted so many thousand people in the course of the year with the expenditure of

so many thousand lire. Provincial reports documented meticulously the numbers of the

unemployed who had received subsidies in money or kind, of mothers-to-be who had

received pre-natal check-ups, of the tubercular who had been sent off to sanatoria, of the

children who had enjoyed 'free'xlvii holidays at the fascist holiday camps (colonie) at the

sea or in the mountains, and of widows and widowers permitted to live a dignified old

age through the generosity of their state pensions. What were termed the 'realisations of

fascism' were publicized to a massive extent, often in glossily illustrated books which

stressed efficiency, modernity and - above all - the debt which Italy owed to fascism

and to the duce.xlviii Welfare was a wonderful vehicle of propaganda for fascism,

undoubtedly giving many the impression that, for the first time, the Italian state actually

cared for them. And, since a vast proportion of the population was obliged to participate

in the obligatory assistance schemes, the related propaganda impact was likely to be

very strong, with a penetration involving social groups which had previously remained

relatively untouched by the state. Participation was, of course, one of the keywords of

the regime. Through personal participation people were directly involved in the

programs and thus became the actors on the stage; as the targets of propaganda they also

constituted the audience. This was, indeed, the area in which the apparent benefits of

fascism might “blur the edges” of opposition, as people, who might for other reasons be

convinced opponents of fascism, were tempted to take what fascism offered in terms of

assistance and accept some kind of partial reconciliation with the regime. In the

straightened circumstances of the 1930s, the temptation to compromise principles was
likely to be particularly strong. Opposition could be effectively `neutralized` by contact

with state services and by the promises they made. Here attitudes might be determined

less by political sentiment than by the opportunism of immediate necessity. On a simple

cost/benefit calculation, the cost of paying lip-service to the regime was at most moral,

the benefits very tangible.

A closer examination of the mechanisms of welfare suggests, however, that the

attractions of fascist beneficence, or the `neutralizing` power of the services, were only

part of the picture. Certainly, people might find many aspects of the programs attractive

and worthwhile; it is not difficult even today to find elderly Italians whose memory of

fascism is linked, for example, to the experience of holidays or day-trips enjoyed under

the aegis of the fascist party. These were undoubtedly novel experiences for many and

involved large sections of the population.xlix But social assistance should also be

understood as one of the mechanisms of social control. In this respect the issue is less

what people received from the various aspects of the system than what they had to do to

qualify for services and assistance. As already stated above, the prime qualification for

participation in most of the schemes was work; indeed, it was the essential factor, given

that contributions were levied on wages at source. But, even so, not all workers

qualified. For example, domestic servants, actors, and - after 1938 - ‘persons of non-

Aryan race’ were excluded. These were relatively small categories numerically, but the

same was not true of the landless agricultural labourers, who were excluded from

participation and from benefits for most of the ventennio. They constituted, according to

the 1931 census of population, around 35% of the total agricultural population, although

the true figure was probably nearer to 40%. More significantly, they were the category
most susceptible to heavy unemployment. Their exclusion was justified on the grounds

that the braccianti were said to be a shifting population of casual labour and that it was

therefore difficult for them to pay contributions on a stable basis. In reality, as the

parliamentary discussions between 1919 and 1922 had demonstrated, the landowners

simply did not want to pay their part of the contributions for the braccianti in their

employment.l In the late 1930s, when certain categories of landless labourers were

finally admitted to certain programs, their rights to many benefits were limited by other

factors. Unemployment pay was refused those who had sources of income or

employment other than day labour; even a small vegetable garden or allotment was

judged to constitute a further revenue and thus excluded braccianti from

The exclusion of the landless labourers said a lot about where power lay in fascism; the

landowners of the Po valley may have become politically less important during the

years of the regime, but they were still sufficiently powerful as a lobby to be able to

maintain their control on legislation concerning their particular workforce. In general

terms, exclusion relegated people to a kind of ghetto of isolation from the state,

something which would - paradoxically - make them more dependent on state hand-outs

and fascist charity in times of need. lii Of greater importance, because far more people

were involved, is the way in which assistance programs worked to discipline those who

were included. Here a variety of factors operated. The key point, however, is that it was

impossible to have access to services or to benefits without passing through one of the

fascist organizations, sometimes without passing through more than one. Participation -

in the sense of going along with the regime - was, to all effects and purposes,

compulsory, therefore. Access to most services was broadly similar. People would have
to fill in special application forms, available on request from the fascist organization in

question.liii They would usually have to present, with their application, their work

documents (the libretto di lavoro), which was the evidence that they were, or had been

in employment. This libretto was held by the employer and had to be requested from the

employer.liv If they were applying for unemployment pay, they would also have to

produce a certificate of unemployment from the fascist labour exchange. Usually they

might have to present a medical certificate; and, for many services, they would have to

present a detailed account of the circumstances - financial and medical - of all members

of the family. Any request for assistance meant dealing first with the fascist authorities

and the employers, therefore. More significant is the fact that applications would

usually be vetted by committees formed of those competent in the particular area - the

functionaries - and by local dignitaries, including representatives of the local PNF and

the civic administration. For example, the 1937 regulations for the formation of certain

assistance committees stipulated that they should be composed of the head of the local

Fascio, the head of the Fascio femminile, the local President of the Opera Nazionale

Balilla (the fascist youth movement), the President of the Opera Nazionale Maternità e

Infanzia, the President of the Provincial Association of War Veterans, the local

President of the Association of War Handicapped, and the leading provincial

And control did not stop there. If benefit was granted, people had to present themselves

to the authorities on a regular basis in order to withdraw the money. The unemployed,

for example, had to sign on every day at the labour exchange.

In the later years of fascism, these committees would have before them, besides the

information included in the application, a written report on the person or the family
concerned from the visitatrice fascista(fascist woman visitor). These figures, in some

ways analogous to those in Weimar Germany who aroused so much resentment among

the working class for their alleged 'snooping' into private circumstances, were endowed

by the authorities with a heavy moral function. Their task was defined as being that of

rooting out malingerers and the work-shy and they were instructed to use strong

methods 'with the apathetic, moral hypochondriacs who relax in their misery as if it

were a bed which has become comfortable through long use...'lvi They were encouraged

in their reports, therefore, to mention untidiness, dirtiness, laziness, and signs of

excessive consumption of alcohol (i.e. empty bottles) - all factors which could be

brought into play in deciding whether families would receive assegni familiari (child

benefit) or subsidies in kind or not, whether children would be allowed to go on holiday

to the colonie, and so on. Sometimes, on the basis of these reports, fairly drastic

disciplinary measures would be taken against the family. Particularly involved because

of the demographic policies of the regime, the Opera Nazionale Maternità e Infanzia

had the power to take children away from their parents, to require 'assignment to an

institution of education and instruction', and, for more difficult cases, 'temporary

reclusion for reasons of public safety (from 9 to 18 years old)’, and even ‘ confinement

in institutes of re education and improvement (teachable sub-normal children and

deviants from 9 to 18 years old) '.lvii The application for public assistance risked

provoking a strong repressive reaction from the authorities, therefore.

All these procedures meant, of course, that access to benefits was determined by

authorities either near to fascism or specifically fascist. And it was determined in this

way in various stages - employer, possibly doctor, fascist visitor, committee. Such a
situation was not by itself necessarily abnormal - state benefits are, after all, generally

administered by state authorities. But in fascist Italy the strict identification of the state

with fascism meant that the system was - very obviously - run in such a way as to

reinforce fascist control. In part, as already stated, this meant showing that assistance

was real and that people should be grateful to the fascist state for it; the propaganda

aspect was undoubtedly extremely important. In part, however, the right of access to the

benefits of the system depended on fascist approval and this gave fascism an

enormously influential lever vis-à-vis the population. As one fascist writer

acknowledged, the INFPS was ‘an extremely powerful instrument of political action’

and should be used as such.lviii It was very much a case of the stick and the carrot;

benefits were available, but clearly they were available to those who conformed to the

rules laid down by fascism. Otherwise people would be punished and benefits withheld.

On the one hand fascism proclaimed the wonders of the system, on the other it

threatened to exclude the unworthy from that system on the grounds that they were

subverting the national cause.

The rules were in many ways unwritten rules and could only be guessed at - something

which gave the authorities a great deal of discretionary power. Fascism had constructed

a system of benefits which, in theory, involved most of the population - and then

reserved the right to say who should and who should not benefit. Inclusion and

exclusion were politically determined, therefore. It is here that we come closer again to

the questions of consensus and opposition under fascism. Direct, police repression of

dissent is one thing, exclusion from the apparent benefits of a welfare system is another.

The second is much more subtle in its mode of operation; it is clearly an implied threat
which need rarely be made explicit, but, for a large part of the population who do not

dream of open and vocal opposition, it is likely to be more potent. Open opposition is

able to identify its enemy and act accordingly; reaction to the discretionary use of power

is far more difficult, precisely because the terms on which that discretion is exercised

are more difficult to identify with any certainty. Without enforcing order through

draconian measures of repression, fascism could ensure its hold on the population

through its control of the distribution of relatively scarce resources. After 1925, most

people were probably not in the position of having to make the choice about fascism as

a political movement; but they did have to make choices about houses, jobs, schools,

pensions, welfare - all of which were controlled by the fascist authorities. In other

words, they were forced 'to go towards fascism'.lix People might have little choice in the

matter of conforming, therefore; exclusion from subsidies or other benefits could

damage the family far more than the individual. To put it another way, for most people

the necessity of conformity with the fascist system would be so obvious that it would

make any choice almost automatic.

Discretionary power, of course, could not only deny access and take away, but also

provide. This was the other side of the coin. Controlling everything, the fascist

authorities were in a position to reward collaboration - indeed, in some circumstances to

'buy' some kind of consensus. Where the allocation of public housing was concerned,

political affiliation was likely to have the better of real need.lx Housing queues, which

tend to last for years, are excellent guarantors of good behaviour. But it is in the realm

of the concession of pensions that the possibility of using state power for party ends is

particularly apparent. According to the Annuario statistico italiano - an official source -
more than half the applications for pensions made between 1931 and 1935 were turned

downlxi. The reasons are not given, but it is clear that a discretionary element on the

part of the authorities is present. This impression is confirmed when it is considered that

between 1929 and 1939, while the total number of pensions for the disabled and the

elderly rose from 174,588 to 572,515. The proportion of disability pensions in this

figure rose from 31% to 56%. Moreover, the proportion of these paid to people resident

in the South of Italy rose from 14% to 21%. In absolute terms, therefore, the South saw

an increase in the number of disability pensions paid from 7,680 to 66,621, a rise of

some 900%.lxii This can, of course, be read as an extension of the welfare network as

the state itself extended its control, but the disproportionate rise in the South gives rise

to the suspicion, at least, that fascism was using the pension system in order to extend

its political control through a typical patron-client relationship. This meant complaisant

bureaucrats and doctors but, given that these were categories generally favourable to

fascism, this was unlikely to constitute a problem. Conclusions exactly of this kind

have, of course, been drawn about the relationship between disability pensions,

Christian Democracy and the South for the 1950s and '60s.lxiii

Discretionary use of power could operate in a further way, reinforcing fascism in a

classic process of divide and rule. The complicated mechanisms of welfare and social

insurance, which created numerous different categories among workers and assigned

different levels of benefit to each category, aimed very clearly at the fragmentation of

any residual worker solidarity as people struggled to maintain differentials which were

advantageous to them or to rise to the level of the more privileged. As people's

expectations were fragmented, so were their requests. New hierarchies were established
and reinforced by preferential treatment. This was true among blue-collar workers,

where different jobs brought differing benefits, but it was particularly true of the

division between workers and the impiegati – the white-collar employees of state and

private administration. The class generally considered to have been the backbone of the

regime (in part created and certainly greatly reinforced by the regime) was rewarded by

favourable treatment vis-à-vis workers in non-clerical jobs. An immediate indication of

class preference was the fact that benefits for children of workers were stopped when

the children reached 16; in the case of the impiegati, they were stopped when the

children reached 18. It was clearly assumed that middle class children would stay longer

in education. Impiegati also had privileges when it came to recognition of the right to

disability pensions. Workers qualified if their earning capacity was reduced, by illness

or accident, to less than one third of what it had been previously, whereas for the

impiegati it was sufficient that it should be reduced by a halflxiv. The same distinction is

apparent in the difference in the value of pensions paid to impiegati and workers. The

white-collars were accorded particularly preferential treatment, given that most workers

consistently paid a higher proportion of their total income in contributions than did the

impiegati (around 15-20% and 10-15% respectively; the more you earned, the less you

paid proportionately; the contributions were in every sense regressive). Yet pensions

for impiegati were 114% higher than those paid to workers, on the basis of the full

payment of the necessary contributions for both categories. Even on those rare

occasions when impiegati and workers ended up having made exactly the same total

contribution to the pension fund, impiegati inexplicably received significantly higher

The position attributed to you in the social hierarchy was extremely important in

deciding the way in which you were treated, therefore. This inevitably gave

considerable discretionary power to those fascist authorities responsible for determining

classes and categories within the hierarchy. And the more people were aware of the

economic importance of distinctions between social classes and sub-groups, the more

those who perceived that they benefited in respect of others were likely to hold to

fascism and to the politics of hierarchy. Within classes and categories fascism also

maintained the traditional division between men and women. In some occupations, the

standard, published rates of pay for women were half those offered to men.lxvi Often

both gender and social class were factors which influenced access to benefits, with

gender inevitably following and reinforcing distinctions made on the grounds of class.

This was what fascism called the 'discipline of difference’ which avoided 'the absurd

levelling of equality’ and imposed 'respect of the hierarchical order’ lxvii

Conclusions. Consensus and regimentation.

The intention here is certainly not to deny that there was any consensus for fascism. To

do so would be to mistakenly identify fascism with a simple authoritarianism.

Obviously many groups did benefit from fascism and accorded their support to the

regime for reasons of material gain, social status, a conservative defence of what was

thought to be law and order, or for real, if misguided, ideas related to national

resurgence. The ‘lay religion’ of fascism, which for some was certainly a kind of faith,
undoubtedly had many highly committed followers.lxviii And there was a difference in

the support given to Mussolini himself at a popular level and that given to the

functionaries and the corrupt 'spoils system' of the regime.lxix But the claims made for

mass consensus for fascism are a somewhat different matter and go beyond the

recognition that some groups, in particular the urban middle and lower middle class, did

support the dictatorship.lxx


Our purpose is to make two points about how the question of consensus should be

considered. The first is to query the way in which the 'repression/consensus' division is

usually presented. A re-reading of De Felice - but not only De Felice - leaves the

impression that repression and consensus are, to use a metaphor, two halves of an apple,

the same apple; what is not controlled by repression and prevention is controlled by

active choice. We are presented with what appear to be alternatives - a kind of specular

relationship between agreement and disagreement. The above remarks are intended to

suggest that this vision is largely mistaken, at least in as far as the mass of ordinary

Italians were concerned. After all, the existence and the threat of repression can by itself

determine silence and acceptance of the status quo; in this sense, in some circumstances,

repression and passive acquiescence should be seen as elements along a continuum. But

it is surely also mistaken to assume that, when the individual moves out of the sphere of

activity which might be controlled by direct repressive measures, he or she

automatically moves into a sphere in which there is freedom of choice and in which

'consent' or 'dissent' become the alternatives available. Much of what we have said

above - about employment, housing, in particular welfare - suggests that fascist control

was very strong in all these areas and that what might be termed 'access to civil society'
was firmly in the hands of fascist organisations and fascist officials who could use their

very large discretionary powers as they wished. In reality most people had little choice

in their behaviour - not, or not only, because Italy was a police state which repressed

active opposition very efficiently, but because so many areas of normal civil activity

were also controlled by fascism. Popular reactions to fascism – in this case absence of

open protest - cannot be judged, therefore, by the same criteria which would be applied

to popular political reactions under democracy. To do so is to risk misreading the

meaning of silence and to misunderstand the kind of control which a totalitarian regime

exercises. It is not so much made up of repression, terror and the thought-police as it is

of the control of most of the essential elements of ordinary life, creating a situation in

which acceptance of the rules of that control, and the observance of those rules, is a

necessity of survival, not a choice. It is this which generates the ‘spontaneous’

plebiscites so typical of totalitarian regimes. After the initial seizure of power, fascism

created a situation in which the vast majority of people were not presented with the

choice of being either fascist or antifascist; there was simply no feasible alternative to

toeing the line if you wished to continue to lead a normal life.lxxi Except for a relatively

privileged and/or very courageous few, antifascism was just not an option. It should be

noted that when fascism collapsed literally overnight in July 1943, for a multitude of

reasons, not least of which was a disastrous war, this was the first time since 1925 that

many Italians had been presented with a choice, an alternative - and they took it with

impressive rapidity.

This, of course, makes the whole question of the mass consensus extremely

problematical. Indeed, it suggests that it might be better to abandon the word 'consensus'
because it is burdened with connotations of choice which are in reality absent in the

situation in question. If we want to say that, by the early 1930s, the mass of the people

went along with fascism without obvious and open protest, that there was a kind of

pragmatic acquiescence with the regime, then there is no problem. This would in many

ways conform to De Felice's concept (used by him for the period after the armistice of

8 September 1943) of a vast 'grey area' among the population, in which people

attempted to avoid making choices which would identify them with one side or the

other.lxxii But if we move from the recognition of non-resistance to fascism to the idea of

a popular consensus based on choice, we are perhaps going beyond what is legitimate

and ignoring the totalitarian nature of fascist control of society. This may not have been

the monolithic, big brother, totalitarianism to which George Orwell has accustomed us -

a vision which may in fact mislead. Not all totalitarianisms have to be the same, and in

Italy, as is well known, autonomous centres of power such as the church and the

monarchy did continue to provide certain limits to fascist control. But, in the context of

day-to-day existence, fascism did exercise a totalitarian control which was capillary in

its operation, present in every local context, and able in one way or another to permeate

almost all areas of everyday life. It produced a form of regimentation, of conformism,

which was not based on choice but, on the contrary, on the lack of any real alternatives.

And successful regimentation was the precondition of effective mobilisation. To deny

this is to miss the essence of fascism.

The absence of alternatives prompts a second, final, consideration. The use of the

concept of consensus to suggest that people chose fascism and that, by this token,

fascism is somehow less reprehensible, cannot be accepted if, at the same time, it is
agreed that most people really had no choice. Yet this 'slippage' - from a claim for the

existence of a consensus for fascism to a justification of fascism (justified because

chosen and supported spontaneously by the people) - is part of the cultural operation

which is now taking place in Italy, directed from areas of centre-right and self-styled

'liberal' thinking. This is not the open justification of the regime by the former neo-

fascist chief, now leader of the right-wing Alleanza nazionale and deputy prime

minister, Gianfranco Fini, who will wear his definition of Mussolini ('the greatest

statesman of the [twentieth] century'lxxiii) around his neck for the rest of his political

career; it is a much more subtle operation of revision which seeks to discredit the

antifascist tradition and masquerades as a political pragmatism devoid of the allegedly

'preaching' ethical values of the founding fathers of the first republic.lxxiv Hence the

contemptuous references to antifascist judgments on fascism as being no more than the

'vulgate of the winners'; hence the recent attempts at the rehabilitation of Mussolini’s

Repubblica di Salò and the invitations to empathise with ‘our boys of Salò’; hence the

shouts of joy at revelations about the compromises of prominent antifascists with the

regimelxxv; hence, above all, the continual repetition of the 'mass consensus' theme to

suggest that, in the end, fascism was not that bad after all.

In the face of this campaign, it is necessary to review the evidence and to recognise, on

the basis of this evidence, that fascist dictatorship ensured, for the vast majority of

people, that there were no choices to be made; that this is what constitutes the real

totalitarian nature of fascism (and not the greater or lesser level of open and direct

repression); and that it is this which makes Italian fascism directly comparable to its

justly reviled partner and ally, German Nazism.

        I should like to thank the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Columbia

University, for hospitality while writing a part of this in spring 2000. Claudio Pavone and Enzo Collotti

were kind enough to offer me comments on an early draft. The title is a not-unintentional echo of Tim

Mason’s “Whatever happened to ‘fascism?”. See T. Mason, Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class,

ed. posthumously by J.Kaplan (Cambridge, 1995), 323.
        R. De Felice, Mussolini il duce. Gli anni del consenso,1929-36 (Turin, 1974). A recent

example of the degree of acceptance of the consensus thesis was provided by Adriano Sofri, formerly

the leader of the extra-parliamentary Lotta continua and certainly no stranger to political discussion.

Sofri writes ‘Even the argument about popular consensus for fascism is over, after having been [for

long] a subject of scandal. There was a consensus. Amen’; La Repubblica, 17 December 2000.
        This is a typical illustration of selective memory. It ignores, for example, the fact that many

Italian Jews died in the German camps because fascist officials gave the registers of Jewish names to

the Nazis, fully knowing what the consequences would be. See, Razza e fascismo. La persecuzione

contro gli ebrei in Toscana (1938-1943) , ed. E.Collotti (Rome, 1999), 1: 28; also, by the same author,

“Il razzismo negato”, in Fascismo e antifascismo. Rimozioni, revisioni, negazioni, ed. E. Collotti

(Rome-Bari, 2000), 355-75. In much the same way Italian atrocities committed in Africa during the

1930s have been almost totally removed from popular consciousness.
        C.Pavone, “The Two levels of the Public Use of History or, rather, of the Past”, Mediterranean

Historical Review, 2001 (forthcoming).

           De Felice, Mussolini il duce. Gli anni del consenso, 55. It has to be sad that, in subsequent

years, De Felice's statements on the subject become more extreme under pressure of attack from his

           Possibly the biggest lacuna is the absence of any serious treatment of popular opinion in rural

areas, given that during the fascist period more than 50% of the population was still employed in

           The concept of the lack of ‘political space’ for opposition is developed in Mason, ‘The

containment of the working class in Nazi Germany’, in the collection of his essays Nazism, Fascism

and the Working Class, cited above.
           B.Mussolini, 7 March 1923; quoted in Opera omnia di Benito Mussolini, ed. E.D.Susmel, 35

vols.(Florence, 1951-63), 19:163.
           The reference is to J.C.Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts (New

Haven, 1990)
           Scott, 72
           See in particular R. Gellately, The Gestapo and German Society. Enforcing Racial

           Policy 1933-1945 (Oxford,1990).

           ‘Private’ lists of proscription containing the names of opponents seem to have existed in some

areas, “clearly an effective instrument of terror”; A. Lyttelton, The Seizure of Power. Fascism in Italy

1919-1929 (London, 1973), 296.
           See A. Lyttelton, “Fascism in Italy: the Second Wave”, Journal of Contemporary History 1

           E. A. Johnson, The Nazi Terror. The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans (New York,

1999), 485

        Collotti (ed.), Razza e fascismo, 1:28
        Criminal statistics indicate a sharp increase (from 7,594 to 16,099) in the number of those

convicted for economic crimes (swindles, worthless cheques, etc.) between 1926 and 1930 (when

statistics are interrupted) and a consistent increase in public order offences (from 16,855 to 19,912) for

the same period. In 1927 the prison population shot up to 50,473 from a more usual 39-40,000. See

Istituto centrale di statistica (ISTAT), Sommario di statistiche storiche italiane 1861-1955 (Rome,

1958), 97, 101.
        De Felice, Mussolini il duce. Gli anni del consenso, 82.
        The principal characteristic of punishment seems to have been that it was totally erratic,

although things were likely to go badly if Mussolini were brought into question personally. Thus one

man was simply given a warning for declaring that “The Italians are already a mass of pigs and thieves,

a discredit to the nation. And now they want to go to civilize the colonies when we need civilizing

ourselves”, while another was given five years in prison (through the direct intervention of Mussolini)

for stating that “If Matteotti had been in the place of Mussolini…things might have gone better”.

Similar the case of the poor gardener and pig-keeper who, “in order to express his irreducible

sentiments of aversion to Italy and to the Personalities of State” had named his four pigs Victor

Emmanuel, Crown Prince, Mussolini and Prefect, “names which he shouted out loud in German when

he needed to clean the pigsty”. He got five years, again through the direct personal intervention of

Mussolini. See P.L. Orsi, “Una fonte seriale: i rapporti prefettizi sull’antifascismo non militante”,

Rivista di storia contemporanea 2 (1990):280-303. My thanks to Claudio Pavone for indicating this

article to me.
        De Felice, Mussolini il duce. Gli anni del consenso, 83.

          M. Franzinelli, I tentacoli dell'OVRA. Agenti, collaboratori e vittime della polizia politica

fascista (Turin, 1999). The study is the first to utilise the archival records of the secret police in a

systematic way.
          The significance of the acronym has never been established. Indeed it may never have meant

anything precisely. It seems that the choice was made by Mussolini with the express intention of

instilling fear through mystery and uncertainty. Initially the secret police operated from Milan as the

‘Limited Company for Southern Wines’; see Franzinelli, I tentacoli,67
          One of the most famous, and also one of the most unpleasant, cases of infiltration revolved

around the figure of the police spy Carlo Del Re, who managed to gain the confidence of the Milanese

professor of chemistry and member of Giustizia e Libertà, Umberto Ceva. Ceva, imprisoned for

allegedly plotting a bomb attack on the Prefecture of Milan, was eventually induced to kill himself

rather than reveal the name of his accomplice (in fact his betrayer), Del Re, to the police. On Del Re,

see Franzinelli, I tentacoli, 94 -112 and, by the same author, “Fascismo e repressione del dissenso.

Nuovi documenti su Carlo Del Re agente provocatore fascista”, Italia contemporanea, 211 (1998).
          The case of Tommaso Beltrani (or Beltrami) is exemplary and illustrates well this kind of

recruitment . For his career, during which at times Beltrani seems to have been almost a triple agent,

see P. Corner, Fascism in Ferrara 1915-1925 (London, 1975), 233-60 and Franzinelli, I tentacoli,

          De Felice, Mussolini il duce. Gli anni del consenso, 86 : P. Spriano, Storia del Partito

comunista italiano, 5 vols. (Turin, 1967-75), 2:298.
          Aquarone judges that 'Both for the methods used and for the quality of the greater part of its

members, the OVRA showed itself to be one of the most repugnant instruments of the totalitarian

State’. He quotes the intransigent fascist leader Farinacci (who knew something about unpleasant

people) who described the OVRA as being 'unfortunately made up of some of the worst elements in

society'. Farinacci's comments were provoked by the fact that he had himself been the subject of an

OVRA investigation. A. Aquarone, L’organizzazione dello stato totalitario (Turin, 1965; reprinted

1996), 108. By the mid 1930s, as Franzinelli testifies, it seems to have been normal practice for fascist

leaders to use the OVRA in order to gather information on their political rivals within the fascist party.
         Franzinelli, I tentacoli, 242
         Ibid., 240
         See Aquarone, L’organizzazione, 95 ff. ; C. Schwarzenburg, Diritto e giustizia nell’Italia

fascista (Milan, 1977).
         G. Neppi Modona, Sciopero, potere politico e magistratura 1870-1922 (Bari, 1969), 215 ff.
         On the workings of the Special Tribunal see S. Trentin, Dieci anni di fascismo totalitario in

Italia. Dall’istituzione del Tribunale Speciale alla proclamazione dell’Impero (1926-1936) (Rome,

1975) (original edition, Paris 1937); also Aquarone, L’organizzazione, 102-6 and Schwarzenburg,

Diritto e giustizia, ch.6. For the quality of the judges and defence counsel, F. Tacchi, “Un

professionista della classe dirigente: l’avvocato negli anni ‘20”, in Libere professioni e fascismo, ed.

G. Turi (Milan, 1994).
         P.Milza, Mussolini (Paris, 1999), 569.
         A. Lyttelton, The Seizure of Power, 297-8.
         Comments based on papers given at a conference on the fascist party held at the Istituto

piemontese per la storia della Resistenza in Italia, Turin, December 1999; in particular the papers, still

unpublished of G. Perona, G.Turi and M.Palla.
         Franzinelli, I tentacoli, 232
         This was part of a wider 'transformation of Italy into a bureaucratic regime through the

multiplication , in every area of life, of operations of registration, numbering, keeping of personal

records and controls'; in G.Melis, Storia dell'amministrazione italiana 1861-1993 (Bologna, 1996), 375.

          The comments here are related specifically to the working class, but it is worth noting that

professional people (lawyers, doctors, chemists, architects, engineers, etc.) also had to demonstrate

good fascist credentials in order to qualify for membership of the fascist professional order - a

condition of practising the profession. See Libere professioni e fascismo, ed. G.Turi, cit.
          See G.Sapelli, Fascismo, grande industria e sindacato. Il caso di Torino 1929/35 (Milan,

1975), 153; '...joining the union could be understood as a favourable factor in getting employment. The

unions in reality controlled the employment exchanges and were thus in a position to blackmail

workers in search of a job'. Many workers were in a very weak position in any case; those who were

not legally resident in the commune where they worked were often prevented from registering as

unemployed. If they tried to do so they were likely to be compelled to return to their commune of

origin under the terms of the legislation which attempted to prevent internal movement of labour within

          De Felice, Mussolini il duce. Gli anni del consenso, 92.
          Official figures, which exclude agricultural workers, show rates of 20 - 25% in many months.

But these figures were contested even by loyal fascists. See M. Gabellini, Studi e polemiche (Como,

1935), who reproduces (185) his own article from L’Idea sociale 258 (1933). ‘... it [the deliberate

reduction of the numbers] is a result of that strange mentality which declaims, visibly satisfied, ‘Here

the crisis doesn’t exist’. What nonsense. Is it enough to deny the existence of unemployment for it to

          Sapelli, Fascismo, 166-88
          The judgment of the Belgian economist Louis Rosenstock-Franck on the unions was short and

to the point: 'The essential characteristic of fascist syndicalism is the total lack of real participation of

the workers in the life of the union'. See Il corporativismo e l'economia dell'Italia fascista, ed.

N.Tranfaglia (Turin, 1990), which reproduces ch.6 of the original Les étapes de l'économie fasciste

italienne. Du corporatisme all'économie de guerre (Paris, 1939). The quotation here is from page 156

of the Italian edition.
        Mason, “Containment”, cit.
        On this comparative issue, see P.Corner, “Consensus and consumption. Fascism and Nazism

compared”, The Italianist 3 (1983), 127-38
        It should be emphasised that here I am concerned principally with the aspects of social control

related to fascist assistenzialismo rather than to the question of the good or bad functioning of the

system. For a detailed account of the way the system worked, see D.Preti, La modernizzazione

corporativa. Economia, salute pubblica, istituzioni e professioni sanitarie (Milan, 1987), and,

(published since the completion of this article), F. Bertini, “Il fascismo dalle assicurazioni per i

lavoratori allo stato sociale”, in Lo stato fascista, ed. M.Palla (Florence, 2001), 177-313.
        See, for example, Milza, Mussolini, 887. Many of the older `technicians` (i.e. those employed

for their technical competence rather than their fascist credentials) who developed these schemes,

particularly those who had worked with Francesco Saverio Nitti before and immediately after the First

World War, were not afraid to point out that most of the real initiatives in the direction of social

security had been taken before the arrival of fascism and were only further developed by fascism.
        Istituto Nazional Fascista per la Previdenza Sociale (INFPS), Al di là del lavoro e al di là del

salario (Rome, 1942), 10.
        For an explicit rejection of the concepts of liberty, equality and social solidarity, see INFPS, Al

di là del lavoro, 7, where it is argued that the concepts 'turned out to be a benefit reserved for the

privilege of the few and denied in practice to the acquisitive capacities of the mass of the workers’ - a

judgment which many may find more applicable to fascism itself.
        The colonie were, of course, financed through the fascist enti, which were in turn financed by

the contributions of the workforce, deducted at source from the pay packet.

         See, for an excellent example, M.Casalini, Le realizzazioni del regime nel campo sociale

(Rome, 1938)
         Again it is to be noted that, although fascism presented these programmes as its own inventions

(and people continue to believe this), there was already a well-consolidated tradition of factory

holidays, workers’ trips to the sea, etc. in existence before fascism. The real fascist innovation, of

course, was that of persuading the participants to relate the experience to a political party and to the

         Proposals were made in 1919 to introduce a scheme which would give unemployment pay to

the braccianti, a measure which could have had extremely important political consequences in the

circumstances of the immediate post-war. The large landowners blocked it consistently until the first

fascist government abandoned the idea in late 1922. E.Campese, L’assicurazione contro la

disoccupazione in Italia (Rome, 1927), 46-8.
         Landless labourers with vegetable gardens lost both ways. They were likely to be classified as

small proprietors from the point of view of the population census, thus permitting the fascists to claim

success for their much-proclaimed policies of sbracciantizzazione (the elimination of the class of

braccianti). If so classified, of course, the braccianti were no longer dependent labour and did not

come within the terms of social insurance. If not so classified, they were excluded on the grounds of

having a secondary source of income. The fate of the families of sharecroppers was somewhat

analogous. The sharecroppers (mezzadri) were continually extolled by fascism for their sturdy rural

independence and family spirit; but families of sharecroppers were specifically denied any subsidy if

the head of the family contracted tuberculosis precisely on the grounds that they were sturdy,

independent, family orientated, etc., and could therefore look after themselves. See, for the relevant

legislation, INFPS, Al di là del lavoro, 51.

        Local fascist organisations had the job of drawing up lists of the deserving poor each year.

These lists were published every December and only those on the lists could ask for assistance. See

Partito Nazionale Fascista, Federazione Provinciale dei Fasci Femminili, Nozioni per Visitatrici

Fasciste (Padua, 1937), 25.
        INFPS, Al di là del lavoro, 31-2
        INFPS, ibid., 29
        U. Lovo, L’Ente Opere Assistenziali (Padua, 1937), 4-5. Other committees required the

presence of the local chief of police and the fascist podestà (mayor).
        Partito Nazionale Fascista, Federazione Provinciale dei Fasci Femminili, Corso Preparatorio per

Visitatrici Fasciste (Novara, 1940), 12
        ibid, 19 and 22. The number of minors (persons under the age of 18) kept in special institutes

of correction and re-education rose dramatically from 975 in 1927 (more or less the yearly average up

to that point) to 8,966 in 1939. The precise significance is not clear, but the increase certainly shows a

much greater degree of control of the condition of young people within the family. See Sommario

1861-1955, 103
        INFPS, Al di là di lavoro, 10.
        See the conclusions of Sapelli: 'The organisations for assistance carry out a fundamental role in

reinforcing the provincial capillary structures of the PNF which, in this area, was able to utilise all

discretionary instruments to select and then dismantle pre-existing areas of solidarity, in order then to

reconstruct, through an out-and-out use of charity, interest systems among social groups reduced to the

level of simple survival, on the basis of a client network …’, in Annali della Fondazione G. Feltrinelli,

XX, 1979-80 (Milan, 1981), .XXXII. Also illuminating on the impact of the crisis and the response of

employers is A.Cento Bull, Capitalismo e fascismo di fronte alla crisi. Industria e società bergamasca

1923-1937 (Bergamo, 1983), ch.4.

        Often the first houses would go to those in need who genuinely qualified for them, the others to

the less qualified. See Corner, Fascism in Ferrara, 286. The same priorities are described in

G.Salvemini, Under the Axe of Fascism (London, 1936), 335.
        G.Gaddi, La misère des travailleurs en Italie fasciste (Paris, 1938), 148. Gaddi quotes the

Annuario Statistico Italiano1937, 239
        Figures, but not conclusions, drawn from L.Beltrametti and R.Soliani, “Alcuni aspetti

macroeconomici e redistributivi della gestione del principale ente pensionistico italiano (1919-39)”,

Rivista di storia economica, 2, 16 (2000), tables 5 and 6. This article demonstrates the ways in which

the enormous surpluses generated by the contributions made to INFPS were utilised to finance other

projects, the most notable being the launching of the state holding company IRI in 1933.
        See D.Hine,Governing Italy. The Politics of Bargained Pluralism (Oxford, 1993), 63
        U. Belloni, La previdenza sociale a favore dei lavoratori (Novara, 1940), 78
        INFPS, Al di là del lavoro, 14. The level of pensions is not strictly relevant to the question of

social control, except in the sense that the continued existence of relative poverty did undoubtedly

strengthen the hand of the fascists. In this respect it should be noted that the examples given in the

literature on pensions, which speak of pensions of 5600 lire per year for a worker with 43 years of

employment (see Belloni, Previdenza, 85) are belied by the national statistics. In 1938, for example,

the average old age pension was 852 lire per year. If it is calculated that impiegati received much more

than workers, then it seems likely that the average worker’s pension was in the region of lire 300-400

per year, or 30-35 lire per month, at a time when a male domestic worker was paid 48 lire per week;

INFPS, cit., 41-48
        Belloni, Previdenza, 96
        INFPS, Al di là del lavoro, 8

         On this theme, see the fundamental work of Emilio Gentile; in particular, Il culto del littorio

(Rome-Bari, 1994).
         The definition is that of G.Melis, Storia dell'amministrazione italiana 1861-1993 (Bologna,

1996), 357. On the distinctions made by popular opinion between Mussolini and the regime, see

L.Passerini, Mussolini immaginario. Storia di una biografia 1915-1939 (Rome-Bari, 1991).
         The quality of some of this support emerges clearly in the illuminating study by V. de Grazia,

The Culture of Consent. Mass Organisation of Leisure in Fascist Italy (Cambridge, 1981) who

concludes, on the basis of her research on the fascist leisure organisations, that the very low level of

politicisation of activities, dictated by fear of the consequences of political debate, produced a

generalised political apathy among participants. See also the conclusions of P. Melograni, Rapporti

segreti della polizia fascista (Rome-Bari, 1979), 10; '...the consensus of the Italians for the regime was

a very limited consensus and much less 'politicised' than appearances suggested. Almost always the

masses participated at political demonstrations as a ritual: the circulation of information was curbed by

censorship and the degree of debate was extremely limited, even within the PNF...'
         Exemplary in this context the reply of a “disappointed fascist” to the question about his

experience of fascism while a young man, ‘Were you forced to enrol in the GUF [fascist university

groups]?’. “We were not forced to join. But there was no other choice’. Gianni Granzotto, quoted in A.

Grandi, I giovani di Mussolini, (Milan, 2001), 126.
         De Felice uses this concept to argue that the majority of Italians shared neither the antifascist

ideals of the resistance nor the extreme fascist position of the repubblichini (the supporters of Salò) and

to suggest that most people were simply too occupied with the problem of survival. ‘…I don’t think it’s

right to speak of opportunism. I refer the concept of opportunity; each choice was made as a simple

necessity…’ (R. De Felice, Rosso e Nero, (interview edited by P.Chessa) (Milan, 1995), 58-60). He

never extends the idea backwards in time to relate it to his theories of consensus for fascism, although

it would seem reasonable to do so.
         La Stampa, 30 March 1994
         For example, the prominent journalist Giuliano Ferrara, who argues against an ethical (i.e.

antifascist) basis for politics:'...we believe that democratic politics has other, more empirical, bases, and

that it must attempt to correct and improve man’s condition through experiment, not impose an

obligation in any one direction. Il Foglio, 5 June 2000. Ferrara does not say who decides what

constitutes 'improvement' in this context.
         See the ecstatic reaction of the right to the publication of A. d'Orsi, La cultura a Torino fra le

due guerre (Turin, 2000) in which he documents the various compromises which the philosopher

Norberto Bobbio, one of the most influential intellectuals associated with the foundation of the

republic, made with the regime when a young man.

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