|Consolidation of Power 1922-25
When Mussolini became Prime Minister, it was at the head of a coalition government with only 4 Fascists in a Cabinet of 13 and only 35 Fascist MPs in the Chamber of Deputies. Many Italians thought that his government was unlikely to last any longer than those of his predecessors. However, Mussolini did make himself Foreign Minister and Minister of the Interior and he handed a number of important posts related to law and order to fellow Fascists ( e.g. General De Bono as Chief of Police ) thereby increasing the Fascist character of the new government. Wisely, he appointed a general and an admiral to the two service ministries to reassure the armed forces that they were not to be replaced by Fascist militia. In December of 1922, Mussolini established the Fascist Grand Council: although it had no legal status, it was to gradually usurp the functions of the cabinet in the years to come.
On his first address to Parliament, Mussolini sought to intimidate members by stressing that he could have used his squads to close Parliament but adding that he preferred to rule with their cooperation. By a large majority, both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate passed a vote of confidence in the new government and granted it emergency powers for one year. Most convinced themselves that this was constitutional and that these powers would be used to restore order and to counter the threat of the extreme left.
However, what followed was a wave of attacks by Fascist squadristi against any they regarded as opponents, even those who had fled abroad. Such attacks were often savage, including the forced drinking of castor oil, sometimes mixed with petrol: three opposition deputies were killed and over fifty attacked. One of the chief proponents of such violence, a criminal thug named Amerigo Dumini who led a secret group known as the ‘Cheka’, often received his orders direct from Mussolini. Such violence served to both intimidate and disorientate political opponents.
While Fascist violence helped Mussolini to crush potential opponents, it also alarmed his conservative supporters and threatened to develop into a Fascist revolution that might go beyond his control. In January 1923, he consolidated the squads into the ‘Fascist Militia’ ( M.S.V.N. ), paid by the state and answerable to him. To some degree, this helped to centralise control and reduce the independence of the ‘ras’. It also provided a private army that was a visible sign of Fascist power.
Winning Over the Establishment
In the years after 1922, Fascism shifted further to the right, thereby ensuring the support or acceptance of the conservative establishment. Mussolini appointed the nationalist leader, Federzone, as Colonial Minister and in February 1923 the blue-shirted Nationalists joined the Fascist Party. Industrial leaders ( Confindustria ) who feared the syndicalist element in Fascism, were won over by economic policies that lowered taxes, reduced government controls and that allowed them to operate their own syndicates separate from the workers. Similarly, the ‘agrari’ were conciliated by the suspension of agricultural reforms and a reduction in death duties.
Mussolini also made a number of concessions to the Pope, including compulsory religious instruction in schools. This tended to exacerbate existing divisions within the PPI and, with the dismissal of the two PPI members of the Cabinet and the resignation of Sturzo in1923, the party ceased to be a force to be reckoned with.
The Acerbo Law
Despite advances, the Fascist Party was still in a minority in Parliament in the summer of 1923. The Acerbo Law of July 1923 sought to address this by stipulating that the party with the largest number of votes ( min. 25%) would be allocated two thirds of the seats in the Chamber. In a Chamber lined with black shirts, the bill was passed by 303 to 140 votes. The next election in April 1924 saw a wave of Fascist violence and the seizure of 66% of the votes by the Fascists and their allies.
Giacomo Matteoti, leader of the Socialist Unity Party (PSU) bitterly criticised the violence and intimidation of the 1924 election, declaring its result fraudulent. The murder of Matteoti in June 1924 by Dumini and other members of the ‘Cheka’ precipitated a crisis that nearly caused Mussolini’s downfall but which eventually forced him to move more swiftly towards dictatorship. Clear links between the murderers and high-ranking members of the government forced a defensive Mussolini to arrest or sack several leading Fascists.
Mussolini might have been voted out of power but for the decision of opposition parties to boycott Parliament in the ‘Aventine Secession’. The king, pope and other members of the establishment also hesitated to topple Mussolini, in the hope that the crisis would moderate him further and force him to curb the violent excesses of his followers: many still regarded socialism as the greater threat. On the other hand, the fascist ‘ras’, angered by Mussolini’s concessions, called for a complete fascist revolution.
Mussolini’s hand was forced by the publication of the ‘Rossi Memorandum’ in ‘Il Mondo’ in December 1924, in which he was blamed for some of the worst Fascist crimes of the previous two years. Knowing that this would make it impossible for him to continue as a constitutional Prime Minister, and under further pressure from the Fascist Militia commanders, Mussolini decided to move swiftly towards the establishment of a Fascist Dictatorship. In January 1925, he told the Chamber of Deputies that would assume personal “responsibility for all that has happened.” This was followed by widespread arbitrary arrests and the closure of opposition offices
From January 1925, Mussolini moved quickly towards the establishment of a Fascist Dictatorship through a number of measures including increased censorship of the press, the legalisation of arbitrary arrest, the banning of other political parties, the creation of a secret police force, O.V.R.A., and various other measures designed to eliminate any opposition. Several assassination attempts on Mussolini provided a convenient pretext for emergency measures. On a local level, Fascist ‘podestas’ replaced elected mayors and in December 1925 a law was enacted that made Mussolini answerable only to the king and not to Parliament. Although the Fascist Dictatorship was not complete at the end of 1925, any semblance of democracy had effectively disappeared.