Making History

Lawrence Rainey

  • Otto Milioni di Cartoline per il Duce by Enrico Sturani
    Centro Scientifico, 330 pp, lire 60,000.00, January 1995, ISBN 88 7640 276 4

Newspapers and magazines of the day published countless photographs chronicling the March on Rome. The images are all in black and white, often coarse and grainy. Groups of men, many of them smiling for the benefit of the camera in front of the barricades that have been erected to block the streets, or the railway cars that have brought them to Rome, or open automobiles brimming with rifles and boxes of cartridges. A number are dressed in black shirts; some are wearing helmets, others fezzes, or fedoras, or rustic caps. Onlookers abound, sometimes craning to look at the men, sometimes waving exuberantly and sometimes glancing furtively at the camera. These are the photographic records of the insurrection that brought Benito Mussolini to power 75 years ago, on 28 October 1922. What transpired, however, may be something more elusive than a simple or straightforward event, something far more difficult to capture or describe: a subtle compound of likenesses and illusions.

The March on Rome, it can be plausibly argued, never actually took place. The notion of an insurrectionary coup, it is true, had first been discussed by Mussolini and his cohorts in mid-August. But logistical planning, in which Mussolini did not take part, had subsequently been haphazard. Squads of Fascists were to assemble at several towns not far from Rome, then march on the city in three columns. The timing of their attack was to be co-ordinated with local assaults directed by a central command in Perugia. No provisions were made for lodgings or rations, and it was hoped that weapons might be seized from local army garrisons. The result seemed likely to be a fiasco.

The date for the insurrection was fixed only five days in advance, on the night before the Fascist Party held its massive Congress in Naples. The opening event of the Congress, on 24 October, was a speech by Mussolini at the San Carlo theatre, in which he declared that ‘Fascism must become the state.’ A final, brief address in the city’s grand piazza concluded: ‘It’s a matter now of days, perhaps only of hours: either they give us the government or we will take it by descending on Rome.’ The delirious crowd chanted its reply: ‘To Rome! To Rome!’ The address was reported in every major newspaper, and no one missed its implications. ‘Threat to Rome!’ was a headline in several papers. The stage was set.

The first military actions were launched on the evening of 27 October. A squad of 150 Fascists was decisively defeated by local troops at Cremona. In Pisa, a similar attempt to seize government offices was also forestalled. Only in Florence was there a success – of sorts. When Mussolini arrived on the scene, he found the local squads poised for a ferocious assault on the city prefecture. Nobody had informed them that General Diaz, supreme commander of the Italian Armed Forces and notorious Fascist sympathiser, was inside the building to prepare for a banquet in Mussolini’s honour. The attack was hastily transformed into a parade. With government troops distracted by the festivities, the squads went on to seize the railway station and post office. It was their one victory.

Newspaper accounts the following day, however, created a very different impression, reporting these events in terms fraught with foreboding. ‘General Fascist Mobilisation’, a banner headline in the conservative Corriere della Sera declared; a series of smaller, equally ominous headlines followed: ‘Order Given at Midnight’; ‘Conflicts in Cremona’; ‘Public Buildings of Piacenza Occupied’; ‘Railway Station and Post Office in Florence Occupied by Fascists’; ‘Nationalist Forces Mobilised in Pisa, Lucca and Livorno’; ‘In Milan, Public Buildings under Guard’. Other newspapers were still more alarming.

Word of the insurrection had already reached the Government late on Thursday 26 October. The King had been urged to return to Rome, arriving early in the evening of the following day, and had agreed to a policy of firm resistance. In the hours that followed, railway lines were cut, roads blocked and troops called out. At 8.30 the next morning, manifestos were put up throughout Rome announcing a state of siege. But half an hour later, when the Prime Minister went to the Quirinale palace to obtain the King’s signature on the document that would formally authorise martial law, the King refused. Two hours later, at 11 a.m., the Prime Minister returned to the Palace and when he received the same refusal, resigned, together with the entire Cabinet. The motives behind the King’s decision have been the subject of endless speculation. Was Vittorio Emmanuele afraid of civil war? Did he doubt the loyalty of his troops? Had he been swayed by the supposed Fascist sympathies of his mother, Queen Margherita? Or was it just that, like everyone else, he had simply read the morning papers?

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