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?

The revocation of martial law was announced to the press at 11:30, and in the afternoon the King let it be known that it was his refusal which had prompted it. The Army was ordered not to use force, but to prevent disturbances of the peace. When news reached Turin, the Fascist squads swiftly occupied and laid waste the offices of the local labour hall; in nearby Casale Monferrato they captured the local prefecture; in other towns, prefects and other officials were taken prisoner. Similar events occurred across Northern Italy, generating more press reports. On Sunday 29 October, the press reported the declaration of martial law and its mysterious revocation and then surveyed what was happening in the country: ‘Fascist Concentration at Monterotondo’; ‘Fascist Leaders in Perugia’; ‘Action at Cremona’. The headlines of La Tribuna and most other papers were very similar: ‘Closing of the Stock-Exchange’; ‘Perugia Occupied by Fascists’; ‘Fascist Assault against Prefecture’; Fascist forces had also occupied military barracks in Empoli and Siena, the same newspaper reported, and seized postal and telegraph offices in San Miniato. A manifesto from Piacenza announced that ‘the Fascist insurrection has begun victoriously throughout Italy’ and was much quoted. Mussolini’s own paper also claimed victory. What no one mentioned was the fact that the strategic and military value of these actions was negligible.

Vittorio Emmanuele had spent the latter part of Saturday in consultation with politicians and statesmen. At 6 p.m., he asked Antonio Salandra to form a new government. Salandra was a conservative politician with overtly reactionary views; a few months earlier he had described himself as ‘an honorary Fascist’. He felt that a certain number of ministerial portfolios would have to be given to the Fascists – not the five or six which Mussolini had demanded a month before, but certainly two or three. ‘I do not accept,’ Mussolini replied when he received the offer by phone that night. Then he broke the connection. When one of the King’s aides telephoned to ask that Mussolini come to Rome for consultations, he refused to answer.

The next morning, 29 October, Salandra advised the King that he could not form a government. A few hours later the King asked a Fascist politician to telephone Mussolini with the news that he was to be the new prime minister. ‘I want it in writing,’ Mussolini replied. Shortly after noon the telegram arrived. Mussolini hurried back to his offices to put out a special edition of his newspaper, Il Popolo d’ltalia, announcing victory. Then he organised a parade at the railway station to send himself off. At 8.30 the regular Sunday-evening train departed from Milan to Rome with Mussolini and a small group of colleagues aboard – it was the only thing that ‘advanced’ on the capital, arriving in Rome at 10.45 the next morning. There were thousands of people at the station. Mussolini jumped into a waiting car and arrived at the Quirinale at 11 a.m., dressed in his black shirt. ‘I ask Your Majesty’s pardon for having to present myself in a black shirt,’ he told the King, ‘I have just come from the battle, fortunately bloodless, which had to be waged.’

Historians have often noted the disparity between contemporary accounts, including Mussolini’s, which portrayed the March as a violent insurrection, and a more mundane reality in which the military operation was an utter failure. Antonio Répaci set down the terms used in later discussions when he subtitled his study of the March, ‘Myth and Reality’. But both words were used by Mussolini himself in the famous speech that he gave in Naples only hours after the plans for the March were finalised: ‘We have created our own myth. Myth is a form of faith, a passion. It is not necessary that it be real. And yet it is real insofar as it is a spur to action, a hope.’ However inchoately, Mussolini was one of the first to formulate a theory of politics in the age of mass media. The March on Rome may well have been the first historical event which never occurred. Or more accurately: the first historical event to transpire largely through a politics of media representation. Mussolini himself took no part and showed no interest in the military aspects of the March – and not just because of his lifelong indifference to military strategy. What interested him was not the military campaign, but the media onslaught – which would throw his rivals off balance and create a climate of uncertainty, confusion and fear. War by images, Mussolini might have said, is politics by other means.

From the Fascist standpoint, that was all to the good. The squads were no match for a modern army. Their arms were risible. One writer recalled a motley of ‘rifles, muskets, cudgels, horse-whips, walking sticks, double-barrelled hunting rifles and carbines ... and at their belts daggers, pistols, little sickles and agricultural tools’. It had been raining for several days; the countryside was drenched and the men had slept in muddy fields. When they finally reached Rome, one commander recalled, they were ‘covered with grass, their hair and hats entangled with hay. Many had thrown away their socks, which were soaking wet, and replaced them with pages torn out of newspapers. Hats and coats dripped rainwater.’ They were ‘aching and sore’, another recalled, ‘limping in pain’.

Baffled by the lack of any orders from the general command in Perugia, the column commanders had resolved to act on their own. The first column moved out at 8 p.m. on the evening of Sunday 29 October; Mussolini’s train for Milan departed only half an hour later. Others did not begin marching until the next morning, when Mussolini had already arrived in Rome. (His first order was to have the railway lines reconnected, so that the squads stuck in Civitavecchia could take the train to Rome.) After trudging all night long, a column commanded by Gustavo Fara finally neared the Nomentana bridge around 10.30 a.m. Ominously, government troops were waiting just ahead. But when Fara approached them for a parley, he was stunned to hear the army commander say: ‘Your Excellency, I am completely at your disposal for the lodging and provision of your troops.’ A few hours later the men limped into the city, and were promptly led to warm barracks and desperately-needed food. Similar scenes unfolded as other columns arrived. Many only reached the city on the Tuesday morning. No wonder so many of the men in the pictures appear dazed, almost stupefied. They had conquered Rome, newspapers would tell them. But when? they might have wondered.

At noon on 31 October, all the squads were assembled in Piazza del Popolo, and at one o’clock Mussolini himself came to pass them in review. Thirty minutes later he left. He was the head of a government, he explained to reporters, not just a militia. The squads paraded up the Via del Corso to the Altar of the Fatherland, then around Via XX Novembre to the Quirinale palace, where the King, watching from a balcony, received the Roman salute. By now it was 3.30, and there was just enough time left to get to the railway station, where fifty trains were waiting to take everyone home, the first contingents leaving promptly at five. Mussolini had ordered the squads to evacuate the city by evening. No time for tourism. They were bustled offstage like extras at the end of the crowd scene in a comic opera.

Scarcely a week later, the Milan publishing firm A. Traldi issued a series of 12 postcards which chronicled the entire March with photographs from the newspapers. The public could hardly get enough of them – or of Mussolini. ‘In late 1922,’ one Italian recalled, ‘the windows of every perfume shop in Italy were filled with perfumed soaps sculpted like a bust of Mussolini.’ (A week’s bathing would dissolve the face into a terrifying spectre, he also remembered.) In the summer of 1923, the most fashionable line in women’s bathing suits displayed Mussolini’s portrait stamped across the breasts, while a distillery in Florence introduced a new product called Mussolini Liqueur, described on the label as ‘A Liqueur Commemorative of the March on Rome and a Homage to Its Victorious Duce’. Current accounts depict Fascism as having been brought about by media manipulation of the public: the extraordinary postcards reproduced in Enrico Sturani’s book tell a different, more nuanced story. For the postcards were produced not as a result of government propaganda, but in response to popular demand.

After the Fascists came to power, images of Mussolini made for commercial purposes could not be published without government and/or party approval, and in practice nearly all such requests were denied. In effect, the popular postcards depicting Mussolini were illegal, and their producers courted prosecution in manufacturing them. What might, at first glance, seem to be testimonies to the increasing regimentation of everyday life were actually tokens of a residual spontaneity, of a wish for images of Mussolini which the regime itself could not satisfy.

Sturani estimates that over the course of the Ventennio, the 20-year period of Fascist rule, about 2500 different postcards of Mussolini were produced; print runs varied wildly, and with due caution he suggests that they probably yielded some eight million copies. But how large does the image of Mussolini loom when one considers total postcard production during these years? Unexpectedly, within the numerous postcard series produced by government and party authorities the image of Mussolini occupied quite a small place – typically no more than 2 – at most 7 – per cent of any series. But in postcard series produced by the private sector, the figure of Mussolini occupied from 12 to 24 per cent of the total images. The distinction it important: government and party were engaged in propaganda, but private publishers simply responded to market demand. For a substantial public, Mussolini was a revered and beloved figure – maybe too revered. The Party may have reduced his appearances in official postcard series out of concern that the regime would become so identified with the man that his death would pose an insurmountable obstacle to its survival.

Postcards of Mussolini appeared long before the March on Rome, however: the earliest in 1914, when he was still the editor of the Socialist newspaper Avanti. There is a predictable hiatus during the Great War, followed by a resurgence in 1920, and by 1922, an avalanche. Some postcards were produced as single issues, others in series, devoted, for example, to the March on Rome. They were meant to be collected as well as used. In the Twenties, the largest producer of Mussolini postcards, the Florentine firm of Ballerini and Fratini, was also the biggest producer-distributor of postcards depicting film stars. Mussolini, in effect, became another divo. Ballerini and Fratini were never members of the Fascist Party: for them, Mussolini was on a par with Valentino – he sold, and sold well.

The consumers were mostly from the lower middle classes. The postcards were typically on sale in tobacco shops and news kiosks. Some people preserved them in special albums; others pinned them to the wall, slipped them under a glass countertop, or simply placed them on a table. A few were mailed to friends or relatives. The range of subjects covered is bewildering. Henry Béraud, a French journalist who chronicled his stay in Rome in 1929, remembered seeing postcards that depicted

the head of the government in every imaginable costume and pose, in tuxedo, in uniform, dressed as yachtsman, aviator, horseman, with a felucca on his head, with top-boots, at the steering wheel of a racing car, jumping over obstacles, speaking to the masses, harvesting wheat, reforesting Calabria, giving Roman salutes, sharing rations with the troops, taming wild beasts, marching on Rome, playing the violin.

Mussolini became the prototype of the ‘new man’ which the regime would create, equally adept in every role and activity. He could be everybody, and everybody could become him.

The apparent diversity does not mean that there was no discernible evolution. The earliest postcards divide into two kinds. Some mimic the forms of classical portraiture, even simulating a decorative frame surrounding the bust; in others Mussolini’s head is placed in the sky, a celestial apparition or patron saint, presiding over matters below. In the mid-Twenties and early Thirties, these give way to the action postcards described by Béraud. Mussolini, animated by his faith in Fascism and exemplifying Fascist virility, can do anything and everything.

A bit later there are postcards which draw on stylistic effects derived from Futurism, often linking Mussolini with new technologies, especially airplanes and automobiles, while still others make skilful use of the kind of collage derived from Russian Constructivism. In the later Thirties, postcards increasingly show a more spontaneous Mussolini, one who smiles or even laughs, often standing among ‘ordinary people’ (almost always secret agents). In one especially haunting image, the one reproduced at the head of this article, he is dressed as the epitome of a middle-class gentleman, wearing an elegant but ordinary suit and tie, surmounted by a fedora. The reason for the laugh isn’t clear, but whatever else it is, the new informality is also a device to reestablish rapport with a public increasingly disaffected by the wars in Ethiopia and Spain.

Sturani details the various stages that went into the manufacturing of any given image. Mussolini, for example, is photographed riding a motorcycle, one among many riders assembled in conjunction with the unveiling of a new model by Fiat. In a subsequent remake of the image, everyone else is airbrushed out of the picture; a lonely beach against an ocean background appears and the figure of Mussolini is vastly enlarged. In a second remake, all the background is eliminated and Mussolini appears in close-up, looming toward the viewer, with only a portion of the motorcycle still retained. Over and over, the image of Mussolini is removed from contingent settings and circumstances, rendered remote and absolute, semi-divine.

Similar procedures were also followed by Luce, the agency responsible for producing and controlling the flow of documentary photos and films, and some scholars have denounced these practices as crude falsifications. But the charge may be little more than an unwitting anachronism. Until the Thirties, when the taste for the snapshot became pronounced, photographers routinely touched up photos to give them the aura of dignity associated with the historical portrait. Odder still, the original image and the later remake often circulated simultaneously, but among different audiences. The earlier, more circumstantial image was distributed locally, serving as a memento of Mussolini’s appearance at a given place, while the remake was distributed to a national audience, which neither knew nor cared about the local mayor who had been seen standing next to the great man.

Sturani displays unrivalled knowledge of the production and distribution history behind each postcard. At times, however, his familiarity with each image can interfere with his reading of the imaginative connections that bind groups and sequences together. One of the most chilling sequences, a group comprising postcards made in 1927, 1938 and 1941, depicts young children doing outdoor gymnastics. The photos have been taken from an airplane. Far below, the children’s bodies have been moulded and linked together to form the words ‘D U X’ or ‘D U C E’. But the full moment of these images only becomes apparent when we see another series of postcards depicting Mussolini inside the cockpit of a plane, dressed as an aviator. ‘Il grande pilota’, the inscription reads. Mussolini alone is the viewer who can read the pathetic script into which the children, figures of the body politic, have been twisted.

A few postcards were clandestinely produced by opposition groups, some based outside Italy. The quality is surprisingly poor. With the fall of the regime in 1943, the Allies and some independent publishers produced caricatures and pornographic postcards. Mussolini’s death in 1945 was the subject of a final series: some cards show the corpses of Mussolini, Clara Pettacci, and others thrown together in Piazzale San Loreto in Milan; one reproduces the famous photo of Mussolini’s body hanging upside down in a garage – the face is swollen and bruised from the blows which the crowd has struck at the corpse, urine and saliva drip from the blood-stained clothes. The postcards, for so many years a way of expressing public enchantment with Mussolini, now became a form of collective exorcism.

Were the Italians bewitched by Mussolini? Did the violence of the squads or the manipulation of the mass media bring the regime to power? Was its popularity the product of consensus or coercion? These questions have always had a particular urgency in Italy, where they continue to serve as occasions for assigning guilt and moral responsibility for the rise of Fascism. Academics of the left have tended to dismiss the consensus which supported the regime as a sham, something generated by the violence of the squads and the regime and by the incessant pressure of newspaper stories and radio transmissions extolling party figures and ideology.

Sturani, uninterested in making moral points, calls for more neutral descriptions of the sort traditionally provided by sociologists or anthropologists, descriptions that would ‘leave out of consideration all value judgments’. But he may have too much faith in our capacity to construct coherent ethnographic accounts of our own culture. Malinowski could extol the virtues of the scientific ethnographer who was both immersed in, and yet miraculously outside, his cultural setting. But to most observers today, his confidence has an air of wishful thinking.

Nor is it clear that much is gained by foregoing value judgments, or imagining this is possible in dealing with a subject like Fascism. Like many intellectuals today, Sturani sets too much store by the marketplace as an arena of rationality; market choices and outcomes are not the same as critically informed decisions.

Nonetheless, his book is a major contribution to the study of Fascism and everyday life. Nothing of comparable detail or scope exists for Nazi Germany and historians will be debating the implications of his work for along time to come. It is not a matter of how far one agrees or disagrees with his particular claims or judgments, but of the questions posed by the postcards themselves – questions which were first raised when Fascism came to power. Arguably, the March on Rome was one of the most important events of the 20th century, setting off a chain reaction that would culminate in the deaths of some sixty million civilians and military personnel in World War Two. But did it even happen? Perhaps it is a quintessential sign of the times that we are no longer certain whether such questions can be answered.