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Jan 28, 2016

Mussolini and the Press

Mussolini attempted to remake the Italian mind, taking a personal interest in applying the twin tools of censorship and propaganda.

The unique totalitarian project of Italian Fascism reposed on a careful balance that required both popular confidence and a level of fear. The ambitions of this project reached not only into government, law, and economics, but also into the minds of Italy’s people, which the Fascists believed they could reshape and recommit to the nation-state.

A gifted propagandist acutely conscious of the relationship between political power and optics, Mussolini established a High Commission for the press in the spring of 1929. Insisting that the Commission would not interfere with the freedom of the press, Mussolini’s Keeper of the Seals, Alfredo Rocco, nevertheless maintained an exception for “any activity contrary to the national interest,” “faithfulness to the Fatherland” naturally assuming the position of ultimate importance.

Journalists were, like all other professions, encouraged to see their occupation as one of many forms of service to the nation, to participate actively in the education and inculcation of the Italian people. Recall that Mussolini saw himself as a revolutionary and his government as a living embodiment of transformative new ideas. The transmittal of these ideas and relatedly the cultivation of a soldierly esprit de corps was, to Mussolini’s mind, a primary responsibility of the Italian press. No such idea of adversarial journalism, of subjecting the actions of state to investigation and scrutiny, was to infect the minds of the nation’s newspaper writers and editors. Rather Mussolini contended that “Fascism requires militant journalism,” the country’s newspapers presenting themselves “as a solid bloc,” committed to “the Cause” and obscuring or outrightly burying any fact or story antithetical to it. Even more than post-factum censorship, Mussolini favored this kind of proactive steering of the press, hardly subtle and clearly defining his expectations as both military and civilian leader of the people. In Fascist Italy, social and political pressures—and the resultant self-policing by the media—were at least as important as actual legal proscriptions, probably much more important.

Having been a writer and editor himself, Mussolini understood the power of ideas generally and the written word in particular. As early as 1923, his government had proposed comprehensive censorship legislation, and he was particularly intent on prohibiting or otherwise controlling the publications of rival political parties. Guido Bonsaver, an expert on Italian culture and history, argues that Mussolini’s roles as author and intellectual inclined him to assume a far more engaged role in the trivialities of censorship policy than might be expected of one in his leadership positions. As Mussolini enlarged his sphere of authority in the transition from parliamentary democracy to total dictatorship, he become directly and personally responsible for the censorship activities of the government, for example, commanding the government’s Press Office to seek his personal authorization prior to “bans or seizures of publications.” The Fascist national government exercised increasing control over the preexisting local prefectures, which had previously enjoyed jurisdiction over questions regarding publications within their respective areas. Often, particularly in the early years of Mussolini’s government, Fascists conducted censorship activities informally and quite outside the bounds of legal authority, though with the tacit consent of the Party; they conducted violent raids on bookstores and attacked those who contravened their informal interdictions.

Much as the United States under Woodrow Wilson struck dramatically at the freedom of speech and the press, essentially outlawing certain political ideas and parties, the World War I-era Italian government had applied strict censorship rules from May 1915 onward. Parties opposed to the war (e.g., the Socialist Party) were scrutinized with particular severity. Mussolini thus inherited an Italian state already inured and amenable to a level of censorship, targeted in particular at speech and political activity regarded as disloyal or undermining the interests of the nation at large. The interbellum years provided a fecund, almost ideal context for the kind of authoritarian military state contemplated by Mussolini and his Fascist Party. Just as Mussolini’s example had inspired Hitler and the young National Socialist movement, the Nazis’ Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, established in 1933, seems to have motivated Mussolini to adopt a newly invigorated approach to censorship.

Around the time of Mussolini’s first meeting with Hitler the following year, his son-in-law and the head of his Press Office, Galeazzo Ciano, received a report on the Nazis’ Ministry. The Fascists had hitherto undertaken propaganda and censorship efforts using diffuse means and organizations, their methods often improvisational and impromptu. The Nazis, fixed on the desire to centralize and supervise the dissemination of ideas, had demonstrated the possibilities of concerted state control. Ciano seized on the opportunity to expand the power, prestige, and influence of the Press Office, and by early September of ’34, the Office was transformed into the Undersecretariat for the Press and Propaganda, and later into the Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Popular Culture. No longer would manipulation of the press and the suppression of certain ideas be undertaken in an ad hoc or reactive manner. Instead, the Fascist state would actively strategize and appropriate resources specifically for the tasks associated with thoroughgoing control of the literary and intellectual environment.

 The side-by-side growth of the Nazi and Fascist states was a mutually informative process in which a “practical collaboration”—to use Goebbels’s words—was cultivated. Among Nazi leaders, Goebbels was perhaps Mussolini’s greatest admirer, frequently lavishing Italy’s Duce with compliments and praise, keen to observe his oratory genius. It is therefore no coincidence that Goebbels’s design for an organized and integrated propaganda bureau became the template for Ciano and Italy. Following the Nazis, the Fascists dedicated more resources to compiling detailed lists of individuals and titles, all for the goal of “cultural reclamation” and purification. The Nazi obsession with metrics and scrupulous record-keeping has been widely noted, yet even if the degree to which they carried this obsession is unique, it is not so in principle or in kind. As the work of James C. Scott has helped to explain, this fixation on measures and statistics that might render a given populace “legible” to the state, and therefore subject to more complete control, is an attribute not only of totalitarian regimes but of the modern state in general.

There is no shortage of contemporary historiographies that, while taking care to damn the Fascists, nevertheless “praise various social and educational improvements achieved during the ventennio.”1 Historians have thus been faced with a difficult choice. Eager to disavow Italian Fascism and German Nazism, they have nevertheless begun to acknowledge both as expressions of trends also manifest in the progressivism of Wilson and others. Somewhat embarrassingly, the American progressives the academy so admires repudiated liberalism in troubling ways. Progressivism, Fascism, and Nazism all embodied the twentieth century’s post-liberal tendencies toward centralization and the “scientific” rule of the expert bureaucrat. The progressive embrace of just this kind of political modernization long made it difficult for historians to accurately and honestly categorize Fascism. After all, how does one actively disclaim an ideology that is so similar to the one that he espouses? The modern state, overseeing every area of human life, sought to limit the range of acceptable thought through a modulated combination of policies.

And in Italy, as elsewhere, propaganda was the natural complement of censorship, substituting the carefully crafted messages of the Fascist state for the compelled silence of the country’s people. Propaganda materials proliferated particularly during Italy’s war with and subsequent occupation of Ethiopia. The Fascists were eager to represent Italy as a new international power, on equal footing with Western Europe’s traditional colonial powers.

The ongoing process of political centralization meant that more of the government’s offices and departments would fall within Ciano’s broadening jurisdiction, including, for example, the tourism bureau, copyright office, the nation’s opera theaters, and the Istituto Luce (Light Institute). Founded in the early years of Mussolini’s regime, the Institute was created to produce and disseminate the state’s cinematic propaganda. Through the decrees of the Fascist government, theaters became required by law to show its films, most of which were newsreels showcasing the accomplishments of Mussolini’s government in exultant style. Italians were supposed to see the Fascist Party as the conduit through which Italy was to enter a bright future of material prosperity and both regional and global power. In addition to the films of the Institute, public art such as murals dramatically depicted Italy’s triumphs, emphasizing self-sufficiency and national unity. Aesthetically, the Fascists favored the styles of both modernism and futurism,2 preferences that are perhaps ironic given the Fascists’ overarching obsession with the glory of Roman antiquity.

This apparent irony, expressed in both Fascism’s aesthetics and in its politics, has led romance studies scholar Alice Kaplan to describe Fascism as a “polarity-machine,” a uniting or synthesizing of contradictions, reminiscent Hegelian philosophy. And while it is an error to interpret Italian Fascism as somehow conservative or anti-modern—as “a social defense against modernization,” as Kaplan puts it—it no doubt represents an often bizarre unification of opposites (for example, the mystical with the scientific, the ancient with the modern, the “third way” merger of socialism and capitalism, the inward-looking desire “to free the Italian people from the slavery of foreign bread” and the outward-looking desire for imperial conquest).

Fascist art and propaganda combined the anti-rationalist, indeed quasi-religious, emphasis on the motherland and its mythologies with a functionalist and industrialist embrace of mechanization and technology. This dichotomy informed the full range of censorship and propaganda activities undertaken by the Italian state during Mussolini’s time in power; aggrandizing himself and his bureaucracies of repression, Mussolini neared ever closer to the totalitarian ideal of unlimited centralized power until his arrest in the summer of 1943. The Ventennio, the approximately 20 years of Mussolini’s regime, modernized Italy in that it swept away most of the remaining vestiges of Italian liberalism and made it difficult for them to fully reappear even after Mussolini’s death. In a sense, then, the Fascists were successful in creating, to borrow Orwell’s phrase, a new “climate of thought,” just as the American progressives were successful in changing the public policy paradigm of the United States. Still, Fascism demonstrates the fragility inherent in ambitious attempts to concentrate power, to focus it to such an extent that it cannot but implode. This is the weakness of the total state as an idea and the reason that a softer authoritarianism has prevailed in Europe and in the United States since the end of World War II. Ever tempted to stamp out, for example, freedom of expression and economic liberty, the state has nevertheless been compelled to allow them some range of motion, escaping the fate of Italian Fascism.


  1. George Talbot, “Censorship in Fascist Italy, 1922-1943” (2007).
  2. Art historian Mark Antliff notes “the Italian fascists’ promotion of all strands of modernism, from the Le Corbusier-inspired architecture of the Italian Rationalists to Futurism and the art of the novecento.”

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