Once hostilities had ended, the first issue every state had to address was that of demobilising the troops.[1] In the turmoil of the post-war period the reintegration of soldiers was not, however, the main problem to be resolved. Alongside the fibrillations of a free market system regulated by the gold standard,[2] the massive process of mobilisation accompanying the war years represented the most serious obstacle to any rapid restoration of pre-war conditions.[3] At the end of the war, the masses, having become far more conscious of their own political strength, manifested their reluctance almost everywhere to entrust the representation of their own specific interests to the traditional liberal parties. Although the process destined to lead to a “corporatist” recasting of the bourgeois order was already under way, in the short term this novel reticence or mistrust caused the political map to be redrawn in numerous countries. The strategy of according popular forces some political responsibilities, with a view to turning the traditional liberal parties into factors conducive to the stabilisation of the existing political system and institutional framework, served to inaugurate an intense period of reformism.[4] If the political establishment in France and Great Britain resisted,[5] in the majority of defeated countries, and especially in Germany and Austria, it was by contrast necessary to follow the path of compromise.[6] This was still more the case in Eastern Europe, where revolutionary impulses and aggressive nationalisms plunged the region into chaos.[7] Likewise the Italian liberal ruling class, less confident than the country’s former allies were of their capacity to exploit the legitimising potentialities of the memory of the war,[8] initially reckoned that it had no choice, once a new electoral law embodying the principle of proportional representation had been adopted, and various welfare measures had been introduced, but to promote a policy entailing the greater involvement of the popular parties in the momentous choices to be made at that particular juncture.[9]

Italian Anxieties in the post-war Period

In the immediate post-war European political panorama, the Italian case featured prominently, and not only because the crisis of the political institutions was resolved through the installation of the fascist regime but also because Italy was the only victorious country unable to exploit the positive effects – in the political, economic and social sphere – of the military victory. What were the causes of this failure? In the particular circumstances prevailing in post-war Italy certain problems, also faced in these same years by other European nations, ended up becoming intertwined with specific historical and national shortcomings; the resulting chaos and confusion precipitated the final crisis of the liberal institutions and the consolidation and triumph of the movement led by Benito Mussolini (1883-1945).

Foreign Policy and the Nationalist Mobilisation

In the spring of 1915 it was a foreign policy issue – that is, the decision regarding Italy’s intervention in the conflict – that triggered what would subsequently prove to be the final crisis of the Italian political system. The manner in which the interventionist option had been imposed, through pressure exerted by public demonstrations fomented by the government itself, in fact opened up a serious fissure within the constitutional political class.[10] This same division, the domestic objectives entertained by Antonio Salandra (1853-1931) - to derive advantage from a short war, patriotic in character, in order to shift the axis of Italian politics to the right - having been thwarted, was consolidated as the conflict wore on, giving rise to unfamiliar and unanticipated political configurations. Through the agency of committees of public safety, which experimented with the application of welfare models inspired by the values of hierarchy and envisaged having recourse to the intimidation of political opponents,[11] markedly different political experiences – right and left, corporativist and syndicalist, liberal and democratic – were intermingled, and to such an extent that they defined a new political culture, namely, national radicalism.[12] That experience was not only at the origins of fascism,[13] but also had a fundamental role to play in hampering the recomposition, in the aftermath of the conflict, of the fragmented liberal camp.[14] The close relationship between foreign policy issues and nationalist mobilisation characteristic of the events of 1915 was still in evidence in 1918; a very specific combination of domestic political interests did in fact coalesce around the constantly reiterated nationalist lament over the so-called “mutilated victory.”[15] Just as in the spring of 1915, mobilisation around the Adriatic question in fact enabled militants to imagine and to organise an extra-parliamentary solution to the political crisis.[16] Moreover, the occupation of Fiume by mutinous army units, led by Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), had as its declared objective the provoking of a government crisis that would drive Francesco Saverio Nitti (1868-1953) from office and lead to the formation of an executive leaning sharply to the right.[17] The diplomatic solution – through the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920 – achieved by Giovanni Giolitti (1842-1928), Nitti’s successor and the figure who most fully exemplified the traditional authority of parliament, thus represented a grave setback for national radicalism. From then onwards, the latter, intent upon a mobilisation that would serve to dismantle a political system centred around parliamentary manoeuvring, turned its attention to the complex domestic situation.

Economic Difficulties and Social Conflicts

Alongside the problem of the mobilisation of national radicalism through the deliberate manipulation of foreign policy issues, the basic question to be addressed in the post-war period concerned the restructuring of the economy and production. The economic costs of the war, in the main addressed by arranging a massive expansion of the public debt, were a heavy burden for the Italian state.[18] Some sectors had suffered significant damage, in particular transport and agriculture (on account of the sheer number of men called up, and likewise the requisitioning of animals and the exhaustion of the soil); in addition the important exports sector was reduced almost to zero. The war had also set in motion largescale processes of redistribution. Thanks to official supply contracts and the relaxed wartime procedures not only was it possible for some to amass huge fortunes, but an extraordinarily concentrated industrial system – revolving around FIAT, Ansaldo, Ilva and Montecatini – had taken shape.[19] The changes in the rural areas were just as momentous. While casual agricultural labourers shared with industrial and clerical workers the grave problem of the fall in real wages, the surge in agricultural prices enabled all those whose income derived from the produce of the fields – above all the big tenants and owners of capitalistic agricultural concerns, but also landowners who were farmers, small tenant farmers and sharecroppers – to prosper. This process of accumulation, in combination with the particular social and psychological conditions of the period, was what lay behind the vertiginous property transfers that characterised the first years of peace.[20] A swift return to normality, an objective that was especially hard to attain, and not least on account of the febrile mood following the long years of enforced suppression of free speech and civil liberties,[21] would have involved painful choices. This was especially true of economic policy, as Nitti, the statesman with the most expertise in this area, was soon to discover.[22] The measures taken by his government, in a political climate hardly conducive to them and beset by the extreme social tensions of the “biennio rosso”,[23] turned out to be piecemeal, or in any case, like the economic policy of his successor, Giovanni Giolitti, far from achieving a decisive break with the past. In the rural areas the second half of 1919 witnessed an unprecedented wave of strikes, with bitter disputes over agricultural contracts and widespread occupations of the land.[24] In the cities, by contrast, confrontation occurred in several distinct phases. Whereas in the summer of 1919 numerous Italian urban centres were hit by violent protests against the high cost of living, the spring of 1920 saw massive industrial strikes. In September 1920, there followed an event more freighted with implications, though as much for the symbolic value of the type of action undertaken by the workers as for any concrete results, namely the occupation of the factories by the steelworkers.[25] The manner in which the crisis was handled by Giolitti, who did not heed the loud calls to show no compunction in resorting to force in order to restore the right of property that the occupiers had violated, occasioned a lasting breach between the liberal political institutions and moderate political opinion.[26] Short-lived though it was, one of the main effects of the economic crisis afflicting the country in 1921 was to undermine the will to fight of the organisations of the working class and of the landless labourers. When the socialist mobilisation faltered, particularly in the Po Valley, the way was clear for a fierce bourgeois reaction, and for the expression of a desire for revenge on the part of the property-owning classes, who found in the fascist movement their principal standard-bearer.

The Political and Parliamentary Crisis

Though numerous and closely intertwined, the problems faced by the country in the immediate post-war period were not peculiar to Italy. As in the Italian case, so too the governments of the other victorious nations had in fact to confront the difficulties raised both by the complex economic and social situation and by the manifest consolidation of extremist political forces. What was really peculiar to Italy was in fact the evident incapacity of the political system properly to address the problem of adapting the parliamentary system to fit the new multi-party democracy.[27] This failure hampered every serious attempt to reorganise procedures at Montecitorio and, impeding the assertion of a political culture that was not prejudicially hostile to the new dynamics that the advent of parliamentary groups controlled by party secretaries were introducing, ended up entrenching divisions which otherwise could have been overcome.[28] The end result was the exacerbation of the weakness of the governments, their ever greater loss of authority and, in the end, the complete paralysis of the parliamentary system. The failure of the liberal ruling class did, however, happen by degrees, fuelled by inveterate prejudices towards the political representation of social groups deemed to be dangerous, and deriving sustenance from an unjustified faith in its own pivotal status at the centre of the system.

The prevailing myopia was accentuated, paradoxically enough, by the fact that for some years, on account of the lack of a genuine constitutional party and owing to enduring internal divisions, the liberal leaders, in order to form governments and retain parliamentary majorities, fell back upon the crucial support of the Catholic world.[29] Failing to perceive the shift that had occurred in the balance of forces, a process evidently under consolidation since the electoral contest immediately preceding the outbreak of the global conflict (1913), the principal liberal protagonists were swayed by the misguided conviction that they could continue to draw upon the reserves of consent offered by political Catholicism and at the same time retain the role of uncontested leader of moderate clericalist forces. The founding of the Italian Popular Party in January 1919 therefore represented something of a shock. It then became a matter of urgency to devise new solutions, so as to mitigate the predictably serious consequences of that event. At the same time it seemed clear that one could not hesitate any longer before adjusting the liberal world to fit the demands of mass politics.[30] One example of this awareness was the approval, in August 1919, of the new electoral law introducing proportional representation along with a party-list system. The deputies voting for the law in question intended proportional representation to function both as a powerful “external” stimulus - a sort of “time bomb”, capable of forcing the various constitutional currents to embark upon a rapid and credible process of concentration, in accordance with the procedures of a mass party - and as an instrument capable of safeguarding the divided constituencies in the many electoral colleges at risk in the Centre-North of Italy.[31] The election results were far worse even than had been feared: the liberals fell well short of a parliamentary majority, the recently created Italian Popular Party relished setting aside moderate clericalism, and the Italian Socialist Party – by this time won over by the maximalist logic of its leader Nicola Bombacci (1879-1945)[32] – achieved remarkable electoral success.[33] Although liberal weakness represented a temptation for the reformist tendency led by Filippo Turati (1857-1932),[34] the latter finally resolved to join forces with Angiolo Cabrini (1869-1937), Ivanoe Bonomi (1873-1951) and Leonida Bissolati (1857-1920) – the key representatives of the reformist Right, expelled from the Italian Socialist Party in 1912 – but only when the die was already cast, namely, between the summer and the autumn of 1922. Once all chances of an accord with the Left were gone, though it could perhaps have assembled a credible progressive majority under liberal leadership, the only course left open to it was the narrow path of an alliance with the Italian Popular Party. This trajectory, rendered uneven and difficult by the bitter clash over leadership between liberals and Catholics, would have given rise to too many political fibrillations and would have proved ill-adapted to the aim of achieving the stabilisation of the system.


The problems faced by the country in the immediate post-war period were not peculiar to Italy, but only the Italian ruling class failed so miserably in its task, being unable to not manage the positive outcome of victory. Above all, it displayed a grave inability to adapt to changing political circumstances. Even bearing in mind what happened on the other side of the Alps, it could have resorted as a last desperate measure to constitutional patriotism, thus appealing to the eternal rallying cry of the “defence of the besieged citadel” from the enemies – the reds and the blacks – defined in the course of the Risorgimento.[35] In order to do this, in order, in other words, to give life to a concentration at the heart of the political system, a compactness would have been required that the liberal world, still devastated by the events of May 1915, was still very far from having recovered. Paradoxically enough, Italian liberals did regain their unity between 1922 and 1925, trooping mournfully and in good order into the ranks of a victorious fascism.

Andrea Baravelli, University of Ferrara

Section Editor: Nicola Labanca

Translator: Martin Thom