The ascension of Mussolini from prime minister to dictator wasn’t as crystal clear as the likes of Hitler, Franco and Stalin. After the March on Rome in the autumn of 1922, Mussolini became the head of a new coalition government. The first years of his premiership were characterised by violence and oppression, with Mussolini having personal ambitions to clear the cabinet of all non-Fascists and install himself as dictator. Acerbo Law was then passed, and the power of Mussolini grew further still.
The Fascist Squadristi were seemingly running the show but there was still discontent from the left wing, especially in the form of one man, Giacomo Matteotti. The head of the United Socialist Party (PSU) who stood up for everything Fascism was against, Matteotti took every opportunity to pour scorn over the government. He saw Fascism as ‘agricultural slavery’, and in 1922 interrupted one of Mussolini’s speeches with a cry of “Long live parliament!”
The Fascist Blackshirts were aware of this and swiftly moved to dispose of this outspoken socialist.
By 18 August 1924, a new grave had appeared in a cemetery in the outskirts of Rome. The name on the headstone was Giacomo Matteotti. He had disappeared after a walk along the River Tiber on 10 June after being kidnapped by six squadristi and murdered. A carpenter’s file had been driven into his chest and he was found buried in the Riano Flaminio area of the city after onlookers reported a bloodstained car.
There was no point in the Fascists trying to distance themselves from the murder. It was only on 30 May that Matteotti’s speech had denounced everything the Fascists stood for, condemning their violence, intimidation and corruption. The murder shocked the nation and caused a minor international incident. Fascist rule was teetering on the edge of the political abyss.
Caught red handed
The following events demonstrated the weakness and the overall bizarre nature of Italian politics at the time. The public, especially outraged socialists, demanded that action be taken against the Fascist bully boys. However, the same parliament representatives who failed to suppress the March on Rome fell short again at punishing the Fascists accordingly. Despite a judicial inquiry being held, the six suspects walked free. The murder trial may have been over, but Mussolini still had reasons to be fearful. Dismayed at the negative public opinion, he made the decision to take matters into his own hands in a move that would make or break his tenure.
The failure of Aventine Succession
In a speech to the Italian Chamber, Mussolini took full responsibility for the six squaristri who undertook the murder but declined to state specifically that he ordered the assassination. This grey area was essential, as it portrayed the notion that the prime minister felt guilt for the actions taken against Matteotti and hastily closed the matter. Mussolini finished the speech by daring his critics to stand up against him. Predictably, none of the weak non-Fascist deputies raised a hand.
When news of the murder first broke, opposition deputies in the chamber walked out in protest. An event known as the Aventine Secession, it was aimed at overthrowing Mussolini but severely backfired. When it was clear that this mass walkout was completely ineffectual and would not sway King Victor Emmanuel into dismissing the prime minister, the deputies attempted to return but they were blocked by Mussolini. The Italian chamber was now completely Fascist and the dictatorship could begin.
The Blackshirts were still an unruly mob that needed to be tamed but Il Duce was in a position to do it with no fear of retribution from non-Fascists. Fascist Italy had now reached its next phase but the undercurrent of anti-fascism remained.
Did Mussolini order the murder of Matteotti?
Officially: no. But that could well be too convenient to be true. Matteotti was a long-time critic of everything Fascist and that particular speech on 30 May 1924 to the Chamber of Deputies had significantly riled Mussolini and the Blackshirts. Prior to all this, Mussolini had even requested that his passport be taken away so he could not influence anti-Fascism on an international scale.
Within a month, he would disappear. Matteotti spoke for the people and Mussolini knew this. Getting rid of him would be a risky operation but worthwhile in the long term as he was his only major political enemy. There is a theory that it was initially intended as a kidnap and Matteotti was only killed after he struggled.
The Fascist squads were running riot in Italy at the time, so it is likely that they would have carried out this attack without Mussolini’s approval. The leader of the attackers was Amerigo Dumini, a prominent activist on the hardcore side of Italian Fascism and the secret police, the Ceka. Nevertheless, it isn’t an operation that Mussolini wouldn’t endorse as long as it was done on the sly and couldn’t be traced back to him. In the end, it was, but he had the political nous to use it to his advantage.
Did Mussolini sanction the killing of Matteotti? It’s impossible to say. There are pros and cons for both sides but this is definitely a case that will forever be unresolved. Nevertheless, the legacy of the event is profound. The Socialist partisan groups that helped overthrow Mussolini called themselves ‘Matteotti Brigades’ and four of Matteotti’s murderers were eventually sentenced after World War II. This is as close as it came to justice being done for the fallen socialist.