The last two Kings of Italy can teach us important lessons about the dangers of appeasing populism, fascism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.
Like many of today’s politicians, King Victor Emmanuel III made a deal with a buffoonish right-wing authoritarian to preserve his wealth, status, and power. That deal led to disaster and the destruction of Italy’s monarchy.
In the early 1920s, Italy was in chaos after the country’s catastrophic involvement in World War I. The economy had collapsed and fighting between radical political parties (Communists and Fascists) had broken out in the streets.
By 1922, the largest of the radical groups, Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, was powerful enough to plan an insurrection against Italy’s parliamentary democracy. Mussolini’s militia, the Black Shirts, began a March on Rome to seize power
Prime Minister Luigi Facta wanted to declare martial law and use the army against the Black Shirts. The Black Shirts were nothing but thugs who would have stood no chance against trained troops.
The King and the Fake Dictator
Instead, Victor Emmanuel overruled Facta and appointed Mussolini Prime Minister. Italy became a Fascist dictatorship under the clownish Il Duce, but Victor Emmanuel kept his throne, his bank account, and his lavish lifestyle
For the next 21 years, Italy operated under the lie that Mussolini was an absolute dictator. In reality, the King had the power to fire Mussolini at any time and the backing of the military.
Mussolini turned Italy into a quasi-socialist Corporate State. An ugly mix of militarism, nationalism, and thuggery became Italy’s official ideology. The military went along because Mussolini increased officers’ pay.
The Second Roman Empire
By 1935, Mussolini decided to make his loony dreams of a Second Roman Empire a reality. On 3 October 1935, the Italian military invaded the independent empire of Ethiopia to avenge a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Adwa in 1896.
The Ethiopians, who had few modern weapons, were no match for the Italians. Ethiopia, one of two independent nations left in Africa, was conquered within a few weeks.
The international community, which was already tolerating Japanese atrocities in China, ignored Mussolini’s imperialism. Predictably, real dictators, such as Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, took notice.
Mussolini followed his adventure in Ethiopia with an intervention in the Spanish Civil War and an invasion of Albania. By 1940, however, Mussolini’s imperialism was far outclassed by Nazi and Soviet efforts.
Italy Loses World War II
On 10 June 1940, with France falling to the Nazi Blitzkrieg, Italy entered World War II on the Axis (German) side. Privately, Victor Emmanuel opposed entering the war and believed Italy would lose.
Historian John Gooch believes Victor Emmanuel thought defeat would destroy both Mussolini and the Italian monarchy. Yet, the King went along with Mussolini’s stupidity out of fear of civil war between Italian royalists and fascists. *
Italy lacked the resources to wage a large-scale war. The Italian military was under-equipped, and poorly led. The army went to war with World War I artillery and rifles while the navy had no aircraft carriers. Mussolini thought aircraft carriers were a waste of money. In fact, Italy’s air force was still flying biplanes in 1940.
Italian forces were no match for well-equipped British troops. The Italian Navy was incapable of fighting the British Royal Navy, which had aircraft carriers.
Humiliation in Greece
Because of pride, Mussolini rejected offers of help defeating the British in North Africa from his friend Hitler. Instead, British troops liberated Ethiopia and began overrunning Italy’s African colonies.
Mussolini responded by invading a neutral country Greece in October 1941 and starting a war with another Yugoslavia. The Italian invasion of Greece was a complete catastrophe. Italian troops got bogged down in the mountains, and were eventually pushed back by better-equipped Greek forces.
In April 1941, Hitler came to Mussolini’s rescue by ordering the German Army to invade Greece. It took the Wehrmacht three weeks to accomplish what the Italian Army could not in seven months. When the Greeks surrendered they inflicted the ultimate humiliation on the Italians. Greek officers refused to surrender to Italian officers, only to Germans.
Now beholden to Hitler, Mussolini launched yet another disastrous operation by sending an Italian Army to participate in Der Fuhrer’s disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union. Mussolini followed that decision by declaring war on the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, the United States, in imitation of his idol Hitler.
The Fall of Mussolini
By July 1943, Italy was facing total defeat. British and American forces defeated the German and Italian armies in North Africa and invaded Sicily (part of Italy). At home most of Italy’s navy had been sunk and American air power was reducing Italian cities to rubble.
Instead of resisting the invasion, the Italian armies in Sicily had disintegrated. Leaving Italy defenseless in the face of an American and British invasion.
On 25 July 1943,Victor Emmanuel ended the charade. When Mussolini arrived for his regular meeting with the King. Victor Emmanuel told Mussolini he was fired and that General Pietro Badoglio was now prime minister. The army arrested Mussolini as he left the meeting. The night before Mussolini’s Fascist Grand Council had voted to remove the dictator.
By removing and arresting Mussolini, the King showed that Italian fascism was a farce. The strutting tyrant Mussolini was a front for oligarchs who wanted to keep their power.
From Farce to Tragedy
The situation in Italy then turned from farce to tragedy as the King and Badoglio refused to make a quick deal with the Allies. Not even a visit to Rome by US General Maxwell Taylor; who brought news of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s promise to send two American airborne divisions to defend the city, could persuade the Italian government to switch sides. *
Instead, by 9 September 1943, German forces were approaching Rome. The King and Badoglio jumped in their cars and fled to the Allied invasion forces in Southern Italy. Most of Italy fell under Nazi occupation.
German commandos rescued Mussolini from captivity. Hitler set up Il Duce up as the leader of the so-called Italian Social Republic, a Nazi occupied Zone in Northern Italy.
Italy became a war zone with months of brutal combat between Allied and Nazi forces. Meanwhile, Italians fought the Civil War, Victor Emmanuel had long feared, with Nazi-backed Fascists fighting Communists, royalists, socialists, and others. World War II in Italy ended with Mussolini’s lynching by resistance fighters.
The Italian people correctly blamed Victor Emmanuel II for the disaster. On 9 May 1946 Victor Emmanuel abdicated and his son Umberto II became King in an attempt to save the monarchy.
The abdication was too late. On 2 June 1946, the Italian people voted to end the monarchy and make Italy a Republic in a constitutional referendum. On 12 June 1946, King Umberto II, Victor Emmanuel III, and their families went into exile and Italy became a Republic.
Victor Emmanuel III died in exile in Alexandria, Egypt, ironically the city his armies had failed to capture in World War II, in 1947. Umberto died in Switzerland in 1983 after years of exile in Portugal and never visited Italy again. In a final humiliation the Italian parliament refused to let the dying ex-king return to his homeland.
The Dangers of Fascism and Populism
The fate of Italy’s last two kings should teach modern leaders who tolerate fascism, thuggery, nationalism, totalitarianism, and populism an important lesson.
The lesson is fascism and authoritarianism will ultimately destroy your country and institutions. I have to wonder if modern enablers of fascism such as the Russian oligarchs, the Metropolitan Kyrill, (the head of the Russian Orthodox Church), and their American counterparts US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) US House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California), US Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), former US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), and campaign donors, such as billionaire Peter Thiel, will learn that lesson the hard way.
Kyrill and the Russian oligarchs have already seen their pet tyrant President Vladimir Putin, who resembles Mussolini, lead their nation into a catastrophic war. I have to wonder if McCarthy, McConnell, Thiel, and the rest of the Republican leaders who embrace Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) will suffer a similar fate?
Will Kyrill, Thiel, or McConnell or McCarthy die in exile in some lonely villa on a European coast after spending years complaining about politics back home to the exiled Russian oligarch next door? We could only be so lucky.
Thus, today’s fake conservatives who supposedly revere history, learn nothing from it. They are repeating Victor Emmanuel III’s tragic mistake by embracing fascism to protect their wealth and power. History teaches they will end up with neither.