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Almost Nobody Remembers How Horrible Everyday Life Was In Fascist Italy

The period between WWI and WWII brought about major political changes in Italy, and yet it's fairly uncommon to discuss what actually went on in Benito Mussolini's fascist state during those years. Mussolini implemented policies and reforms that led to a wave of censorship, nationalist propaganda, and widespread militarism, making daily life under Mussolini a tenuous existence.

In WWII Italy, life in the Italian Socialist Republic was about fear and to stay on good terms with Germany. Mussolini treated his enemies harshly, comparable to The Fuhrer's ruthless extermination of Jewish people in concentration camps. It was only with the passing of Il Duce in 1945 that Italian fascism truly came to an end. 

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  • The Palazzo Braschi Was Adorned With Mussolini's Face And Reminders To Vote "Yes"
    Photo: NicolaPasquale / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Palazzo Braschi Was Adorned With Mussolini's Face And Reminders To Vote "Yes"

    In 1934, the Fascist Party headquarters building, the Palazzo Braschi in Rome, was decorated to tell the Italian people how to vote. On the side of the building, Mussolini's giant face was surrounded by posters exclaiming "SI" – meaning "yes" – the only vote acceptable with Mussolini's candidates for upcoming elections.

    This wasn't the first time Mussolini used large gestures to remind voters to vote his way. He similarly decorated the Palazzo Braschi with a picture of himself in 1929, although it wasn't as large or imposing. 

    The decoration of the Palazzo Braschi was part of Mussolini's larger plan to adorn buildings all over Rome with fascist propaganda and to generally remake the city as he wished. To boost his prestige, Mussolini had architects design and build sports complexes, public markets, schools, and other buildings, as well as roads, all in the spirit of Roman emperors and Roman Catholic church leaders. 

  • Getting Detained Was Common

    Before The Fuhrer's first visit to Italy, there was widespread concern about hiding anyone who could be perceived as the opposition. For example, a Jewish refugee in a small village on Lake Como described his unusual detention:

    [The police said] "We’re very sorry. We have to come to arrest you and put you in prison for a few days."

    And he said, "Oh, yes, yes, I understand."

    They said, "You know, the beds in our jail are very, very poor. We suggest perhaps with our help, we could move your bed from your hotel over for you. And the meals aren't good either. You’d better perhaps have them send you some meals while you’re there, and wine, too. Then that would be better."

    He said, “Oh, yes, I’ll do that. I’ll arrange it. I’m sure the hotel will arrange it for me." And that is what happened. He said, “My jailers came in and drank some of the wine every day, and we played trick-track and various things together, and had quite an amiable time." After Hitler went home, those arrested were released.

  • Communists, Dissidents, And Working Class Leadership Were Simply Eliminated
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Communists, Dissidents, And Working Class Leadership Were Simply Eliminated

    When Mussolini finally marched on Rome in 1922, he did so with an army of Blackshirts at his side. Blackshirts were a paramilitary force who, as their name implies, wore black shirts; he used them to evoke terror domestically and abroad.

    From the earliest days of the Fascist Party in Italy, Mussolini's Blackshirts worked to get rid of any opposition. The Blackshirt's motto was Me ne frego or "I don't care" – and they really didn't. They first targeted the Socialist Party in Italy, and within two months in 1921 had demolished multiple outposts for labor leaders and socialists.

    Once the fascists went from being an urban phenomenon to a wider Italian force, they then went after peasant leaders in the countryside, showing aggression towards any potential challengers in villages, communities, and towns throughout the peninsula.

    They would humiliate enemies – communists, socialists, anarchists – by making them drink castor oil and other things to humiliate them. 

    After 1927, Mussolini also used the OVRA (the Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism or Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell'Antifascismo), his secret police, to root out subversives. Mussolini reinstated the ultimte penalty in Italy and started rounding up his enemies. Many anti-fascists simply left Italy, setting up shop in Paris or other European cities to escape persecution.

  • When Mussolini Made An Appearance, Fear And Admiration Were Indistinguishable
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When Mussolini Made An Appearance, Fear And Admiration Were Indistinguishable

    Mussolini was a charismatic leader, and when he made public appearances, people were awed and afraid. One individual recalled "that the crowds in the street were cowed and silent as he stood up in his open car in the procession. They acted afraid of him, quite different from their subsequent admiration."

    This indicated a fine line between the two different emotions.

  • The Trains Really Did Run On Time, Sort Of

    As the famous justification for fascim goes, fascism in Italy was repressive, but it made "the trains run on time." One of the rationalizations for fascism was that Mussolini brought organization and discipline to Italy, as demonstrated by getting the trains to run on time. This is partly true, partly false.

    The rail system in Italy was vastly improved under Mussolini, but it had been devastated by WWI. Overall, the larger, more commercial express trains on the Italian rail system did a better job of keeping to timetables during Mussolini's decades of power, but local and daily trains were plagued by delays. 

    That said, even tourists who rode the express trains complained. As the Belgian foreign minister noted: "We always were kept waiting for more than a quarter of an hour at the level-crossings because the trains were never there at the times they should have been passing." 

    Still, though, "no one dared to report it when [the trains] were late."

  • Phones Were Tapped, So People Had To Screen Their Conversations

    Telephones weren't widely available in Italy and the telephone system itself was fairly antiquated for the day, but this only made it easier for the lines to be tapped by the secret police, headed by Arturo Bocchini

    With mainly the elites using phones, the fascist state could get information about their business dealings as well as any political conversations they might be having. The OVRA also kept dossiers on people throughout Italy, acquiring information any way they could.