Why you should care
Because the course of history is sometimes determined just one step at a time.
Newsreel history often serves to make history seem more unreal. Glowering, gesticulating men in black and white imagery, perched on balconies and bolstered by uniformed, assembled masses can be so cinematic that we lose sight of the specific points in time when real decisions were made in very specific places, altering the flow of history.
Case in point: Benito Mussolini on Oct. 22, 1922. The 39-year-old former journalist and leader of Italy’s 700,000-strong National Fascist Party, as a recently elected Parliamentarian, decided to take a walk. To Rome. With his stated intent being nothing less than ruling Italy. Which, given the chaos of the time following Italy’s disastrous World War I involvement fighting alongside those who they’d later fight against — Britain, France and Russia — made more than a little sense.
Sense enough for Winston Churchill to have said about Mussolini in a January 1927 speech to the Roman fascists, as captured in historian Gaetano Salvemini’s The Fascist Dictatorship in Italy, Vol. 1, “What a man! I have lost my heart! … Fascism has rendered a service to the entire world. … If I were Italian, I am sure I would have been with you entirely from the beginning of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passion of Leninism.”
He legally, if not so leisurely, strolled into power …
And sense enough that, after King Victor Emmanuel III refused to sign Prime Minister Luigi Facta’s call for a military order to suppress the 4-day-old march, Facta resigned, clearing the way for the king to appoint Mussolini prime minister and for history to start its march forward. Mussolini was forming his cabinet just a week after walking to Rome, a march that he cleverly — or cowardly — didn’t actually lead the entire way. He legally, if not so leisurely, strolled into power with an ease that subsequently led Hitler to attempt the same thing about a year later — an attempt that resulted in Hitler’s immediate arrest and incarceration.
“Mussolini’s early successes were very clearly dwarfed by his later failures,” said M.G. Sheftall, author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze and commentator on the History Channel’s Dogfights series. “A possible painful product of believing your own press.” The man never seemed to have suffered from poor self-regard. In 1935, Mussolini was quoted as saying, “I should be pleased, I suppose, that Hitler has carried out a revolution on our lines. But they are Germans. So they will end by ruining our idea.”
Mussolini met a violent end in April 1945, killed by partisans and hanged upside down in a piazza with his lover. His death had been presaged by the war’s turn in July 1943 when Italy was invaded by the Allied Forces. But the march on Rome remains an archetypical example of the perfect exercise of will, balls and luck — a combination still esteemed by the more politically retrograde elements of Italy’s current political landscape. “He [Mussolini] believed in humans’ total inability to lead themselves in any way that made any kind of organizational sense,” said Forza Nuova member Matteo Boia Fadini. “His example back then shows exactly how a strong leader can make organizational sense.”
In a certain time and in a certain place fortune certainly favored the bold. Until it didn’t anymore. Or, to quote poet Charles Bukowski totally out of context, “I’m not saying he was any good” but insofar as the march on Rome was concerned, “he was pretty good that day.”