Early Fascist

The First Duce: D’Annunzio at Fiume.
by Michael A. Ledeen.
Johns Hopkins University Press. 225 Pp. $13.50.

The period in European history between the two world wars has often been called the fascist epoch, yet even today the nature of fascism remains problematic. To those who take their political bearings from Moscow, fascism is “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” But the problem with this definition is that European “reactionaries” were in fact anti-fascist. Franco suppressed his fascist party, the Falange, because he thought it was too revolutionary, and Salazar, Horthy, and Antonescu were equally hostile to their fascist parties. These “reactionaries” regarded the exercise of power as the exclusive prerogative of the traditional ruling classes, and they feared and hated fascism because, like socialism and Communism, it sought to mobilize the heretofore passive masses and seize power in their name.

Fascism’s reliance on the masses was not its only revolutionary characteristic. Equally revolutionary was its attempt to remake society and foster the emergence of a “new man.” As the historian George Mosse put it recently in an interview, European fascism constituted a revolution of the Right, “a revolution which wanted a new man, which looked for vitality, for action, but at the same time for the restoration of a system of traditional, middle-class morality. . . .”

The traditional association of fascism with the radical Right has recently been questioned by Renzo De Felice, one of Italy’s most respected historians and a leading scholar of Italian fascism. In contrast to Mosse and others, De Felice locates the origins of the Italian fascist movement on the Left—more specifically, within a tradition of “totalitarian democracy” stemming from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—and in this regard he draws a sharp distinction between fascism and Nazism. In a lengthy interview which, when released as a paperback in 1975, rapidly became a bestseller in Italy and provoked a storm of opposition, De Felice argued that “Nazism sought a restoration of old values and not the creation of new values.” The Nazis rejected the ethos of the modern era in its entirety and tried to liberate “Aryan man” from the restraints of modernity, whereas the Italian fascist movement, in De Felice’s view, set out to create the “new man” which the modern age demanded, and in this lay its connection with the Left.

Both the interview with De Felice and the interview with George Mosse from which I have been quoting were conducted by Michael Ledeen, a young historian who has lived in Italy and who has himself written extensively on European politics and especially fascism. His important new study of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s occupation of Fiume in the autumn of 1919 strongly suggests that De Felice’s stress on the Rousseauian, revolutionary-democratic origins of fascism is not misplaced.

The various intrigues leading up to D’Annunzio’s coup are reconstructed by Ledeen with painstaking detail, but the outline of the story is easily told. After World War I, the government of the city of Fiume, which had long enjoyed a measure of autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian empire, declared its desire to be annexed by Italy. This move was opposed by President Woodrow Wilson, who felt that, with the exception of Trieste, the entire Adriatic coast ought to become part of the new state of Yugoslavia. As diplomats sought to resolve this problem—and a host of others—at Versailles, Gabriele D’Annunzio, acting without the consent of the Italian government, entered the disputed city at the head of a massive column of Italian war veterans and was subsequently installed as commandante.

To D’Annunzio’s conservative nationalist supporters, the occupation of Fiume was a limited operation whose sole purpose was to force a timid Italian government to annex the city. D’Annunzio, however, saw matters in more grandiose terms: to him, the occupation of Fiume was merely the first stage of a gigantic political enterprise which would bring about the rejuvenation of Italy and which would culminate in a radically new global political order. A poet and a war hero, the charismatic D’Annunzio sought to place himself at the head of a revolt of the young and the virile, a revolt which proposed nothing less than the transformation of human nature itself. As the revolutionary implications of D’Annunzio’s vision became apparent to his conservative supporters (and, indeed, to D’Annunzio himself), their relations with the commandante grew strained. Radical European leftists, on the other hand, came to view the Fiuman experiment with increasing sympathy.

D’Annunzio is rightly regarded as the John the Baptist of the Italian fascist movement. Indeed, but for him, the fascist seizure of power would probably not have occurred. It was through Mussolini’s open support of D’Annunzio’s coup that his movement first began to attract a wide following, and when the Fiuman adventure ended in defeat for D’Annunzio, many of his followers joined Mussolini’s movement. Thus, the occupation of Fiume is a crucial event in the history of Italian fascism.

Two of D’Annunzio’s undertakings, in particular, testify to the consonance of his principles with the principles of the radical European Left: the League of Fiume and the Constitution of Fiume (la Carta del Carno). The League of Fiume was conceived of as an “anti-League of Nations,” a revolutionary, anti-imperialist body that would organize the oppressed peoples and nations of the world—the Irish, Hungarians, Indians, Austrians, and Egyptians—against the Versailles powers. The Carta del Carno, drafted by D’Annunzio in collaboration with Alceste De Ambris, a leading Italian anarcho-syndicalist, sought to produce the new, unalienated man that D’Annunzio ceaselessly called for. It provided, Ledeen writes,

for the complete equality of women, total toleration of religion and atheism and a thoroughgoing system of social security, medical insurance, and old-age care, in addition to a method of direct democracy. Furthermore, it provided for a constant change in political leadership in order both to protect against an entrenched bureaucracy and to guarantee a constant infusion of new elements into the government of the city. These specifically political elements were combined with an elaborate system of mass celebrations and rituals designed to guarantee a high level of political consciousness and enthusiasm among all the citizens of the state. Culture was combined with politics and art in a unique synthesis, and one critic has called the Carta del Carno a kind of Napoleonic code rewritten by an Ezra Pound.

In his classic study, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, the Israeli historian Jacob Talmon noted that for the revolutionary democrats of the 18th century, “The task of the Legislator is to create a new kind of man, with a new mentality, new values, a new type of sensitiveness, free from old instincts, prejudices, and bad habits. It is not enough to change the machinery of government, or even reshuffle the classes. You have to change human nature . . . to make man virtuous.” Talmon was concerned primarily with the political philosophy of Rousseau, but as Ledeen’s study demonstrates, his words apply equally well as a description of D’Annunzio’s enterprise at Fiume. If it has generally been assumed in contemporary political thinking that the Jacobin and fascist traditions are antithetical, the work of Jacob Talmon, Renzo De Felice, and Michael Ledeen may yet force a revision of some of our most deeply ingrained political definitions.

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