Gert Jan Kocken

Depictions of Rome 1922-1944

Depictions of Rome 1922–1945

Socialist Roots

Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (1883–1945) grew up with in a socialist environment. He was named after the Mexican President Benito Juárez and the Italian socialists Amilcare Cipriani and Andrea Costa. As a youth he took over his father’s socialist outlook. He immigrated to Switzerland in 1902 in order to avoid military service, for which he was charged with desertion in absentia. In Switzerland, his support for socialism and activism expanded. He began working for the socialist newspaper L'Avvenire del Lavoratore (‘The Future of the Worker’) as well as for a local workers union. Mussolini returned to Italy in 1904 in order to take advantage of an amnesty for his desertion and then volunteered for two years of military service. In 1909, he resumed working for L'Avvenire del Lavoratore. He became one of Italy’s foremost socialists because of his incendiary writing and activism; at that time, he described Rome as a “parasitic city of landladies, shoeshine boys, prostitutes, and bureaucrats”. However, his support for Italian intervention during the First World War brought him in conflict with many fellow socialists and eventually he was ousted from the Italian Socialist Party.

Mussolini’s Rome

Late 1914, Mussolini denounced orthodox socialism and began a new, loosely defined political movement called Fascism, which supported intervention, nationalism, and spazio vitale (‘vital space’), a concept comparable to that of Lebensraum. In contrast to his earlier views, Mussolini became obsessed with ancient Rome. In April 1922 he wrote: “Rome is our point of departure and reference … We dream of a Roman Italy, that is to say wise, strong, disciplined, and imperial.” By then the support for his National Fascist Party was considerable and in October 1922 the Fascists organized the March on Rome, seizing power by means of a coup d’état. Once established as Prime Minister, Mussolini (or Il Duce as he preferred to be called) commenced building a dictatorship. During his long reign, Mussolini refashioned the capital according to his ideal of a monumental Rome at the center of a “New Roman Empire”. In 1931, he approved the Piano Regolatore, one of the most encompassing of his redevelopment plans for the city. Slums were bulldozed in order to “liberate” the ancient ruins in their midst and to create new grand boulevards between monuments, forums as well as new and imposing Fascist architecture. These redevelopments amounted to urban demolition on an unprecedented scale. Working-class citizens that inhabited the slums were displaced to new residential areas outside the city center, were they could be controlled more easily and had access to newly-built facilities such as sport centers.

Relations with Nazi Germany

In November 1937, Fascist Italy joined the anti-communist Anti-Comintern Pact signed the year before by Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Fascism initially excluded the racial doctrines and anti-Semitism of the National Socialists – Mussolini mocked German racial theory on several occasions – but after being pressured by senior Nazi’s, Mussolini signed the Charter of Race in July 1938, thereby stripping Italian Jews from their right of Italian nationality. Furthermore, Jews were cast out of the Italian Fascist Party and could no longer join the army, hold a teaching position, have a state job, work for a bank or an insurance company, or marry a non-Jewish Italian. In May 1939, Germany and Italy entered a military alliance by signing the Pact of Steel (Mussolini opposed the original name, ‘Pact of Blood’, fearing the Italians would dislike it). Italy was not fully prepared for war, however, when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. It therefore remained non-belligerant until it declared war on Britain and France in June 1940. From then on, Jewish refugees living in Italy were interned in the Campagna concentration camp. In September 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan established the Axis alliance by signing the Tripartite Pact. Despite his military efforts, Mussolini called his grandiose building projects “the war that we prefer”.

Rome under Siege

Mussolini told his people that Rome would not be bombed by the Allies, assuming that its many monuments and the Vatican would serve as a deterrent. He was proven wrong when Allied bombers raided the city on 16 May 1943. That day, Pius XII wrote President Roosevelt, “Rome should be spared as far as possible further pain and devastation, and their many treasured shrines … from irreparable ruin”. Roosevelt replied, “Attacks against Italy are limited, to the extent humanly possible, to military objectives. We have not and will not make warfare on civilians or against nonmilitary objectives. In the event it should be found necessary for Allied planes to operate over Rome, our aviators are thoroughly informed as to the location of the Vatican and have been specifically instructed to prevent bombs from falling within Vatican City.” However, Rome was subjected to more air raids on 16 and 19 July. The latter attack targeted San Lorenzo, a residential area, and caused thousands of civilian casualties. On 25 July, Mussolini was removed from power by the King Victor Emmanuel. Italy surrendered to the Allies five days later. Yet Hitler did not want to let Fascism lose this way and promptly occupied the country. In 10 October, the German Sicherheitsdienst (‘Security Service’) ordered the first round of arrests and deportation of Jews in Italian ghettos. The deportations continued until Allied forces liberated Rome on 4 June 1944. By then, German troops had mostly left the city in order to prevent the city from being ravaged by the war.