[translates: You can kill me but my ideas will never die.]
Many years ago, I took a college course on the rise of fascism in Italy.
It was a particular interest to me since my father grew up in that nation during that period and I had visited Italy three times in the early to mid-1960’s. It was hard for me to understand how fascism could rise among those I saw as a good people.
As discussed in the course, a turning point toward Italian fascism was the murder of Giacomo Matteotti.
In 1922, Benito Mussolini became the Italian Premier. This followed The March on Rome.
The March was the result of dissatisfaction with the socialist and moderate coalitions that had been democratically governing the nation. The middle class feared a socialist revolution. There was also anger at being badly treated, despite promises from their allies on the winning side, during the World War I peace settlement. Their economy was severely damaged.
In the face of the Fascist Blackshirts who were preparing to enter and take over Rome, the king and parliament lacked the strength to stand up to the threat. Fearing civil war, they offered Mussolini leadership of a coalition government. By the time they realized that wasn’t enough, it was too late.
As the Encyclopedia Brittanica describes it…
“The March on Rome was not the conquest of power that Mussolini later called it but rather a transfer of power within the framework of the constitution, a transfer made possible by the surrender of public authorities in the face of fascist intimidation.”
As the new premier, Mussolini sought to consolidate power. His goal was to remove opposition and rule outside the democratic structure.
His last strong opponent as he worked his way to absolute power was Giacomo Matteotti the head of the United Socialist Party. Matteotti spoke publically about what was happening while others did not. He shouted out, “Long live the Parliament” during a Mussolini speech. Less than two weeks before his death, he told his friends, “Now you can write my eulogy.“
…And Matteotti was right. On May 30, 1924, he gave a speech “denouncing everything the Fascists stood for, condemning their violence, intimidation and corruption”. On June 10, he disappeared after a walk along the River Tiber. He had been kidnapped by six squadristi and murdered.
In a speech to the Chamber of Deputies, Mussolini took full responsibility for the six squadristi but did not say he ordered the assassination. He dared his opponents to stand up against him. No one did…and his power became absolute.
Mussolini didn’t begin with murder. He understood the power of propaganda and control of the press in reshaping the public mind. He understood the power of dividing people as a step to controlling them.
These are the places where all totalitarians begin.
I’ve been thinking about this today after hearing about Steve Bannon, top aide to the President of the United States, tell the media to shut up. That follows top aide, Kelly Anne Conway’s statement about “alternate facts”. That follows President Trump’s constant attacks on the fact-based press and his own lies.
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Mr. Bannon said during a telephone call.
“I want you to quote this,” Mr. Bannon added. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
Like Mussolini, Bannon was until very recently a writer and editor, practiced in propaganda. Like Mussolini, he expects the press to function as a tool for what he and his boss seek to accomplish. He expects that the dangerous realities of what this administration is doing – regarding Russia and elsewhere – should be ignored or papered over with propaganda.
That will only happen if citizens let it.
That will only happen if the fact-bared press fails us.
That will only happen if politicians who know what they are seeing – and that worse is coming – choose to ignore it. They may get short-term partisan advantage but the price may well be our democracy.
The first steps have already been taken…and the question will once again become, “Which side are you on?”