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Dictatorships. The collapse of the liberal state in Italy, Spain and Portugal
- Languages: it

When on 28 October 1922, the Fascists seized power following the March on Rome, most Italian liberals thought it to be simply a theatrical change of regime, and that soon enough the experience of government would normalise the political movement founded by Benito Mussolini.




  • In 1920s the political weaknesses of the liberal regimes gave rise to feelings in Italy, Spain and Portugal, that were favourable to more authoritarian political lines

  • Mussolini’s March on Rome, Primo de Rivera’s on Madrid, and Manuel Gomes da Costa’s coup in Lisbon, transformed the political face of southern Europe

  • The political characterisation of the new heads of government was not clear at the time of the dictators' taking of power


Also for this reason, they gave their vote of confidence without hesitation – in spite of the fact that in his inaugural speech the Fascist leader had explicitly threatened members of Parliament and the country’s highest representative institution.


The liberals’ opinion was shared by a substantial part of the country’s political class. Across Italy, the March on Rome and the Fascists' rise to power mostly, although not universally, made a similar impression.


Attempted coups and authoritarian plots were rapidly spreading in other European countries in the early 1920s, but nowhere else did these have the strength and success they had in Italy.


For right-wing revolutionaries and conservatives of the whole of Europe, the Italian experience immediately offered a space for reflection and political maturation. In Spain and Portugal in particular, the Fascists’ rise to power was a determining event in that it represented a successful – and thus replicable – authoritarian and revolutionary precedent: we can observe this by reading the press and diplomatic reports of the time.


For many observers in Spain and Portugal, as well as in many other places in Europe, Mussolini’s seizure of power made a project of authoritarian stabilization really conceivable. Such a project was desired by certain political groups and by the ruling classes of Europe after two years of great agitation and more generally, in the wake of a total war (the First World War) during which parliamentary institutions virtually everywhere were pushed to the margins of political management or had shown severe limitations.


The institutional and political weaknesses of the liberal regimes in the preceding decades and their incapacity to establish a solid consensus in favour of liberal institutions gave rise to feelings in Italy, Spain and Portugal, that were, if not directly in support of authoritarian perspectives, in any case favourable to the transformation of the existing political and institutional situation along more rigorous lines.


And so it was that in the space of less than four years, Mussolini’s March on Rome, Primo de Rivera’s on Madrid, and Manuel Gomes da Costa’s coup in Lisbon, transformed the political face of southern Europe.


The succession of the collapse of liberal institutions took place inversely to the levels of crisis of the countries involved: there is no doubt that the crisis of the First Portuguese Republic in the years immediately after the War was much more advanced than those affecting Spain and even more so Italy.


The movements that led to the end of the liberal state in the three countries were very different to one another, starting from the main actors involved: whilst the Fascist movement included the military but was mainly composed of civilians – albeit in some cases ex-combatants marked by the experience of war – the coups in Spain and Portugal were perpetrated by the military (although military management was almost exclusive in the first case, whilst civilians also had a relevant role in the second).


Despite these significant differences, all three movements were characterised by the desire for an authoritarian transformation of the existing institutional structures – in truth initially stronger in Spain and Portugal –, by a noticeable hostility towards parliamentary representation, and by the restoration of the national honour allegedly betrayed by cowardly and corrupt governments.


One thing that certainly cannot be said is that the political characterisation of the new heads of government was clear at the time of their taking of power. Furthermore, what made these political upheavals possible in all three cases, was the non-institutionalised but real dialogue between certain political forces we might qualify as anti-system, but which saw themselves – and were seen by part of the state’s institutional structures – as the traditional ruling classes and carriers of national values.


The years following the changes of regimes in the three countries were years of continuous evolution. In Italy, the conquest of power had taken place without any significant conflict with the state in spite of the fact that the general violence carried out in the days of the March and in the months preceding it had led to the definitive transformation of the political context.


Here, the first significant institutional changes were aimed primarily at the legalisation of the Fascist military organization and the establishment of Fascism in the state institutions, first of all through the institutionalisation of the Fascist Militia. The limitation of civil rights was not however a central concern in the early legislative action of the Fascist regime.


The case of the freedom of the press offers a particularly interesting example in this context: the censorship law was discussed in Parliament and signed by the King in 1923, but was officially introduced only in the summer of 1924.


Obstruction of the day-to-day circulation of opposition journals and the big liberal newspapers was however pursued and obtained by means of violence and threats long before the March on Rome, and continued with the rise to power of Fascism.


The situation in Spain and Portugal was different. Here, in the presence of conflicts and political actors very different to the Italian ones, and in the absence of a political and paramilitary force able to pursue a programmatic policy of violence over a significant part of the national territory – as the National Fascist Party and its combat squads did in Italy – repressive policies were introduced from the very moment of the conquest of power.


In both countries these went hand in hand with the shutting down of Parliament and of all representative institutions: a measure presented as necessary and exceptional but which was de facto destined to remain unchanged for a long period of time. Each of these regimes, depending on the context, immediately availed itself of further measures of repressive control, such as the declaration of the state of siege and censorship of the press and of freedom of expression.

The use of repressive policies in the three states was functional to the maintenance of power and to the construction of a new political project; in this sense, the dichotomy between repression and acquiescence and participation in these dictatorial projects must be considered as part of a single project. However, as mentioned above, the three contexts required different measures.


In Italy, and certainly in Spain, the dictatorial regime met with an already defeated and worn-out opposition. The situation in Portugal was different: here, despite harsh repression, the need to eliminate the opposition forces remained vital to the very survival of the regime in the 1920s and early 1930s.


In all three cases, however, the use of repressive policies is telling of the parallel search for order and the transformation of the relationship between institutions and society that was at the foundation of the new regime, anti-liberal more than reactionary.


Thus repression here must be also – if not primarily – read in terms of its function as an element of consolidation of support from relevant segments of society.

If we then consider the situation of these countries within a broader European perspective, we can certainly observe that 1923 marks the beginning of a new general phase of political and economic stabilisation throughout the entire continent.


The three dictatorial experiences thus represented one of the possible paths to stabilisation and to the restoration of power of the European bourgeoisies in the 1920s (though in the Portuguese case the chronology is in part different and more tardive).


A fundamental element in the consolidation of these regimes, and in their domestic and international reception, was the idea that these countries were not fully capable of being governed through truly liberal institutions and that these dictatorial experiences, together with some others in central-eastern Europe, were exceptions justified by the countries’ delay in social-economic development and their cultural backwardness.


But what the changes of regime in Italy, Spain and Portugal – and the internal and external collective reactions to them – really demonstrated, on the contrary, was that the same Europe which immediately after the War had appeared to open up more than ever before to representative institutions and to modern liberal constitutions, could very rapidly be thrown into crisis.


Translated by Teresa O’Connell


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