Mussolini and Leaders of the Blackshirts, 1922
Mussolini and Leaders of the Blackshirts, 1922

The March on Rome viewed from Portugal

The aftermath of WW1 in Europe brought widespread political, economic and industrial unrest, and the various responses to that unrest would later precipitate Civil War in Spain in 1936 and ultimately WW2 in 1939.

October 28, 2022, marks the centenary of the initial coming to power of the fascist movement in Europe. It was on this date that the famous March on Rome took place, after which Mussolini assumed control of Italian politics. The question is, why is the March on Rome important in the history of Portugal?

A long-time ally of democratic Britain, Portugal suffered immense damage during the 19th century from the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent civil wars. Although she eventually established a constitutional and parliamentary democracy on the British model, the anguish suffered by the whole country after the Ultimatum of 1890 caused uncertainty about her king and constitution. The assassination of the king and later inauguration of the Republic in 1910 launched Portugal in a different direction.

The 16 years (1910–1926) of the First Republic were chaotic. Not only because of the inflation caused by her participation in WW1, but because of the continuing political unrest and economic chaos.

In these difficulties, Portugal was no different from much of Europe, but she was already launched on a pathway different from that of her long-term ally. Instead of following the northern European liberal democracies, Portugal chose the authoritarian military coup of 1926. She set her political course by the star of the Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini.

Gomes da Costa and the March on Lisbon
Gomes da Costa and the March on Lisbon

Italy after World War 1

In March 1919, Benito Mussolini founded the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (FIC – Italian Fighting Bands), which became the Italian National Fascist Party in 1921. The word ‘fascist’ derives from their emblem, the fasces, the rods marking the office of magistrates in ancient Rome.

The FIC was an ultranationalist organisation which appealed to war veterans, but which had no clear political orientation. Mussolini argued that only those who had fought for their country were fit to govern. These men would become the ‘aristocracy of tomorrow’. Lacking appeal at the ballot box, the FIC became more violent, targeting members of the Socialist Party in particular.

Although Italy had gained territory from the vanquished Austria-Hungary after the war (she gained South Tyrol, Trentino, Istria and Trieste), Italian nationalists complained that it was not enough. They also wanted Fiume and Dalmatia (now part of Croatia) on the eastern Adriatic coast and, as Mussolini expressed support for them and their war experiences, they in turn supported him, becoming eventually the paramilitary Blackshirts.

At this time, Mussolini sought support from both the rightist nationalists and the leftist Republicans, but his FIC was heavily beaten in the General Election of 1919.

March on Rome, 28 October, 1922
March on Rome, 28 October, 1922

 The rise of Mussolini

The socialists were unable to form a government, and the FIC now campaigned for an increased armaments budget, as a result of which it gained subsidies from arms manufacturers. Increased numbers of strikes by socialist workers were met by Mussolini’s promise to save Italy from communism and also by violence from his Blackshirts.

Mussolini assumed a position on the extreme right of the political spectrum, and in coalition with the centrist Giovanni Giolitti, their combination was termed the National Bloc.

The FIC indulged in state-permitted violence against leftist candidates. Even so, the FIC won only 35 seats (out of 535), but crucially Mussolini entered Parliament as their spokesman. His party was renamed the National Fascist Party and began to recruit more members. He declared that the fascists would break the strike called by the socialists, and while pretending to be a defender of law and order, he ordered attacks on socialist organisations.

On October 24, 1922, Mussolini declared in Naples “Our programme is simple. We want to rule Italy.”

The fascist March on Rome set out from Naples (Mussolini went by train), and by October 29 the centrists had been out-manoeuvred, and Mussolini had been appointed Prime Minister by King Vittore Emanuele II.

The Fasces of the Roman Lictor
The Fasces of the Roman Lictor

In the face of the threat of fewer than 30,000 men, the Italian state had legally surrendered power to a fascist upstart. Experienced politicians mistakenly believed that they could manipulate Mussolini, and German politicians would make the same mistake with Adolf Hitler in 1933.

In 1924, the leading democrat opponent of fascism Giacomo Matteotti was assassinated by a Blackshirt and, in response, Mussolini installed his dictatorship.

Portugal in the 1920s

Events in Portugal followed a similar pattern and proceeded in a similar direction. The First Republic (1910–1926) was racked by instability. There were seven presidents, only one of whom served his full term, 38 prime ministers and 44 different governments.

Within a short time, many key economic individuals, leaders of opinion and members of the middle class moved from left to right in the political spectrum. Those who had supported the Republic in 1910, hoping that the new political situation would repair the monarchy’s flaws (government instability, financial crises, economic backwardness and civic anomie), found their enthusiasm misplaced. They had got the answer wrong, since the exile of the king had not resolved the problem.

Disappointed by unfulfilled hopes of a republicanism based in civic rights, they determined to achieve “order”, “stability” and “security” in a different direction.

The Presidency of Sidónio Pais in 1918 offered a solution and was similar in some respects to the later Estado Novo of Salazar. Following Sidónio’s assassination in December 1918, there was a brief civil war, and a progressive government was subjected, in 1921, to a round of assassinations of politicians, creating deep disquiet in public opinion.

Mussolini on Salazar's desk
Mussolini on Salazar’s desk

Even though the PRP won a large majority in 1922, all political parties dissolved into internal factions. Politicians tried single-party governments, coalitions, presidential executives, but all failed to provide political equilibrium. It became clear that only force could provide stability in political life.

The army was still smarting from its unhappy experience in the Flanders trenches and welcomed the chance to correct the political shambles. There were three failed coup attempts in 1925, before the May 28 Revolution occurred in 1926.

The coup d’état was led by General Manuel Gomes da Costa, a veteran of WW1. Imitating the March on Rome, the General led his troops in the March on Lisbon on June 6, 1926. He assumed power as President of the Republic on June 17, 1926 before he too was overthrown by another coup, this one led by General Óscar Carmona, who remained President of Portugal until his death in 1951.

Italy viewed from Portugal

On the first anniversary of the March on Rome, António Ferro (later Salazar’s Propaganda Chief) was in Italy where he began to understand the importance of a charismatic leader with whom the masses could identify.

He reported that the March on Rome had saved Italy from political chaos, and interviews that he conducted showed that Mussolini enjoyed unconditional popular support. It was here that Ferro built the cult of the leader in Portuguese politics.

The Diário de Lisboa wrote that: “Mussolini was supported by soldiers, farmers, women, students, writers, artists, intellectuals and landlords.” Another newspaper showed: “If Portugal wanted to free itself from the binding ropes of the political situation, it should organise itself like the fascists in Italy.” As conditions in Portugal worsened, there were more and more calls for a fascist solution.

Not everyone agreed, and Seara Nova, the republican magazine, published the following in March of 1926: “Mussolini, the Italian despot rules through violence, the suppression of all liberties, beatings and [forced drinking of] castor oil. He is one of the most unpleasant tyrants in history. His Empire shames the modern world. His face is one of the greatest arguments against fascism.”

Scene from the Centenary Exhibition, Lisbon, 1940
Scene from the Centenary Exhibition, Lisbon, 1940

The Lisbon newspaper A Capital printed the following comment: “Would it be legitimate to expect from the fascists an organisation of tranquility and peace? I know only that one of the distinctive markers of Mussolini’s soldiers is simply an enormous, heavy and knobbly stick which looks just like a cudgel.”

 One of the reasons that events in Italy raised so little interest in the Portugal of 1922 was doubt that Mussolini’s rise to power would endure.

Another reason was the popular enthusiasm at that time for the historic flight over the South Atlantic by Sacadura Cabral and Gago Coutinho.

 Homem Christo Filho and António Ferro

During the months after the March on Rome, many groups on the right of politics in Portugal openly supported the fascist experiment, particularly Rolão Preto, the leader of the fascist Portuguese Blueshirts. He was satirised in the Portuguese press as Rolino Pretolini.

The main Portuguese supporters of the fascist experiment were António Ferro and Homem Christo Filho. Each of these travelled to Rome where, through the services of a mutual friend, Homem Christo was received by the Duce for an interview longer than the standard half-hour.

In his subsequent book, Homem Christo portrayed Mussolini as a romantic intent on social peace, and as a Leader in the mould of Caesar, which General Óscar Carmona certainly was not. He compared Mussolini with the dictators Primo de Rivera, Sidónio Pais and Gomes da Costa.

In the opinion of Homem Christo, Italy after October 28, 1922 was a country which “had found again its national conscience, and internal peace, abolished the class struggle, joined all political parties together, leading to prosperity for all”.

This was a model for Latin countries, contrasted with the loss of will-power of the liberal democracies and the communist threat. Homem Christo had frequent dialogues with Mussolini before perishing in a motor accident as he journeyed to Rome in 1928.

The importance of history, ritual and ceremony

The observations made by António Ferro between 1926 and 1934 were extremely influential in the development of the Estado Novo in Portugal.

He was impressed by the rituals, the ceremonies and the celebration of national history in the construction of fascist identity. Ferro wrote in a series of newspaper articles, between May and November of 1932, how the Portuguese regime should avoid becoming a banal and conservative dictatorship, but should adopt “parades, emblems and indispensable ritual”.

 Ferro was also promoting himself and, in the 1930s as Director of the SPN (Secretariado da Propaganda Nacional), organised some of the most important celebrations of the regime.

The first was in 1934, a celebration of the March on Lisbon by Gomes da Costa, followed by an exhibition named Exposição Documentária da Obra da Ditadura, mirroring a similar exhibition in Rome. Each exhibition celebrated the authoritarian order created from chaos.

Italian fascism used historical myths from Ancient Rome to legitimise the regime and its new Empire, a theme which was borrowed in Portugal for the Double Centenary Exhibition in Lisbon in 1940.

During the years of the Salazar dictatorship, the state reconditioned hundreds of historical buildings as it glorified Portugal’s imperial past.

More than anything else, it was the planning of commemorations and celebrations which characterised the impact of the March on Rome on Portuguese society and politics.

Mussolini had overthrown the Italian liberal state, and Portugal had followed with its own type of revolution.

According to João Amaral: “It was not a copy. It was equivalent. The Italians made their Revolution on Order. We then began our own.”

 Salazar himself was never in doubt about his own political allegiance. Until Mussolini’s death in 1945, he displayed on his desk a framed photograph of the former Italian dictator.

By Peter Booker
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Peter Booker co-founded with his wife Lynne the Algarve History Association.