Blood, Power and the Blackshirts.

John Foot

Ennio Gnudi was to be Mayor of Bologna, but the fascists changed all that.
Benito Mussolini
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Bologna, Italy. November 1920. Ennio Gnudi was a humble railway worker. He was also a revolutionary communist. In the recent local elections, he had been elected to the council. Now, he had risen to be Mayor of the city. The Socialist Party’s radical left was about to assume office. Gnudi stepped out onto the balcony above the extraordinary space of the Piazza Maggiore, about to make his speech to the crowds below. But then, all hell broke loose. Shots were fired and panic broke out in the square below, and in the council chamber. Gnudi took cover. Blackshirted fascists, who had refused to accept the legitimacy of the elections, had attacked the building. In a botched attempt at defence, ‘red guards’ threw bombs onto their supporters below. The police also opened fire. In the chamber itself, an opposition councillor was shot dead.

It was a disaster. 11 people were killed that day, and Gnudi never became Mayor of Bologna. His election was cancelled by the violence and the botched response to it. Bologna’s nascent fascists had won a great victory, and the events there would prove to be a model, and a warning of things to come in Italy’s ‘two black years’ of 1921-1922. All over Italy, violent, organised squadristi, operating in the open, and heavily armed, proceeded to kill, injure and intimidate democrats, socialists and trade unionists in a series of violent raids. Generally, the police stood by and watched, or enabled the fascist violence. It was an extraordinary political movement – the use of organised, strategic violence against a democratic state and a political movement. Gnudi was hunted and targeted wherever he went after 1920, and was forced into exile, only returning to Italy, a broken man, after the end of twenty years of fascist rule.

Blood & Power tells the story of how the first fascist movement came to power, and stayed in control for two decades, through the story of ordinary people and individuals like Gnudi. It uses stories and micro-histories to analyse the real effects of this use of violence on everyday life, on democratic structures and on the very fabric of Italy itself. Through first hand accounts, memories and the analysis of documents and images, the book attempts to take the reader onto the streets and squares of Italy, during the rise to power of the blackshirts, led by the first fascist dictator – Benito Mussolini. Taking the story through to 1945, and beyond, Blood & Power also recounts the taking of central state power by the fascists – the March on Rome of 1922 – and the brutal methods used throughout the regime to remain in control, both in Italy and in the ‘new Roman empire’ created by Mussolini’s constant use of war. The brutal war on Italy’s Jews after 1938 is told through the stories of victims and perpetrators. Far from following meekly Hitler’s lead, as is often claimed, Mussolini’s regime was a model for the Nazis in many spheres. Blood and Power is the story of a tragedy, and of the collapse of democracy and the institutions linked to it – and a salutary tale for those who undervalue the role of violence and anti-democratic thought in today’s world. It is also a story of dignity, resistance and – eventually – rebirth.

John Foot is a historian and author of Blood & Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism