The Impact of Fascist Education on Italian Youth, Essay Example

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Essay

Abstract

National movements of great scope, combining ideologies with political agendas, very often focus on a particular element of the nation’s society: its young people.  These are the future citizens who will be best enabled to enforce and represent the changes set in motion by the existing authorities, so it is logical that a government would emphasize influence in this quarter.  This was evident in the rise of Fascism in Italy between the years 1923 and 1940.  The educational reforms of Giovanni Gentile, the consistent usage of propaganda throughout the society, and the ceaseless efforts of Mussolini came together to instill Fascism in Italy and to forge an allegiance to Fascism in Italian youth.  How successful this regime was in educating its young people and in exerting true control over the minds of its citizens, however, serves as a lesson in the limitations of even the most far-reaching governmental policies.

Introduction

It is ordinary for many to think of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany as perhaps the ultimate example of a national political presence defining an entire culture, and also creating a new generation of adherents.  This was, after all, a movement that would have devastating consequence for all of Europe and the world.  Moreover, the Nazi regime was marked by a unique strategy rarely seen in modern eras.  Politically based and undeniably authoritarian, the Nazi ideology nonetheless relied greatly on creating and encouraging shifts of social feeling and perspective.  This was a massive, nationalist presence fueled by the spirit of the people themselves, and enabled by the party’s emphasis on reclaiming national pride and instilling a deep sense of the same in its youth.  As history has moved on, it is then usual for many to consider the rise of Fascism in Italy as ancillary to German Naziism, as it was Germany that became the primary force in the events of World War II.

Such a view, however, ignores a critical reality; Fascism in Italy emerged at roughly the same time as the Nazi ascension, was very much fueled by the same circumstances, and had an equally profound effect on the world.  While asserting that Fascism and Naziism are identical is unsound, the fact remains that both movements grew out of senses of cultural oppression, were fostered by leaders exploiting these senses, and reversed national growth to an extraordinary extent.  Then, Fascism had on its side the presence of a remarkable reformer and philosopher, Giovanni Gentile.  Gentile’s influence as Minister of Education, a post ideal for promoting in Italian youth the values of the rising Fascist government, can hardly be overstated.   In simple terms, no political movement of any kind can count on enduring without acquiring a broad base of the young people, who are soon to take on the full responsibilities of adult citizenship.  The Italian Fascists embraced this reality, and realized its exponential potential; in shaping the thinking of its young people to esteem Fascism, the government was then better enabled to disseminate Fascist ideology on a wide scale to all.  In the following, then, it will be seen how Fascism arose from the decay of a relatively impoverished state; how Gentile’s thinking and actions significantly altered the societal and educational landscapes of Italy, and how Fascism itself ultimately redefined the nation.  More specifically, and contrary to the Fascist agenda, it will be seen  it will be seen that the effects of Fascism fell far short of their aspirations, in that the government control of the people was more topical than deeply ingrained, and that the Fascist educational policies violated the basic premises of education itself.

Beginnings

Italy’s ancient history has been largely one of division and repeated periods of submission to various European powers.  France and Spain in particular engaged in lengthy wars over many centuries, each claiming rule over certain Italian kingdoms.  It is difficult for a modern mind to appreciate, but Italy was essentially a collection of independent, and usually foreign-ruled, territories for the bulk of its existence.  This was most evident, and most turbulent, between the beginning of the 16th century and the end of the 18th (Facaros, Pauls, 2006,  p. 13).  Sicily, Naples, Rome, and Milan all became interchangeable crowns for warring monarchs desperately seeking to control the southern regions of Europe.  Not unexpectedly, the people of Italy themselves became accustomed to unknown and distant government.  As the 19th century took hold, certain Italian leaders urged independence and an end to foreign conquest, and a unification of Italy would finally occur in the middle of the century.  Interestingly, however, this was not a revolution spurred on by the people (Pollard, 1998,  p. 1).  As before, the masses merely carried on with their lives as the figures in power made the great changes.

By 1870, the unification was complete, but with a striking aspect to it; only two percent of the Italian population had the right to vote.  The new state was largely in the hands of a wealthy elite, and Liberal in ideology.  Several growing factors would then challenge what was a predominantly ineffectual and “visionary” government with no real processes guiding it.  On one level, that the vast majority of Italians were of peasant class and completely disenfranchised from their leaders presented an enormous opportunity for any rebel movement.  On another, Italy was by the 1880s becoming less agricultural and more industrial, at least in the North.  This would lead to an organizing of workers in the first Socialist party of 1895.  Also, the Catholic Church, unhappy with its loss of total authority in Rome, resisted the unified state, and this added friction fueled unrest (Robson, 2000, pp. 5-15).   Italy as a nation was, in essence, discovering itself, and the process was increasingly troubled.

All of this combined to bring to the fore the Nationalists, determined to advance the state as a whole.  The Nationalists had a major concern which they believed the Liberal Party was ignoring; namely, bringing Italy up to as impressive an international stature as Great Britain or France, and to that end they fought for higher levels of imperialist activity in Italy’s African holdings (Robson, 2000, p. 54).  This discontent, like Fascism itself, grew over time.  When the unification of Italy took place in 1861, the nation was already far behind the other European powers in industrial and manufacturing progress (Pollard, 1998,  p. 5).  In the critical years before World War I, Italy was therefore acutely conscious of a significant “backwardness”, and of its reputation as the weakest of the continental nations.  Benito Mussolini was then ideally situated to create a presence in this volatile arena.   He was in his youth intellectually and  culturally curious, as even in that youth he radiated a broad egocentrism.  He was both a veteran of World War I service and a fervent Italian Nationalist.  Like his father, he gravitated toward socialism, but no specific doctrine would ultimately serve him; he sought to create his own, as he had a vague vision of an Italy recreating itself in a new and powerful cast (Gentile,  2005,  p. 4).  In fact, it was Mussolini’s ultimate conviction that socialism was a useless ideology that spawned the technical origin of Fascism in Italy.  This is dated as March 23, 1919, when the Popolo D’ Italia, the newspaper Mussolini published and edited, announced a political gathering at which 100 or so revolutionaries and war veterans met.  They identified themselves as the Fascio Italiano, or “group of Italians,” and they laid out the chief concerns of the new party.  These featured organizing of workers, confiscating church property and greatly lessening church authority, setting up a republic in place of the monarchy, taxing the wealthy, and creating a national minimum wage (Townley, 2002,  pp. 26-28).  From 1919 on, then, and growing at a rapid pace, Fascism would be the new, vastly restructured socialism of the new Italy.

It is difficult to overestimate Mussolini’s achievement in taking a handful of discontented workers and, only two years later, ensuring that the Fascist party had 35 seats in the Italian Parliament.  The rise of Fascism, however, was fueled by violence; “black shirt” squads of Fascist supporters attacked the opposition even as Mussolini struggled for more legitimate authority.  At the same time, the existing political structure was collapsing, and  a few, further machinations on the part of Mussolini led to his being declared Prime Minister in 1922.   Essentially, this astoundingly quick rise to power was the result of exponential forces playing off of one another in the early 20th century.  As Italy’s new leadership was failing to exert true authority, the discontented people looked for it elsewhere, just as the Fascists were mobilizing into a committed, national force (Lee, 2000, pp. 100-102).   By 1925, the state would be in full formation, and play an enormous role in global affairs.  Fascism was now the order of the day, and Mussolini would fiercely work toward generating a modern Italy geared, at least ostensibly, to the interests of the ordinary Italian people.

Fascism, Society, and Media

In no uncertain terms, virtually every great political tide occurring in any nation has an effect based on its own momentum.  This was clearly the case in the newly Fascist state of Italy, particularly given the remarkably fast restructuring of the nation’s government.  Historians and scholars have never ceased debating the actual ideology behind Fascism, or whether, in fact, there was one: “Fascism was…an eclectic ideology, or one in which diverse components were loosely stuck together” (Lee, 2000, p. 112).  Mussolini’s larger-than-life personality has largely been credited with creating an ideology out of empty air, or merely a tailored version of the socialism he professed to have abandoned.  Such discussion may be valid academically, but it ignores a vastly significant reality. A genuine ideological foundation in Fascism present or otherwise, its effects were irrefutable.  This was, in a sense, a political and cultural movement defined by how the people chose to view and express it, and Mussolini most definitely had the people on his side.  The core of Fascist thinking, if such may be identified, was a shifting from privileged class to honoring the common man.  Consequently, the urban lower working class, a rising Italian population, gave to Fascism its unity (Gentile, 2005,  p. xx).  Fascism evolved into itself, then, as it was refined and created over time (Townley, 2002,  p. 169). In a sense, Fascism enjoyed a unique advantage in political movements, in that it rode the crest of centuries of oppression, followed only by a brief period of ineffective, republican government.

It was this momentum, giving Fascism its shape, that Mussolini insisted upon exploiting to the fullest.  To that end, he felt it was crucial that the revolutionary spirit from the movement’s origin be kept alive in the society’s collective thinking, and: “Surround the ascension of the proletariat with a religious-heroic atmosphere” (Gentile, 2005,  p. 17).  For Mussolini, the society had to develop an unshakeable loyalty to Fascism, something beyond any normal affiliation to a political party.  One way of promoting this was, of course, to take control of the newspapers, the most prevalent medium of the era.  At first, attempts had been made to print and popularize newspapers essentially produced by the party itself, but little success came of it.  What then took place was a systematic seizing of control of existing print media.  By 1925, a new law declared that all Italian newspapers must have a “responsible” director, which translated to one who was a member of the professional association of Fascist journalists.  At the same time, independent newspapers with different leanings were under extreme government pressure, so much so that their non-Fascist publishers eventually gave up control to Fascist ownership.  As with the rise of Fascism itself, this propaganda strategy on a large and behind-the-scenes scale moved quickly, and by 1926 all national newspapers, and approximately two-thirds of regional ones, were completely under Fascist control (Thompson, 1998, p. 128).  The effects of this social engineering are virtually too large to measure, in that this medium was the mainstay of popular thought.  For the government, it was critical that all events be presented in a way favorable to the Fascist cause; when every article adopted this bias, then, it is likely that a pervasive loyalty developed in the citizens, and one of which they were not actually conscious.

Fascist propaganda, which may be interpreted as any form of control channeling cultural venues in a manner promoting Fascist ideals, was not limited to paper and ink.  Mussolini had a vision of a kind, in that the ideal citizen was one who was equally Italian, Catholic, and Fascist.  No component, in fact, should exist without the other two.  To accomplish this new culture, then, the government focused its attention on all media and the arts.  In regard to the theater, for instance, Mussolini insisted upon a teatro per ventimila, or “theater for twenty thousand.”  Like other regimes seeking to ingratiate themselves with the populace, the emphasis was on fun and spectacle (Thompson, 1991,  p. 120).  The people, associating the enjoyment with government sponsorship, would then become all the more attached to the party.  Radio programs were under government authority as well, at first intended to promote education in rural districts, but later geared to the adult, farming populations.  Simply, Mussolini was persuaded that this medium was too powerful a tool to be ignored, and by 1934 the Radio Rurale spread Fascist doctrine into the provinces (Thompson, 1991, p. 125).   Long before this, the Opera Nazionale Dopolavora (OND), a government agency begun in 1925, infused leisure opportunities and welfare programs into a national agenda for providing the masses with both necessary assistance and leisure.  Wages for laborers in Fascist Italy were reduced in the 1930s, but the relief provided by the OND was felt to compensate (Townley, 2002, p.  92).  Then, the movies and sports activities were equally under government sway.  Newsreels shown at all film houses extolled the achievements of the regime, just as Italian victories in international sports competitions were exploited for maximum Fascist value.  Italy took home 12 gold medals in the 1932 Olympics, two World Cup championships in soccer in 1934 and 1938, and produced world heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera in the same decade (Townley, 2002,  p. 92).  If Fascism was not directly responsible for these accomplishments, Mussolini made sure that the government enjoyed credit for enabling the glorious successes.

All this in place, the question of how effectively Fascism held sway over the Italian people becomes inevitably two-sided.  It is beyond question that many Italians completely conformed to Fascist policy, as it is likely they enjoyed the benefits given to them by a regime determined to win them over.  At the same time, the agenda of Italian Fascism, as noted, evolved as the party itself evolved.  While strikingly totalitarian in some respects, this was a regime in Italy, and consequently it could only succeed by adapting to the erratic, and often unambitious, culture of the Italians themselves.  It is no accident, then, that Benito Mussolini became so potently identified with the party, even beyond the expected associations of a revolutionary Prime Minister.  The cult developing around his personality was essential, in forging a recognizable link between regime and living for the society.  Mussolini was, for Italy and to the world, il Duce, the leader, and he himself became the link connecting the party to the nation  (Lee, 2000, p. 118). That the nation supported him, at least in terms of compliance, indicates that Fascism achieved success, and that an acceptable level of control was exercised by it over the Italian people.  At the same, time, the relentless efforts of the party to move from coercion to active support as willingly offered by the population points to uneasiness, or perhaps an awareness of the legendary indifference of the culture.  This was a nation, it must be remembered, accustomed to long centuries of watching foreign power after foreign power insist on authority.  It had learned to “keep to itself,” and wait out the the current regime.  Fiercely Italian himself, Mussolini knew too well that the people cared more about the continuity of their existence than about joining a nationalist ideology (Townley, 2002, p. 84).  Consequently, he and his government would focus on the rising generations of Italians, in such a way as to breed into them a Fascist spirit as resilient as their parents’ identification of themselves as Italian.

Giovanni Gentile and Educational Reform

Interestingly, residual Fascist propaganda itself continues to reinforce the thinking that the educational reforms of Giovanni Gentile, prompted by Mussolini’s insistence on an educated society, broke new ground in Italian schooling and virtually introduced education itself to the nation.  This is emphatically not true.  Since the mid-19th century unification, the Casati Law was a consistent national effort to standardize and make accessible school attendance for all.  The ambitions were not what may be called especially noble; until 1904, in fact, mandatory attendance was required only for the first three grades (Sarti, 2009,  p. 251).  Nonetheless, there was a national commitment in place, and one that acknowledged the necessity of bringing Italy’s children to levels at least comparable with those of other European states.

This was not, of course, in keeping with Mussolini’s needs.  He demanded a new culture, one that would reflect Fascism as integral to it, and by 1925 he began consistently emphasizing the need for Italian education to instill these values in the young people (Thompson,  1991, p. 99).

Gentile was nearly as perfectly situated to carry out the Fascist agenda in education as Mussolini was to embody it politically.  First and foremost, Fascism held for Gentile a profound attraction, and one removed from political struggles and uprisings.  He perceived the Italy of his time as undergoing the Risorgimento, a term variously used to describe the rebirth of the new Italy in a way differing from that of the Renaissance. This was a Renaissance, not of the artistic soul, but of the unified people in rediscovering their heritage and their independence. Of particular importance is that this spirit, which Gentile sought to incorporate into his educational reforms, was firmly rooted in a deep-seated patriotism (Moss, 2004,  p. 58).  Essentially conservative and devoted to both intellectual and creative attainment in education, it seemed that Gentile was the perfect choice to spearhead the Fascist revision of Italian schooling.

Unfortunately, there would be a conflict, and one that would grow out of a clash of agendas.  Gentile wished to promote Fascism in education because he firmly believed in the Fascist manifesto, in that the ideology should be as one with all Italian pursuits of culture and learning.  To him, Fascism was the logical ambition left when open intellectual debate examined all the alternatives.  Ironically, this degree of faith was strikingly at odds with the party strategy.  If Fascism was a self-evident truth to be arrived at after inquiry, the government was not quite as confident in the process (Thompson, 1991,  p. 100).  Gentile had been responsible for reforms since 1923, and enjoyed the rank of Minister of Public Education.  In essence, the reforms he set in place gave to the state more authority over student performance monitoring; promoted private educational initiatives; and sought to restrict access to higher education (Lowe, 2012,  p. 73).   This last effort was guided by an unfortunate reality; unemployment ranks were swelled in the 1930s with people considered over-educated, so the agenda shifted to a more elitist access to universities.  Additionally, elementary and secondary school populations were restricted, in order to narrow the ranks of those eligible for a university education.

All Fascists, Gentile included, shared a common expectation based on the youth of Italy.  Namely, as the regime became more firmly entrenched over the years, the rising generations of citizens would come to adulthood with a sense of Fascism as an implacable state of national being, and not as a current political and/or social condition (Thompson, 1991, p. 98).  Unfortunately, Gentile’s reforms, endorsed by Mussolini and implemented to ease unemployment, ran contrary to the larger aims of Fascism.  The party needed the children to attend school, for there they could be instilled with Fascist values, yet the economy and the resulting reforms created a significant reduction in the number of children actually attending school.  Nor was unemployment greatly helped, as the population of uneducated workers grew too large for the available jobs (Lowe, 2012,  p. 75).  More important, however, was that Gentile’s agenda was increasingly in stark contrast to the party’s.  By 1927, the government would greatly “reform” the Gentile reforms, and a full-out process of educational propaganda was begun.  All school textbooks, and of any subject matter, were revised to reflect Fascist thinking.  Basic elementary books reminded children that Italians were the best of all peoples, as they also exhorted them to follow the Fascist ideals and believe, fight, and obey (Lowe, 2012, p. 76).

Earlier, it seems, Fascism was willing to permit its ideology to “naturally” become accepted by the youth; a few short years later, this license gave way to overt and relentless indoctrination techniques.  Unemployment had not been eased anyway, and rising groups of democratic resistance triggered in the government a more emphatic response.  It was more essential than ever that Italian children be raised to embrace Fascism in an unquestioning way and this, along with Gentile’s initial reforms, stands as evidence of lasting damage to the Italians as prompted by Fascism.  On one level, and despite humanist intentions, Gentile orchestrated a policy unthinkable to any civilization’s approach to education, that of limiting it as much as possible.  The later and outright rewriting of school texts to further propaganda interests was at least equally detrimental to any genuine educational process.  If it is difficult to assess the benefits or damage to Italy arising from Fascism, they are apparent in the realm of education.  Under the regime, education itself became an instrument of political and commercial strategy, which defies the intrinsic purposes of it.

Fascist Youth Groups

As the government more directly imprinted its ideologies on the educational system, so too did it engage in other, overtly Fascist promotional policies geared to the young.  These are best identified in terms of the famous youth groups of the 1930s, with the Opera Nazionale Balilla (ONB) serving to contain a variety.  This was a complex organization, with branches in place for both boys and girls in the age ranges of eight to 21, and by the late 1930s the ONB and other youth groups had populations numbering eight million (Townley, 2002,  p. 87).   In a sense, these youth groups enabled Fascism to bypass the inculcation of Fascism through education and instill it directly through social channels.   Specific stages were developed; boys became Sons of the She-Wolf at the age of four, were recruited into the Avanguardisti at 14, and graduated to the Fascist Levy at 18 (Lee, 2000,  pp. 120-121).  Indoctrination was the keynote, always, and there was a consistent militaristic aspect to the vows and activities engaged in.  These groups existed to create an “army” of young Fascists, adamantly committed to the cause.  “Believe, Obey, Fight,” was the literal slogan of the ONB, and frequent rallies promoted an aggressive, fiercely patriotic spirit (Townley, 2002,  p. 87).  By the end of the 1930s, this would take on a new aspect, as racism became a pivotal component in the Fascist patriotism being inculcated.

Not unexpectedly, Fascist propaganda broadcast great success in this molding of Italian youth into ideal citizens of the state.  The reality was somewhat different.  Many of the boys and girls in these groups conformed to the ideological expectations only to enjoy the privileges of membership, which often took the form of holidays and excursions not otherwise available to them (Thompson, 1991, p. 114).   As with education, then, Fascist doctrine ignored the needs and realities of its youth in its relentless efforts to promote the state.

Conclusion

In examining the material outlined above, it becomes relatively simple to address the two questions initially posed regarding the ultimate impacts of Fascism in Italy.  Moreover, each question’s response is validated by that of the other.  If the Fascist educational reform initially set out with somewhat humanist intentions, it was nonetheless misguided under Gentile, as the restricting of education can never benefit a society.  Then, the party’s increasing and totalitarian presence in the schoolroom cannot be seen as remotely beneficial, as propaganda intrinsically contradicts education itself.  This then applies to the question of the degree of control Fascism actually held over the minds of the people, for the answer reflects the basic flaws of all propaganda.  It may exert control, but only of a temporary nature, and this is evident in the ultimate reality that Fascism ended despite massive and long-standing efforts to instill its ideology into the Italian culture.

References

Facaros, Dana, & Pauls, Michael. (2006).  Lombardy and the Italian Lakes.  London: New Holland Publishers.

Gentile, Emilio. (2005).  The Origins of Fascist Ideology 1918-1925.  New York: Enigma Books.

Lee, Stephen.  (2000).  European Dictatorships 1918-1945, 2nd Ed.  New York: Psychology Press.

Lowe, Roy. (2012).  Education and the Second World War: Studies in Schooling and Social Change.  New York: Routledge.

Moss, M. E. (2004).  Mussolini’s Fascist Philosopher: Giovanni Gentile Reconsidered. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Pollard, John. (1998).  The Fascist Experience in Italy.  New York: Psychology Press.

Robson, Mark. (2000).  Italy: Liberalism and Fascism, 1870-1945.  London: Hodder Murray.

Sarti, Roland.  (2009).  Italy: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present.  New York: Infobase Publishing.

Thompson, Doug.  (1991).  State Control in Fascist Italy: Culture and Conformity, 1925-1943. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Townley, Edward.  (2002).  Mussolini and Italy.  Oxford, UK: Heinemann Educational Publishers.

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