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      With Heart and Soul: Calgary's Italian Community

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The rise of the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in 1922 marked the beginning of an important period in the history of Italy. The Mussolini regime provided Italy with its first stable government, and it tried to unify Italian society by downplaying the importance of regional loyalty and promoting national patriotism. Scholars of Italian history have generally taken an unfavourable view of the Fascist regime, pointing out the negative effects of its policies on Italy and its people. Yet perceptions of scholars and those of the masses are not always one and the same. Many Italians have fond memories of life under il Duce, at least before World War II! They remember a strong, capable leader who was good to them and made Italy a great nation.

Without a doubt, Mussolini's regime was riddled with corruption and exalted brutality and violence. However, Mussolini was an expert showman who knew how to play the crowd. The image he projected of a powerful, competent leader was cleverly conceived by il Duce himself and helps explain why he appealed in particular to the lower classes of the Mezzogiorno. Mussolini was a master in the art of fare bella figura (cutting a good figure), which was the central theme of life in southern Italy: appearance is the only thing that counts; nothing else is important. Mussolini fit their image of a leader. He was charismatic and macho. He was also a study in contradiction, seemingly devoted to his family while keeping a mistress.

Mussolini's appeal to the lower classes of the Mezzogiorno was not entirely superficial. His aim was to make Italy a great nation. Unlike past political leaders, Mussolini did not ignore the plight of the southern contadini, although he certainly had underlying motives behind his policies. One of Mussolini's goals was to make Italy self-sufficient in food production, as the country's dependence on food imports seriously limited his options in international affairs.

The contadini were loyal to Mussolini the man, not to the Fascist party and not to the government. Fascism failed to eliminate political apathy and it did not increase confidence in the ability of the political process to solve basic social problems. Those feelings were too deeply rooted to be easily removed. Though the contadini were fond of Mussolini, they could be indifferent to his policies, especially if they saw no immediate benefits for themselves.

Despite its successes and its initial widespread popularity, Fascism failed to solve the problems that had plagued Italy since unification. As well, it committed an ill-prepared country to total war. In the end, the failure of Fascism ultimately reinforced the popular suspicion that politics response far more readily to the pressure of powerful vested interests than to demands for social justice.

Reprinted from "With Heart and Soul: Calgary's Italian Community" by Antonella Fanella, with permission from the author and the  University of Calgary Press.

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