Post-War Treaties

Like many European countries, Italy suffered immense losses in the First World War. Approximately 650,000 Italian soldiers died in the conflict, along with a huge number of civilians. The Kingdom of Italy was almost pushed into bankruptcy by the four years of intense fighting.

However, once the war had finished, thanks to the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1919) and the Treaty of Rapallo (1920), Italy was able to gain the territories of Trentino Alto-Adige, Julian March, Istria, Kvarner and the city of Zara. (The later treaty of Rome in 1924 also gave Italy the city of Fiume.) It also gained a permanent seat on the League of Nation’s executive council.

Italian soldiers during the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, 1918.

A ‘Mutilated Victory’

​Despite these gains though, Italy felt robbed due to it not receiving other promised territories that had been agreed upon during the war. This became known as the ‘mutilated victory’ in some quarters and this sense of resentment helped fuel the rise imperialism in Italy, and ultimately the rise of fascism. 

After the First World War, Italy found itself facing civil unrest, as many of its citizens were inspired by the events of the Russian Revolution.

This led to the liberal establishment – fearing a repeat of what had happened in Russia – looking to the small but growing National Fascist Party, formed in 1919 and led by its creator, Benito Mussolini.

​The Fascists had grown in strength since their formation, gaining much of their support from unemployed war veterans, who had been organised into intimidating and violent squads, known as ‘Black Shirts’ due to the colour of their clothing.

They proved to be an increasingly aggressive and very visual presence as the Fascists grew in power and influence. 

Fascist and Italian leader ('Duce'), Benito Mussolini.

A new fascist government

​In October 1922, an attempted coup (The “March on Rome”) by the ‘Black shirts’ – essentially the foot soldiers of the National Fascist Party - failed, but the events so alarmed King Victor Emmanuel III that he refused to announce a state of siege and instead appointed Mussolini as prime minister. Although this act avoided any armed conflict in Italy, it instead handed power to the Fascists. Over the next few years Mussolini – now ruling as a dictator - banned all political opposition, and restricted personal liberties for the population. These actions drew international attention and inspired similar and led to similar governments being formed in Germany (Hitler) and Spain (Franco).

Italian Fascist propaganda poster from the late 1930's, referencing the Second Italo-Ethiopian war.


Unlike Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy did not initially adopt anti-Semitic policies, with Mussolini himself wavering between tolerance and ambivalence regarding Jewish Italians. A number were members of his own fascist party. 

​However, despite opposition from many quarters (some felt antisemitism was nothing to do with fascism) Italy adopted antisemitism, promoting anti-Semitic propaganda during its support for Franco’s nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War

Under pressure from Germany, Mussolini officially adopted a policy of antisemitism in 1938, despite it being an extremely unpopular move, both in the Fascist Party, and Italy itself.

Young Italian boys in the fascist youth group, the Opera Nazionale Balilla.

"The trains ran on time."

​The above saying is often bandied about when people try to point out any positives to living under a dictatorship. Despite all the inherent negatives surely there must be some good that comes out of it? Partly, this is due to people naturally wanting to find positives when they find themselves stuck in a less than ideal situation. Regarding the trains, while they did improve under Mussolini’s rule, it is fair to say that much of the improvements occurred prior to him taking office. 

Fascist propaganda poster for the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution "Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista", 1933.

But what was life actually like in fascist Italy? Women found themselves expected or even pressured into adopting a traditional role in Italian society. The fascist ideology expected girls to get married and conceive lots of children, which would help towards population growth. This coincided with many women in Italy feeling that their rights were slowly being eroded as politics became increasingly dominated by men dedicated to the fascist’s way of thinking. They were expected to dress in a modest and subdued way, designed to reflect the challenging economic times that Italy faced (particularly during the 1930’s, when the effects of The Great Depression were being felt across Europe). 

Scything hay in the Dolomites, Italy, 1930s.

Even culture was not spared the attention of the fascists: Mussolini preferred traditional art and this was reflected in fascist propaganda output at the time. Posters using stolen ideas which had been distorted to fit the fascist view. Innovative artists like Salvador Dali whose surrealist art had caught the imagination of so many, had no place in an Italy run by Mussolini.

Many Italians opposed to government left the country, their dislike of Mussolini’s politics driving them to find a new life elsewhere. The USA proved to be a popular destination and many Italians built new lives for themselves there, with many serving the US military when the USA joined the Second World War after the attack on Pearl Harbour. 

A group of girls in the Littorio fascist youth group. The word "Duce" behind them is the title of dictator Benito Mussolini.

During the 1930’s, fascist Italy achieved a number of technological advances which helped promote the image of a successful Italy.

A new ocean liner – the SS Rex was built which set a new transatlantic sea crossing record of four days.

A new Macchi seaplane was successfully developed which became the world’s fastest seaplane two years running in 1933 and 1934.

Even one of the fascist government’s own members – Italo Balbo – made a successful transatlantic flight to Chicago to attend the World’s Fair. 

Welcome Fliers produced for passengers travelling in the Tourist Class of the ships, Conte di Savoia and Rex, 1932.

The SS Rex in 1932.

Territorial claims

A central belief in Italian Fascism was (and is) the belief in Italian nationalism and imperialism – the idea of uniting all of Italy by also including those areas which lay outside of its political control, but in which was considered to be rightfully Italian. Aside of the areas already awarded to Italy after the First World War (and which the Italians were invested in a campaign of ‘Italianisation’ by supressing non-Italian culture, education, politics, and language), Mussolini’s Italy also laid claims to a range of other territories:

  • Malta (Under UK control)
  • Corfu (Under Greek control)
  • Corsica, Nice and Savoy (all part of France)
  • Parts of Switzerland

It was hard to escape the cult of Mussolini. Here, his stern features stare down from the facade of the Fascist Party Federation building. Rome, Italy. 1934.

The Corfu Incident

​In order to try and achieve these territorial aims, the Fascist regime engaged in interventionist foreign policy.

Corfu was briefly occupied by the Italians in 1923 in the ‘Corfu Incident’ after the Italian General Tellini – in Corfu to mediate a border dispute between Albania and Greece – was murdered along with his aides on the Greek side of the border, by Albanians seeking to put the blame of Greece.

Mussolini responded by ignoring the League of Nations (and thus helping to highlight its inherent weakness at dealing with international disputes) and occupied Corfu, only removing Italian troops when terms favourable to Italy were agreed.

A contemporary Punch magazine cartoon depicting Mussolini straddling both Italy and Corfu.


Although a relatively small country, Albania was important to Italian Fascists as it had been part of the original Roman Empire. Many felt that the Albanians were linked to Italy via a shared ethnicity. Italian naval leaders also considered Albania strategically important as it control of the Albanian city of Vlorë and the island of Sazan would give the Italian navy access to the Adriatic Sea.

In 1925, Italy forced Albania to become a de facto protectorate. It had begun by increasing its influence on the Albanian economy and exploiting its mineral resources. The Treaties of Tirana signed in 1926 and 1927 placed Albania in a military alliance with Italy. Italian influence in the country increased with financial backing for its governments, a large amount of Albanian imports going to Italy and the Albanian Army being trained by the Italian military, with most of the officers in its army also being Italian. Additionally, a considerable number of Italians were inserted into the Albanian government.

A confident and regal looking King Zog I.

Despite this extensive influence, the Albanian King, Zog I, refused to succumb completely to Italian influence. He resisted attempts to renew the 1926 Tirana treaty and organised trade agreements with neighbouring Greece and Yugoslavia in 1934. In response, Mussolini tried, but failed, to intimidate the Albanians with his navy, which resulted in ongoing tensions which would come to a head in 1939, when Italy invaded Albania.

Benito Mussolini marching among troops in Rome, 1936.

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A new Roman empire

With these successes- including the successful annexing of Ethiopia (formerly known as Abyssinia) in 1937, Mussolini found himself in a powerful position. He had defied the League of Nations, carved out new territories for Italy and increased his influence in Europe.

Now allied with Nazi Germany (relations with the two countries had started to improve in 1936) and a strong supporter of Francisco Franco in the Spanish civil war,

Italy was now a major force in the European arena. 

Mussolini and his ally, Hitler.