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Why Americans Loved Mussolini

February 15, 2021

Speakers:

Katy Hull, Lecturer in American Studies, University of Amsterdam

Moderated by John L. Harper, Senior Adjunct Professor of American Foreign Policy and Professor Emeritus, SAIS Europe

Addressing the title of her recently published book, The Machine Has a Soul, Hull explained how the image of the machine can be thought of as a metaphor for modern life in the US during the 1920s and 30s. Mechanization interfered with traditional notions of masculinity, the democratic process, and contributed to a major economic crisis. In contrast, the Italian model of Fascism under Mussolini appeared to some to be using updated processes in ways that edified the lived experiences of ordinary people. Hull identified three main reasons why Fascist sympathies were present in the US during this period: Mussolini’s presentation of masculinity; the Italian corporate state’s apparent ability to provide a solution to inherent problems of democracy; and Fascism’s capacity to offer a path towards economic recovery. 

These gender, institutional, and economic dimensions are examined in her book via four interlocking biographies of American sympathizers with Fascism. Hull emphasized that Fascist sympathies were not unique to liberals or conservatives in the US; influential voices on both the right and left spoke out in support of Mussolini’s policies. Mainstream figures in US politics and the media establishment peddled sympathetic views toward Italian fascism, and to a large extent their ideas gelled with broader currents US politics during the 1920s and ’30s. 

Hull noted how during times of economic transition and cultural dislocation men develop a sense of imperilled masculinity. The impact of industrialization and the burgeoning consumer-based economy had eroded masculine ideals of autonomy and responsibility. There was a marked shift in discourse of manhood from that of a producer to that of a consumer, and from internal marks of character to external markers of material wealth. Mussolini was seen as a counterweight to this new archetype—driven by internal will, lacking interest in consumption, and purposefully navigating the complexities of modernity without losing a sense of self. In this light, Fascism held a mirror up to the set of conditions that had seemingly destabilized society in the US. 

On an institutional level, liberal democracy was increasingly seen to be out of sync with contemporary conditions, and some observers considered citizens to be too busy and distracted to engage in the complexities of modern politics. Introduction of new media was thought of as dangerous, preventing the public from forming intelligent opinions. The Fascist corporate state, then, addressed these concerns by having a plebiscite for a parliament of pre-selected experts. This allowed for mass participation in politics without asking the voters to engage in elite decision making. Hull pointed out that this system was not intended by admirers of Fascism to be directly grafted onto US democracy, but rather functioned as a template to better equip a modern state. 

Like many Americans, fascist sympathizers interpreted the Great Depression as a result of over industrialization and demanded new legislation. They believed that Mussolini’s policies achieved a balance between men and machines. The fascist regime promoted policies of land reclamation in Southern Italy. American fascist sympathizers characterized these policies as using high-tech methods to return to the traditional way of life. Imagery of the simple, solid life led by the relocated families was used to try and influence FDR towards subsistence homesteads in the New Deal. The resettlement of Americans away from urban areas was encouraged as a way to recalibrate the economy, using machines as servants rather than masters of men. 

Hull concluded by highlighting that Mussolini’s Fascism provided a unique and appealing foil to US culture and politics in the 1920s and ’30s. It was regarded by some as a toolbox for policies and institutions that could work to address the crisis of modernization in the US, and therefore sent a reassuring message about the reconciliation of modernity and human life.