Fascism as an anti-Habsburg Revolution: Crisis of the Rule of Law, Social Unrest and Political Violence in post-Habsburg Trieste (1918-1926)
This proposal intends to focus on the political and social aftershocks of the Great War and of the collapse of Austria-Hungary in post-Habsburg Trieste. Notably, a close investigation of the local dynamics between State and civil society will allow not only to shed new light on the multiple cycles of conflicts and crises between 1918 and 1926, but also to reconsider the background of the formation and success of the fascist movement, then regime.
The existing scholarship has usually described the history of this complex transition from the Habsburg Empire to the Italian State from the top down perspective, mostly in terms of imposition of the national centre (Rome) on a new periphery (Trieste) annexed in 1918. This paper will adopt a dynamic bottom-up approach, in order to show in which sense and to what extent the problems of post-1918 Trieste crucially challenged the stability of the new Italian authorities. Accordingly, not only the disrupting, conflicting relations between the nationalizing State and the local society were mutually dependent, but different, persistent forms of localism, and their intertwining with both socialist and fascist radicalism, played a major role in the transformative interaction between State and society.
As fast and easy as the formal transition from the collapsing Empire to the new State was in the early weeks of the Italian military occupation (November 1918), the establishment of the new authorities turned out to be much slower and more convoluted than earlier supposed, in spite of the official definition of the new borders (November 1920). The gap between the nationalist expectations on the one hand, the everyday perceptions and experiences of the post-war transformations on the other hand sparked growing frustration, disease, turmoil. The Italian-speaking ruling class and public opinion in post-Habsburg Trieste faced an increasing amount of economic and administrative difficulties and obstacles, which in many ways unfolded persistent cultural and institutional legacies of the Habsburg Empire [in general, see J. Redlich 1925; P. Miller, C. Morelon 2018]. Meanwhile, the socialist and communist movement, prompted by the myths of the Russian/Soviet/Bolshevik revolution, represented the widespread discontent and turn it into open, often violent, revolt against the new, self-styled national authorities [in general, J.P. Newman 2018].
In this context of domestic and international instability, the new fascist movement, founded in Trieste as elsewhere in Spring 1919, aimed at fighting and eradicating the “internal enemies” (defined as “Slavs”, “Bolsheviks”, “Austrophiles”), at mobilizing the popular masses, at reshaping the relations between State and society. Its first most spectacular action is usually considered the attack on the Narodni Dom/Hotel Balkan and its bloody destruction on July 13th 1920. According to the nationalist propaganda of both sides (often echoed in the following nationally-focused scholarship), this episode epitomized the clash between the “Italians” and the “Slavs”. Nevertheless, is it possible to understand the ascent of fascism within the pattern of an ongoing national conflict? In which sense and to what extent was fascist violence related to the dynamic situation of the post-war crisis? Which were its target, its morphology?
Taking into account the pre-1914 rise of the nationalist policies and conflicts within the vibrant civil society of the late Habsburg monarchy and its process of increasing democratization [G. Cohen 1998, 2007, 2013; J. Boyer 2013], this paper will thus discuss the consequences and implications of the Great War, which through the state of exception destroyed the rule of law and the predictability and solidity of the Habsburg State [J. Deak, 2015; J. Deak/J. Gumz 2017]. The ascent of fascism in post-Habsburg Trieste, thanks to a mix of public, paramilitary, and political violence in response to the widespread post-war social unrest and to the growth of the revolutionary socialism, definitely altered the pre-1914 democratising process of the relations between State and civil society, which had already been radically undermined by the Great War. As a matter of fact, the fascist squads – that is, non-State (private or semi-public) small-scale gangs widely supported by segments of the Italian State – exacerbated the decline of the State monopoly of legitimate violence, obliterating the distinction between the private and public realms. In the post-war context of crisis of the rule of law, the fascist violent dynamics stemmed from and led to a kind of “privatization” of the instruments of public coercion. In the long run (by 1926), they were converted into the new “fascist legality”.
Rather than defending the interests of a national group against another, as the nationalists claimed, violence carried out by small organized groups tended to polarize the local society of imperial borderlands and to rework it along nationalist fractures [P. Judson 2006; T. Wilson 2010; M. Bergholz 2016]. In this regard, far from being the outcome of a long-term national conflict, fascism in a post-Habsburg town like Trieste constituted the driving force for political radicalization in the name of the “Italian nation”. Accordingly, violent practices were the means by which the fascists performed the conflict between two national communities (“Italians” vs. “Slavs”, in turn identified with “Bolsheviks”), while targeting all the enemies supposed to be “Austrophiles”. In this radically new perspective, the only “real” Italian was the fascist: therefore fascistisation became a way for nationalisation or Italianisation, not the other way around. Despite it might seem a new, more radical form of Italian nationalism, fascism – at least in the 1920s – represented above all an anti-Habsburg revolution providing violent solutions to the difficulties and obstacles that the Italian nation- and state-building had to tackle after 1918. As an anti-Habsburg revolution, the ascent of fascism to power was both spectacularly opposed to the Habsburg past – and relentlessly linked to that.