Italy’s Transition to Democracy

Here is one of the paper’s I wrote for a political science class that (maybe) you will enjoy.  It details Italy’s transition to democracy in the aftermath of WWII, including the use of covert action.

Italy last democratized in the aftermath of World War Two, this process taking place from 1943 to 1948. The reasons for Italy’s transition from a fascist government that approached a dictatorship to a democracy are varied. The causes for democratization include the failure of fascism as a form of government and the larger context of Italy’s failure in the Second World War, the formation of coalitions among institutions and establishments that pre-dated fascism, and later, this democracy was held together by the specter of the Soviet menace during the years of the Cold War.

Samuel P. Huntington defines modern democracy as a government in which, “its most powerful collective decision makers are selected through fair, honest, and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes and in which virtually the entire adult population is eligible to vote” (Huntington). This is the definition used when democracy is referred to throughout this paper.

The first reason for the democratization of Italy was the failure of fascism in Italian politics. As noted by scholars such as O’Donnell and Schmitter, authoritarian governments are often brought down do to their direct military defeats in times of war. This is especially true in cases in which an authoritarian regime is defeated at the hands of a democratic government. This democratic state, acting as an occupying force, now exerts greater than normal influence on the former authoritarian regime. This was very much the case as the Allied powers directly helped shape the Italian political landscape in the post war years, as well as set the conditions for debate amongst various Italian political factions (O’Donnell). The defeat of Mussolini’s fascist government directly opened the door for a new and more legitimate form of governance.

Another aspect of military defeat was the notion that Italy’s then fascist regime had failed Italy so badly that both the working class and the elites were primed for a change in government. Mussolini had engaged in military adventurism in Ethiopia and Albania, later joining forces with Nazi Germany. Declaring war on the Allied powers and sending troops to Northern Africa, the Italians were struck down as their military was ill equipped for fighting trained and determined soldiers (Hansen). Failure was repeated in Greece when Mussolini’s megalomania overwhelmed the legitimate strategic concerns of military planners. Most Italians, including the Generals, had primary loyalties that did not lay with the fascist government. For this reason, Italian Officers were not particularly aggressive on the battlefield. When the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943, the situation they were met with was a far cry from the onslaught they experienced at Normandy. The Italian forces hardly even put up a token resistance. In many cases, Italian soldiers helped the Allies rather than fight them feeling that they were fighting a war that they never wanted (Hansen). Fascism essentially lost all political capital, having expended it on a senseless and unpopular war.

A secondary concern regarding military defeat in World War Two, was the presence of pre-existing institutions within Italy that had preceded fascism. Unlike the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 which toppled the government and left Iraq with no institutions to replace the Baath Party, these institutions in post-WWII Italy were able to seize the initiative and begin to build a coalition government. These players included the military, which was more loyal to the Royal House of Savoy than to the fascists, and the Vatican (O’Donnell). While the Vatican never took a strong anti-fascist position during the war, both the church and the military were centers of power that existed before fascism and were allowed to exist, and participate, as the government transitioned to democracy. The monarchy of Emmanuel Victor and the worker’s struggles taking place in Italy’s industrial base to the north were also political players that influenced actions at the negotiation table.

Civil society was also able to play a large role in the formation of Italy’s new constitution which was enacted in 1948. Just over 400 fascist government officials were dismissed but as the Fascist Grand Council had in the end turned on Mussolini and disposed him, most were allowed to stay and eventually join other political parties. Municipal elections were held, followed by national elections. One outcome was the disbanding of the monarchy by a popular vote of 54%. In the background, the Allied powers had a heavy hand in bringing the Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communists to the table, providing a buffer force in these negotiations (O’Donnell). The ability of Italy to form coalitions such as this and draft pacts that protected individuals and institutions was perhaps the second largest driving force behind democratization in Italy during the post-war years.

A third, and largely unknown, factor in the ability of Italy to hold together as a democracy was the presence of covert action in the context of the Cold War. There was a major shift to the left in Europe during the aftermath of World War Two and Italy was no exception. The communists had a powerful movement within the country the preceded liberation. It was only through some exceptional political maneuvering that the communists were recruited into the resistance and liberation movement, some of the communists hoping that the Allies would have a continued cooperation with the USSR after the war concluded (O’Donnell). During the municipal elections, the communists did better than previously expected by the Allies causing great concern for the future of democracy in Italy.

As the Cold War continued to polarize Italy, the Christian Democrats worked directly with America while the Communists worked directly with the USSR, at least until a schism between the two several decades later. While the communists were kicked out of the formal government in 1947, they maintained a powerful underground. While covert action, in terms of OSS destabilization campaigns, can be seen as a periphery cause of democracy, the covert actions of NATO can also be seen as a major reason why Italy became, and remained, a democracy instead of falling to the communist menace. These covert actions fell under the umbrella of Operation Gladio which induced strategic social tension in Italian political life by using CIA-sponsored acts of terror under the guise of “Red Terrorism” to create a political backlash against communism (Willan).

Historical analysis and comparative methods show that Italy democratized for numerous reasons including defeat in World War Two, the failure of fascism as a political system, the existence of institutions with a cultural and historical foundation that held power outside of fascism, the ability of these groups to form coalitions under Allied supervision, with covert action having a background stabilizing effect that kept Italy looking West towards London and Washington rather than East towards Moscow.

Source Citations:

Hansen, Eric G. “The Italian Military Enigma.” Command and Staff College. 23 February 2012. Web.

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century.” University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. Print.

O’Donnell, Guillermo, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead. Transitions for Authoritarian Rule, Volume One, Southern Europe. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. Print.

Willan, Philip. The Puppet Masters. Author’s Choice Press, 2002. Print.


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4 responses to “Italy’s Transition to Democracy

  1. John

    Interesting – I’ll have to dig into your sources sometime. The covert keystone is a new one to me completely. Does your research show this in other countries as well? France, Turkey, Thailand etc…

    • John, interestingly the answer is yes. Gladio is the name given to the Italian program, uncovered only because it was exposed. However, NATO para-military stay behind units existed in every or nearly every NATO nation including Turkey. I’ve also uncovered links between this network and Sistema Condor which was a right-wing assassination program by the governments of South America. Another interesting aspect about these anti-communists cells is that this was just the military component. I’ve been told that there was also a political and economic component and of that I’ve seen nothing in print. This may relate to Le Cercle and other shadowy groups that seem to hate democracy as much as they hate communism.

      • PS: I got a B on this paper for going off the reservation!

      • John

        Interesting that the political and economic programs are harder to find. We have discussed Le Cercle before, it sure looks like these groups have excellent cover and are the real destroyers of freedom. They eventually throw one of their tools (the military tool) out to the press to show their goodness in putting down those foul miltary dictators – all a smokescreen.
        I am a deep hater of communism/fascism/Marxism/National Socialists because I believe the names are all cover for the same tyranny (it is now progressivism) but it seems they are ahead all the time in reaching for ultimate power when we use the covert keystone to hold them down.
        I bet your prof did not like your theory! Flies in the face of the ballot box being king, a little side persuasion goes a long ways.
        Wag the Dog as the saying goes.

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