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Staging the Fascist War

The Ministry of Popular Culture and Italian Propaganda on the Home Front, 1938–1943


Luigi Petrella

Historians regard the Italian home front during the Second World War as an observation post from which to study the relationship between Fascism and society during the years of the collapse of the Mussolini regime. Yet the role of propaganda in influencing that relationship has received little attention. The media played a crucial role in setting the stage for the regime’s image under the intense pressures of wartime. The Ministry of Popular Culture, under Mussolini’s supervision, maintained control not only over the press, but also over radio, cinema, theatre, the arts and all forms of popular culture. When this Fascist media narrative was confronted by the sense of vulnerability among civilians following the first enemy air raids in June 1940, it fell apart like a house of cards.
Drawing on largely unexplored sources such as government papers, personal memoirs, censored letters and confidential reports, Staging the Fascist War analyses the crisis of the regime in the years from 1938 to 1943 through the perspective of a propaganda programme that failed to bolster Fascist myths at a time of total war.


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Benito Mussolini, rather paradoxically for a dictator whose rule was marked by his mission to imprint onto modern Italians the martial spirit of a glori- ous past, took the unusual part of peace broker and procrastinator in the looming European crisis of the late 1930s. Returning to Italy from Munich in September 1938, he was greeted as the man who had forced Germany, Britain and France into a peaceful solution to the Czech crisis. Nearly one year later, when Hitler’s invasion of Poland led the British and French to declare war, the Duce kept his country out of the war as a result of military unpreparedness and reports of widespread anti-war and anti-German feeling among the Italian people. For almost 20 years, Fascism had boasted of its fighting credentials and, since 1922 when Mussolini had come to power, the regime had sought military confrontation with the democratic European powers – emerging almost unscathed from the aggression of Ethiopia in 1935 and from backing Franco’s rebel troops against Spain’s legitimate gov- ernment in 1936–1939. Yet, when he finally decided to join Hitler in June 1940 – betting on the swift Axis submission of Allied forces – Mussolini took the nation into the first real ‘total war’ of its history. Like defenceless Ethiopians killed by the mustard gas bombs dropped by Italian aircraft in 1936 or the people slaughtered in the Basque town of Guernica by a Nazi- Fascist air raid on 26 April 1937, civilians in Italy suddenly came within the range of...

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