Made by History

The Centennial of an Assassination in Italy Offers a Sober Warning for Today

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On May 30, Lorenzo Fontana, President of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies and a member of the right-wing political party Lega (League), announced that the seat once occupied by Giacomo Matteotti, the socialist deputy who was assassinated by Benito Mussolini’s henchmen in 1924, would remain vacant in perpetuity. A plaque was installed to commemorate Matteotti’s political murder, Fontana explained, and the empty seat in the Chamber would stand as a “permanent reminder of his sacrifice.” 

A century later, the lessons of Italy’s “Matteotti Crisis” continue to resonate. Marred by the rise of authoritarian leaders, the spread of far-right nationalism and xenophobia, and instances of politically-motivated violence — including most recently a series of attacks and assassination attempts on European political leaders — the Western world increasingly resembles the conditions that produced the Italian crisis in 1924 and 1925. It will take learning from the mistakes made by Italian political leaders to prevent history from disastrously repeating itself.

Following the Versailles Settlement in June 1919, Italy was plunged into a quasi-civil war, marked by cost-of-living riots, left-wing agitation among laborers, and the emergence of Mussolini’s Italian Fighting Squads, which meted out “purificatory” violence against socialist leaders, labor unions, and striking workers. By the summer of 1922, Mussolini’s blackshirted militias nearly rivaled the country’s established forces of law and order. 

Following Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister that October, and the subsequent spectacle of the March on Rome, political violence in Italy only worsened, especially in the lead up to national elections in 1924. By using violence, or the threat of it, in and around polling stations, Mussolini and his fascist hordes intended to sway election results in favor of the Fascist Party’s candidates. His tactics worked; Mussolini’s alliance of Fascists, liberals, Catholics, and conservatives won a landslide victory, gaining two-thirds of the seats in Parliament.

These illiberal tactics, however, attracted widespread condemnation, above all from militant anti-fascists like Matteotti and his left-wing colleagues in the Chamber. On May 30, 1924, Matteotti vociferously denounced the Fascist Party’s illegal campaigns of intimidation, calling for the annulment of the “illegitimate” results from the April elections. As he sat down at the end of his speech — during which he was interrupted by Mussolini’s supporters more than 100 times — Matteotti turned to his neighbor and told him, perhaps half sarcastically, to begin preparing his funeral oration.

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Matteotti’s concerns proved well founded. On June 10, as he was walking from his apartment toward the Chamber’s headquarters in Rome, Matteotti was abducted and stabbed to death with a carpenter’s file by Amerigo Dùmini, a member of the Fascist Party-associated secret police. “You can kill me,” Matteotti is believed to have uttered as he was being spirited away, “but you can never kill the idea within me.”

Matteotti’s disappearance produced outrage across Italy and the Italian Diaspora. On June 27, workers throughout the peninsula put down their tools, while mourners gathered at the site of his kidnapping, praying together and laying red carnations. Simultaneous protests took place in other major cities, including Milan, where workers raised their hats in homage to Matteotti. The protests brought the country to a virtual standstill.

Some fascist sympathizers refused to take part in the commemoration. Instead, they shouted “Viva Mussolini!” (Long Live Mussolini!). In Rome, a group of local Blackshirts organized a public march from Lungotevere Arnaldo da Brescia, where Matteotti was abducted, to his family’s residence where they callously chanted provocative songs and slogans to Matteotti’s mourning widow, Velia. 

Workers around the world also rallied in protest against this shocking crime. A mock funeral took place in Baltimore. Organized by the Italian division of the trade union the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, mourners bowed their heads in front of a portrait of Matteotti to mark their participation in “the world’s grief.”

Concerned by the power of Matteotti’s memory at home and abroad, Mussolini’s government declared that nobody could stop to pray within 10 meters of the location of his kidnapping, and it prohibited the donation of flowers and commemorative ribbons. Mourning in the houses of Parliament was also forbidden, as were mass gatherings in Matteotti’s memory.

Despite these attempts to suppress public outrage, the discovery of Matteotti’s body two months later in a wooded area north of the capital sparked an unprecedented political crisis for Mussolini’s government. A contingent of anti-fascist parties, including Matteotti's Unitary Socialist Party, withdrew from the Chamber, challenging the legitimacy of the Fascist Party. This withdrawal, however, proved to be a fatal mistake, because it left Mussolini and his party without any effective opposition.

Even so, the enormous outpouring over Matteotti’s assassination backed Mussolini into a potentially disastrous political — as well as legal — corner.

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On Jan. 3, 1925, Mussolini resolved to put an end to the simmering political crisis. The Duce-in-waiting admitted that he, and he alone, bore the “moral, political, and historical responsibility for all that has happened.” Following this admission, Mussolini issued an unmistakable challenge to those in attendance: “Article 47 of the Constitution says: ‘The Chamber of Deputies has the right to impeach the King’s Ministers and to bring them before the [Senate].’ I formally ask you, is there, in this Chamber or outside of it, someone who would like to apply Article 47?” Fearing violent reprisals for themselves as well as for their constituents, no one volunteered to hold the Prime Minister and his blackshirted hordes accountable for their many crimes, above all the brazen murder of a Member of Parliament.

The following month, Mussolini appointed a new secretary of the Fascist Party who promised to “de-Matteottiize” the country. Violence intensified and Italy continued to slide towards dictatorship. On Christmas Eve, Mussolini declared himself Head of Government — in the absence of any opposition — making him answerable only to King Vittorio Emanuele III. On the same day, his government introduced a new law making it illegal for any journalist to publish in Italy without fascist approval, and it banned all opposition parties and organizations. Italy had shifted from a troubled multi-party democracy into a single-party dictatorship.

Under the Duce’s authoritarian leadership, the regime continued to prohibit the commemoration of Matteotti’s assassination. Even so, Matteotti became an internationally recognized symbol of resistance to Fascism. Commemorative protests were held across the U.S. and an Italian American anti-fascist newspaper raised $1,500 ($26,875 in 2024 dollars) in a week for a monument to Matteotti in New York as a reminder of “the sacred cause of justice and human liberty.” Fascism may have won the (ultimately temporary) battle for power but, in the long run, lost the battle over memory.

Today, the political scene in Europe and the U.S. increasingly resembles the conditions of interwar Europe, which resulted in the catastrophe of World War II. 

In Italy, for example, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy — a far-right party whose roots lie in an openly neo-fascist party founded in 1946 by surviving members of Mussolini’s dictatorship — is pursuing a subtle but nonetheless solidly far-right political agenda, with the potential of muting, if not erasing, the Italian Republic’s anti-fascist foundations. The same is the case across Europe, as right-wing strongman figures and illiberal parties — many of them xenophobic — gain ground in places as varied as Germany and Portugal.

And in the U.S., Donald Trump has significantly destabilized American democracy by systematically weaponizing the “culture wars”; advancing “Big Lies,” such as that the 2020 election was stolen and that those convicted for crimes tied to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection are “hostages”; and threatening retribution against his political opponents. The MAGA movement has garnered vociferous support from groups like the National Socialist Movement, Patriot Front, and the Proud Boys. Much of Trump’s political rhetoric, moreover, is straight from the authoritarian playbook.

Long accused of harboring fascistic tendencies, Trump now faces legal challenges reminiscent of Mussolini's political crisis a century ago. He faces 91 felony charges. But unless he is convicted in more than just the New York hush money trial — an increasingly unlikely outcome — it is possible that Trump could win a second term as President. And following his inauguration in January 2025, which would coincide with the centennial of Mussolini’s infamous declaration of dictatorship in a Chamber empty of any opposition parties, Trump would be well-positioned to similarly bypass law and order completely.

Matteotti’s empty seat in Italy’s Chamber, therefore, serves as a ghostly reminder of both Fascism’s predilection for violence and liberal democracy’s perpetual vulnerability to the challenges posed by authoritarianism. However, it also serves as a fitting memorial to the bravery of an individual who attempted to hold a corrupt political leader to account and vociferously oppose the slow but steady dismantling of democracy. Authoritarians rely on intimidation, the projection of charisma and confidence, and complacency from the citizens they intend to dominate and control. Only collective resolve in opposing the spread of illiberal political cultures can repel today’s authoritarian challengers and safeguard democracy — that’s the lesson of Matteotti’s assassination.

Amy King is a senior lecturer of modern European history at University of Bristol. Her first research monograph, The Politics of Sacrifice: Remembering Italy’s Rogo di Primavalle, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2024. Brian J Griffith is an assistant professor of European history at California State University, Fresno. He is currently completing his first research monograph on the political and cultural history of winemaking in Fascist Italy, titled Cultivating Fascism: Wine, Politics, and Identity in Mussolini’s Italy.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

Correction, June 17: The original version of this story mischaracterized Brothers of Italy. It is a far-right party with neo-fascist roots, not a neo-fascist party. It also misspelled the name of the King of Italy. He was Vittorio Emanuele III, not Victor Emmanuelle III.

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