WHEN A MILITARY DICTATORSHIP DISMANTLED A POWERFUL CRIME SYNDICATE: Mussolini vs. La Cosa Nostra
During the years of the Second World War, Fascist Italy, led by its supreme dictator “Il Duce” Benito Mussolini waged his own war against the Sicilian Mafia. This paper analyzes how a totalitarian regime run—by a strong central "omnipresent" government, specifically Mussolini's Italy—dealt with the secret society of criminals known as the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. This criminal organization, which itself began as a rebellious anti-establishment faction, posed a significant threat to the power and status quo established by the fascist regime as evidenced by Mussolini’s actions after his visit to Sicily. It could be therefore argued that Fascist Italy's totalitarian nature makes it particularly effective in combating crime and dismantling criminal organizations as powerful as the Sicilian Mafia, as it was treated as an anti-government or terrorist threat. This discussion includes an analysis of how this particular military dictatorship, ruled by fascist dogmas and doctrines, tackled a formidable threat as large and as powerful as the Sicilian Mafia. While fascism has no exact definition or a strictly defined list of characteristics, it can be said that it essence is marked by strong nationalism accompanied by a mythologized and romanticized past to unite the people, and is driven by a political “party that monopolized power through its security services and the army and that eliminated all other parties, using considerable violence in the process.” (Lacqueur, 14). This party would be headed by a military dictator with nearly unlimited political powers and have the intense influence over the devoted masses of his country. Though the governments of fascism and Communism have much in common structurally, it is important to differentiate the two regimes. Fascism is aggressively nationalistic and elevates one’s nation or ethnic group to the highest status in the global order, while Communism is internationalist in its goals. The former is vehemently conservative and looks to revive the romanticized ways of the past while the latter looks toward a liberalized future. To further differentiate the two, Lacqueur states “Communism was strictly atheistic, whereas fascism was vaguely deistic, striving for an accommodation with organized religion on condition that the church accept the state as its political overlord and support it.” (Lacqueur, 15). Additionally, Communism aimed to abolish the social classes, and install a purely socialist economy, while the fascist regimes worked with the classes and facilitated a degree of capitalism. Both systems however, had an overbearing and omnipresent system of government fully backed by the military, while dominating many aspects of their countries and their people’s lives. Only two countries in history have ever truly been fascist—Germany and Italy, with the latter being its origin. “In Germany and Italy, insecurity and resentment combined with economic turmoil to feed bitter nationalism made possible the dictators Hitler and Mussolini.” (Hunt, 9). Walter Lacqueur states in his text Fascism: Past, Present, and Future that totalitarian governments like the ones established in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were created with the “denunciation of corrupt and inefficient politicians, the breakdown of public order, inflation, economic decline, and the invocation of growing anarchy and separatism.” (Lacqueur, 232). Fascism had its roots in 19th century Italy at a time when social unrest and dissatisfaction with the liberal government caused many groups to feel abandoned or disenchanted.
Benito Mussolini rose to power at such a time when fascists “pointed to the need for aggressive, nationalistic foreign policy... [and] worked to seize power by any means and to build a strong nation state under a strong leader… [they] began to urge the need for new, authoritarian leadership and devotion to nationalist values over capitalist profit-seeking and socialist class struggle.” (Stearns, 801). Mussolini exercised a totalitarian military dictatorship by 1922 and created a fully fascist state over Italy. To consolidate his supreme rule over Italy, however, there was one major threat that needed to be dealt with in the South, on the island province of Sicily—one that threatened to undermine his regime. There the Sicilian Mafia exercised its own power and influence, and maintained its own unique status quo over the island. Professor of Modern History at Scuole Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy, Francesco Benigno states that the Sicilian Mafia was “one of the world’s most notorious and influential criminal organizations and progenitor of the powerful American mafia… [and] has been considered an aspect of traditional Sicilian culture, the manifestation of the supreme propensity for individual, anti-authoritarian assertiveness.” (Benigno, 107, 108). This autonomy and fiercely independent entity that continually breaks laws and defies government authority through its criminality could therefore be recognized as an anti-government rebel threat. Also having its beginnings in the 19th century after the unification of Italy, what would become the Mafia first began as small protection contractors at a time when Italy was transitioning from a feudal society to one that embraced free market capitalism. The authorities, however, were ill-equipped, incompetent, and unprepared to protect the business interests of the emerging land-owning bourgeois class. This class of people continuously fell victim to independent bands of criminals and bandits—most of whom were merely poor peasants who suffered from the lack of rule-of-law in Italy and were thus exploited by the local wealthy elites. These same elites hired these “contractors” to protect their business interests from the peasants-turned-bandits as a result. As Sang Yeob Kim from the Kankuk Academy of Foreign Studies put in his article, “Unfortunately, the authorities of the newly emerging nation were incapable of enforcing property rights and contracts... property owners had to rely instead on extralegal arbitrators and protectors. These people who played an alternative role of government eventually emerged as the Mafia.” (Kim, 101). Over time, these extralegal contractors grew their business into full blown protection rackets who colluded with the bandits and other independent criminals to further siphon more protection money from the wealthy elites. They were not above using extortion, murder, intimidation, and kidnapping for ransom, to name a few. It would only be a matter of years before the mafia would become deeply entrenched in Sicilian politics, economy, and law-enforcement. With their reputation for extreme violence, intimidation, and public acts of terror, the mafia could easily be labeled as a terrorist organization as well and thus a threat to any government whether dictatorial or democratic. Interestingly enough, the very same circumstances or conditions that spawned the creation of the Cosa Nostra mafia created the same fertile soil that cultivated the seeds of fascism and totalitarian dictatorship. It is no surprise, however, that Mussolini—who wanted to expand his control beyond the mainland and continue the process of unifying all of Italy as one people (taking inspirations from the Roman Empire) believed that this violent and powerful criminal syndicate posed a threat to his power
and to his fascist goals. They stood in the way of his desire to fully subjugate the “rogue province” known as Sicily to be fully Italian. Thus he would not let a secret organization parallel or rival the state he created and ruled. Mussolini arrived in Sicily on October of 1922 with a grand display of power-projection comprised of warships, aircraft, and a few submarines. The local mayor of Piana dei Greci, Don Francesco Cuccia, who was also a Mafiosi, greeted Il Duce and asked why such a military entourage was necessary when he himself could provide protection as the mayor. Mussolini arrogantly refused the mayor’s hospitable gesture, and, a result, the mayor instructed the townspeople to boycott the dictator’s public address. This exchange of insults and slights formally initiated Mussolini’s aggressive eradication campaign and crackdown on the gangsters.
Mussolini hired Cesare Mori, a skilled police officer known as the “Iron Prefect”, to lead the campaign. With his reputation and extensive experience for waging war against the mafia, Cesare Mori was the ideal man for the job. As Owen Williams wrote in his 2019 article on the History Answers website, “Mori’s approach was devastatingly simple: he would out-mafia the Mafia. In the most simplistic terms, the Fascist state needed to assert itself as the bigger, tougher gang…” (Williams). Benito Mussolini granted him full powers over Sicily along with the full backing of the state saying to him, “‘The authority of the state must absolutely be re-established in Sicily. If the laws still in force hinder you, this will be no problem. We will draw up new laws…’” (Williams). Beginning at the very start of the year 1926, Mori’s military-styled campaign against the Cosa Nostra was in full swing, starting in the municipality of Gangi. The police crackdown and siege lasted ten days, and with the help of freezing snowy winter conditions, utilized roadblocks and armored vehicles to keep any gangers from leaving the town.
“Police and Blackshirts cut the telephone and telegraph wires and crashed through homes, rooting out criminals in hiding. Cattle belonging to suspected offenders were slaughtered in the town square; women and children were taken hostage as a ruse to flush out their wanted husbands and fathers, and some policemen even took to occupying bandits’ houses and sleeping in their beds – rumours of rapes were widespread. A town crier walked the streets banging a drum and declaiming an ultimatum that all fugitives from justice should hand themselves over to the authorities. The Blackshirts’ much-reported ‘interrogation’ techniques included forcing prisoners to drink castor oil or eat live frogs.” (Williams).
After the ten days, Mori paraded with great fanfare across the town of Gangi declaring his victory over criminality, concluding with the arrests of hundreds of gangsters and their associates. With personal congratulations from Il Duce himself saying that “‘Fascism has cured Italy of many of its wounds. It will cauterise the sore of crime in Sicily – with a red hot iron if need be!”’ (Williams), Mori continued his campaign across other towns whilst utilizing the same tactics he employed in Gangi. With his army of Blackshirts (paramilitary squads of war veterans) and special police, hundreds more arrests were made in the coming months with several thousand more in Sicily as a whole, many of whom were probably innocent of their charges complicity. However, it mattered little to Mori who was unyielding in his campaign to take down any collaborators and defenders of the Mafia.
His violent and ferocious campaign against the mafia ended in 1929 after support from the Fascist Party began to fade, as it was perhaps believed that the mission had been accomplished. Though they had not been completely eradicated, the mafia’s power base had been wholly dismantled and their influence drastically diminished. The fascist crackdown, however, did little to nothing to address the circumstances that led to the rise of organized crime in the first place. It would not be until the fall of Mussolini and his regime that, with the support and collaboration of the US military, the Cosa Nostra would experience a great resurgence in Sicily. They would also see to the internationalization of their operations, specifically in the United States, where fleeing mobsters had restarted and boosted their criminal careers during Mussolini’s rise to power. With the full backing of a politically all-powerful dictator, one police officer with resources was able to dismantle a powerful and heavily-entrenched criminal syndicate across multiple towns whilst using military-styled sieges and assaults in his crackdowns. This is evidence of at least one advantage of a police state and military dictatorship where numerous bureaucratic obstacles and vulnerabilities, found in traditional republics and democracies, would not be found. The dictator’s word was effectively the law in such a regime. It can be said that this could be an example of fighting fire with fire, as Mussolini met violence and aggression with his own brand of the two. The lack of due-process, respect for human rights, and universally acceptable law-enforcement procedures seen in most democracies allowed for the swift eradication of criminality within Sicily. As Mussolini himself stated that fascism’s ideals and style of governance was “a cure for many wounds”. This statement could be contested in many ways, but one may find it difficult to argue with it, considering the results of Cesare Mori’s campaign. Secondly, a dictatorship/ police state has abundant resources for waging war, since its entire regime and law-enforcement system was heavily dependent on security and the threat of violence provided by military power. However large, powerful, and terrifying the local criminal syndicate may have been, it did not boast a professional standing army, navy, and air force. Squads of specialized police forces and paramilitary squads of military veterans loyal to the Fascist state were more than enough to completely dismantle the mafia’s powerbase in Sicily even if complete eradication was not achieved in the given time. Should the worst of circumstances had come to pass, Mussolini would not have had any problems marching several thousand loyal troops on the ground to engage the mafia—whose bulk fighting forces were made up untrained gangsters—in direct combat. The mafia would have never prevailed in all-out war against Mussolini. Sicily, being the rogue state that it was, would have suffered under an old fashioned military invasion where the “king” would conquer the land and its people by force and subsequently occupy it with many of his soldiers. Their usual methods of bribery, kidnapping, murder, extortion, intimidation, and random acts of terror would have been swiftly met with a combination of military tactics utilized by the army and air force, if not in tandem with the secret police and intelligence apparatus of which many rulers in history have utilized. In fact, it was not until the involvement of an actual military power, albeit a foreign one courtesy of the United States government, that the mafia would ever regain their foothold over Sicily during the Second World War. With deals struck with the Office of Naval Intelligence in cooperation with the military, the mafia managed to make a significant resurgence in Sicily. With this newfound help from the US military against the fascist forces of Mussolini and the Nazis, the mafia managed a strong comeback, effectively undoing the efforts made by Cesare Mori’s crackdown. Mussolini and Mori’s campaign against the mafia is overwhelming proof of a dictatorship’s ability, at least within the Sicilian setting and context, to swiftly deal with and eradicate criminality, even one as organized, powerful, and influential as La Cosa Nostra. The full backing of the state and armed forces allowed one exceptional police officer achieve what he had wanted to achieve for so long, and was one mission that seemed impossible, especially on his own. Without a legitimate army and the abundance of hardware and resources provided by the state to an all-powerful dictator, the organized criminal syndicate with its powerbase in the countryside amongst the scattered townships did not have the means to wage war with the state. However, a new breed of mafia did arise in the States, and one that would form its powerbases at the heart of the biggest cities— places where Mori’s tactics and strategies may not have succeeded as well or at least as swiftly. Nevertheless, it may just be the iron fist of a totalitarian government and ruler that could truly ever equalize or keep in check the power and threat posed by criminal syndicates both past and present.
Benigno, Francesco. “Rethinking the Origins of the Sicilian ‘Mafia’: A New Interpretation.” Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, vol. 22, no. 1, Librairie Droz, 2018, pp. 107–30, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44984336.
Hunt, Michael H. The World Transformed: 1945 to the Present. Second ed., Oxford Univ. Pr., 2016.
Kim, Sang Yeob. “THE HISTORY OF THE SICILIAN MAFIA FROM AN ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVE.” Conference of the International Journal of Arts & Sciences, 2012, pp. 95–110.
Laqueur, Walter. Fascism: Past, Present, Future. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Stearns, Peter N., et al. World Civilizations: The Global Experience. 7th ed., Pearson Education, Inc., 2011.
Stone, Marla. The fascist revolution in Italy: A brief history with documents. Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2013.
Williams, Owen. “Mussolini vs the Mafia.” All About History, History Answers, 9 Aug. 2019, https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/mussolini-vs-the-mafia/.