The relationship between sport and fascism is a very interesting relationship to deepen, which marks and helps to understand an important and long page in the history of Italy. Because Fascism loved sport, or at least tried to exploit it, and was amply reciprocated by sport.
Over the twenty years in which Benito Mussolini dominated the Italian scene, our athletes excelled in various disciplines. The sport was indeed the sector in which the regime collected the greatest successes, in some ways the only ones.
We won two World Cups in football, we reached the podium of the nations with the most medals in two consecutive Olympics (those of 1932 and 1936) and we broke several records1.
And it was perhaps the most prosperous period for Italian sport also from the point of view of media attention, as fans and newspapers followed those events with the emphasis usually reserved for much more serious events.
But why was this mixture of sport and fascism so strong? And how did it become linked to the regime’s policy? Since the topic is very interesting and yet complex at the same time, we have decided to prepare an in-depth fact sheet, which examines all the most important things in a hopefully tidy and concise way. Here she is.
1. Fascist the state, and especially the young
Let us, first of all, try to understand why fascism invested all the efforts we will see in sport. At the base of everything there was not a mere competitive interest, but something much more concrete: politics.
As you will recall, fascism came to power in 1922, taking advantage of the widespread discontent after the First World War and the fear of the workers’ unrest that had materialized during the so-called “red two-year period”.
Its base, the hardest core of its supporters, was made up of war veterans, young people who had fought at the front and who believed that Italy had forgotten their efforts too quickly.
It was therefore a movement marked in a certain sense by youth and impetuousness. The first members of the party were almost all in their twenties and thirties and loved to go around armed, lead their hands, and dress in uniform. The most bourgeois was Mussolini, one who had been in the war but who for the moment preferred to wear a jacket and tie.
Once in power, it was Mussolini himself who tried to renew and soften the image of his party. The young squads were soon persuaded to decrease their actions – or to act more covertly – while the leader made contact with big industry, with the church, and with all the ” strong powers ” to ensure a long stay in power.
Transform the Italians
Mussolini, however, was not satisfied only with being one of the many rulers who had led Italy for a certain period. He wanted to stay. And to stay he knew very well that he had to transform the face of Italy by force.
In fact, from 1925 onwards the goal became fascist Italy, as it was said at the time. That is to take the Italians and change their identity, renewing them. From being a people of workers who, for better or worse, knew how to get by, they had to be transformed into a people of fighters.
An almost impossible undertaking, if one thought of the adults, now rigid in their characteristics. But perhaps easier if we were addressing young people, the Italians of the future. Or at least this was the reasoning that the regime made, focusing everything on pollution and the regimentation of young people.
Transforming the adults of tomorrow into perfect fascists and perfect warriors would have guaranteed continuity to the regime but also military power to Italy. And to shape the muscles of the Italians, but also their dedication and spirit of sacrifice, the sport was the ideal ally.
2. The National Opera Dopolavoro and the National Opera Balilla
It was for all these reasons that fascism invested considerable effort in framing children and workers in structures that were a mixture of sports clubs, youth organizations, and the army.
In the 1920s, in the midst of this effort against fascist Italians, those organizations were founded that had the purpose of keeping people linked to fascism.
First of all, the National Opera Dopolavoro was born, which had the task of providing workers with moments of leisure coordinated by the state.
Instead of loitering around the city, perhaps intent on discussing politics with some troublemaker, the workers had to gather on-premises offered by the Party and engage in various recreational activities, which led them to act more and think less.
In these centers, there was no shortage of games typical of Italian bars, such as ping pong or billiards, but often social outings were also organized that allowed families to do some movement.
The boys and the children
Even more efficient, however, was the National Balilla Opera, reserved for children and school-age children. The various groups, divided by age and sex, had the task of training children in sports and in para-military activities, or in any case preparatory to military service.
Furthermore, they had to form in the boys the identity of the body, the cult of obedience, love for the country, and above all for the Duce.
The youth organizations had to form in the boys the identity of the body, the cult of obedience, love for the homeland and above all for the Duce.
It was in this context that the so-called Fascist Saturday was formed, an obligatory afternoon in which all the boys had to gather with their companions to carry out various exercises and at the same time be indoctrinated into the regime.
The opposition of the Church
A ceremony, in a certain sense almost a ritual that was in contrast with those that until then had been held by the Catholic Church. Despite the Lateran Pacts of 1929, the so-called honeymoon with the ecclesiastical hierarchies did not last very long.
Indeed, the Church saw it as an almost personal affront to the fact that Mussolini wanted to grab young Italians, evidently stealing them from parishes and various Catholic youth organizations, such as the Scouts or the Catholic Action.
For this reason, during the whole of the 1930s, a sort of tug-of-war took place between fascism and the Church to ensure the free time of young people and workers. An arm wrestling which was largely won by the regime had, if not for brief moments or few exceptions, a real freehand.
These structures were, on the other hand, first of all, a means of propaganda that was expressed in particular through gymnastics and sport. And on which you could not give in at all.
3. Mussolini the sportsman
However, the Fascist regime was not satisfied with making the boys sweat, marching them, and instilling in them a team spirit that bordered on comradeship. He also wanted, as we have already said in part, to shape a new man, a strong man, a fighter who would bring prestige to the lineage, or, from 1938 onwards to the Italian race.
In this sense, the various organizations were very useful, but more than anything else could be an example. And who better than the Duce, that is, Benito Mussolini, could represent the model of this new man that Fascism was to shape? Indeed, in a certain sense, more than an abstract idea, the Italians had to resemble their leader.
By himself, in reality, until the seizure of power and the first years of government, Mussolini had never exhibited particular physical prowess. He had done the war as a volunteer, but he had been wounded almost immediately. His body, on the other hand, was particularly massive, at least apparently unwilling to run and sport.
Even during the March on Rome, which in some ways was a sort of grandiose gymnastic performance, Mussolini preferred to stay in Milan to watch his men parading towards the capital (also to avoid any arrest).
The body of the Duce
From the late 1920s onwards, however, propaganda began to hammer more and more heavily on a handsome and physically gifted Mussolini. There was no occasion in which he was not photographed, bare-chested, working, running, or playing, showing all the virility that the Italian people had to endow themselves with.
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He could be seen gathering wheat but also swimming, fencing and even playing football, that English sport that the Duce did not particularly like, but to which he had to apply himself to please the tastes of the Italians.
A possible rival in the air
It is no coincidence that the only problems of rivalry in the hearts of the Italians Mussolini had precisely with those fascists who excelled in sports. In particular, for a certain phase the man who seemed able to at least partially obscure his star was Italo Balbo, younger than him and certainly more daring than him.
The man, from Ferrara, had been one of the early fascists, even one of the quadrumvirs who had led the fascists to Rome during the March of 1922 when he was just 26 years old. He had also received government positions immediately, but he had been noted above all for his aerial feats of him.
Passionate aviator, he drove the plane – and in particular the seaplanes – as if they were racing cars, accomplishing feats and breaking records that enhanced the enthusiasm of the Italians.
It was precisely in order not to be clouded by his prestige that Mussolini decided, as early as 1933, to send him to Africa as governor of Libya. A prestigious assignment, which, however, served above all to keep him away from Italy.
The Italo Balbo case
Balbo, on the other hand, was perhaps Mussolini’s main opponent within the Fascist Party. Although he could not say it in public, in secret meetings he often criticized Duce’s approach to Germany and the choice to go to war alongside Hitler.
He was also strongly opposed to the racial laws, also considering that he came from a city, Ferrara, where the Jewish component was important and among other things closely linked to fascism.
He lived as an aviator and as an aviator, he also died, during the Second World War. In fact, he was shot down in Libya, together with other men of him, by mistake by the Italian anti-aircraft.
The widow argued for a long time that there was no mistake and that this incident was an excuse to get him out of the way. Accurate research carried out even recently, however, actually points to human error.
4. Favorite sports
But what were the sports that fascism made its own, or which in any case ended up extolling for propaganda purposes? In general, we can say that the intent of the various officials who were assigned to this area proved to be fluctuating over the years.
On the one hand, in fact, the regime wanted to enhance team and physical sports, functional to the idea of a lineage of warriors. As we have said, on the other hand, the fascist movement was born as a direct evolution of the groups of fighters, who acted as a team to achieve a common goal.
The regime wanted to exalt the most physical team sports, functional to the idea of a lineage of warriors.
However, Fascism soon had to come to terms with reality. In fact, there were other sports that most won the favor of the public. And the regime tried to ride them, turning the various champions into propaganda elements.
Cycling, a national sport
In the early years of the century, the sport most loved by Italians was undoubtedly cycling. A sport, yes, that blended quite well with the fascist aesthetics. There was the effort, the effort, the long climb, the dedication. There was also the idea of the wingman sacrificing himself for the leader. There was also the very idea of speed.
The Giro d’Italia had been running since 1909 and had gradually gained more and more acclaim. Also because it was run by some of the greatest Italian champions of all time, from Costante Girardengo to Alfredo Binda, up to Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi in the last years of the regime.
Along the same lines, the love for engines and in particular cars also developed. Fascism was indeed a conservative movement from an ideological point of view, but also fascinated by the myths of modernity. It was not by chance that he proposed himself as a revolutionary and had also incorporated parts of the futurist aesthetic within himself.
Thus, while he exalted the large Italian families who lived in the countryside, he did not disdain technical progress either. For example, he invested heavily in air companies, both with the aforementioned Balbo and also with Umberto Nobile’s dirigibles.
As far as motoring is concerned, it was not yet the era of Formula 1, but several races of international caliber had arisen since the beginning of the century. In 1922, for example, the Monza circuit was built, the first in continental Europe. Furthermore, Alfa Romeo and Maserati dominated the various Grand Prix with their cars.
The most successful race during the Fascist era, however, was undoubtedly the Mille Miglia, the first edition of which was held in 1927. Throughout the 1930s it attracted drivers and above all spectators, who spent hours on the street to see the cars go by.
But the Mille Miglia was also a race marked by disasters. Like when, in 1938, a Lancia Aprilia went off the street in Bologna, killing 10 spectators.
Boxing and fencing
In a short time, however, fascism also tried to take over individual indoor sports. He did it a bit reluctantly, to tell the truth, mainly due to the success of some champions who achieved excellent results.
For example, this was the case with boxing, in which Primo Carnera ‘s victories – which we will discuss in the next point – thrilled the whole nation. This sport, in itself, could well conform to the Fascist ideal, but the risk was that of going into sound foolishness.
Carnera’s case in this sense is emblematic. After becoming world heavyweight champion in 1933, he lost the title the following year in a match against American Max Baer, a Jewish boxer. These were not the years of racial laws yet, at least not in Italy, but losing to a Jew was not something the regime liked.
Better go with fencing, an unpopular and almost noble sport, which however fascinated Mussolini. Italy is traditionally very strong in this discipline – so much so that even today it is the nation with the highest number of Olympic medals – and it performed very well in the various Olympics played during fascism.
The individual men’s foil brought gold and bronze to Italy in both 1932 and 1936, while silver and gold respectively arrived in the team foil. He similarly went into the sword, with the 1936 record in which the entire male podium was occupied by Italian athletes.
Lastly, we kept the sport most loved by Italians, football. And we did it because it deserves a separate discussion. As you know, football was practiced in Italy since the end of the nineteenth century, imported by the British. But here was his flaw.
Unlike other sports, which had a widespread or unclear origin, football had an obvious homeland, England. And although Italy had been close to Great Britain in foreign policy in the 1920s, relations with the island cooled considerably over the next decade.
In short, football was too British a sport, which even Mussolini did not like. Not for nothing at the end of the 1920s the secretary of the National Fascist Party, Augusto Turati, invented a new sport, ” purely Italian “, with the aim of replacing football and other foreign sports in the hearts of Italians.
This sport was called Volata and fascism was committed to creating teams and leagues, so that it could spread. The regulation mixed rules of football and rugby, with teams of 8 players and the ability to use both hands and feet. Obviously, it was a flop: he was awarded only one championship, and shortly after the project was abandoned.
Despite the wishes of the regime, the Italians clearly preferred football. Also because finally, the teams of our country were starting to show a good game and to obtain important results. As is well known, in 1934 and 1938 the national team even won two world titles.
Those successes, however, had come gradually. Fascism had begun to stretch its hands-on football in the late 1920s, thanks above all to the powerful Lando Ferretti and Leandro Arpinati, who created Serie A on the model of the English championship.
In short, the national team also benefited from these reforms and above all from the talent of its coach, the expert Vittorio Pozzo. In 1928, for example, the Olympic bronze arrived in Amsterdam, while between 1927 and 1930 Italy won the International Cup, the forerunner of modern Europeans, in front of the very strong Danubian teams.
So, finally convinced by the growing popularity of the sport, Mussolini asked to organize a World Cup. In 1934 the Rimet Cup then arrived in Italy, and remained there, as the Azzurri defeated Czechoslovakia in the final.
It went even better, four years later, in France, when our national team proved even stronger and won the second consecutive title.
5. The great athletes
The sport during the years of fascism was not followed, however, only at the level of team success. Indeed, it was above all some great champions who inflamed the imagination of fans. Among the many, we have chosen four that dominated the scene and whose history is worth exploring.
This is Primo Carnera, the great boxing champion that we have already mentioned; Costante Girardengo, perhaps the most famous among cyclists of the period; Tazio Nuvolari, the ace of motoring; and Giuseppe Meazza, the great forward of Inter and the Italian national team.
Primo Carnera, the gentle giant
Born in Friuli in 1906, Primo Carnera came from a very poor family. As a child, while his father was engaged in the First World War, he too had been forced to beg. And after the war, due to hunger, he emigrated to France, working as a carpenter.
At 19 he already had an impressive physique and was therefore hired by a circus, which had him exhibited as a freak. During one of the fights under the awning, he was noticed by former boxing champion Paul Journée, who convinced him to switch to boxing.
He made his debut in 1928 and played in various matches between France, Italy, and England, achieving many victories. So the following year he landed in America, where he struck an impressive series of victories. Over many of them, however, hovered the suspicion of combine and the Italian-American mafia.
However, in 1933 Carnera challenged world champion Jack Sharkey in New York, managing to knock him out and win the title. Mussolini wanted it immediately afterward in Rome, showing it from the famous balcony of Piazza Venezia in a black shirt. And the Minculpop took care to issue directives so that no photos were ever shown with the champion down.
The decline of the boxer
In October of the same year, this time in Rome, Carnera defended the title against the Spanish Uzcudun, winning on points and thus also winning the European title. Under his bathrobe, before the match, he showed off his black shirt.
In reality, however, the Friulian boxer cared very little about politics. In some ways, he was naive, certainly a simple person, and he lent himself to the role that the regime had assigned him. At least until the victories came.
In 1934, as anticipated, Carnera lost the title in New York against Max Baer, a Jewish boxer who fought with the Star of David sewn onto his shorts. That was a major blow to Carnera’s career. He tried to make up for it after a tour in South America by challenging the African American Joe Luis, but he easily got over him.
After the war, he devoted himself to wrestling for a few years, also obtaining American citizenship. He continued to fight until the early 60s, in the meantime also allowing himself a decent film career, obviously in the role of the strongman. He returned to Italy in the last months of his life and is buried in Friuli.
Costante Girardengo, the champion, and the other cyclists
Costante Girardengo was born in 1893 and became a champion in a very different sport, cycling. In his career, he won the Giro d’Italia twice and the Milan-Sanremo six times, but most of the successes he obtained in the very first post-war period before Fascism came to power.
In any case, in the 1920s it was renamed ” Campionissimo “, the first of our cycling (it would have been followed by Coppi). Perhaps also due to this time lag, he had no particular problems with the regime. He had many more Sante Pollastri, the thief of the famous song Il bandito and De Gregori’s champion.
According to the legend, he and Girardengo were friends, except that the first had chosen the underworld and the second the bicycle. In reality, they knew each other because they came from the same country and had met in Paris, but they probably had no other connections. Pollastri, an anarchist and thief, however, had many problems with the regime and also ended up in prison.
Anti-fascists on bicycles
The world of cycling, however, was teeming – at least for the time – with anti-fascists. Ottavio Bottecchia, the first Italian to win the Tour de France, according to many testimonies did not hide his aversion to the regime. And when he was mysteriously found dead at 33, someone speculated that the death matrix was political.
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Gino Bartali, the champion who emerged at the end of the 1930s, is famous, however, for refusing to make the Roman salute after the victory of the Tour in 1938. During the war, he then transported false documents on his bicycle for many Jews, who thanks to him found salvation.
Tazio Nuvolari, the fastest
In addition to cycling, in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s Italians began to show great interest in another type of race: that of cars. As mentioned, racetracks that would become legendary began to appear around Italy and Europe, but they also raced on normal roads.
The most memorable champion of that time was certainly the Mantuan Tazio Nuvolari. Born in 1892, he actually raced on motorcycles throughout his youth, arriving at cars relatively late. But it was on the 4 wheels that he managed to earn undying fame.
Already at the end of the 1920s, it achieved some important results, but it was above all in the following decade – associated with Alfa Romeo cars – that it became a legend. He won dozens of races, but he became famous above all for his ability to withstand any inconvenience.
In fact, in longer races he managed to overcome almost any type of accident, repairing the car as best he could and resuming the race, even ending in very precarious conditions. Also for this tenacity of him, he was soon admired by intellectuals and enthusiasts: and among his fans, there was even Gabriele D’Annunzio.
The victories and the end
Among his most memorable victories, we must at least mention the Mille Miglia of 1930 and 1933, the Tripoli Grand Prix of 1928 (which for the first time brought him to international attention), and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1933.
In 1935, moreover, he won the German Grand Prix after a powerful comeback, upsetting the Nazi leaders who already counted on the victory of the German drivers. It was he himself who supplied the Italian flag for the award ceremony, which he had brought from home confident of being able to triumph.
After the war, he was beset by numerous health problems and died in 1953. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral in Mantua, as well as various motoring champions of the time, including Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio.
Meazza, the Balilla
We explained at the beginning that sport, under fascism, was also practiced in youth organizations, and especially within the Opera Nazionale Balilla, which framed young people of school age. But there was an athlete who, precisely because of his young age, was even nicknamed “il Balilla”: Giuseppe Meazza.
The great champion was born in Milan in 1910 to a rather humble family. Orphaned by his father, who had died in the First World War, he was discovered very young while playing with friends in the suburbs, and subjected to an audition with Milan. Discarded due to his frail physique, he went to Inter, where he managed to establish himself.
Thanks to the respect of the observer Fulvio Bernardini, he made his debut in the first team at the age of 17, being baptized Balilla by his teammates. In short, however, he showed that his age was not a problem, given that already in the second season he scored 33 goals (out of 29 appearances) and in the third, he dragged the Nerazzurri to the Scudetto.
He made his debut in 1930 also in the national team, immediately with a brace, and it was above all with the blue shirt that he enchanted the fans of the time. Under his leadership on the pitch, together with that of Vittorio Pozzo from the bench, the National team in fact achieved a series of incredible results.
The great successes in the national team
Memorable, already in his fourth appearance, was the performance of the Azzurri in Budapest against the champions of Hungary. Our selection was in fact imposed by 5-0 against the team that was considered one of the strongest in the world. Of those 5 goals, 3 were signed by Meazza, who exhibited a deadly dribbling and a great nose for goal.
Between 1934 and 1938, as mentioned, the National team won two world titles, always with Meazza on the field, although over time his position retreated. In his youth, he always played center forward, while then he was deployed as a mezzaluna and finally also as a midfielder.
In 1934 he also participated in the famous Battle of Highbury, during which the world champion national team went to challenge the English at their home. Pozzo’s team lost 3-2 playing outnumbered for most of the match, but the two Italian goals were both signed by “Peppino”.
He closed his career with 33 goals for the Azzurri, which is still the second-best record after that of Gigi Riva. With Inter he also won 3 league titles and an Italian Cup, and three times he also won the title of top scorer in the championship.
He never had much to do with Fascism, except for the usual ceremonies with which the regime celebrated the various Nationals. However, he was the first sportsman to become a sort of popular idol, given that even his private life was often portrayed in magazines.