By Francesco Buscemi
On January 28, 1932, Mussolini delivered a speech to Medical Doctors at the inauguration of the National Congress of the trade unions of Fascist physicians.[i] The speech was also published in the newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia the following day.[ii] Often overlooked by researchers, the speech adds a relevant contribution to Fascism studies, as it clarifies how the Italian dictatorship conceived of science and the role of scientists.
The political and cultural context of the speech
The dictator’s words, however, must be contextualized in order to understand their importance. In fact, after 10 years of dictatorship (Mussolini took power in 1922), and after the initial enthusiasm of the first period had worn off, the regime faced the challenge of planning its future. Mussolini felt the need to create a new Fascist person through what in Italian is called stile, which is something more than the English style.[iii] The Italian term, in fact, also involves one’s models and beliefs, and has more to do with the British term culture.
In order to introduce a new Fascist culture, Mussolini appointed Achille Starace as head of the Fascist Party in 1931. From that moment onwards, Fascism mainly became a matter of stile.[iv] More precisely, stile for the regime was a mixture between physical wellness and moral strength. For Mussolini, Italians’ bodily weariness was linked to their moral weakness. Only by fixing the first would the second be improved.
To enhance the quality of Italians, Fascism relied on orthogenesis. In short, orthogenesis was an alternative to Nazi race selection. Based on their prejudices about innate characteristics, the Nazis believed that there was a right race. Arians were considered by Hitler and his followers as superior, while Jews were deemed an inferior people, even before birth, simply because they belonged to a particular race. By contrast, Fascist theory argued that the ‘right’ race was selected during people’s lives, and independently from innate characteristics.[v] The emphasis on acquired characteristics in Fascist teaching may also be explained by the fact that an innate ‘Italian race’ did not actually exist, and that the Mediterranean ‘race’ comprised people from different countries.
Selecting a ‘right’ race was possible through orthogenesis; that is, medical improvement of the body during an individual’s life.[vi] Fascist orthogenesis was a theory developed by the Italian physician Nicola Pende, who argued that the state could take control of people’s health, in order to build a ‘right’ population, always in good health and, most importantly, faithful to Fascist ideology. While Nazi race selection was qualitative, Fascist orthogenesis was quantitative, meaning it aimed to create as many ‘right’ people as possible.[vii] Along those lines, the regime also tried to increase Italian birth rates through a demographic campaign. Mussolini argued that Italy could have ten million more people and that one of the problems of Italy was its being underpopulated. In his mind, thanks to demographic growth, Italy would become self-sufficient.[viii]
The Italian word for self-sufficiency, autarchia, was another one of Mussolini’s key terms, and an obsession. Under Fascism, autarchia was often applied to food. For example, Fascists tried to persuade people to consume more rice. Increasing rice consumption, they hoped, would decrease the intake of the main alternative to rice: pasta.[ix] Italian production of rice was (and still is) very abundant, while under Fascism wheat to make pasta had to be bought and imported from other countries. Thus, in Mussolini’s mind, rice would have freed Italy from the dependence on other nations. Unfortunately, Italians had considered rice with suspicion since WWI, when low-quality, rotten and overcooked rice meals were often sent to the soldiers at the front. Conversely, pasta was considered a sort of national dish.
Mussolini’s campaign against pasta was also fought through the arts. The Futurist manifesto of Italian cuisine argued that pasta was an absurd Italian religion, that it increased pessimism and tiredness, and that it should be abolished from the entire country, as well as knives and forks.[x] For Futurists, pasta could not be chewed, but people gorged themselves with it, becoming tired, listless, and if they were men, effeminate. But in the end, the popularity of spaghetti prevailed over the popularity of Mussolini, despite the regime’s insistence, and doctors’ and artists’ efforts. Even Marinetti, the Futurist leader, was caught eating spaghetti at one of the best restaurants in Milan, and this compromised the credibility of the campaign. A popular poem told this story, highlighting the incoherence of the moralists.[xi]
Thus, influencing all aspects of Italians’ lives became a priority for the regime. But how to control such a complex system made up of daily habits, birth rates, food choices, and cultural beliefs? Fascism needed to permeate Italian society at every level and was in search for the right category of people to do so. Medical doctors seemed to be the answer, as an analysis of Mussolini’s speech suggests.
Mussolini’s speech and Fascist policies
The importance of medical doctors for the Fascist regime is evident right from the very beginning of Mussolini’s speech. In what classical rhetoric refers to as captatio benevolentiae, the opening part in which orators strive to draw in their audience, Mussolini extolled the competence of Italian physicians, which he had witnessed as a soldier during WWI. He praised the effectiveness of the Italian national health system, which he claimed was improved by the regime, as for example in the case of the conditions of hospitals, which had been recently refurbished under Fascism. Mussolini also emphasized the importance of physicians in society: they were like priests, he asserted, as they accompanied people from the beginning to the end of life.
Among the various themes developed by Mussolini, orthogenesis and birth rates were dominant throughout the entire speech. For Mussolini, physicians had to become gatekeepers, and decide what was right or wrong for Italians’ bodies and minds, and ultimately for the future of Fascism. In particular, Mussolini asked physicians to challenge flawed popular assumptions about the effects of giving birth, which many men considered an event that derived women of their beauty. For the Duce, such wrong-headed notions would ultimately lead to demographic crisis. Instead, Mussolini argued, Fascism should encourage maximal birth rates and minimal mortality among young people, in order to lower the average age of the Italian population, and thereby become stronger. Nations with a large elderly population, he warned, were destined to be defeated by younger countries. Doctors would have to be decisive in implementing this policy.
In an appeal to the concept of stile, Mussolini also instructed his medical audience to promote naturism. This should not be understood as walking around naked, he clarified, but rather as enjoying the elements of nature, such as the sun, air and bodily movement. For him, healthy bodies formed in this manner would encourage moral minds.
A large part of the speech was based on the idea that scientific and nutritional advice could do much, and could even benefit the Italian economy. Mussolini recognized the power of physicians to shape people’s tastes, also in relation to food, which was one of the means through which the regime strove to be self-sufficient. He remembered how, some years earlier, he had told physicians to promote grape consumption, both, for nutritional reasons, and to help an important branch of Italian food production. As a result, trade of the vine had quintupled. In the same way, Mussolini now advised physicians to promote rice consumption among their patients, insisting on the cultural power exerted by physicians over ordinary people.
Mussolini’s reliance on the cultural power of the medical profession as a vehicle to spread Fascist ideology was even more evident in another part of the speech, where Mussolini told the medical doctors overtly to play an ideological role. The function of physicians, in Mussolini’s mind and words, had to go well beyond curing ill people. Their cultural power among ordinary people, what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would call cultural capital, was much more strategic.[xii] In fact, Mussolini overtly mobilized Italian physicians in the speech, and invited them to spread propagandistic messages among Italy’s people. If patients inquired, for example, when the economic crisis would end, the physicians could strengthen Fascism with their answer. Physicians who were anti-fascist would simply side-step that question, but doctors who were true Fascist would explain that the economic crisis in Italy had been less serious than that of other nations.
The speech was received like many of Mussolini’s messages to professional groups, that is, without any relevant critical response. The Fascist regime had taken complete control of professional organizations. Journalists, academics, physicians and other professionals were led by Fascist supervisors, who rewarded those supporting Fascism, and expelled those with a critical approach to it. Historian Claudia Mantovani argues that it is impossible to determine whether obedience to Fascism among medical doctors was due to real political veneration or mere careerist convenience.[xiii] What is certain is that both attitudes benefited the rise of Fascism in Italy, and contributed to its twenty-year duration.
In conclusion, medical doctors were envisioned by the regime as precious collaborators, who were able to penetrate and influence Italian society. Thanks to their credibility among ordinary people, they could become omnipresent agents of Fascism. It was no accident that Mussolini’s speech compared medical doctors to priests, figures who propagate the principles of the Catholic faith through their diffuse presence in cities, villages, and the countryside. Similarly, in Mussolini’s mind, physicians ought to become ministers of the Fascist faith. Like Nazism, Fascism also tried to represent itself as a religion. [xiv] This may be the focus of future and very fruitful research.
Francesco Buscemi is a postdoc researcher at IUAV University, Venice, and has taught media and creativity in British and Italian universities. He holds a PhD from Edinburgh, and was awarded the Santander Grant Fund for his research on Nazi propaganda and meat representation. Francesco has published various studies on food, history and the media, and has reviewed articles for refereed and indexed academic journals. He has presented his research in many international universities and is currently a member of the Semiotic Society of America and the International Society for Cultural History. Follow his Blog, Behind Food.
[i] “Discorso ai medici,” accessed 30 December 2016, http://www.adamoli.org/benito-mussolini/pag0491-.htm
[ii] Simonetta Falasca Zamponi, Lo Spettacolo del Fascismo (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2003), 159.
[iii] Zamponi, Lo Spettacolo, 159.
[iv] Zamponi, Lo Spettacolo, 158-159.
[v] Carl Ipsen, Dictating Demography: The Problem of Population in Fascist Italy, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
[vi] Mantovani, Rigenerare la Società
[vii] Mantovani, Rigenerare la Società, 307.
[viii] Maria Sophia Quine, Population Politics in Twentieth-Century Europe: Fascist Dictatorships and Liberal Democracies (London: Routledge, 2013), 35.
[ix] David McKenzie“Mussolini, Oppressor of Pasta,”, accessed 30 December 2016, http://contemporaryfoodlab.com/hungry-people/2015/01/mussolini-unterdruecker-der-pasta/
[x] Carol Helstoski, Garlic and Oil: Politics and Food in Italy (Oxford: Berg, 2004), 78.
[xi] Lorenzo Spurio, La Religione della Pasta: Il Manifesto della Cucina Futurista, accessed 14 March 2017, https://blogletteratura.com/2011/03/20/la-religione-della-pasta-il-manifesto-della-cucina-futurista/
[xii] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique to the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge, 1984).
[xiii] Claudia Mantovani, Rigenerare la Società: L’Eugenetica in Italia dalle Origini Ottocentesche agli Anni ’30 (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2004) 270-271
[xiv] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).