Did Mussolini Get the Trains Running on Time?

Debunking Historical Myths

Mussolini and Hitler
Mussolini and Hitler.

Wikimedia Commons

In the United Kingdom, you often hear the phrase “ Mussolini made the trains run on time” uttered by both people trying to make the point that even dictatorial governments have some good points and people annoyed at the latest delay on their rail journey. In Britain, there are a lot of delays on rail journeys. But did Italian dictator Mussolini make the trains run on time as they claimed? The study of history is all about the context and empathy, and this is one of those situations where the context is everything.

The Truth

While the Italian rail service did improve during the early portion of Mussolini’s rule (World War II rather interrupted the latter part), the improvements had more to do with people who pre-dated Mussolini than anything changed by his government. Even then, the trains didn’t always run on time.

The Fascist Propaganda

People uttering the phrase about trains and Mussolini have fallen for the pro-Fascist propaganda the Italian dictator used to bolster his power in 1920s and 1930s Italy. Before World War I, Mussolini was a socialist activist of no importance, but his experiences in the war and afterwards led him to become the leader of a self-styled group of 'fascists,' who harked back to the great Roman Empire and wished to project a future with a strong, emperor-like figure and a vastly larger new Italian empire. Mussolini naturally positioned himself as the central figure, surrounded by blackshirts, strong-armed thugs, and plenty of violent rhetoric. After intimidation and a decaying political situation, Mussolini was able to get himself in charge of the day-to-day running of Italy.

Mussolini's rise to power had been founded on publicity. He might have had often bizarre policies and looked like a comedic figure to later generations, but he knew what worked when it came to getting attention, and his propaganda was strong. He styled high profile campaigns as ‘Battles,’ such as the marsh reclamation project dubbed the “Battle for Land,” in an attempt to add dynamism to both himself, his government, and what would otherwise be rather mundane events. Mussolini then picked on the rail industry as something to show how his supposedly dynamic rule had improved Italian life. Getting the railway improved would be something he could cheer about, and cheer he did. The problem was he'd had some help.

Train Improvements

While the train industry did improve from the parlous state into which it had sunk during World War I, this was largely due to improvements implemented before Mussolini came to power in 1922. The aftermath of the war had seen other politicians and administrators push through changes, which bore fruit when the newly fascist dictator wished to claimed them. These other people didn’t matter to Mussolini, who was quick to claim any credit for anything at all. It’s perhaps also important to point out that, even with the improvements others had made, the trains didn’t always run on time. Of course, any improvements from this era have to be weighed against the fact the Italian rail system was soon to be impacted by fighting a titanic war which Mussolini would lose (but oddly a reborn Italy would go on to kind of win).

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Wilde, Robert. "Did Mussolini Get the Trains Running on Time?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/did-mussolini-get-the-trains-running-on-time-1221609. Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 26). Did Mussolini Get the Trains Running on Time? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/did-mussolini-get-the-trains-running-on-time-1221609 Wilde, Robert. "Did Mussolini Get the Trains Running on Time?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/did-mussolini-get-the-trains-running-on-time-1221609 (accessed June 10, 2023).