Don Benito Mussolini, the Ultimate Crime Boss
In the early 20th century, German economist Max Weber said that a sovereign nation is defined by its ability to maintain a monopoly on violence. Benito Mussolini’s suppression of the Sicilian Mafia during the 1920s put Weber’s theory into practice.
After World War II, the revival of the Mafia in democratic Italy added a corollary to Weber’s theory: Dictatorships are more effective in cracking down on crime than nations that observe the rule of law.
The Third Reich and Communist China further demonstrated that totalitarian regimes are better at monopolizing violence than democracies.
In the 1930s, Hitler used the death penalty and indefinite sentences against petty criminals. Mao Tse-teung swiftly eradicated the heroin trade after the Communists came to power in 1949.
German and Chinese Mafia Bosses
Best known as the author of the 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber introduced his theory that a monopoly on violence defines a sovereign state in a lecture to students in 1919 and later in an essay, “Politics as a Vocation.”
The economist didn’t broaden his theory and note that it’s much easier for dictatorships to monopolize violence because they don’t have to observe the legal niceties of democratic governments like habeas corpus and presumed innocence.
In his biography of Mussolini, Oxford historian Denis Mack Smith wrote,
“The outward manifestations of the Mafia were dealt with far more effectively by Mussolini than by any liberal government…
“This proved that a government prepared to ignore constitutional guarantees could subdue, if not eliminate, a scourge,” namely the Mafia and other organized crime groups in Italy.
Within two years of coming to power in 1922, Mussolini's Fascist government had imprisoned more than 2,000 members of the Mafia in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples and what the Italian press called “bandits” on the island of Sardinia.
The Snub That Brought Down the Mafia
Although Mussolini had been a newspaper editor and political scientist before becoming dictator, his blood feud with the Mafia probably had less to do with a knowledge of Weber’s theory about the state’s need to monopolize violence and more to do with a snub by a Sicilian don.
In 1924, the dictator went to Sicily in pursuit of a propaganda coup which would hail him as not only the man who made the “trains run on time” – a myth, but also as a leader who finally put the centuries-old Mafia out of business, which was not a myth but not entirely true.
Instead of Weber, it’s more likely that a Sicilian mayor and Mafioso inspired Mussolini’s decision to suppress the Mafia.
During a reception in Mussolini’s honor, the mayor was surprised at the dictator’s huge security detail and whispered in his ear, “You are with me. You are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?”
The mayor was insulted when Mussolini rejected his offer of protection and ordered the townspeople to boycott the humiliated dictator’s speech.
In 1925, a vengeful Mussolini appointed a new prefect of police in Sicily’s capital of Palermo. With the support of local and national police, the new lawman engaged in tactics that seemed lifted from a Mafia handbook.
Relatives of Mafiosi in hiding were forced into giving themselves up after the police took their families hostage and slaughtered their farm animals. Following their surrender, some confessed under torture.
By 1929, more than 11,000 members of organized crime in Sicily had been arrested, and 10 percent of them sent to prison. The number of murders on the island decreased dramatically.
The government-controlled press boasted that Il Duce had eradicated the Mafia, an exaggeration, but Fascist measures had significantly diminished the organization’s power.
A Mafioso turned informant described the transformation: “The music changed. Mafiosi had a hard life. After the war, the Mafia hardly existed anymore. The Sicilian families had all been broken up.”
The suppression of organized crimes ended soon after the war did. First the occupying Allied powers, then Italy’s democratic government contributed to the Mafia’s revival. Mafiosi escaped from prison during the post-war chaos. The Allies unwittingly participated in the Mafia’s return by sacking Fascist mayors and replacing them with anti-Communists, many of them Mafiosi.
The Mafia's Post-War Comeback
After Mussolini’s ouster in 1943 and Italy’s return to democratic government, organized crime also returned and has continued its 700-year reign of terror. The most notable items on the Mafia’s hit list include the assassinations of several anti-Mafia prosecutors and bombs placed at tourists spots. Florence’s Uffizi Gallery sustained major damage in 1993.
During the 1920s, Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic failed to crack down on crime, especially street brawls among Communists, Nazi Brown Shirts, and the left-wing Social Democrats.
Within a year of coming to power in 1933, Hitler had subverted the legislative and judicial process which protected civil liberties.
After the release of political prisoners who had served their time, the Gestapo rearrested and sent them to concentration camps indefinitely. Many perished under barbaric conditions.
Hitler had come to power in part as a law and order candidate who would crack down on all crime, not just political offenses.
Petty criminals found themselves ensured in the Nazi dragnet intended for political criminals. In eerie anticipation of later “three strikes and you’re out” laws in the U.S., the Third Reich’s rubber-stamp Reichstag or parliament in 1933 decreed that “habitual criminals,” defined as those convicted of three crimes or more, would be placed in “security confinement” after serving their prison sentences. Ten years later, 14,000 habitual criminals had been indefinitely confined.
Although habitual, most of the convicted were not serious offenders. In The Third Reich in Power, Cambridge University historian Richard J. Evans describes the composition of this unfortunate group:
“These were not major or violent criminals, but overwhelming petty offenders – bicycle thieves, pilferers, shoplifters and the like. Most of them were poor people without steady employment who taken to stealing during the [1920s’ hyper] inflation and resumed it during the Depression.” After the war, nostalgic Germans praised Hitler for ending street crime, which he had.
After the Communist takeover of China in 1949, Chairman Mao also used the state’s monopoly on violence to end the opium and heroin trade that had plagued the nation since the late 18th century. His success also proved the effectiveness of totalitarian regimes unfettered by due process or other legal considerations that hamper Western democracies.
During the Middle Ages, Arab traders introduced opium into China for medicinal purposes for pain, insomnia and diarrhea. By the middle of the 19th century, opium had become a recreational drug that was devastating all strata of Chinese society.
Fodder for a Cheech & Chong Historical Epic
In the mid-19th century, when the second opium war between Britain and China to end importation of the drug from British-controlled India, an estimated 90 percent of the emperor’s court and army were regular opium users. During some battles, Chinese soldiers were so impaired by drug use that the British didn’t suffer any casualties.
Mao had all drug dealers summarily executed but surprisingly rejected some measures still promoted by zero-tolerance advocates today. Drug-users were detoxed in hospitals and set free. Recidivists, however, became victims of a two-strikes-and-you’re-out rule which led to their execution or imprisonment in the Chinese Gulag, often a slower form of the death penalty.
Within 10 years, the heroin and illicit morphine trade – powerful derivatives of opium, had been eradicated. The amount produced in China under government control was only enough to provide medicinal treatment.
After 150 years of struggle and devastation, the Chinese people were at last freed from the drug at the cost of their personal and political freedom.
The Great Helmsman just said no.
Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin, 2005.
Sanello, Frank and W. Travis Hanes III. The Opium Wars: The Destruction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Aurora, IL: Sourcebooks, 2002.
Smith, Dennis Mack. Mussolini. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders