Benito Mussolini, Dr. hc: Switzerland, the Fascist Temptation and the Populist Right

Benito Mussolini giving a speech in 1935 (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The Pareto optimum is one of the best-known concepts in economics. It is named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian social scientist considered one of the founders of microeconomics. What is perhaps less know is that Pareto taught at the University of Lausanne (canton of Vaud), one of Switzerland’s oldest universities. In 1904, Pareto had an illustrious student attend some of his lectures – only at the time he was far from illustrious. The student was Benito Mussolini, a young socialist who in 1902 had emigrated to Switzerland to escape compulsory military service in Italy. While at the University of Lausanne, Mussolini befriended Pareto’s assistant, Pasquale Boninsegni, who would later inherit Pareto’s position at the University. At that time, Boninsegni, an accomplished economist in his own right, had become a fervent admirer of Mussolini and a convinced fascist.

It was Boninsegni, who was behind the efforts to accord “Il Duce” a doctorate to mark the 400-year anniversary of the founding of the University in 1537 – against considerable resistance among some of his academic colleagues. The University finally gave in and granted the doctorate – after Vaud’s cantonal authorities had given the green light. The official justification was that Mussolini, “by eliminating party squabbles” had restored to the Italian people “their spiritual, social and economic unity” and, at the same time, “established a new social order, which has enriched the sociological science and which will leave profound traces in history,” claimed the University of Lausanne.

The awarding of the doctorate evoked considerable criticism in the country – after the content of the diploma was leaked to the Lausanne media. It took considerable efforts on the part of Boninsegni to get Il Duce to graciously accept the honor. Boninsegni remained a convinced fascist until the end. In 1939, Boninsegni was made senator del Regno. He passed away shortly thereafter.

Bonisegni was hardly alone to fall under the spell of Mussolini. Sympathies for the fascist cause were abundant in the non-German parts of the country, as were sympathies for the Nazis on the other side of the Rösti Graben (the line separating the Romandie from the Deutschschweiz). Mussolini and Hitler served as models for provincial delusional “leaders” ready to seize the day and make history. One of them was Georges Albert Oltramare, Le petit Duce de Genève. The founder of a satirical magazine, Le Pilori, whose main purpose was to promote anti-Semitic ressentiments, Otramare established himself as the uncontested voice of fascism in Geneva, where he was elected to the cantonal parliament. From Geneva, he sought to extend the influence of Swiss fascism throughout the French-speaking regions – with very limited success. Disillusioned, he left Switzerland in 1940 to settle in France where he came out in support of the Nazis. After the war, he returned to Switzerland. Hardly surprising, the Swiss justice system did not particularly appreciate his role in the interwar period. He was convicted of an assault on Switzerland’s sovereignty and sentenced to three years in prison – a mild verdict in view of the fact that a French court wished to sentence him to death.

In the 1990s, when Switzerland came under considerable attack for its less than honorable role during the Second World War, Christoph Blocher, billionaire, SVP strongman, and vocal advocate of Switzerland’s sovereignty and independence with respect to the European Union, came out strongly defending Switzerland’s role during those years. One of Blocher’s main arguments was that Switzerland never succumbed to the siren calls of fascism and Nazism. To be sure, there were those who advocated a nationalist revolution along fascist lines. There were those who promoted the idea that Switzerland should join the glorious Third Reich – at least as long as it appeared to be glorious. Yet, despite all the pressures on the Swiss, despite all the threats (at one point Mussolini contemplated the annexation of Ticino, Switzerland’s sole Italian-speaking canton), the country safeguarded its dignity and independence. At the same time, the experience of the war appears to have left a profound psychological impact on Swiss mentality, particularly in the German-speaking part of the country.  Fascism and Nazism might have had a limited attraction in the interwar period. Once it became clear, however, that national revival was not an end in itself but only the basis for military adventures in the name of empire and total war in the name of genocide, the sobering-up was quick and thorough, lasting until today.

This is not to exculpate Switzerland’s contemporary radical populist right, its often vicious campaigns against immigrants, its instrumentalization of reasonable concerns. Switzerland is one of the most affluent countries in Europe, a peaceful oasis in an increasingly unhinged world. Yet the success of radical right-wing political parties, from the SVP on the national level to the Lega dei ticinesi (the dominant part in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino) and the movement des citoyens genevois (by now, a minor party in Geneva) on the cantonal level, suggests that the politics of resentment is hardly confined to the less fortunate. On the contrary. The underlying causes of the success of radical right-wing populism are many and of a complexity that makes it difficult to counteract them. In the Swiss case, the success of parties such as the SVP and the Lega dei ticinesi suggests that history matters, for instance, when it comes to the defense of the country’s independence and sovereignty, particularly with regard to European Union membership.  The Swiss exposure to political systems radically different of their own turned out to be a disaster. The Swiss system of consociationalism might not be perfect, but it works – and delivers. Mussolini is still on the ledger of those who received a doctorate from the University of Lausanne. His “new social order,” however, was proved wanting. And that’s ultimately what counts.

Dr Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University of Zurich. See his profile here.

© Hans-Georg Betz.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).