Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime was often depicted as inept and ridiculed for its comic appearances. The illusions of the new Roman Empire and Mussolini’s ambition of creating a state that would encircle the Mediterranean, calling it Mare Nostrum, were shattered when poorly equipped and led Italian army started suffering defeat after defeat and was forced to call its German allies to help. These military humiliations certainly didn’t help Mussolini’s image in history books.
While it is true that compared to Hitler and the Nazi Party Mussolini and his cronies look like a watered down version of Nazism, that doesn’t mean they were harmless, especially to people opposing their politics. Murders and torture were everyday occurrences in Mussolini’s Italy, and there was nothing comical about that. Mussolini did have some peculiar way of torturing his opponents, though.
There was a saying stating that Mussolini’s power was reinforced by “the bludgeon and castor oil.” The bludgeon is self-explanatory, but the castor oil seems a bit confusing. Castor oil was used as cover-all medicine for any kinds of stomach troubles in Italy, due to it being a mild laxative. For instance, if some poor kid decided he wanted to skip school because his tummy hurts, he or she would be force-fed a tablespoon of it and would spend the afternoon on the toilet contemplating the value of education. Almost every ailment of the digestive tract was treated with a tablespoon of castor oil. It also doubled as a form of punishment for disobeying children and mentally-ill patients. Mussolini’s thugs had a brilliant idea to feed a whole bottle of castor oil to their victims and watch as diarrhea strikes.
The torture was very humiliating, and that was its main goal. It allowed the torturers to ridicule their victim and show them that they have full control of their body. However, lasting diarrhea could easily dehydrate the victims, and there were instances of their death. The fact that castor oil was often administered together with the bludgeon complicated their recovery from dehydration and reduced their chances of survival at the hands of the fascists.
Even today, the castor oil is used in Italian political discourse. It is often used as a means to ridicule politicians, especially right-wing ones. The phrase “Usare l’olio di ricino,” (“to use castor oil”) means to force someone to do something against their will, just like “usare il manganello” (“to use the bludgeon”). It took decades to purge the myth of castor oil usefulness from minds of Italians.