The first reflection of the war in Europe meant an economic recession for the Milanese. In 1914 Italy was paralyzed by a general strike; in Milan 20,000 demonstrators filled the Arena and piazza Duomo. Two subversives were arrested: their names were Mussolini and Corridoni.
On the 14th of February 1916 Milan was victim of the first aerial bombing raid in its history. There were 13 dead and 40 wounded. A monument in via Tiraboschi was erected in memory of the victims. By the end of the war the city counted 10,000 dead.
Although victorious, the end of World War I caused a deep crisis in Italy; the problems left over from the conflict were open wounds and most critically, the culture of Italian politics was unresponsive to the monumental changes taking place. It was in Milan that a movement began, fuelled by the contingent situation which it used as a pretext to bury the fragile Italian democracy. On the 23rd of March 1919 in piazza San Sepolcro, Benito Mussolini founded the Fasci italiani di combattimento (Italian Fighting Fascists), whose efforts would bring about the dictatorship of Italy in 1925.
During the twenty years of fascism, Milan and the rest of the nation experienced the limits imposed by a repressive and reactionary regime. The city did, however, maintain its cultural vocation and through culture became critical of Mussolini’s power.
In December 1924 Milan inaugurated the University of Studies whose first rector, Luigi Mangiagalli, was also the city’s mayor. Thus the city added another institution of higher learning after the Polytechnic, Bocconi and the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, the latter inaugurated in 1921.
The fascist policies of urban design put up new streets and neighborhoods in Milan, marking the establishment of modernist architecture of which some renowned examples are still visible today, such as the new site of Bocconi from 1938, Villa Necchi Campiglio, and Palazzo dell’Arengario, which completed the renewal of the city centre. Marcello Piacentini, the regime’s official architect, left Milan with an example of his “simplified Neoclassisim” in the Palazzo di giustizia (1932). Modernist architecture was, after all, supported by Gruppo 7, an association of architects from the Milan Polytechnic, founded in 1926 and dissolved in 1931.
In the area of the figurative arts experimentation was kept alive by the controversial views of the art movement “Corrente”, which represented Milan’s best-informed voice of the intellectual opposition to fascist culture.
Thus the group of abstract painters from the Milione gallery continued to develop in the tradition of the avant-garde: one of the major artists of the 1900s gave us possibly the most realistic and profound images of Milan; far from the sparkling and “cleaned up” centre, these were the outskirts painted by Mario Sironi; solitude, squalor, a humanity alienated from itself, in exile, absorbed and confused by an environment of walls, smokestacks and lonely streets.
World War II had profound effects on Milan. The air incursions, especially those of August 1943, destroyed much of the centre. La Scala, the Gallery and Palazzo Reale were ruined. Many were the victims of falling debris or of the torturing and killing in the final torment of Fascism. But the redemption of an entire nation the reconquest of democracy began here, especially in the sectors of industry and labor. Milan was in fact one of the capitals of the Italian resistance and in the post war period once again reclaimed its role as the “moral capital”.