June 10, 2009
It was Benito Mussolini who said that a better name for Fascism would be Corporatism. The term aptly describes a perfect merger of the state and industry, with the former making sure the climate for business is sound, and the latter influencing legislation and politics to its benefit. Fiat S.p.A. (an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino), the giant Italian car manufacturer, is a prime example of one corporation that benefited from such policies, and went on to dominate markets in similar political environments.
The Italian success of Fiat and its near monopoly on domestic auto market benefited directly from Mussolini's generous corporate policies of the 1920s and 30s. On the international market, the Fiat brand was subsequently reserved for Communist and Fascist dictatorships. Given such a pedigree, it should not come as a surprise that Fiat's merger with Chrysler coincided with the Corporate Socialist policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. Fiat's decision to help the troubled American automaker is not a simple good-will gesture. Not without a sense of bitter irony, the merger should be looked at as part of a larger pattern of the Italian corporation's forays into totalitarian regimes.
After World War II, due to its ties to Mussolini's fascist regime in Italy, Fiat was forced to remove the owner family from leadership. The company produced a number of highly fuel-efficient, if small and medium-size cars, but it wasn't until 1955 when the tiny Fiat 600 (or "Seicento") revolutionized the way people thought of urban commuter vehicles. Not only was the Seicento a huge international hit, but it also paved way for a massive licensing of the Fiat brand onto such territories as Eastern Europe and South America.
Argentina's dealings with Fiat date back to the early years of the 20th Century. Imported Fiats were sold for decades until the first licensed Seicento was introduced in 1960, followed by other models. Thus, through the windows of their Fiats, Argentinean drivers could witness General Juan Perón's crackdown on dissidents, censorship and torture, but also the General's overthrow and exile to Spain, decades of political unrest, violence, "disappearance" of thousands of innocent people, and some other nasty aspects of the Dirty War. When pressed for details, some older Fiat drivers can still recall the CIA-backed Operation Condor, as well as Perón's return to power, his death, and a coup d'état, which removed his fascist wife from office, and last, but not least, the shameful defeat by the British in the Falklands War. From then on, things started to look a little better.
Also worth mentioning is the Spanish edition of Fiat automobiles, produced there as SEAT, during the fascist Franco regime. It is quite possible that Juan Perón was driven to the airport in a Fiat-SEAT, on his way back to Argentina to end his 18-year exile. In his many strange dealings, Perón was assisted by Giancarlo Valori, a Fiat executive.
In 1955, Communist Yugoslavia began its partnership with Fiat. A version of the Fiat 600, Zastava 750, was launched under a license in 1962. Various models, some manufactured in Poland, kept Yugoslav mechanics occupied throughout Tito's Presidency for Life. It is rumored that a chief of secret police in Serbia fell victim to a dubious traffic incident involving a Fiat-licensed vehicle, after he started to complain about Tito's politics. After Tito's death, it was just a matter of time before the multi-ethnic federation of Yugoslav states started to break apart.
Regardless of their propensity for mechanical failure, various models of Zastava vehicles became primary modes of transporting food and smuggling weapons during the Bosnian War. Relatively low MPG offered by most Fiat-based vehicles proved highly efficient during the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Despite the bombing of its factory by NATO, Zastava became a much depended-upon vehicle in the subsequent Kosovo War of 1999. (Ironically, the Allies had orders to spare slave-labor Nazi Ford factories in Germany from air raids in WWII.) Low-income Americans still recall the mid 90s shortage of spare parts for their Yugo, one of Zastava's greatest pre-war exports. According to an unconfirmed source, Slobodan Milošević was caught while waxing his 1982 Zastava Koral (Yugo Tempo), and subsequently brought to The Hague War Crimes Tribunal. Also, quite possibly, the apprehension of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karad žić would not be possible had his 2003 Zastava 10 (another Fiat design) not gotten a flat tire.
After a successful effort to rip off the Fiat 600 without a license (Zaporozhets ZAZ-965), the Soviet Union eventually entered into an official licensing agreement with Fiat in 1966. (By now Fiat's ownership had reverted back to the original family.) It is still virtually impossible to walk onto a Russian street anywhere in the country without bumping into one version of a Fiat-based vehicle or another. Under the name Lada, the Fiat became a car of choice for both the advantaged people and the Communist leadership (the common man had to do with a Zaporozhets). In fact, an Italian-Soviet motion picture, The Extraordinary Adventures of Italians in Russia (1973), extolled the benefits of Fiat-Lada vehicles in a narrative that amounted to little more than an extended car commercial. Eventually, the original Fiat blueprints were modified to fit the climate hardships and poor road conditions in Russia. Still, the Lada was notorious for its frequent breakdowns.
Lada's development parallels the history of modern Soviet Union vis-à-vis Leonid Brezhnev, another Leader for Life. The most notable turning points in this saga include the Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia, forced expulsion of Jews from Russia, and a near total economic devastation of the empire precipitated by the invasion of Afghanistan. All throughout those years the faithful Lada kept Soviet people on the go in style, if they were lucky enough to afford one. The average waiting period for a new car could drag on for years. Lada kept on producing Fiat-based models throughout the breakdown of its Federation in the early 1990s and continues to do so today with great success. I dare you to take a stroll in downtown Grozny, Chechnya, without a threat of being run over by a bullet-ridden Fiat-based vehicle.