He was the father of Fascism, the iron fisted dictator who ruled Italy for more than two decades. During that time, he plunged his country to disaster, forming an alliance with Adolf Hitler and bringing the wrath of the world – and his own people – upon him. In the end, his own citizens expressed their own ruthless verdict on the man who called himself Il Duce. In this weeks, Biographics we track the life and death of Benito Mussolini.
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was born on the 29th of July, 1883 in a small village near the northern Italian town of Predappio in the province of Forli. His father, Allesandro, was a blacksmith and an atheist who was heavily involved in Socialist politics, while his mother, Rosa, was a devout Roman Catholic schoolteacher.
With his parents’ divergent beliefs, the young Mussolini was raised to put his faith in both Karl Marx and the Pope. His mother took him to mass several times a week, while his father dragged him to the pub to learn from his Socialist friends.
From the start, Benito proved to be an aggressive, rebellious child. In later life reflected . . .
I was not a good boy. I was, I believe, unruly.
By the time he was eight, Benito was spending long hours helping his father in the furnace. Here he would listen to Allseandro’s socialist ideas and these were to mould his future philosophy. But the boy’s heart was with his mother. He feared displeasing her, yet, this did not curb his wayward tendencies.
By the time he was nine, Rosa had become so exasperated with Benito that she sent him to a school run by Roman Catholic monks in order to instill some much-needed discipline. But the defiant Benito chafed at the strict discipline and his behavior became even worse. He got into a number of fights and was eventually expelled when he took on one of the monks.
Rosa now sent her wayward son to a less strict school closer to home. This did nothing to improve his behaviour and before long he was again expelled, this time for threatening another student with a knife. His exasperated mother managed to find a third school, where he managed to see out his schooling.
At the age of seventeen, Benito completed his ten years of compulsory schooling. His main accomplishments over that period were the ability to play the trombone and to speak in public. However, despite his poor academic record, in 1901, he qualified as a school teacher. But, he soon discovered that teaching did not suit him. He was far more interested in the two passions that he had inherited from his father – socialism and womanizing.
The eighteen-year old Benito was a strong, handsome young man with a forceful personality and a certain charisma. He easily drew the attention of young women, often the wives of other men. This often resulted in fist fights with outraged husbands.
After less than a year, Mussolini had lost his teaching job after getting into a violent argument. With no money and very little prospects, he moved to Switzerland. He worked in a succession of manual jobs to support himself. Within a short time, he had attached himself to a group of Marxists. He also joined a trade union and began attending rival political rallies, where he would heckle the speaker and start fights with those in the crowd.
As a result of these political agitations, Benito was arrested and deported back to Italy several times. But each time he returned, more determined than ever to keep stirring the political pot.
Mussolini struggled to make ends meet in Switzerland. On one occasion he accosted two elderly women on the street and stole food from them. In his 1928 autobiography, he related that if the women had struggled he would have strangled them. In 1904, he returned to Italy and joined the Italian army. He served out the compulsory eighteen months.
Ten months into his military service, Mussolini’s beloved mother, Rosa, died. A distraught Benito later called this the greatest sorrow of his life. He was discharged from the army in September, 1906. He had clearly not learned discipline while in his country’s service as his life now revolved around drinking, womanizing and fighting.
He managed to gain employment as a teacher again with a succession of temporary contracts. During this period prior to the First World War, Mussolini’s moral character deteriorated as his socialist ardor increased. He wrote for and edited several socialist newspapers, railing against the government, the democratic system, the middle classes and the church.
In one pamphlet, entitled God Does Not Exist, he wrote that priests were ‘black microbes, who are as fatal to mankind as tuberculosis germs.’ When Italy engaged in a war against Libya in 1911, Mussolini led the internal criticism against the government’s actions through his newspaper writings.
His outspoken opposition led to his arrest and a five-month imprisonment. Yet his fist shaking public opposition to the government had also garnered the attention of the country’s top Socialist leaders who looked on admiringly. The young Benito Mussolini was viewed by them as a rising star of the left.
In December,1912, shortly after his release from prison, Benito was appointed editor of the country’s national socialist newspaper, Avanti. It was a natural fit and within six months, his firebrand style of journalism had increased the papers readership five-fold. He now had a national forum with which to air his views.
The First World War
When war broke out in 1914, Mussolini held firm non-interventionist views. He saw war as anti-socialist as it pitted the working classes of one nation against those of another. Within months, though, he had changed his view. He now saw war as an opportunity to foment revolution. He now used his voice through the pages of Avanti to call on the young men of Italy to join the army.
Mussolini’s about face on the war situation put him at odds with more moderate socialist leaders and resulted in his expulsion from the party and loss of editorship of Avanti. Defiantly he started his own newspaper, ‘Il Populo Italia’ or ‘The People of Italy.’ This paper ran continuously from November 1914 until Mussolini’s removal from power twenty-nine years later. In his first editorial he proclaimed the famous line . . .
Blood alone moves the wheels of history.
Around this same time, Mussolini founded his first political party – the Fascii of Revolutionary Action. This was soon simply known as the Fascist Party. The main Allied Powers, Britain and France, supported Mussolini, seeing him as a key to getting Italy more involved in the war effort. They provided much needed financial support to the new party. The British Secret Service even paid Mussolini a wage of one hundred pounds per week.
In July 1915, Italy signed the Treaty of London, committing itself to fighting alongside the Allies against Germany. But Italy’s war soon became a fiasco. It was plagued by poorly trained and inexperienced officers and unwilling, belligerent conscripts. They became bogged down in a battle of attrition against Austria-Hungary. By the time it was all over more than 650,000 Italians were dead, half a million were missing and nearly a million were wounded.
Mussolini himself re-joined the army in September, 1915. He attained the rank of corporal, winning acclaim for his bravery and devotion to his men. On February 22, 1917, he was in a trench when one of his fellow soldier’s grenades exploded. He was badly wounded, requiring numerous operations over the course of the next month and then being sent home to recuperate.
Mussolini’s message now morphed from Socialism and the plight of the working man to patriotism and the cause of ultra-nationalism.
Rise of the Fascists
During the post war talks in Paris, Italy was treated dismissively by the major powers. The territories that she had been promised during the 1915 treaty of London were not handed over. The Italian Prime Minister, Vittorio Orlando, walked out of the conference in disgust. Orlando bore the brunt of public discontent and was soon removed from office.
In the following elections, Mussolini’s Fascist Party failed to win a single seat. His political rivals made fun of this, staging a mock funeral for the party. Chief among his adversaries were the Socialists, who had won a third of the seats in parliament and who Mussolini was now firmly opposed to.
Over the next three years, the political situation in Italy was extremely unstable, with four prime ministers and coalition governments, none of which was able to yield any real power. The country was in a state of near anarchy, with rampant inflation and unemployment driving people to despair.
Mussolini’s Fascist’s. dressed in their intimidating black shirts, roamed through the streets, seeking out and beating up Socialists, Communist or anyone one else they didn’t like the look of. The police, who had sympathy for the Fascists, usually stood by and let Mussolini’s men get on with it.
On May 15, 1921 national elections were held. This time, the Fascists joined a coalition of right-wing parties, the National Block, and won 35 seats out of the total of 535 in the House of Parliament. Mussolini himself gained a seat in the chamber of deputies. He was now an official member of the Italian government.
Realizing that he now needed to broaden his base, Mussolini did an about face on a couple of his underpinning principals. He became both pro-monarchy and pro-church. But his hatred of socialism remained.
Mussolini renamed the party, now calling it the National Fascist Party. His reputation began to grow and he became known as a man with the ability to rule with a firm hand and restore order amid the chaos that Italy had fallen into. Public opinion was beginning to turn in his favor.
That popularity was bolstered when Mussolini’ Black Shirts broke up a Socialist backed strike in October, 1922. At a rally shortly thereafter, Mussolini declared in a speech that either the government would hand over power to him or he would seize it for himself. This was no idle bluster. With no sign of capitulation by the government, Mussolini decided to stage a coup by marching on Rome. His forces were no match for the Italian army but still the Prime Minister, Luigi Facta, offered Mussolini a position in his government in order to avoid conflict. The offer was roundly rejected and the fascists marched on the capital.
The panicked Prime Minister urged the King to allow him to use the army to quash the rebellion. The king agreed but quickly changed his mind, fearing civil war. This enraged the Prime Minister who resigned his office.
The twenty thousand Fascists marching on the capital stopped twenty miles north of the city. There, half of them left off and returned home. The rest carried on, with Mussolini himself joining them at various points to have his photo taken at the front of the line. But with the rain pouring down he was content to leave the heavy marching to others and took an express train into Rome.
The king, who secretly admired Mussolini, now tried to placate him by offering him a governmental role. Mussolini would consider nothing but the prime minister-ship. Eventually, the king offered this position to him.
At age 39, Mussolini had become Prime Minister, not through violent revolution, but through threat, bluster and unequivocal demand. In the wake of his victory, ecstatic Fascist roamed the streets in search of down heartened Socialists that they could terrorize.
Attaining Absolute Power
Mussolini was now both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. But his government was very much a minority in the House of Parliament. This forced him to work with the confines of democracy, which left him at the mercy of the majority coalition. This was not a situation that the power-hungry autocrat would tolerate for long.
Within eight weeks of assuming office, Mussolini formed the Fascist Grand Council. The Grand Council acted as a conduit between the Fascists and the Chamber of Deputies. Filled with his hand picked appointees, it was, in effect, a mouthpiece for Mussolini which effectively lessened the power of Parliament to act.
In 1923 the Grand Council passed a law that rigged the electoral system to ensure that the Fascists gained a sizable majority in the next election. When the election was held the following April, the Fascist won 374 of the 535 seats. The new law helped to gain this 70% majority, but so too did the vigilant presence of Mussolini’s Black Shirts, who coerced the public to vote for the Fascists. In addition, opposition party meetings were broken up and their candidates beaten.
In the wake of this overwhelming electoral victory, socialist leader, Giacomo Matteoti, openly denounced the Fascists and their leader. Eleven days later, Matteoti was assassinated. This led to nationwide protest against Mussolini and his party of thugs, with many people calling on the king to depose the Prime Minister.
For his part, Mussolini pleaded innocence and acted shocked and revolted by the murder. He did his best to distance himself from the crime. Still, Politicians from all parties responded by withdrawing from Parliament in an effort to force Mussolini’s ejection from office.
But the king refused to get rid of Mussolini. In a vote of confidence on January 3rd, 1925, few of the Prime Minister’s opponents showed up. Ever the opportunist, he now took the opportunity to cement his absolute authority. He declared that only the Fascists could provide stability in the country and it would be achieved through dictatorship.
As Mussolini’s propaganda machine infiltrated every area of Italy, a cult of personality developed around him. People considered him to be a genius man of action, but one with the common touch. When things went well, it was all thanks to Il Duce (the leader) However, when things went wrong it was never his fault.
He was a mesmerizing speaker, who used facial expressions and gestures to capture and enthral his audience. He stood only 5’6” inches tall and liked to dress in striped trousers and shirts with butterfly collars. He was not a well man physically, suffering from ulcers and stomach upset. His health problems forced him to give up smoking and drinking. Beginning to lose his hair in his late twenties, he took to shaving his head. He was also short sighted but too vain to wear glasses.
Mussolini spent the next two years dismantling democracy in Italy and establishing his own totalitarian regime. During that time, he instilled three key messages into the public consciousness . . .
Believe, Obey, Fight
This message gained widespread approval. Even many former Socialists now turned to Fascism. The firm hand of the state was seen as the only solution to the country’s woes. All forms of criticism of the state were banned and opposition parties disbanded. Mussolini himself was answerable to only the king.
Spies were everywhere, eager to report to the authorities anyone who spoke or acted against the state. During the 1920’s, the Fascists had made modest improvements in the Italian economy. However, all of this was overturned with the global depression that followed the Wall Street Crash in October, 1929. Once again, the country was in a state of economic chaos.
Mussolini responded by embarking on foreign invasions. During the 1930’s he sent his armies into Libya, Ethiopia and Spain.
Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia began in 1935 and resulted in a devastating occupation that would continue until 1941, when the British army forced the Italians out. During that time it has been estimate that 8% of Ethiopia’s population was put to death. Mussolini ordered that the male populations of entire towns be wiped out. Ethiopia’s leader, Haile Selassie, was forced to flee to England from where he petitioned the United Nations. They eventually imposed sanctions on Italy. This infuriated Mussolini and sent him into the arms of a neighboring dictator by the name of Adolf Hitler.
Pact of Steel
On May 22, 1939, Hitler and Mussolini signed a Pact of Steel, by which they promised to come to each other’s aid in the event of war. Les than four months later, Germany invaded Poland to ignite the Second World War. Mussolini proved erratic in his response to the prospect of fighting a European war alongside the Nazis. One day he appeared jubilant, only to seem to rue the pact that would bring the wrath of the major European powers down on his country the next.
On the very day that Germany invaded Poland, Mussolini announced to his cabinet that he had decided not to fulfil his Pact of Steel obligation on the basis that Germany had signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, an act that violated provisos of the pact. The truth was that Il Duce had absolutely no confidence in his country’s readiness for war.
Despite his announcement to cabinet, Mussolini continued to put up a pretense of support before Hitler. However, in private he spoke of joining the British / French coalition. Finally, on June 10th, 1940, with the Nazis looking assured of an easy victory over the French, Mussolini declared war on Britain and France.
Italian troops were quickly sent to France in order that Mussolini could have some share in the spoils of victory. At the same time, he mobilized forces into Africa to attack British holdings there. Large scale forces were sent into Egypt, while other divisions focused on Greece. At the same time, Mussolini was overseeing the air force as they joined with the Nazi Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.
In every theater the ill-prepared Italian forces were driven back or stalemated. This enraged Hitler, who was forced to send Germany troops in to save the Italians.
By the beginning of 1942, it was apparent that Italy was fighting a losing war. They were badly beaten in Egypt at the Battle of El Alamain. Then the Allied invasion of French North Africa pushed them further back on their heels. The allied invasion of Sicily was the final straw. Italy’s complete defeat was only a matter of time.
An Ignoble End
The country was in a state of emergency. There was no fuel so all the factories were down. Food was incredibly scarce with widespread starvation resulting. The people were desperate and furious. In this climate, a massive march on Rome took place – a march against Il Duce.
Bowing to the will of the people, King Victor Emmanuel ordered Mussolini to his palace where he informed him that he was removing him from office. Guards then came in and arrested Il Duce and took him into custody.
The New Italian Prime Minister, Pietro Badoglio, was intent on braking the alliance with Germany and signing an armistice with the Allies. However, in order to stall for time, he kept up the ruse of alliance with Hitler. Unsurprisingly, when Hitler learned that Badoglio had signed an armistice on September 3rd, 1943, he was furious. He ordered a full-sale invasion of his former ally.
Nazi forces used Blitzkrieg tactics to storm and capture Rome, forcing the King and Prime Minister flee the city. Some elements of the Italian army attempted to resist but many of them simply threw down their arms and surrendered.
Meanwhile, Mussolini was being held at a resort-turned prison at Campo Imperatore in the Alps. He knew the situation was chaotic but was surprised to see German paratroopers landing right outside his cell window. The Germans quickly overpowered the guards and made their way into Mussolini’s cell where one of them said . . .
‘Il Duce, the Fuhrer has sent me to set you free.’
Mussolini was taken to Hitlers’ East Prussian headquarters. Hitler genuinely admired Mussolini and considered him a great influence on his own career. But he was disappointed to see the man before him. All of Mussolini’s will to continue the fascist struggle had deserted him. The Fuhrer was dumbfounded when Il Duce asked if he could be permitted to retire from public life.
Hitler would have none of it. He installed Mussolini as the puppet ruler of northern Italy, which was now in Nazi hands. For the next eighteen months, Mussolini played this role, an impotent leader who ruled over a people who hated him and that was surrounded by armed Nazis and approaching Allies.
With the writing well and truly on the wall, Mussolini tried to escape to Switzerland on April 27th, 1945. Just short of the border, he was intercepted by Communists who took him and his companions into custody. The following day they decided to execute him, along with his long-time mistress, Clara Petacci. After riddling the bodies with bullets, the Communist drove them into Milan and dumped them in the middle of the town square.
For hours the citizens of Milan took out their enmity on the man who had led them to disaster. His body was spat upon, stoned, beaten and, finally, strung up by the feet. There the body of the once revered leader was subjected to the abuse of the crowd. His corpse was eventually thrown into an unmarked grave.