Benito Mussolini, (1883-1945), Fascist dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943. He centralized all power in himself
as the leader (il duce) of the Fascist party and attempted to create
an Italian empire, ultimately in alliance with Hitler's Germany. The defeat
of Italian arms in World War II
brought an end to his imperial dream and led
to his downfall.
Mussolini was born in Predappio, near Forli, in Romagna,
on July 29, 1883. His father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith, and his mother,
Rosa, was a schoolteacher. Like his father, Benito became a fervent socialist.
He qualified as an elementary schoolmaster in 1901. In 1902 he emigrated to
Switzerland. Unable to find a permanent job there and arrested for vagrancy,
he was expelled and returned to Italy to do his military service. After further
trouble with the police, he joined the staff of a newspaper in the Austrian
town of Trento in 1908. At this time he wrote a novel, subsequently translated
into English as The Cardinal's Mistress.
Expelled by the Austrians, he became the editor at Forli
of a socialist newspaper, La Lotta di Classe (The Class Struggle).
His early enthusiasm for Karl Marx was modified by a mixture of ideas
from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the revolutionary doctrines of
Auguste Blanqui, and the syndicalism of Georges Sorel. In 1910, Mussolini
became secretary of the local Socialist party at Forli.
At this stage in his life his political views were almost
the opposite of what they later became. He boasted of being an "antipatriot.
When Italy declared war on Turkey in 1911, he was imprisoned for his
pacifist propaganda. Appointed editor of the official Socialist newspaper
Avanti, he moved to Milan, where he established himself as the most forceful
of all labor leaders of Italian socialism. He believed that the proletariat
should unite "in one formidable fascio (bundle), preparatory
to seizing power. Some see this as the start of the Fascist movement.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Mussolini agreed with
the other Socialists that Italy should not join it. Only a class war was acceptable
to him, and he threatened to lead a proletarian revolution if the government
decided to fight. But several months later he unexpectedly changed his position
on the war, leaving the Socialist party and his editorial chair.
Birth of Fascism
In November 1914 he founded a new paper, Il Popolo d'Italia,
and the prowar group Fasci d'Azione Rivoluzionaria. He evidently hoped
the war might lead to a collapse of society that would bring him to power.
Called up for military service, he was wounded in grenade practice in 1917
and returned to edit his paper.
Fascism became an organized political movement in March
1919 when Mussolini founded the Fasci de Combattimento. After failing in the
1919 elections, Mussolini at last entered parliament in 1921 as a right-wing
member. The Fascisti formed armed squads to terrorize Mussolini's former Socialist
colleagues. The government seldom interfered. In return for the support of
a group of industrialists and agrarians, Mussolini gave his approval to strikebreaking,
and he abandoned revolutionary agitation. When the liberal governments of
Giovanni Giolitti, Ivanoe Bonomi, and Luigi Facta failed to stop the spread
of anarchy, Mussolini was invited by the king in October 1922 to form a government.
At first he was supported by the Liberals in parliament.
With their help he introduced strict censorship and altered the methods of
election so that in 1925-1926 he was able to assume dictatorial powers
and dissolve all other political parties. Skillfully using his absolute control
over the press, he gradually built up the legend of the "Duce, a man
who was always right and could solve all the problems of politics and economics.
Italy was soon a police state. With those who tried to resist him, for example
the Socialist Giacomo Matteotti, he showed himself utterly ruthless. But Mussolini's
skill in propaganda was such that he had surprisingly little opposition.
At various times after 1922, Mussolini personally took over
the ministries of the interior, of foreign affairs, of the colonies, of the
corporations, of the army and the other armed services, and of public works.
Sometimes he held as many as seven departments simultaneously, as well as
the premiership. He was also head of the all-powerful Fascist party (formed
in 1921) and the armed Fascist militia. In this way he succeeded in keeping
power in his own hands and preventing the emergence of any rival. But it was
at the price of creating a regime that was overcentralized, inefficient, and
Most of his time was spent on propaganda, whether at home
or abroad, and here his training as a journalist was invaluable. Press, radio,
education, films--all were carefully supervised to manufacture the illusion
that fascism was "the doctrine of the 20th century that was replacing
liberalism and democracy. The principles of this doctrine were laid down in
the article on fascism, reputedly written by himself, that appeared in 1932
in the Enciclopedia Italiana. In 1929 a concordat with the Vatican
was signed, by which the Italian state was at last recognized
by the Roman Catholic Church.
Under the dictatorship the parliamentary system was virtually
abolished. The law codes were rewritten. All teachers in schools and universities
had to swear an oath to defend the Fascist regime. Newspaper editors were
all personally chosen by Mussolini himself, and no one could practice journalism
who did not possess a certificate of approval from the Fascist party. The
trade unions were also deprived of any independence and were integrated into
what was called the "corporative system. The aim (never completely
achieved) was to place all Italians in various professional organizations
or "corporations, all of them under governmental control.
Mussolini played up to his financial backers at first by
transferring a number of industries from public to private ownership. But
by the 1930's he had begun moving back to the opposite extreme of rigid governmental
control of industry. A great deal of money was spent on public works. But
the economy suffered from his exaggerated attempt to make Italy self-sufficient.
There was too much concentration on heavy industry, for which Italy lacked
In foreign policy, Mussolini soon shifted from pacifist
anti-imperialism to an extreme form of aggressive nationalism. An early example
of this was his bombardment of Corfu in 1923. Soon after this he succeeded
in setting up a puppet regime in Albania and in reconquering Libya. It was
his dream to make the Mediterranean "mare nostrum ("our sea).
In 1935, at the Stresa Conference, he helped create an anti-Hitler front in
order to defend the independence of Austria. But his successful war against
Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935-1936 was opposed by the League of Nations,
and he was forced to seek an alliance with Nazi Germany, which had withdrawn
from the League in 1933. His active intervention in 1936-1939 on the
side of Gen. Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War ended any possibility
of reconciliation with France and Britain. As a result, he had to accept the
German annexation of Austria in 1938 and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia
in 1939. At the Munich Conference in September 1938 he posed as a moderate
working for European peace. But his "axis with Germany was confirmed
when he made the Pact of Steel with Hitler in May 1939. Clearly the subordinate
partner, Mussolini followed the Nazis in adopting a racial policy that led
to persecution of the Jews and the creation of apartheid in the Italian empire.
As World War II approached, Mussolini announced his intention
of annexing Malta, Corsica, and Tunis. In April 1939, after a brief war, he
occupied Albania. Failing to realize that he had more to gain by trying to
hold the balance of power in Europe, he preferred to rely on a policy of bluff
and bluster to induce the Western democracies to give way to his increasing
territorial demands. Although he had preached for 15 years about the virtues
of war and the military readiness of Italy to fight, his armed forces were
completely unprepared when Hitler's invasion of Poland led to World War II.
He decided to remain "nonbelligerent until he was quite certain which
side would win. Only after the fall of France did he declare war in June 1940,
hoping that the war had only a few weeks more to run. His attack on Greece
in October revealed to everyone that he had done nothing to prepare an effective
military machine. He had no option but to follow Hitler in declaring war on
Russia in June 1941 and on the United States in December 1941.
Following Italian defeats on all fronts and the Anglo-American
landing in Sicily in 1943, most of Mussolini's colleagues turned against him
at a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on July 25, 1943. This enabled the
king to dismiss and arrest him.
Rescued by the Germans several months later, Mussolini set
up a Republican Fascist state in northern Italy. But he was little more than
a puppet under the protection of the German Army. In this "Republic of
Salo, Mussolini returned to his earlier ideas of socialism and
collectivization. He also executed some of the Fascist leaders who had abandoned
him, including his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. Increasingly he tried to shift
the blame for defeat onto the Italian people, who had not been great enough
to appreciate his imperial dream. In April 1945, just before the Allied armies
reached Milan, Mussolini, along with his mistress Clara Petacci, was caught
by Italian partisans as he tried to take refuge in Switzerland. He was summarily
The Duce was survived by his wife, Rachele, by two sons,
Vittorio and Romano, and his daughter Edda, the widow of Count Ciano. A third
son, Bruno, had been killed in an air accident.
Denis Mack Smith
Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University
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