Mussolini, Benito
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Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) was head of the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. A Fascist dictator, he led Italy into three sucessive wars, the last of which overturned his regime.

Benito Mussolini was born at Dovia di Predappio in Forlì province on July 29, 1883. His father was a blacksmith and an ardent Socialist; his mother taught elementary school. His family belonged to the impoverished middle classes. Benito, with a sharp and lively intelligence, early demonstrated a powerful ego. Violent and undisciplined, he learned little at school. In 1901, at the age of 18, he took his diploma di maestro and then taught secondary school briefly. Voluntarily exiling himself to Switzerland (1902-1904), he formed a dilettante's culture notable only for its philistinism. Not surprisingly, Mussolini based it on Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, and Max Stirner, on the advocates of force, will, and the superego. Culturally armed, Mussolini returned to Italy in 1904, rendered military service, and engaged in politics full time thereafter.

Early Career and Politics

Mussolini became a member of the Socialist party in 1900, and his politics, like his culture, were exquisitely bohemian. He crossed anarchism with syndicalism, matched Peter Kropotkin and Louis Blanqui with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. More Nietzschean than Marxist, Mussolini's socialism was sui generis, a concoction created entirely by himself. In Socialist circles, nonetheless, he first attracted attention, then applause, and soon widespread admiration. He "specialized" in attacking clericalism, militarism, and reformism. Mussolini urged revolution at any cost. In each attack he was extremist and violent. But he was also eloquent and forceful.

Mussolini occupied several provincial posts as editor and labor leader until he suddenly emerged in the 1912 Socialist Party Congress. Shattering all precedent, he became editor of the party's daily paper, Avanti, at a youthful 29. His editorial tenure during 1913-1914 abundantly confirmed his promise. He wrote a new journalism, pungent and polemical, hammered his readership, and injected a new excitement into Socialist ranks. On the Socialist platform, he spoke sharply and well, deft in phrase and savage in irony.

The young Mussolini proved a formidable opponent. In a party long inert, bureaucratic, and burdened with mediocrity, he capitalized on his youth, offered modernity with dynamism, and decried the need for revolution in a moment when revolutionary ferment was sweeping the country. An opportunist to his bones, Mussolini early mastered the direction of the winds and learned quickly to turn full sail into them.

From Socialist to Fascist

This much-envied talent led Mussolini to desert the Socialist party in 1914 and to cross over to the enemy camp, the Italian bourgeoisie. He rightly understood that World War I would bury the old Europe. Upheaval would follow its wake. He determined to prepare for "the unknown." In late 1914 he founded an independent newspaper, Popolo d'Italia, and backed it up with his own independent movement (Autonomous Fascists). He drew close to the new forces in Italian politics, the radicalized middle-class youth, and made himself their national spokesman.

Mussolini developed a new program, substituting nationalism for internationalism, militarism for antimilitarism, and the aggressive restoration of the bourgeois state instead of its revolutionary destruction. He had thus completely reversed himself. The Italian working classes called him "Judas" and "traitor." Drafted into the trenches in 1915, Mussolini was wounded during training exercises in 1917, but he managed to return to active politics that same year. His newspaper, which he now reinforced with a second political movement (Revolutionary Fascists), was his main card; his talents and his reputation guaranteed him a hand in the game.

After the end of the war, Mussolini's career, so promising at the outset, slumped badly. He organized his third movement (Constituent Fascists) in 1918, but it was stillborn. Mussolini ran for office in the 1919 parliamentary elections but was defeated. Nonetheless, he persisted.

Head of the Government

In March 1919 Mussolini founded another movement (Fighting Fascists), courted the militant Italian youth, and waited for events to favor him. The tide turned in 1921. The elections that year sent him victoriously to Parliament at the head of 35 Fascist deputies; the third assembly of his fledgling movement gave birth to a national party, the National Fascist party (PNF), with more than 250,000 followers and Mussolini as its uncontested leader, its duce.

The following year, in October 1922, Mussolini successfully "marched" on Rome. But, in fact, the back door to power had been opened by key ruling groups (industry try and agriculture, military, monarchy, and Church), whose support Mussolini now enjoyed. These groups, economically desperate and politically threatened, accepted Mussolini's solution to their crisis: mobilize middle-class youth, repress the workers violently, and set up a tough central government to restore "law and order." Accordingly, with the youth as his "flying wedge," Mussolini attacked the workers, spilled their blood liberally over the Italian peninsula, and completed triumphantly the betrayal of his early socialism. Without scruple or remorse, Mussolini now showed the extent to which ambition, opportunism, and utter amorality constituted his very core. He was in fact eminently a product of a particular crisis, World War I, and a special social class, the petty bourgeoisie. Mussolini's capture of power was classic: he was the right national leader at the right historical moment.

Fascist State

Once in power, Mussolini attacked the problem of survival. With accomplished tact, he set general elections, violated their constitutional norms freely, and concluded them in 1924 with an absolute majority in Parliament. But the assassination immediately thereafter of the Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti, a noted opponent, by Fascist hirelings suddenly reversed his fortunes, threw his regime into crisis, and nearly toppled him. Mussolini, however, recouped and with his pivotal speech of Jan. 3, 1925, took the offensive. He suppressed civil liberties, annihilated the opposition, and imposed open dictatorship. Between 1926 and 1929 Mussolini moved to consolidate his regime through the enactment of "the most Fascist laws" (le leggi fascistissime). He concluded the decade on a high note: his Concordat with the Vatican in 1929 settled the historic differences between the Italian state and the Roman Catholic Church. Awed by a generosity that multiplied his annual income fourfold, Pope Pius XI confirmed to the world that Mussolini had been sent "by Divine Providence."

As the 1930s opened, Mussolini, seated safely in power and enjoying wide support from the middle classes, undertook to shape his regime and fix its image. Italy, he announced, had commenced the epoch of the "Third Rome." The "Fascist Revolution," after the French original, would itself date civilized progress anew: 1922 became "Year I of the New Era"; 1932, Year X. The regime called itself the "Corporate State" and offered Italy a bewildering brood of institutions, all splendidly titled but sparsely endowed. For if the rhetoric impressed, the reality denied.

The strongest economic groups remained entrenched. They had put Mussolini into power, and they now reaped their fruits. While they accumulated unprecedented economic control and vast personal fortunes, while a class of nouveau riche attached itself to the regime and parasitically sucked the nation's blood, the living standard of the working majority fell to subsistence. The daily consumption of calories per capita placed Italy near the bottom among European nations; the average Italian worker's income amounted to onehalf his French counterpart's, one-third his English, and one-fourth his American. As national leader, Mussolini offered neither solutions nor analyses for Italy's fundamental problems, preferring slogans to facts and propaganda to hard results. The face of the state he indeed refashioned; its substance he left intact. The "new order" was coating only.

Il Duce ruled from the top of this hollow pyramid. A consummate poseur, he approached government as a drama to be enacted, every scene an opportunity to display ample but superficial talents. Cynical and arrogant, he despised men in the same measure that he manipulated them. Without inspired or noble sentiments himself, he instinctively sought the defects in others, their weaknesses, and mastered the craft of corrupting them. He surrounded himself with ambitious opportunists and allowed full rein to their greed and to their other, unnameable vices while his secret agents compiled incriminating dossiers. Count Galeatto Ciano, his son-in-law and successor-designate, defined Mussolini's entourage as "that coterie of old prostitutes." Such was Mussolini's "new governing class."

Mussolini's Three Wars

In 1930 the worldwide economic depression arrived in Italy. The middle classes succumbed to discontent; the working people suffered aggravated misery. Mussolini initially reacted with a public works program but soon shifted to foreign adventure. The 1935 Ethiopian War, a classic diversionary exercise, was planned to direct attention away from internal discontent and to the myth of imperial grandeur. The "Italian Empire," Mussolini's creation, was announced in 1936. It pushed his star to new heights. But it also exacted its price. The man of destiny lost his balance, and with it that elementary talent that measures real against acclaimed success. No ruler confuses the two and remains in power long. Mussolini thus began his precipitous slide.

The 1936 Spanish intervention, in which Mussolini aided Francisco Franco in the Civil War, followed hard on Ethiopia but returned none of its anticipated gains. Mussolini compounded this error with a headlong rush into Adolf Hitler's embrace. The Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936 and the Tripartite Pact in 1937 were succeeded by the ill-fated Steel Pact in 1939. Meanwhile, Mussolini's pro-Hitlerism struck internally. Having declared earlier that the racial problem did not exist for Italy, Mussolini in 1938 unleashed his own anti-Semitic blows against Italian Jewry. As the 1930s closed, Mussolini had nearly exhausted all toleration for himself and his regime within Italy.

World War II's surprise outbreak in 1939 left Mussolini standing on the margins of world politics, and he saw Hitler redrawing the map of Europe without him. Impelled by the prospect of easy victory, Mussolini determined "to make war at any cost." The cost was clear: modern industry, modern armies, and popular support. Mussolini unfortunately lacked all of these. Nonetheless, in 1940 he pushed a reluctant Italy into war on Hitler's side. He thus ignored the only meaningful lesson of World War I: the United States alone had decided that conflict, and consequently America, not Germany, was the key hegemonic power.

Disaster and Death

In 1940-1941 Mussolini's armies, badly supplied and impossibly led, strung their defeats from Europe across the Mediterranean to the African continent. These defeats constituted the full measure of Mussolini's bankruptcy. Italy lost its war in 1942; Mussolini collapsed 6 months later. Restored as Hitler's puppet in northern Italy in 1943, he drove Italy deeper into the tragedy of invasion, occupation, and civil war during 1944-1945. The end approached, but Mussolini struggled vainly to survive, unwilling to pay the price for folly. The debt was discharged by a partisan firing squad on April 28, 1945, at Dongo in Como province.

In the end Mussolini failed where he had believed himself most successful: he was not a modern statesman. His politics and culture had been formed before World War I, and they had remained rooted there. After that war, though land empire had become ossified and increasingly superfluous, Mussolini had embarked on territorial expansion in the grand manner. In a moment when the European nation-state had passed its apogee and entered decline (the economic depression had underscored it), Mussolini had pursued ultranationalism abroad and an iron state within. He had never grasped the lines of the new world already emerging. He had gone to war for more territory and greater influence when he needed new markets and more capital. Tied to a decaying world about to disappear forever, Mussolini was anachronistic, a man of the past, not the future. His Fascist slogan served as his own epitaph: Non si torna indietro (There is no turning back). A 19th-century statesman could not survive long in the 20th-century world, and history swept him brutally but rightly aside.

Further Reading

Mussolini wrote My Autobiography (1928; rev. ed. 1939) and The Fall of Mussolini: His Own Story, edited with a preface by Max Ascoli (trans. 1948). Most of the studies of Mussolini in English are either archaic and sterile or anecdotal and useless. A comprehensive, objective, and well-written biography is lvone Kirkpatrick, Mussolini: A Study in Power (1964). Frederick W. Deakin, The Brutal Friendship (1962; rev. ed. 1966), offers valid, original scholarship but unfortunately treats only Mussolini's last years. Alan Cassels, Mussolini's Early Diplomacy (1970), is a well-documented study of Mussolini during the 1920s. Works on the history of fascism in Italy include Frederico Chabod, A History of Italian Fascism (1961; trans. 1963), and Elizabeth Wiskemann, Fascism in Italy: Its Development and Influence (1969). Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism (1963; trans. 1965), discusses the theory and the history of the movement in Italy, France, and Germany. For pertinent documents of the Fascist era in Italy and a brief study of the period see S. William Halperin, Mussolini and Italian Fascism (1964). For general background see Denis Mack Smith, Italy: A Modern History (1959). □

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Mussolini, Benito

Mussolini, Benito 1903-1945

THE EARLY YEARS

POLITICAL ASCENDANCY

THE OVERTHROW

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Universally recognized as the founder of fascism, Benito Mussolini remains an enigmatic figure about whom historical interpretations differ. He was born in Predappio, Italy, on July 29, 1883, and died in Mezzegra on April 28, 1945. Before 1935 world opinion viewed him as the person who had saved his country from communism and revived its fortunes, and Italian fascism had many imitators. After World War II Mussolinis reputation changed from that of a savior to that of an inept and brutal dictator, if not a clownlike figure. From the historiographical viewpoint it took until the 1970s for more serious interpretations to emerge.

THE EARLY YEARS

The son of a socialist blacksmith and a devout Catholic schoolteacher, Benito Mussolini was born in the Romagna. He exhibited violent tendencies as a youth and alternated between social interaction and withdrawal. In an attempt to impart discipline to her son his mother sent him to a Catholic boarding school, but Mussolini rebelled against the harsh discipline and resented the discrimination against the poorer students.

Even at that early age Mussolini called himself a socialist, and it was through his socialist contacts that he found a teaching position in 1902, which he had to leave because of a scandalous love affair. He spent time in Switzerland and Trent writing for Italian socialist newspapers. He avoided the draft at first but later fulfilled his military obligations and spent several years teaching.

Between 1906 and 1912 Mussolini established a national reputation as the leader of the Socialist Party in Forlì and as a journalist. During that period the Italian Socialist Party was split between reformists and revolutionaries such as Mussolini who believed in violence. In 1911 Italy declared war on Turkey over Libya. Mussolini was arrested and jailed for blocking troop transports. At the Congress of Reggio Emilia in 1912 he successfully proposed the expulsion of old and respected reformists. He later became editor of Avanti!, the socialist daily newspaper, infusing it with a violent tone, greatly expanding its circulation, and increasing party membership. In June 1914 his calls for revolution seemed to come true with a serious revolt in the Romagna known as Red Week. However, when the movement collapsed, Mussolini lost his belief in a revolution driven by Marxist principles but retained his faith in revolution as a goal in itself.

POLITICAL ASCENDANCY

When World War I broke out, Mussolini supported the Italian Socialist Party position favoring neutrality but soon changed his mind because he thought the war would produce a revolution. The party expelled him, and Mussolini accepted financial support from industrialists to found his own newspaper, Il Popolo dItalia, leading socialists to charge that he had betrayed their cause.

Mussolini participated in the conflict as a corporal and was wounded. After the war he created a movement that he considered both socialist and nationalist. The new movement took the name fascist from a meeting of his supporters organized as the fasci di combattimento in Milan on March 23, 1919.

The fascists presented themselves in the 1919 elections with a radical program but did not elect anyone. In 1919 and 1920 violence by leftists advocating a revolution divided Italy. Nationalist groups fought the leftists in the streets, and fascist squads, known as the Black Shirts because of their distinctive uniform, distinguished themselves for their violence. They gained support in rural areas, where returning peasant soldiers who had been promised land threatened large landholders. In the cities strikes and fighting raged as the country struggled to return to a peacetime economy amid unemployment and business crises. The fascists received support from moneyed interests and abandoned their 1919 program.

In 1921 and 1922, leftist influence in the country declined and the Socialist Party split into three major groupsrevolutionaries, reformists, and communiststhat were unable to resist the fascists. In that situation of political instability traditional politicians refused to lead the country. On October 28, 1922, the fascists marched on Rome and King Victor Emanuel III refused to sanction martial law because he feared civil war. He offered the post of prime minister to Mussolini, who promised to bring stability and peace to the country.

Mussolinis first government included fascists in the most important posts and received a vote of confidence even though the parliament included only thirty-five fascist deputies; the majority assumed that it could vote the government out. In the 1924 elections the fascists received a majority as a result of widespread intimidation. Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist deputy, denounced the violence and called for new elections but was murdered. That event caused a crisis in the country that the opposition could not exploit because Mussolini retained the kings support. Between 1925 and 1929 Mussolini altered Italian institutions and successfully set up a dictatorship.

Known as the Duce, Mussolini established a one-party state, brooked no political opposition, and created a secret police, although he controlled the country through the established police forces. Many Jews supported his regime, and there was no official anti-Semitism until 1938, when, to the surprise of many people, racial laws were enacted. In the economic sphere Mussolini followed traditional policies until the Great Depression. Later he worked through nonfascist economists to establish an innovative state holding company (IRI) that rescued failing companies to save the economy. The fascists also established a corporate state, which divided the national economy into sectors run by institutions in which employers and employees were represented; in practice, however, employers had control. Both strikes and lockouts were prohibited.

In foreign policy Mussolini talked tough but was too weak to act unilaterally. In 1934 he stopped Hitler from absorbing Austria. The failure of the Allies to provide what he considered a proper reward led him gradually to support Hitler because he believed that he could exploit the balance of power that was emerging in the interwar period. His invasion of Ethiopia and intervention in the Spanish Civil War enmeshed him with Hitler, and he later proved unable to resist Hitlers embrace. Under Mussolinis leadership and against the advice of his foreign minister, Italy entered into the pact of steel with Germany on May 22, 1939. This agreement assumed that war would break out in three years and obliged both countries to coordinate their military action and economic production.

THE OVERTHROW

When World War II broke out before three years had passed, Mussolini declared Italian neutrality but then, convinced that Germany would win, entered the war on its side despite Italian military unpreparedness. The poor performance of his nation in the conflict and the invasion of Sicily in 1943 led to the overthrow of the Duce. Mussolini was imprisoned but freed in a daring German rescue. The Germans brought him to northern Italy to head the Italian Social Republic as the Allies fought their way up the Italian peninsula. He tried to flee with the retreating Germans at the end of the war but was recognized by Italian resistance fighters, handed over by the Germans, and shot. His body, along with that of his mistress, was hung by its heels at a gas station in Milan and exposed to mob violence.

A small Italian neofascist party survived the war. That movement later became more moderate, shed its extremist elements, and participated in the parliamentary structure of the Italian republic that replaced Mussolinis regime.

SEE ALSO Authoritarianism; Colonialism; Dictatorship; Fascism; Hitler, Adolf; Left and Right; Personality, Cult of; Revolution; Socialism; Spanish Civil War; World War I; World War II

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bosworth, R. J. B. 2002. Mussolini. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cardoza, Anthony L. 2006. Benito Mussolini: The First Fascist. New York: Pearson Longman.

Mack Smith, Denis. 1983. Mussolini. New York: Vintage.

Mussolini, Benito. 1998. My Rise and Fall. Ed. Max Ascoli. New York: Da Capo.

Spencer M. Di Scala

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Mussolini, Benito

Benito Mussolini

Born: July 29, 1883
Predappio, Italy
Died: April 28, 1945
Como, Italy

Italian dictator

Benito Mussolini was head of the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. He was the founder of fascism, and as a dictator he held absolute power and severely mistreated his citizens and his country. He led Italy into three straight wars, the last of which led to his overthrow by his own people.

Early life and career

Benito Mussolini was born at Dovia di Predappio, Italy, on July 29, 1883. The Mussolinis were a poor family who lived in a crowded two-bedroom apartment. His father was a blacksmith and a follower of socialism (a system providing for the sharing of land and goods equally among all people); his mother taught elementary school. Benito, although intelligent, was violent and had a large ego. He was a poor student at school and learned very little. As a student at a boarding school in Faenza, Italy, Mussolini stabbed another student, and as a result he was expelled. After receiving his diploma in 1901 he briefly taught secondary school. He went to Switzerland in 1902 to avoid military service, where he associated with other socialists. Mussolini returned to Italy in 1904, spent time in the military, and engaged in politics full time thereafter.

Mussolini had become a member of the Socialist Party in 1900 and had begun to attract wide admiration. In speeches and articles he was extreme and violent, urging revolution at any cost, but he was also well spoken. Mussolini held several posts as editor and labor leader until he emerged in the 1912 Socialist Party Congress. He became editor of the party's daily paper, Avanti, at the age of twenty-nine. His powerful writing injected excitement into the Socialist ranks. In a party that had accomplished little in recent years, his youth and his intense nature was an advantage. He called for revolution at a time when revolutionary feelings were sweeping the country.

From Socialist to Fascist

Mussolini deserted the Socialist Party in 1914 to cross over to the enemy camp, the Italian middle class. He knew that World War I (191418) would bury the old Europe, and he began to prepare for "the unknown." In late 1914 he founded an independent newspaper, Popolo d'Italia, and backed it up with his own movement, the Autonomous Fascists. He drew close to the new forces in Italian politics, the extreme middle-class youth, and he made himself their spokesman. The Italian working class now called Mussolini "Judas" and "traitor." Mussolini was wounded during army training in 1917, but he managed to return to politics that same year. His newspaper, which he now backed with a second political movement, Revolutionary Fascists, was his main strength. After the war, Mussolini's career declined. He organized his third movement, Constituent Fascists, in 1918, but it did not survive. Mussolini ran for office in the 1919 parliamentary elections but was defeated.

In March 1919 Mussolini founded another movement, Fighting Fascists, won the favor of the Italian youth, and waited for events to favor him. The elections in 1921 sent him to Parliament at the head of thirty-five Fascist deputies; the third assembly of his movement gave birth to a national party, the National Fascist Party, with more than 250 thousand followers and Mussolini as its uncontested leader. In October 1922 Mussolini successfully marched into Rome, Italy. He now enjoyed the support of key groups (industry, farmers, military, and church), whose members accepted Mussolini's solution to their problems: organize middle-class youth, control workers harshly, and set up a tough central government to restore "law and order." Thereafter, Mussolini attacked the workers and spilled their blood over Italy. It was the complete opposite of his early views of socialism.

Fascist state

Once in power, Mussolini took steps to remain there. He set general elections, but they were fixed to always provide him with an absolute majority in Parliament. The assassination of the Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti, a noted opponent, by Fascist followers reversed his fortunes and nearly brought him down. Mussolini, however, recovered. He suspended civil liberties, destroyed all opposition, and imposed open dictatorship (absolute rule). In 1929 his Concordat with the Vatican settled the historic differences between the Italian state and the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Pius XI (18571939) said that Mussolini had been sent "by Divine Providence."

As the 1930s began, Mussolini was seated safely in power and enjoyed wide support. The strongest groups who had put Mussolini into power now profited from it. However, the living standard of the working majority fell; the average Italian worker's income amounted to one-half of that of a worker in France, one-third of that of a worker in England, and one-fourth of that of a worker in America. As national leader, Mussolini offered no solutions for Italy's problems. He surrounded himself with ambitious and greedy people and let them bleed Italy dry while his secret agents gathered information on opponents.

Mussolini's three wars

In 1930 economic depression (a decline in the production of goods because of a decline in demand, accompanied by rising unemployment) arrived in Italy. Mussolini reacted at first with a public works program but soon shifted to foreign adventure. The 1935 Ethiopian War was planned to direct attention away from internal problems. The "Italian Empire," Mussolini's creation, was announced in 1936. The 1936 Spanish intervention, in which Mussolini aided Francisco Franco (18921975) in Spain's civil war, followed but had no benefit for Italy. Mussolini then joined forces with German dictator Adolf Hitler (18891945) and in 1938 began to attack Jewish people within the country just as Germany was doing. As the 1930s ended, Mussolini was losing all his support within Italy.

The outbreak of World War II (193945) left Mussolini an unimportant figure in world politics, and he worried that Hitler would redraw the map of Europe without him. He decided "to make war at any cost." The cost was clear: modern industry, modern armies, and popular support. Mussolini lacked all of these. Nonetheless, in 1940 he pushed Italy into war against the will of the people, ignoring the only meaningful lesson of World War I: the United States alone had decided that conflict, and therefore America, not Germany, was the most important power.

Disaster and death

In 194041 Mussolini's armies, badly supplied and poorly led, suffered defeats from Europe across the Mediterranean to the African continent. Italy lost its war in 1942; Mussolini's power collapsed six months later. Restored as Hitler's puppet in northern Italy in 1943, he drove Italy deeper into invasion, occupation, and civil war during 1944 and 1945. The end approached, but Mussolini struggled to survive. He was finally executed by a firing squad on April 28, 1945, at Dongo in Como province.

For More Information

Cassels, Alan. Mussolini's Early Diplomacy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Kirkpatrick, Ivone. Mussolini: A Study in Power. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1964.

Mack Smith, Denis. Mussolini. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Mussolini, Benito. The Fall of Mussolini: His Own Story. Edited by Max Ascoli. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1948. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Mussolini, Benito. My Rise and Fall. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.

Ridley, Jasper Godwin. Mussolini. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

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Mussolini, Benito

Benito Mussolini (bānē´tō mōōs-sōlē´nē), 1883–1945, Italian dictator and leader of the Fascist movement.

Early Career

His father, an ardent Socialist, was a blacksmith; his mother was a teacher. Mussolini taught briefly and lived (1902–4) in Switzerland to avoid military service. He achieved national prominence for his opposition to the Libyan War (1911–12) and, as leader of the revolutionary left of the Socialist party, became editor of the Socialist daily Avanti (1913). Soon after World War I began, Mussolini abruptly turned nationalist and joined the pro-Allied interventionists. The Socialist party, which opposed all participation in nationalist wars, expelled him. He then founded his own daily, the Popolo d'Italia, which was subsidized by the French to encourage Italy's entry into the war on the side of the Allies. He joined (1915) the army and attained the rank of corporal.

The Fascist Leader

In the troubled postwar period Mussolini organized his followers, mostly war veterans, in the Fasci di combattimento, which advocated aggressive nationalism, violently opposed the Communists and Socialists, and dressed in black shirts like the followers of D'Annunzio. Amid strikes, social unrest, and parliamentary breakdown, Mussolini preached forcible restoration of order and practiced terrorism with armed groups. In 1921 he was elected to parliament and the National Fascist party (see fascism) was officially organized. Backed by nationalists and propertied interests, in Oct., 1922, Mussolini sent the Fascists to march on Rome. King Victor Emmanuel III permitted them to enter the city and called on Mussolini, who had remained in Milan, to form a cabinet.

As the new premier, he gradually transformed the government into a dictatorship. In 1924 the Socialist deputy Matteotti was murdered. Opposition was put down by an efficient secret police and the Fascist party militia, and the press was regimented. Parliamentary government ended in 1928, and the state economy was reorganized along the lines of the Fascist corporative state. Conflict between church and state was ended by the Lateran Treaty (1929).

Mussolini was called Duce [leader] by his followers; his official title was "head of the government," and he held, besides the premiership, as many portfolios as he saw fit. His ambition to restore ancient greatness found expression in grandiloquent slogans and speeches and in the erection of monumental buildings. The encouragement he gave to the already high Italian birth rate, his imperialistic designs, and his incitement of extreme nationalist groups created an explosive situation.

Fateful Alliance with Germany

Mussolini was at first cool to Adolf Hitler and opposed his designs on Austria. However, Mussolini's diplomatic isolation after his attack (1935) on Ethiopia led to a rapprochement with Germany. In 1936, Hitler and Mussolini aided Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War; the Rome-Berlin Axis was strengthened by a formal alliance (1939), which Mussolini's son-in-law and foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, helped to create.

In 1938, Mussolini allowed Hitler to annex Austria and helped bring about the Munich Pact; in Apr., 1939, he ordered the Italian occupation of Albania. Under German pressure, he inaugurated an anti-Semitic policy in Italy, which found little popular response. The Ethiopian and Spanish wars had diminished the Duce's popularity, and he did not enter World War II until France was falling in June, 1940.

The failure of Italian arms in Greece and Africa and the imminent invasion by the Allies of the Italian mainland at last caused a rebellion within the Fascist party. In July, 1943, the Fascist grand council refused to support his policy—dictated by Hitler—and the king dismissed him and had him placed under arrest. He was freed two months later by a daring German rescue party and became head of the Fascist puppet government set up in N Italy by Hitler.

On the German collapse (Apr., 1945) Mussolini was captured, tried in a summary court-martial, and shot with his mistress, Clara Petacci. Their bodies, brought to Milan, were hanged in a public square and buried in an unmarked grave. Mussolini's body was later removed, and in 1957 it was placed in his family's vault.

Bibliography

Many of Mussolini's political speeches and pamphlets have been translated into English. Mussolini's literary productions include The Cardinal's Mistress (tr. 1928) and John Huss (tr. 1929). My Autobiography (Eng. ed. 1939) is supplemented by The Fall of Mussolini: His Own Story (tr. ed. by M. Ascoli, 1948). See also biographies by L. C. Fermi (1961), R. Collier (1971), M. Gallo (tr. 1973), by his widow, Rachele Mussolini (tr. 1974), and R. J. B. Bosworth (2002); study by A. Cassels (1970).

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Mussolini, Benito

MUSSOLINI, BENITO

Benito Mussolini ruled as dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943. His political philosophy, which he called fascism, was based on the total domination of the government in all spheres of political, social, economic, and cultural life. Initially seen by the Italian people as a hero, Mussolini was driven from government before the end of world war ii.

Mussolini was born in Dovia di Predappio, Italy, on July 29, 1883, the son of a socialist blacksmith. He embraced socialism as a teenager and as a young man became a schoolteacher and socialist journalist in northern Italy. In 1902 he moved to Switzerland and earned a living as a laborer. He returned to Italy in 1904 to perform his required military service and then resumed his teaching.

His wanderlust, however, resumed. He went to Trent, Austria, in 1909 and worked for a socialist newspaper. He was expelled from Austria after he publicly urged the return of Trent to Italy. In 1912 he became editor of Avanti!, the most important Italian socialist newspaper, with headquarters in Milan. When world war i broke out in August 1914, Mussolini proved unwilling to toe the socialist line. Socialists argued that disputes between nations were not their concern and that Italy should stay out of the conflict. Mussolini disagreed, whereupon the socialists expelled him from the party.

This expulsion radically changed Mussolini's political outlook. He founded Il Popol d'Italia (The People of Italy), a strident newspaper that argued that Italy should enter the war against Germany. When Italy did join the war, Mussolini enlisted in the army and served from 1915 to 1917, when he was wounded.

After the war Mussolini started his own political movement. In 1919 he formed the Fascist party, called the Fasci di Combattimento. The name fascism is derived from the Latin fascis, meaning bundle. The fasces is a bundle of rods strapped together around an axe. A symbol of authority in ancient Rome, it represented absolute, unbreakable power. Mussolini promised to recreate the glories of the Roman Empire in a movement that was nationalistic, antiliberal, and antisocialist.

Mussolini's movement struck a chord with lower-middle-class people. Supporters wore black shirts and formed private militias. In 1922 Mussolini threatened a march on Rome to take over the government. King Victor Emmanuel capitulated to this threat and asked Mussolini to form a government. Once in power Mussolini abolished all other political parties and set out to transform Italy into a fascist state.

Initially Italians and foreign observers saw Mussolini as a strong leader who brought needed discipline to the economy and social structure of Italy. He poured money into building the infrastructure of a modern country. In a country known for disorganization, it was said that Mussolini made the trains run on time. He also, however, abolished trade unions and closed newspapers that did not follow the party line. He used the police to enforce his rule and imprisoned thousands of people for their political views.

In the 1930s Mussolini sought to make Italy an international power. In 1935 Italy invaded the East African country of Ethiopia. Mussolini ignored the League of Nations' demand that he withdraw and proceeded to conquer the country. In 1936 he sent Italian troops to support General Francisco Franco's Loyalist Army in the Spanish Civil War. By the end of the 1930s, Mussolini also moved closer to adolf hitler and Nazi Germany. In 1939 he invaded nearby Albania.

Mussolini did not enter World War II until June 1940, when he invaded the south of France. At first his alliance with Hitler appeared propitious. However, the Italian army suffered defeat in North Africa, and the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943. Mussolini's regime crumbled. King Victor Emmanuel dismissed Mussolini as the head of state on July 25, 1943. Mussolini was briefly imprisoned, but German troops rescued him. Hitler directed Mussolini to head an Italian puppet state in northern Italy, then under the control of German forces. As the Allies moved north in 1945, Mussolini tried to escape to Switzerland. He was captured by Italian partisans and shot on April 28, 1945. The bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were displayed to jeering crowds on the streets of Milan.

further readings

Axelrod, Alan. 2001. The Life and Work of Benito Mussolini. Indianapolis, Ind.: Alpha.

Bosworth, R.J.B. 2002. Mussolini. London: Arnold; New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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Mussolini, Benito

Mussolini, Benito (1883–1945) Italian fascist dictator, prime minister (1922–43). Mussolini turned to revolutionary nationalism in World War I, and in 1919 founded the Italian fascist movement. The fascists' march on Rome in 1922 secured his appointment as prime minister. Mussolini imposed one-party government with himself as Il Duce (lit. ‘the leader’), or dictator. His movement was a model for Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party, with whom Mussolini formed an alliance in 1936. Imperial ambitions led to the conquest of Ethiopia (1935–36) and the invasion of Albania (1939). Mussolini delayed entering World War II until a German victory seemed probable in 1940. A succession of defeats led to his fall from power. Mussolini was briefly restored by the Germans as head of a puppet government in n Italy, but in April 1945, fleeing Allied forces, he was captured and killed by Italian partisans.

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