Mussolini, Benito (1883–1945)

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Fascist chief and head of the government in Italy from 1922 to 1945.

Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was born at Dovia, an outlying settlement of the small town of Predappio, which lies on a spur of the Apennines not far from the city of Bologna. Mussolini's father, Alessandro, was prominent in local socialist politics and his mother, Rosa Maltoni, was a primary schoolteacher and pious Catholic. The young Mussolini began as a socialist but openly took a different line during the First World War when much of the purpose and behavior of what came to be called fascism was framed. In March 1919 the fascist movement was founded and it solidified into a party (the Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF) during the second half of 1921. On 30 October 1922, at the age of thirty-nine, Mussolini became prime minister of Italy, the youngest in the country's history. On 3 January 1925 Mussolini announced his government had turned into a dictatorship. Thereafter he imposed tyrannical rule over his nation, boasting of framing the (first) "totalitarian state" and rejoicing in an unbounded personality cult that all but deified the DUCE (or Leader—the use of capitals became mandatory in the 1930s), as he was known.

After 1933 Mussolini had to measure himself against the Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, a man who frequently acknowledged his debt to the Duce as a model in the führer's rise to power but who led a state that was more powerful and radical than was Mussolini's regime in Rome. By 1937 Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were united in an unofficial alliance called the Axis, seemingly committed to overthrowing the "plutocratic" and parliamentary world order as well as to repelling the Soviet Union and international Marxism. In September 1939, however, Mussolini, in some embarrassment at his country's lack of military preparation, did not at first take Italy into the "War for Danzig." The sweeping German victories in the Low Countries and France in spring 1940 unleashed Mussolini, as the historian MacGregor Knox has put it. Italy entered the Second World War on 10 June and thereafter followed its German and Japanese allies into the wars against the Soviet Union and United States. Yet fascism's achievement at the various fronts scarcely matched regime rhetoric about a militarized nation that had finally become a genuine great power. Italian forces did win some shortterm victories, but Italy was, by every index, no more than Nazi Germany's "ignoble second."

Public military humiliation and the inadequacy the dictatorship displayed in organizing its population and economy for modern war rapidly fretted the popular consent that the Duce had until then won from wide sections of Italian life. By the spring and early summer of 1943, Mussolini was willing to admit that he had become "the most hated man in Italy," and on 25 July, after a protracted meeting of the Duce and his longtime henchmen assembled in the Grand Council, the Fascist regime fell. King Victor Emmanuel III, who had remained constitutional head of state throughout the dictatorship, arrested Mussolini and replaced him as prime minister with Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the former chief of general staff.

The Mussolini story had a coda. On 8 September 1943, Badoglio bungled Italy's withdrawal from the war. As a result the country was occupied by the competing armies (the Germans coming from the north to Naples and beyond, the Allies moving forward from Salerno). Mussolini was rescued by an intrepid SS glider pilot from imprisonment at a mountain resort east of Rome. Taken to Germany, he was reunited with his family and soon agreed to being restored as leader of what was left of fascism. His new regime called itself the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, RSI). Mussolini based himself at the small town of Salò on Lago di Garda, between Milan and Verona and patently near the German world.

Now northern Italy became the site of a civil war while the Allied armies slowly pushed back the Germans. The RSI added its own brutality to the tally of previous Fascist killing fields where, especially as the result of aggressive war, the Duce bore responsibility for the deaths of at least one million people. At Salò, given formal respect but little else by his German masters, Mussolini swung from one rhetorical option to the next, but in practice he now had the bathetic fate of being a puppet dictator. The end came in April 1945, when the German forces dissolved. Mussolini moved from his villa at Gargnano to Milan and thence to Como and an uncertain destination farther north. On 27 April he was recognized by partisans who had stopped a German military convoy fleeing toward the mountains. The next afternoon Mussolini, in the company of his last mistress, Claretta Petacci, was shot at the orders of the Anti-Fascist Committee of National Liberation. His body was thrown onto a truck and taken, along with those of Petacci and a number of executed Fascist chiefs, to a suburban square in Milan, the Piazzale Loreto. There the corpse was abused by the populace and eventually hung upside down outside some gas pumps as a traditional demonstration of the disdain the tyrant by now inspired in the people. The U.S. military authorities gave the body an autopsy and took away some brain matter, claiming they wanted to investigate whether the dictator had syphilis (with the imminent Cold War, they soon dropped the matter from their priorities). The rest of the Duce was buried secretly in Milan.

Still the story was not quite over. On 22 April 1946, Mussolini's corpse was kidnapped from its anonymous resting place by a squad of Fascist nostalgics, headed by Domenico Leccisi. They successfully hid the Duce's remains until 11 August (and so through the political campaign during which Italians opted to replace the Savoy monarchy with a democratic republic). Again the dictator's remains were interred in Milan, now with a modest note of his name. It was not until 31 August 1957 that Mussolini finally returned to Predappio and was belatedly laid in the family tomb there. In the twenty-first century the place retains some ambiguity since it is a place of neo-Fascist pilgrimage. Such surviving remembrance suggests that Italians have not been fully successful in absorbing their recent history. Much reticence remains in comprehending the tragedies and disasters of the generation of Mussolinian and Fascist dictatorship.

So much is the basic detail of the Mussolini story. But what was Benito Mussolini like and what were his essential historical achievements? Or, rather, what effect did he as an individual have on Italian and world history?


The first point to be made about Mussolini as a person is that he was not mad but rather displayed throughout his life many of the assumptions and much of the behavior of ambitious Italians of his era. Unlike Hitler, Mussolini was a "family man." In 1910 he had begun living with Rachele Guidi, seven years his junior and the daughter of his father's mistress from a family further down the village social scale than were the Mussolinis. By the end of that year their first child, Edda, had been born. At that stage the relationship between Benito Mussolini and Rachele Guidi was a socialist one, but in 1915 they were married in a state ceremony and their union received church sanctification in December 1925. Eventually the marriage produced four more offspring, three sons and another daughter. There were other complications. It seems now established that, in some ceremony or other, Mussolini had earlier married Ida Dalser, a woman he had met while working as a socialist journalist in Trento. Dalser certainly produced a son, Benito Albino, in November 1915, acknowledged by the future dictator. Although Mussolini continued to contribute to their upkeep, neither mother nor son was destined for a happy life. Each died after being confined to a lunatic asylum, Dalser in 1937 and Benito Albino in 1942.

This blot on the family escutcheon, not to be mentioned once Mussolini was dictator, was dealt with by Mussolini's younger brother, Arnaldo (1885–1931). Arnaldo was somewhat better educated than Benito and, following conscription, served as a lieutenant in the First World War. Family hierarchy, however, was more powerful than that suggested by the state or by class. After 1919, while Benito rose to dominate the Fascist movement, Arnaldo was always somewhere near in the background, providing sensible advice, good contacts, and an open purse. When Mussolini became prime minister, he at once promoted his brother to the key position of editor of Il Popolo d'Italia (The people of Italy) , his personal newspaper, founded in November 1914 when Mussolini had opted to back Italian intervention in the First World War and so broke with orthodox socialism. After 1922, still edited from Mussolini's first citadel in Milan, Il Popolo d'Italia became the official organ of the Fascist ideology and of the regime. Its financing, management, and line were crucial matters, details that could only be handed to Arnaldo—the one man, Mussolini would later remark regretfully after his brother's early death, he had ever trusted. Until 1931 the dictator and Arnaldo were accustomed to speaking on the phone each night.

Mussolini's private life remained bohemian, with his mistresses including Margherita Sarfatti, a wealthy Jewish Venetian who moved from socialism to fascism along with her younger lover. Sarfatti was also self-consciously intellectual. Under the dictatorship she was a major figure in the cultural world until overborne by the deepening anti-Semitism of the 1930s (then, Mussolini, no longer her lover, assisted her emigration to the United States). Mussolini had many other sexual partners, with whom any relationship was nasty, brutish, and short. By the 1930s, as a sign of his own deteriorating health, Claretta Petacci, a starstruck and avaricious member of the Roman upper bourgeoisie, younger than Edda Mussolini, became the Duce's semiofficial mistress, a tie that signaled his cynicism and misanthropy (and deepening depression).


In his halcyon days Mussolini had himself aspired to be a man of ideas. The forty-four volumes of his "complete works" include a novel, a history of the Reformation preacher Jan Hus, and an autobiography, penned when he was not yet thirty years old (but exclude plays about Napoleon and Julius Caesar on which he collaborated once installed as dictator). Mussolini was first trained as an elementary and then middle school teacher of French and, unlike quite a few politicians between the wars, he retained some knowledge of French, German, and English. His potential as a pedagogue of the young, however, soon surrendered to his career as a political journalist. From editing such news sheets as the painfully Marxist La Lotta di Classe (The class struggle) in Forlì, in 1912 Mussolini took control of Avanti!, the national paper of the Italian socialist movement. Over the next two years he proved able in the job, quadrupling the paper's circulation through his trenchant writing and ruthless downsizing of staff. As a further sign of intellectual interest or aspiration, in 1913 he began editing a monthly, optimistically entitled Utopia.

This writing has led some commentators, notably the political scientist A. J. Gregor, to argue that Mussolini was a genuine man of ideas, an important and independent thinker whose eventual fascism was forged from the mixture of socialist, syndicalist, and nationalist theories that eddied around his mind and those of his contemporaries. For Gregor, as well for neo-Fascists and their friends in early-twenty-first-century Italy, Mussolini was one of the greatest political philosophers of the twentieth century.

More skeptical historians remained unconvinced. A review of Mussolini's numerous speeches and articles before his break with socialism over the war in October 1914 discloses many contradictions. They are scarcely surprising in an ambitious young man from the provinces who was blessed with some education and quite a bit of curiosity but scarcely possessed of a trained mind, while also always busy with political schemes, active sexuality, and family demands. The prewar Mussolini was able to mouth the phrases of more and less orthodox socialism, while never altogether renouncing his national identity as an Italian. But he was always more a Mussolinian than anything else.

Two points are fundamental here. Unlike Hitler, Mussolini was not entirely "made by the First World War." In 1914, although there was still much that was brittle about his achievement, he was doing well as a radical socialist. Fascism, by contrast, was forged in the war. After 1922, to a major degree Fascist rule was that of the nation's idiosyncratic First World War prolonged into peacetime. Mussolini and almost all of his henchmen were returned soldiers, bearers of a conflict they could not forget and so, as the historian Omer Bartov has put it with greater regard to Germany, men with "murder in their midst."


During the campaign for Italian intervention in 1914–1915, Mussolini won some prominence because of the dramatic nature of his break with mainstream socialism and the aggression and activism of the first issues of Il Popolo d'Italia. In September 1915, however, he was in his turn conscripted. Although he retained a political profile, wrote a war diary (to become a much cherished text after 1922) and in 1917 was wounded, thereafter to resume his life as a journalist, in early 1919 Mussolini was scarcely the most prominent man in the Right's political firmament. There the basic medley of fascist ideas was coalescing: a defense of the war and its history; nationalism; a soldierly concept of welfare to the deserving; a fusion, replicating that in the army between hierarchy and individual opportunity and activity, united with a profound hostility to the antiwar orthodox socialists. In March 1919, a meeting at a building in the Piazza di San Sepolcro in Milan hailed the formation of bodies to be called fasci di combattimento (returned soldiers' leagues), with great local autonomy but with an announced national purpose of defending and expanding the territorial gains in the war and simultaneously fostering and enforcing the social unity then decreed mandatory.

In the succeeding months Mussolini emerged as the Duce of this still inchoate movement. His position with regard to the Fascists retained some ambiguity until the open proclamation of dictatorship in 1925. Before that, fascism rose to power and installed its leader as prime minister through a combination of brutally antisocialist (and sometimes anti-Catholic) social action in the provinces (especially in northern and central Italy) and adroit political negotiation, above and below the table, in Rome. Mussolini, the owner-editor of Il Popolo d'Italia, was the Fascist with national recognition; the ras, or local Fascist bosses of the provinces, were the men who imposed their version of order on their towns and their hinterlands.

After 1925 the dictatorship continued to possess what some have seen as a double face. There was plenty of accommodation with the existing elites. The Lateran Pacts of February 1929, resolving the "Roman question," that is, the relationship between church and state in a modern Italy, are the classic example, but so too is the way Mussolini, at least until 1943, accepted that King Victor Emmanuel III was head of state and that the army officer corps remained more monarchist than Fascist. Neither large landowners nor industrialists found that Mussolini's rule required much more sacrifice than that they don a Fascist black shirt on official occasions. Similarly, the personality cult (fascism was very much a "propaganda state") and Mussolini's personal rule (he was a hardworking executive) were countered by the talk about a Fascist Party revolution and the totalitarian intrusion of Fascist forms, practice, and mentality into all Italians' lives.

Although never officially clashing with the legal system inherited from the liberal regime before 1922 (many leading Fascists were lawyers by training and profession), Mussolini relied heavily on his secret police and took very seriously his daily meetings with the police chief, Arturo Bocchini (d. 1940). After Arnaldo Mussolini, Bocchini was the figure whose advice the Duce followed most readily. Again the implications are ambiguous since Bocchini was a career official, a man who joked that his fascism did not extend below his waist, a lover of the good life and anything other than a true-believing Italian Himmler. Mussolini's secret police was designed to quiet the population, not to muster it into political or racial revolution.

Deciding whether Mussolini was a "weak" or "strong" dictator is thus a complex matter. It is clear that from time to time Mussolini made decisions and imposed them willy-nilly on his party colleagues and Italy (the high valuation of the lira in 1927 and the war against Ethiopia in 1935 are examples). Yet Mussolini also often told his listeners what they wanted to hear and was as likely to "work towards the Italians" as charismatically demand that they "worked towards him." He was, somewhere beneath the rhetoric about Fascist revolution, a more nervous figure than Hitler, and a politician who feared that a week was a long time in politics, more a tactician than a strategist. He was also, in almost every way, a disastrous failure in both his domestic and foreign policies. His version of fascism brought death and destruction to Italians and to those painted with rapid and peremptory strokes (Mussolini always rejoiced in his own "savagery") as their enemies.

See alsoFascism; Hitler, Adolf; Italy; Stalin, Joseph; Totalitarianism.


Primary Sources

Ciano, Galeazzo. Diario 1937–1943. Milan, 1980.

Mussolini, Benito. Opera omnia. Edited by Edoardo and Duilio Susmel. 36 vols. Florence, 1951–1962; Appendici I–VIII (vols. 37–44), Florence, 1978–1980.

Secondary Sources

Bosworth, Richard J. B. The Italian Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of Mussolini and Fascism. London and New York, 1998.

——. Mussolini. London and New York, 2002.

——. Mussolini's Italy: Life under the Fascist Dictatorship. 1915–1945. London and New York, 2005.

Cannistraro, Philip, and Brian R. Sullivan. Il Duce's Other Woman. New York, 1993.

Clark, Martin. Mussolini. Harlow, U.K., 2005.

De Felice, Renzo. Mussolini. 7 vols. Turin, Italy, 1965–1997.

De Grazia, Victoria. How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy 1922–1945. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Knox, MacGregor. Common Destiny: Dictatorship, Foreign Policy, and War in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

——. Hitler's Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime, and the War of 1940–1943. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

Passerini, Luisa. Mussolini immaginario: Storia di una biografia 1915–1939. Bari, Italy, 1991.

R. J. B. Bosworth