Born July 29, 1883
Died April 28, 1945
Fascist dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943
During his two decades as dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini created a regime still remembered for stripping its citizens of most rights and freedom and for violently punishing those who resisted his government. Although Mussolini's power (as well as his life) came to an end in the middle of World War II, he played a major role in the conflict through his alliance with Adolf Hitler (1889-1945; the leader of Germany from 1934-1945; see entry). Hitler modeled parts of his own dictatorship after Mussolini's, and the two leaders formed what they termed an "Axis" to oppose the Allied forces (the major Allied powers were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union).
A rebellious young man
At the time of Mussolini's birth, most people in Italy were poor. The country had only recently been joined together from many different independent states into one country ruled by a king. A few rich people owned most of the land, and the poor people worked the fields for meager wages and food. But this work didn't last all year, and people were suffering and unhappy with the way their country was governed.
Mussolini's father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith and an atheist (someone who does not believe in God) with strong ideas about social injustice. He believed that poor people should rebel against those in charge in order to improve their lives. Mussolini's mother, a schoolteacher, was a devout Catholic who wanted her children to succeed in life and thought that education was the best path to success.
Mussolini's parents named him after Benito Juarez, a Mexican revolutionary leader, and as he grew he seemed to follow the example of his rebellious namesake. He was aggressive and stubborn; he didn't want to do what the teachers told him to do, and because he bullied other children he had few friends. When he attended a Catholic boarding school, Mussolini noticed that the poor students were treated differently than the richer ones, and this angered him. He started thinking about revolution, and he also started working on his public speaking skills.
Becoming a Socialist leader
Despite his unhappiness in school, Mussolini got good grades and, at his mother's insistence, he qualified as a teacher. He didn't like teaching, though, and in 1902 he left home to work in Switzerland (the lack of jobs in Italy made this a common choice for young Italian men). While in Switzerland Mussolini was arrested for vagrancy (homelessness), and he spent some time in jail. After that traumatic experience, he joined a group of socialists. Socialism is a political system in which land and factories are owned collectively by society or by the government. Socialists believe government should control the distribution of goods and services. Mussolini began working for the rights of Italian workers by writing articles about the problems they faced. He attempted to organize the workers to rise up against the authorities.
Mussolini returned to Italy in 1904 to perform the two years of military duty that all young Italian men were required to serve. When that term was finished, he spent a few years in Austria, where he worked on the staff of a newspaper. He returned to Italy to become the editor of a newspaper called La Lotta di Classe (The Class Struggle) and the secretary of his local Socialist Party.
In 1910, Mussolini married Rachele Guidi, who also came from a poor family. The couple had four children, and Rachele remained a devoted wife throughout Mussolini's life despite his affairs with other women. He even fathered a child with one of his mistresses.
Italy went to war against Turkey in 1911. Mussolini was very much opposed to this war, and he was imprisoned for spreading propaganda (pamphlets and other material intended to persuade people to adopt a certain viewpoint) in favor of peace. Now the editor of a publication called Avanti! (Forward!), Mussolini built a reputation as a strong Socialist leader. He talked about the need for workers to unite into one powerful "fasci" or bundle—and this is where the idea that would grow into fascism had its start.
A whole new philosophy
When World War I (1914-1918; a war that began as a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and escalated into a global war involving thirty-two nations) started, Mussolini surprised and shocked his Socialist friends by reversing his usual stance on war. He said that Italy should join the fight on the side of the Allies (the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). Perhaps he thought that if Italy went to war its government would collapse, so that the workers could bring about their revolution. In any case, the Socialists believed in neutrality (not taking sides) and they expelled Mussolini from the party.
Mussolini now started his own newspaper, Il Papolo d'I-talia (The People of Italy) with the help of some new supporters, who were capitalists (those who believe that property and means of production such as land, factories, and labor should be privately owned, and that competition should determine the price of goods and services) and who agreed with his prowar opinions. The Italian government did join the Allies during World War I and Mussolini served in the Italian army for seventeen months, until he was wounded during grenade training.
The end of World War I brought more unrest to Italy. The Allies had won the war, and many Italians had given their lives to help bring about that victory. The people of Italy were disappointed, though, with how little their country had gained from their sacrifice; they were especially unhappy about their weak economy.
The Fascist Party takes root
Meanwhile, Mussolini's views were almost the reverse of those he'd held as a younger man. He and his followers wanted to take advantage of the mood of dissatisfaction that dominated their country and take over the Italian government. In 1919, they joined with some other conservative groups to form the Fasci di Combattimento (Union for Struggle or Fighting Leagues), which eventually became the Fascist Party. Mussolini organized squads of black-shirted young men, most of them war veterans, who used violent force against people with differing opinions. They became an even more powerful force when they put an end to a large workers' strike.
Mussolini was becoming more and more captivated by the idea of personal power and less concerned about the rights of workers. He began to envision himself as a supreme ruler or dictator. In 1921, Mussolini won a seat in the Italian parliament (the branch of the government that makes laws). His supporters continued to use violence to terrorize their opponents, particularly Socialists and Communists, and the government did little to stop them.
By 1922, all of the social unrest and public fears that the Communists or Socialists might actually take over the country created a mood of anarchy (a state of lawlessness brought about by a lack of governmental control) in Italy. Then, claiming that someone had to bring order to the country, Mussolini and his Fascists threatened to "March on Rome." Attempting to avoid a complete takeover by the Fascists, Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III invited Mussolini to become the country's prime minister. The March on Rome turned into a celebration for all those who supported the Fascists.
When Mussolini became prime minister (and at thirty-nine, he was the youngest leader in Italian history) he had widespread support, even from those who held more liberal views than he did but who feared complete political breakdown. He was given the nickname "Il Duce" (pronounced ill doo-chay which means the leader). Mussolini used his knowledge of journalism and the power of propaganda to create a public image of himself as a strong leader who could solve all of Italy's problems. The armed gangs of "black shirts" who served as his personal army were always ready to punish those who opposed him, but there were few who did.
Within a few years, Mussolini had used his very effective propaganda and the threat of physical terror to build up his power so much that he could declare himself independent of parliament and responsible only to the king (who was a popular figure but had no real power). By 1926, Mussolini had become a dictator. He dissolved the parliamentary system and all political parties, took control of the press, and put himself in charge of the military and most of the government ministries. "Il Duce" demanded absolute obedience from everyone, and anyone who resisted would soon be crushed.
Mussolini's goal was to make Italy as great as it had been during the days of the ancient Roman Empire, when its reach had extended far beyond its national borders. He set about improving roads and buildings, building up Italy's army and navy, and trying to increase its industrial strength. Mussolini's experience as a journalist served him well as he used all available media to publicize his goals.
Just as the early Roman rulers had expanded their empire, Mussolini wanted to conquer other nations. To do this, he started a war with Ethiopia in 1935. His successful invasion of this East African country cost Italy a lot of money and many lives. It also made Mussolini unpopular with other nations; in particular, the League of Nations (an international organization made up of nations working for world peace) opposed Italy's actions.
An alliance with Hitler
Meanwhile, Mussolini had an admirer in Germany. Adolf Hitler's political ideas (especially the use of violence to reach his goals) were close to Mussolini's. Even before he came to power, Hitler had admired Mussolini's Fascist dictatorship and had borrowed some of his phrases and symbols for his own speeches and propaganda. Hitler invited Mussolini to visit Germany, and the Italian leader was impressed by the military discipline and splendor of Hitler's regime.
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The two leaders became allies not only because they thought alike but also because they had isolated themselves from the rest of the world. In 1936, Germany and Italy formed an alliance that was known as the "Axis"; this term came from Mussolini's reference in a speech to the need for the European powers to work together around a common axis. Soon Mussolini put into place some of the same anti-Jewish laws (even though he had never opposed Jews before and had many Jewish friends and supporters) that Hitler had imposed in Germany. Hitler and Mussolini became even closer partners in 1939, when they signed the "Pact of Steel" in which each nation agreed to protect the other from aggression.
Getting involved in World War II
As Hitler's forces moved across their own borders and conquered other countries (such as Austria and Czechoslovakia), it was clear that another world war was looming on the horizon. Even though Mussolini had proclaimed that "the prestige of nations is determined absolutely by their military glories and armed power," he knew that Italy's military power was not great and that his country was unprepared for war. When Germany finally invaded France in 1940, Mussolini officially entered the war as Hitler's ally. He made plans to ride out on a white horse after all of Italy's victories.
Meanwhile, Mussolini's countrymen had grown dissatisfied with his rigid policies and harsh tactics. Moreover, Mussolini's health was declining (he suffered from ulcers and possibly syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease). It soon became clear that Mussolini was the "junior partner" in the alliance with Germany and that Hitler was really in charge.
These problems were worsened by Italy's poor performance on the battlefield. Mussolini never got a chance to ride out on his white horse, because the Italian troops were defeated on all fronts, including North Africa, Greece, and Egypt. Many lives were lost, and the Italian economy became even weaker. In 1943, the United States invaded Sicily, an island off the southern coast of Italy. That military action signaled the inevitable invasion of the Italian mainland.
Removed from office
Mussolini's years as dictator of Italy ended on July 25, 1943, when the Fascist Grand Council voted to remove him from office. The next day he was dismissed by the king and taken into custody. The Italian authorities moved Mussolini from place to place to hide him from the Germans, but nevertheless he was rescued in a daring maneuver by German paratroopers.
Mussolini was flown to Munich, Germany. He met with Hitler, who set him up as the head of a new country— called the Italian Socialist Republic or the Republic of Salo—in northern Italy. Although Mussolini was not really in charge (Hitler was), he used what little power he had to capture and execute some of the former Fascist colleagues. One was his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano.
On September 3, 1943, the Allies invaded southern Italy. The Italian government immediately surrendered and joined the Allies in their fight against Germany. The combined armies began their drive north. Mussolini tried to flee to Switzerland, but he was captured by Italian partisans (an armed group that operates behind enemy lines, or in occupied territory during a war) near Milan on April 27, 1945. Along with his loyal lover, Clara Petacci, and twelve other Fascist leaders, Mussolini was shot the next day. His body and those of his companions were hung by the feet in a Milan gas station and subjected to public ridicule.
When they reached this scene, the Allies ordered the bodies taken down and buried. Mussolini's body eventually came to rest in Predappio, the little village in which he'd been born.
Where to Learn More
Collier, Richard. Duce! New York: Viking Press, 1971.
Fermi, Laura. Mussolini. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Hartenian, Lawrence Raymond. Benito Mussolini. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Kirkpatrick, Ivone. Mussolini, A Study in Power. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1964.
Mulvihill, Margaret. Mussolini and Italian Fascism. London/New York:Franklin Watts, 1990.
Smith, Denis Mack. "Benito Mussolini." [Online] Available http://www.grolier.com/wwii/wwii_mussolini.html (December 3, 1998).
After taking control of the government and naming himself dictator, Benito Mussolini sought to return Italy to the glory it had known during the Roman Empire. He formed a close friendship with and was a military ally of Germany's dictator, Adolf Hitler.
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.
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.
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). □
Mussolini, Benito 1903-1945
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 Mussolini’s 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 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.
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 d’Italia, 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 groups—revolutionaries, reformists, and communists—that 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.
Mussolini’s 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 king’s 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 Hitler’s embrace. Under Mussolini’s 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.
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 Mussolini’s regime.
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
Born: July 29, 1883
Died: April 28, 1945
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 (1914–18) 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.
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 (1857–1939) 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 (1892–1975) in Spain's civil war, followed but had no benefit for Italy. Mussolini then joined forces with German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) 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 (1939–45) 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 1940–41 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.
Benito Mussolini (July 29, 1883–April 28, 1945) was founder and leader of the Facsci di Combattimento, the Italian fascist movement. A successful journalist and former socialist, he became Italian prime minister on October 29, 1922. He remained in power until July 24, 1943. Although the Nazis attempted to rescue him, Mussolini was executed by Italian partisans on April 28, 1945.
MUSSOLINI'S RISE TO POWER
The impact of World War II accelerated the decomposition of liberal, middle-class politics in Italy. The country was suffering as early as 1917 when it was gripped by widespread industrial strikes over rising prices and food shortages, fear of a communist revolution thanks to events in Russia, and a crushing military defeat for the Italian forces at Caporetto in October. Victory in World War I also left most Italians bitter because the Allies subsequently refused to grant Italy territories promised to it to bring the nation into the war. After 1918 the country was overwhelmed by a host of social and economic problems: urban unemployment, high rents for tenant farmers in the north, land-hunger among peasant farmers in the south, spiraling inflation, and increased violence. Neither Italy's established liberal parties nor the structure of constitution could cope with the crisis. Mussolini successfully exploited the sharp divisions that emerged, presenting his party as a force for peace by breaking strikes and "disciplining" labor, and himself as a new kind of strong and efficient national leader. (His claim to act as a peacemaker was disingenuous given the role played by his armed gangs in the rising tide of violence.) Although Mussolini came to power more than ten years before Hitler, their rise shared common features: an ability to exploit deep-seated political divisions, economic upheaval, and the acquiescence, if not support, of powerful elite groups, such as industrialists, who feared communism and were desperate to escape the prolonged crisis.
ITALY'S RESPONSE TO THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Despite his grand claims to a revolutionary vision that had, in Mussolini's words, "the sanctity of heroism" at its heart, Italian fascism was largely tied to the existing capitalist economic and social order. While Mussolini clamped down hard on his left-wing opponents, his fascist economics offered little that was new. The regime did institute a new set of institutional arrangements intended to integrate capital and labor in hierarchical units, called "corporatism," linked to the Ministry of Corporations, but the system only enhanced the power of big business. Mussolini's rhetoric proclaiming innovation proved hollow, too, when Italy joined the gold standard in 1927, a step which prompted greater fascist intervention in the economy as the regime acted to push down food prices and force workers to accept wage cuts of up to 20 percent.
Nor was Mussolini able to shelter Italy from the effects of the collapse in world trade and pressures that mounted on the gold standard after 1929. By the summer of 1931 Italy had experienced a serious crisis in its commercial banking sector, although, in sharp contrast to events in central Europe, Mussolini was able to conceal the development from the Italian people. The state loaned the banks one million lira and established an Instituto Mobilare Italiano to support the banks and an Instituto per la Riconstruzione Industriale to strengthen the ties between government and industry.
But the Depression continued to bite. By 1934 more than 15 percent of Italian workers found themselves out of work, with unemployment rising to almost 18 percent in the northeast and central regions of the country. The regime's efforts to help Italian farmers also failed. Mussolini's regime resorted to a system of exchange controls, quotas, and clearing agreements that took on a renewed importance once Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935 and intervened in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. This ambitious foreign policy soaked up surplus Italian labor and gave the economy an important boost, but at a price. Italy was forced officially to abandon the gold standard in October 1936 (a painful blow to Mussolini's ego), and by 1937 inflation was dramatically on the rise.
Intervention in the Spanish Civil War brought Mussolini closer to Hitler. The struggle in Spain emphasized the ideological common ground between the two leaders, notably their deeply felt hostility towards communism. A highly choreographed visit to Berlin in September 1937 further impressed Mussolini to the ambition and the military power underpinning the German regime, and the two countries signed a military alliance, the Pact of Steel, in May 1939. Despite the fact that the Pact committed Italy to come to the immediate support of its ally "with all its military forces on land, sea and in the air," Mussolini always claimed he had agreed to the alliance only on the understanding that there would be no major war until 1942. Italy's foreign adventures in the 1930s had sapped its strength and remained neutral in World War II until June 1940 when, after the fall of France, a German victory appeared assured. Italy's subsequent intervention in the war in Greece and in North Africa proved disastrous—Hitler had to send German troops to prevent an Italian collapse—and on July 25, 1943, after a string of military defeats, Mussolini was dismissed as Italy's leader by King Victor Emmanuelle.
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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.
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.