Mussolini was born in Predappio, near Forli, in Romagna. His father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith, and his mother, Rosa Maltoni, was a teacher. Like his father, Benito became a socialist and later a Marxist. He qualified as an elementary schoolmaster in 1901. In 1902 he emigrated to Switzerland. Unable to find a permanent job there and arrested for vagrancy, he was expelled and returned to Italy to do his military service. After further trouble with the police, he joined the staff of a newspaper in the Austrian town of Trento in 1908. At this time he wrote a novel, subsequently translated into English as The Cardinal’s Mistress. Mussolini had a brother, Arnaldo, who became an important fascist theorist.
Birth of Fascism
Mussolini broke with the Socialists over the issue of Italy’s entry into the First World War. In November, 1914, he founded a new newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, (The Italian People) and the prowar group Fasci d’Azione Rivoluzionaria. He coined the term fascism from the fasci carried by Roman magistrates. These were bundles of branches which when bound together were stronger than when they were apart — reflecting the intellectual debt that fascism owed to socialism. Mussolini claimed that it would help strengthen a relatively new nation (which had been united only in the 1860s in the Risorgimento), although some would say that, like Lenin, he wished for a collapse of society that would bring him to power. Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance, thereby allied with Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It did not join the war in 1914 but did in 1915 — as Mussolini wished — on the side of Britain and France.
Called up for military service, Mussolini was wounded in grenade practice in 1917 and returned to edit his paper. Fascism became an organized political movement following a meeting in Milan on March 23, 1919 (Mussolini founded the Fasci di Combattimento on February 23, however). After failing in the 1919 elections, Mussolini at last entered parliament in 1921 as a right-wing member. The Fascisti formed armed squads of war veterans to terrorize socialists and communists. The government seldom interfered. In return for the support of a group of industrialists and agrarians, Mussolini gave his approval (often active) to strikebreaking, and he abandoned revolutionary agitation. When the liberal governments of Giovanni Giolitti, Ivanoe Bonomi, and Luigi Facta failed to stop the spread of anarchy, and after Fascists had organised a demonstrative “Marcia su Roma” (October 28th 1922), Mussolini was invited by the king to form a new government. He became the youngest Premier in the history of Italy on October 31.
Mussolini’s Fascist state, established nearly a decade before Hitler’s rise to power, would provide a model for Hitler’s later economic and political policies. Both a movement and a historical phenomenon, Italian Fascism was, in many respects, an adverse reaction to both the apparent failure of laissez-faire and fear of the left, although trends in intellectual history, such as the breakdown of positivism and the general fatalism of postwar Europe were also factors. Fascism was a product of a general feeling of anxiety and fear among the middle-class of postwar Italy, arising out of a convergence of interrelated economic, political, and cultural pressures.
Under the banner of this authoritarian and nationalistic ideology, Mussolini was able to exploit fears regarding the survival of capitalism in an era in which postwar depression, the rise of a more militant left, and a feeling of national shame and humiliation stemming from its ‘mutilated victory’ at the hands of the World War I peace treaties seemed to converge. Such unfulfilled nationalistic aspirations tainted the reputation of liberalism and constitutionalism among many sectors of the Italian population. In addition, such democratic institutions had never grown to become firmly rooted in the young nation-state. And as the same postwar depression heightened the allure of Marxism among an urban proletariat even more disenfranchised than their continental counterparts, fear regarding the growing strength of trade unionism, communism, and socialism proliferated among the elite and the middle class.
In a way, Benito Mussolini filled a vacuum. Fascism emerged as a “third way” — as Italy’s last hope to avoid imminent collapse of ‘weak’ Italian liberalism or communist revolution. While failing to outline a coherent program, it evolved into new political and economic system that combined corporatism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and anti-communism in a state designed to bind all classes together under a capitalist system, but a new capitalist system in which the state seized control of the organization of vital industries. The appeal of this movement, the promise of a more orderly capitalism during an era of interwar depression, however, was not isolated to Italy, or even Europe.
At first he was supported by the Liberals in parliament. With their help, he introduced strict censorship and altered the methods of election so that in 1925–1926 he was able to assume dictatorial powers and dissolve all other political parties. Skillfully using his absolute control over the press, he gradually built up the legend of the Il duce, a man who never slept, was always right, and could solve all the problems of politics and economics. Italy was soon a police state. With those who tried to resist him, for example the Socialist Giacomo Matteotti, he showed himself utterly ruthless. But Mussolini’s skill in propaganda was such that he had surprisingly little opposition.
At various times after 1922, Mussolini personally took over the ministries of the interior, of foreign affairs, of the colonies, of the corporations, of the army and the other armed services, and of public works. Sometimes he held as many as seven departments simultaneously, as well as the premiership. He was also head of the all-powerful Fascist party (formed in 1921) and the armed Fascist militia. In this way he succeeded in keeping power in his own hands and preventing the emergence of any rival. But it was at the price of creating a regime that was overcentralized, inefficient, and corrupt.
Mussolini was a passionate public speakerMost of his time was spent on propaganda, whether at home or abroad, and here his training as a journalist was invaluable. Press, radio, education, films — all were carefully supervised to manufacture the illusion that fascism was the doctrine of the 20th century, replacing liberalism and democracy. The principles of this doctrine were laid down in the article on fascism, reputedly written by himself, that appeared in 1932 in the Enciclopedia Italiana. In 1929, a concordat with the Vatican was signed, by which the Italian state was at last recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, and the independence of Vatican City was recognized by the Italian state.
Under the dictatorship the parliamentary system was virtually abolished. The law codes were rewritten. All teachers in schools and universities had to swear an oath to defend the Fascist regime. Newspaper editors were all personally chosen by Mussolini himself, and no one could practice journalism who did not possess a certificate of approval from the Fascist party. The trade unions were also deprived of any independence and were integrated into what was called the “corporative” system. The aim (never completely achieved) was to place all Italians in various professional organizations or “corporations”, all of them under governmental control.
Mussolini played up to his financial backers at first by transferring a number of industries from public to private ownership. But by the 1930s he had begun moving back to the opposite extreme of rigid governmental control of industry. A great deal of money was spent on public works, but the economy suffered from his strenous efforts to make Italy self-sufficient. There was too much concentration on heavy industry, for which Italy lacked the resources.
In foreign policy, Mussolini soon shifted from pacifist anti-imperialism to an extreme form of aggressive nationalism. An early example of this was his bombardment of Corfu in 1923. Soon after this he succeeded in setting up a puppet regime in Albania and in reconquering Libya. It was his dream to make the Mediterranean “mare nostrum (“our sea). In 1935, at the Stresa Conference, he helped create an anti-Hitler front in order to defend the independence of Austria. But his successful war against Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935–1936 was opposed by the League of Nations, and he sought an alliance with Nazi Germany, which had withdrawn from the League in 1933.
His active intervention in 1936–1939 on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War ended any possibility of reconciliation with France and Britain. As a result, he had to accept the German annexation of Austria in 1938 and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1939. At the Munich Conference in September 1938 he posed as a moderate working for European peace. But his “axis with Germany was confirmed when he made the “Pact of Steel” with Hitler in May 1939. Clearly the subordinate partner, Mussolini followed the Nazis in adopting a racial policy that led to persecution of the Jews and the creation of apartheid in the Italian empire. However, he refused to allow Jews to be deported to concentration camps until Germany occupied Italy during the war. Members of TIGR, a Slovene anti-fascist group, plotted to kill Mussolini in Kobarid in 1938, but this was unsuccessful.
The Axis of Blood and Steel
The term “Axis Powers” was coined by Mussolini, in November 1936, when he spoke of a Rome-Berlin axis in reference to the treaty of friendship signed between Italy and Germany on October 25, 1936. Later, in May 1939, Mussolini would describe the relationship with Germany as a “Pact of Steel”, something he had earlier referred to as a “Pact of Blood”.
As World War II (WWII) approached, Mussolini announced his intention of annexing Malta, Corsica, and Tunis. He spoke of creating a “New Roman Empire” which would stretch from Libya to Palestine; and from Egypt to Kenya. In April 1939, after a brief war, he annexed Albania, a campaign which strained his military. His armed forces are generally considered to have been unprepared for combat when the German invasion of Poland led to World War II. Mussolini thus decided to remain “non-belligerent” until he was quite certain which side would win.
On June 10, 1940, as the Germans under General Guderian reached the English Channel, Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. In October, Italy attacked Greece in what is generally seen as a failure. In June 1941, he declared war on the Soviet Union and in December he declared war on the United States.
Following Italian defeats on all fronts and the Anglo-American landing in Sicily in 1943, most of Mussolini’s colleagues (Count Galeazzo Ciano, the foreign minister and also Mussolini’s son-in-law, included) turned against him at a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on July 25, 1943. This enabled the king to dismiss and arrest him.
He was then sent to Gran Sasso, a mountain recovery in central Italy (Abruzzo), in complete isolation.
Mussolini was substituted by the Maresciallo d’Italia Gen. Pietro Badoglio, who immediately declared in a famous speech “La guerra continua a fianco dell’Alleato Germanico” (“War continues at the side of our German allies”), but was instead working to negotiate a surrender; in a few days (September the 8th) Badoglio would sign an armistice with allied troops.
Rescued by the Germans several months later in a spectacular raid by Otto Skorzeny, Mussolini set up a Republican Fascist state (RSI, Repubblica Sociale Italiana) in northern Italy with him living in Gargnano. But he was little more than a puppet under the protection of the German Army. In this “Republic of Salo'”, Mussolini returned to his earlier ideas of socialism and collectivization. He also executed some of the Fascist leaders who had abandoned him, including his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano.
During this period he wrote his memoirs entitled My Rise and Fall.
On April 28, 1945, just before the Allied armies reached Milan, Mussolini, along with his mistress Claretta Petacci, was caught by Italian partisans as he headed for Chiavenna to board a plane for escape to Switzerland. They were both shot on the spot along with their sixteen-man escort. The next day the bodies were hung in Piazzale Loreto (Milan) along with those of other fascists to be abused by the crowds. Mussolini’s body was then taken to Predappio and the family chapel.
The Duce was survived by his wife, Donna Rachele, by two sons, Vittorio and Romano Mussolini, and his daughter Edda, the widow of Count Ciano. A third son, Bruno, had been killed in an air accident while testing a military plane.
Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra, daughter of Romano Mussolini, is currently a deputy in the Republican Chamber representing the Alleanza Nazionale party for Naples.