Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, KSMOM GCTE (29 July 1883 – 28 April 1945) was an Italian politician who led the National Fascist Party and is credited with being one of the key figures in the creation of Fascism. He became the Prime Minister of Italy in 1922 and began using the title Il Duce by 1925. After 1936, his official title was “His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Head of Government, Duce of Fascism, and Founder of the Empire”. Mussolini also created and held the supreme military rank of First Marshal of the Empire along with King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, which gave him and the King joint supreme control over the military of Italy. Mussolini remained in power until he was replaced in 1943; for a short period after this until his death, he was the leader of the Italian Social Republic.
Mussolini was among the founders of Italian Fascism, which included elements of nationalism, corporatism, national syndicalism, expansionism, social progress and anti-communism in combination with censorship of subversives and state propaganda. In the years following his creation of the fascist ideology, Mussolini influenced, or achieved admiration from, a wide variety of political figures.
Among the domestic achievements of Mussolini from the years 1924–1939 were: his public works programmes such as the taming of the Pontine Marshes, the improvement of job opportunities, and public transport. Mussolini also solved the Roman Question by concluding the Lateran Treaty between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See. He is also credited with securing economic success in Italy’s colonies and commercial dependencies. Although he initially favoured siding with France against Germany in the early 1930s, Mussolini became one of the main figures of the Axis powers and, on 10 June 1940, Mussolini led Italy into World War II on the side of Axis. Three years later, Mussolini was deposed at the Grand Council of Fascism, prompted by the Allied invasion. Soon after his incarceration began, Mussolini was rescued from prison in the daring Gran Sasso raid by German special forces.
Following his rescue, Mussolini headed the Italian Social Republic in parts of Italy that were not occupied by Allied forces. In late April 1945, with total defeat looming, Mussolini attempted to escape to Switzerland, only to be quickly captured and summarily executed near Lake Como by Italian partisans. His body was then taken to Milan where it was hung upside down at a petrol station for public viewing and to provide confirmation of his demise.
Mussolini was born in Dovia di Predappio, a small town in the province of Forlì in Emilia-Romagna in 1883. In the Fascist era, Predappio was dubbed “Duce’s town”, and Forlì was “Duce’s city”. Pilgrims went to Predappio and Forlì, to see the birthplace of Mussolini. His father Alessandro Mussolini was a blacksmith and an Anarchist activist, while his mother Rosa Mussolini (née Maltoni) was a school teacher and a devout Catholic. Owing to his father’s political leanings, Mussolini was named Benito after Mexican reformist President Benito Juárez, while his middle names Andrea and Amilcare were from Italian socialists Andrea Costa and Amilcare Cipriani. Benito was the eldest of his parents’ three children. His siblings Arnaldo and Edvige followed.
As a young boy, Mussolini would spend time helping his father in his blacksmithing. It was likely here that he was exposed to his father’s significant political beliefs. Alessandro was a socialist and a republican, but also held some nationalistic views, especially in regards to some of the Italians living under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which were not consistent with the internationalist socialism of the time. The conflict between his parents about religion meant that, unlike most Italians, Mussolini was not baptised at birth and would not be until much later in life. However, as a compromise with his mother, Mussolini was sent to a boarding school run by Salesian monks. Mussolini was rebellious and was soon expelled after a series of behaviour related incidents, including throwing stones at the congregation after Mass, stabbing a fellow student in the hand and throwing an inkpot at a teacher. After joining a new school, Mussolini achieved good grades, and qualified as an elementary schoolmaster in 1901.
Political journalist and soldier
In 1902, Mussolini emigrated to Switzerland, partly to avoid military service. He worked briefly in Geneva as a stone mason, however, he was unable to find a permanent professional job in Switzerland, and was, at one point, arrested for vagrancy, and jailed for one night. While in Switzerland, he picked up a working knowledge of French and a smattering of German.
During this time he studied the ideas of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, and the syndicalist Georges Sorel. Mussolini also later credited as one of his influences the Marxist Charles Péguy, and the syndicalist Hubert Lagardelle. Sorel’s emphasis on the need for overthrowing decadent liberal Democracy and Capitalism by the use of violence, direct action, the general strike, and the use of neo-Machiavellian appeals to emotion, impressed Mussolini deeply. While in Switzerland, he also met some of the Russian political exiles living there, including the Marxist Angelica Balabanoff, and the Marxist Vladimir Lenin. During this time he joined the Marxist Socialist movement.
In 1904, he was deported to Italy. The Italian government granted him leniency for his previous misconduct, and he subsequently volunteered for military service in the Italian Army. After serving for two years in the military (from January 1905 until September 1906), he returned to teaching.
Political journalist and Socialist
In February 1908, Mussolini once again left Italy, this time to take the job as the secretary of the labor party in the Italian-speaking city of Trento, which at the time was under control of Austria-Hungary. He also did office work for the local Socialist Party, and edited its newspaper L’Avvenire del Lavoratore (The Future of the Worker). Returning to Italy, he spent a brief time in the Italian city of Milan, and then in 1910 he returned to his hometown of Forli, where he edited the weekly Lotta di classe (The Class Struggle).
During this time, he published Il Trentino veduto da un Socialista (Trento as seen by a Socialist) in the radical periodical La Voce. He also wrote several essays about German literature, some stories, and one novel: L’amante del Cardinale: Claudia Particella, romanzo storico (The Cardinal’s Mistress). This novel he co-wrote with Santi Corvaja, and was published as a serial book in the Trento newspaper Il Popolo. It was released in installments from Jan. 20 to May 11, 1910 The novel was bitterly anticlerical, and years later was withdrawn from circulation after Mussolini made a truce with the Vatican.
By now, he was considered to be one of Italy’s most prominent Socialists. In September 1911, Mussolini participated in a riot, led by Socialists, against the Italian war in Libya. He bitterly denounced Italy’s “imperialist war” to capture the Libyan capital city of Tripoli, an action that earned him a five-month jail term. After his release, he helped expel from the ranks of the Socialist party two ‘revisionists’ who had supported the war, Ivanoe Bonomi, and Leonida Bissolati. As a result of this, he was rewarded the editorship of the Socialist Party newspaper Avanti! Under his leadersip, its circulation soon rose from 20,000 to 100,000.
In 1913, he published Giovanni Hus, il veridico (Jan Hus, true prophet), an historical and political biography about the life and mission of the Czech ecclesiastic reformer Jan Hus, and his militant followers, the Hussites. During this socialist period of his life Mussolini sometimes used the pen name „Vero Eretico“ (sincere misbeliever).
During this time he had become important enough for the Italian police to take notice; the following excerpts are from a police report prepared by the Inspector-General of Public Security in Milan, G. Gasti.
Break with Socialists
The Inspector General wrote:
Regarding Mussolini Professor Benito Mussolini,…38, revolutionary socialist, has a police record; elementary school teacher qualified to teach in secondary schools; former first secretary of the Chambers in in Cesena, Forli, and Ravenna; after 1912 editor of the newspaper Avanti! to which he gave a violent suggestive and intransigent orientation. In October 1914, finding himself in opposition to the directorate of the Italian Socialist party because he advocated a kind of active neutrality on the part of Italy in the War of the Nations against the party’s tendency of absolute neutrality, he withdrew on the twentieth of that month from the directorate of Avanti! Then on the fifteenth of November , thereafter, he initiated publication of the newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia, in which he supported — in sharp contrast to Avanti! and amid bitter polemics against that newspaper and its chief backers — the thesis of Italian intervention in the war against the militarism of the Central Empires. For this reason he was accused of moral and political unworthiness and the party thereupon decided to expel him. Thereafter he….undertook a very active campaign in behalf of Italian intervention, participating in demonstrations in the piazzas and writing quite violent articles in Popolo d’Italia….
In his summary, the Inspector also notes:
“He was the ideal editor of Avanti! for the Socialists. In that line of work he was greatly esteemed and beloved. Some of his former comrades and admirers still confess that there was no one who understood better how to interpret the spirit of the proletariate and there was no one who did not observe his apostacy with sorrow. This came about not for reasons of self-interest or money. He was a sincere and passionate advocate, first of vigilant and armed neutrality, and later of war; and he did not believe that he was compromising with his personal and political honesty by making use of every means — no matter where they came from or wherever he might obtain them — to pay for his newspaper, his program and his line of action. This was his initial line. It is difficult to say to what extent his socialist convictions (which he never either openly or privately abjure) may have been sacrificed in the course of the indispensable financial deals which were necessary for the continuation of the struggle in which he was engaged… But assuming these modifications did take place… he always wanted to give the appearance of still being a socialist, and he fooled himself into thinking that this was the case.”
Service in World War I
He became an ally with the irredentist politician and journalist Cesare Battisti, and like him he entered the Army and served in the war. “He was sent to the zone of operations where he was seriously injured by the explosion of a grenade.”
The inspector continues:
“He was promoted to the rank of corporal “for merit in war.” The promotion was recommended because of his exemplary conduct and fighting quality, his mental calmness and lack of concern for discomfort, his zeal and regularity in carrying out his assignments, where he was always first in every task involving labor and fortitude.”
Mussolini’s military experience is told in his work Diario Di Guerra. Overall, he totalled about nine months of active, front-line trench warfare. During this time, he contracted paratyphoid fever. His military exploits ended in 1917 when he was wounded accidentally by the explosion of a mortar bomb in his trench. He was left with at least 40 shards of metal in his body. He was discharged from the hospital in August 1917 and resumed his editor-in-chief position at his new paper, Il Popolo d’Italia. He wrote there positive articles about Czechoslovak Legions in Italy.
On 25 December 1915, in Trevalglio, he contracted a marriage with his fellow countrywoman Rachele Guidi, who had already born him a daughter, Edda, at Forli in 1910. In 1915, he had a son with Ida Dalser, a woman born in Sopramonte, a village near Trento. He legally recognized this son on 11 January 1916.
Creation of Fascism
By the time Mussolini returned from Allied service in World War I, he had decided that socialism as a doctrine had largely been a failure. In 1917, Mussolini got his start in politics with the help of a £100 weekly wage from MI5, the British Security Service; this help was authorised by Sir Samuel Hoare. In early 1918, Mussolini called for the emergence of a man “ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep” to revive the Italian nation. Much later in life Mussolini said he felt by 1919 “Socialism as a doctrine was already dead; it continued to exist only as a grudge”. On 23 March 1919, Mussolini reformed the Milan fascio as the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Squad), consisting of 200 members.
An important factor in fascism gaining support in its earliest stages was the fact that claimed to oppose discrimination based on social class and was strongly opposed to all forms of class war. Fascism instead supported nationalist sentiments such as a strong unity, regardless of class, in the hopes of raising Italy up to the levels of its great Roman past. The ideological basis for fascism came from a number of sources. Mussolini utilized works of Plato, Georges Sorel, Nietzsche, and the socialist and economic ideas of Vilfredo Pareto, to create fascism. Mussolini admired Plato’s work, The Republic, which he often read for inspiration. The Republic held a number of ideas that fascism promoted such as rule by an elite promoting the state as the ultimate end, opposition to democracy, protecting the class system and promoting class collaboration, rejection of egalitarianism, promoting the militarization of a nation by creating a class of warriors, demanding that citizens perform civic duties in the interest of the state, and utilizing state intervention in education to promote the creation of warriors and future rulers of the state. The Republic differed from fascism in that it did not promote aggressive war but only defensive war, unlike fascism it promoted very communist-like views on property, and Plato was an idealist focused on achieving justice and morality while Mussolini and fascism were realist, focused on achieving political goals.
Mussolini and the fascists managed to be simultaneously revolutionary and traditionalist; because this was vastly different to anything else in the political climate of the time, it is sometimes described as “The Third Way”. The Fascisti, led by one of Mussolini’s close confidants, Dino Grandi, formed armed squads of war veterans called Blackshirts (or squadristi) with the goal of restoring order to the streets of Italy with a strong hand. The blackshirts clashed with communists, socialists and anarchists at parades and demonstrations; all of these factions were also involved in clashes against each other. The government rarely interfered with the blackshirts’ actions, owing in part to a looming threat and widespread fear of a communist revolution. The Fascisti grew so rapidly that within two years, it transformed itself into the National Fascist Party at a congress in Rome. Also in 1921, Mussolini was elected to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time. In the meantime, from about 1911 until 1938, Mussolini had various affairs with the Jewish author and academic Margherita Sarfatti, called the “Jewish Mother of Fascism” at the time.
March on Rome and early years in power
The March on Rome was a coup d’état by which Mussolini’s National Fascist Party came to power in Italy and ousted Prime Minister Luigi Facta. The “march” took place in 1922 between 27–29 October. On 28 October King Victor Emmanuel III refused his support to Facta and handed over power to Mussolini. Mussolini was supported by the military, the business class, and the liberal right-wing.
As Prime Minister, the first years of Mussolini’s rule were characterized by a right-wing coalition government composed of Fascists, nationalists, liberals and even two Catholic ministers from the Popular Party. The Fascists made up a small minority in his original governments. Mussolini’s domestic goal, however, was the eventual establishment of a totalitarian state with himself as supreme leader (Il Duce) a message that was articulated by the Fascist newspaper Il Popolo, which was now edited by Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo. To that end, Mussolini obtained from the legislature dictatorial powers for one year (legal under the Italian constitution of the time). He favored the complete restoration of state authority, with the integration of the Fasci di Combattimento into the armed forces (the foundation in January 1923 of the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale) and the progressive identification of the party with the state. In political and social economy, he passed legislation that favored the wealthy industrial and agrarian classes (privatisations, liberalisations of rent laws and dismantlement of the unions).
In 1923, Mussolini sent Italian forces to invade Corfu during the “Corfu Incident.” In the end, the League of Nations proved powerless and Greece was forced to comply with Italian demands.
In June 1923, the government passed the Acerbo Law, which transformed Italy into a single national constituency. It also granted a two-thirds majority of the seats in Parliament to the party or group of parties which had obtained at least 25% of the votes. This law was applied in the elections of 6 April 1924. The “national alliance”, consisting of Fascists, most of the old Liberals and others, won 64% of the vote largely by means of violence and voter intimidation. These tactics were especially prevalent in the south.
The assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, who had requested the annulment of the elections because of the irregularities committed, provoked a momentary crisis of the Mussolini government. The murderer, a squadrista named Amerigo Dumini, reported to Mussolini soon after the murder. Mussolini ordered a cover-up, but witnesses saw the car used to transport Matteotti’s body parked outside Matteotti’s residence, which linked Dumini to the murder. The Matteotti crisis provoked cries for justice against the murder of an outspoken critic of Fascist violence. The government was shocked into paralysis for a few days, and Mussolini later confessed that a few resolute men could have alerted public opinion and started a coup that would have swept fascism away. Dumini was imprisoned for two years. On release he told others that Mussolini was responsible, for which he served further prison time. For the next 15 years, Dumini received an income from Mussolini, the Fascist Party, and other sources.
The opposition parties responded weakly or were generally unresponsive. Many of the socialists, liberals and moderates boycotted Parliament in the Aventine Secession, hoping to force Victor Emmanuel to dismiss Mussolini. Despite the leadership of communists such as Antonio Gramsci, socialists such as Pietro Nenni and liberals such as Piero Gobetti and Giovanni Amendola, a mass antifascist movement never crystallized. The king, fearful of violence from the Fascist squadristi, kept Mussolini in office. Because of the boycott of Parliament, Mussolini could pass any legislation unopposed. The political violence of the squadristi had worked, for there was no popular demonstration against the murder of Matteotti.
Within his own party, Mussolini faced doubts and dissension during these critical weeks.
On 31 December 1924, MVSN consuls met with Mussolini and gave him an ultimatum—crush the opposition or they would do so without him. Fearing a revolt by his own militants, Mussolini decided to drop all trappings of democracy. On 3 January 1925, Mussolini made a truculent speech before the Chamber in which he took responsibility for squadristi violence (though he did not mention the assassination of Matteotti). He also promised a crackdown on dissenters. Before his speech, MVSN detachments beat up the opposition and prevented opposition newspapers from publishing. Mussolini correctly predicted that as soon as public opinion saw him firmly in control the “fence-sitters”, the silent majority and the “place-hunters” would all place themselves behind him. This is considered the onset of Mussolini’s dictatorship.
While failing to outline a coherent program, Fascism evolved into a new political and economic system that combined totalitarianism, nationalism, anti-communism, anti-capitalism and anti-liberalism into a state designed to bind all classes together under a corporatist system (the “Third Way”). This was a new system in which the state seized control of the organisation of vital industries. Under the banners of nationalism and state power, Fascism seemed to synthesize the glorious Roman past with a futuristic utopia.
Building a dictatorship
Mussolini’s influence in propaganda was such that he had surprisingly little opposition to suppress. Nonetheless, he was “slightly wounded in the nose” when he was shot on 7 April 1926 by Violet Gibson, an Irish woman and daughter of Baron Ashbourne. On 31 October 1926, 15-year-old Anteo Zamboni attempted to shoot Mussolini in Bologna. Zamboni was lynched on the spot. Mussolini also survived a failed assassination attempt in Rome by anarchist Gino Lucetti, and a planned attempt by American anarchist Michael Schirru, which ended with Schirru’s capture and execution. Members of TIGR, a Slovene anti-fascist group, plotted to kill Mussolini in Caporetto in 1938, but their attempt was unsuccessful.
At various times after 1922, Mussolini personally took over the ministries of the interior, foreign affairs, colonies, corporations, defense, and 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 and the armed local fascist militia, the MVSN or “Blackshirts,” who terrorised incipient resistances in the cities and provinces. He would later form the OVRA, an institutionalised secret police that carried official state support. In this way he succeeded in keeping power in his own hands and preventing the emergence of any rival.
Between 1925 and 1927, Mussolini progressively dismantled virtually all constitutional and conventional restraints on his power, thereby building a police state. A law passed on Christmas Eve 1925 changed Mussolini’s formal title from “president of the Council of Ministers” to “head of the government.” He was no longer responsible to Parliament and could only be removed by the king. While the Italian constitution stated that ministers were only responsible to the sovereign, in practice it had become all but impossible to govern against the express will of Parliament. The Christmas Eve law ended this practice, and also made Mussolini the only person competent to determine the body’s agenda. Local autonomy was abolished, and podestàs appointed by the Italian Senate replaced elected mayors and councils.
All other parties were outlawed in 1928, though in practice Italy had been a one-party state since Mussolini’s 1925 speech. In the same year, an electoral law abolished parliamentary elections. Instead, the Grand Council of Fascism selected a single list of candidates to be approved by plebiscite. The Grand Council had been created five years earlier as a party body but was “constitutionalised” and became the highest constitutional authority in the state. On paper, the Grand Council had the power to recommend Mussolini’s removal from office, and was thus theoretically the only check on his power. However, only Mussolini could summon the Grand Council and determine its agenda. To gain control of the South, especially Sicily, he appointed Cesare Mori as a Prefect of the city of Palermo, with the charge of eradicating the Mafia at any price. In the telegram, Mussolini wrote to Mori:
“Your Excellency has carte blanche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. If the laws still in force hinder you, this will be no problem, as we will draw up new laws.”
He did not hesitate laying siege to towns, using torture, and holding women and children as hostages to oblige suspects to give themselves up. These harsh methods earned him the nickname of “Iron Prefect”. However, in 1927 Mori’s inquiries brought evidence of collusion between the Mafia and the Fascist establishment, and he was dismissed for length of service in 1929. Mussolini nominated Mori as a senator, and fascist propaganda claimed that the Mafia had been defeated.
Mussolini launched several public construction programs and government initiatives throughout Italy to combat economic setbacks or unemployment levels. His earliest, and one of the best known, was Italy’s equivalent of the Green Revolution, known as the “Battle for Grain”, in which 5,000 new farms were established and five new agricultural towns on land reclaimed by draining the Pontine Marshes. In Sardinia, a model agricultural town was founded and named Mussolinia, but has long since been renamed Arborea. This town was the first of what Mussolini hoped would have been thousands of new agricultural settlements across the country. This plan diverted valuable resources to grain production, away from other less economically viable crops. The huge tariffs associated with the project promoted widespread inefficiencies, and the government subsidies given to farmers pushed the country further into debt. Mussolini also initiated the “Battle for Land”, a policy based on land reclamation outlined in 1928. The initiative had a mixed success; while projects such as the draining of the Pontine Marsh in 1935 for agriculture were good for propaganda purposes, provided work for the unemployed and allowed for great land owners to control subsidies, other areas in the Battle for Land were not very successful. This program was inconsistent with the Battle for Grain (small plots of land were inappropriately allocated for large-scale wheat production), and the Pontine Marsh was lost during World War II. Fewer than 10,000 peasants resettled on the redistributed land, and peasant poverty remained high. The Battle for Land initiative was abandoned in 1940.
He also combated an economic recession by introducing the “Gold for the Fatherland” initiative, by encouraging the public to voluntarily donate gold jewellery such as necklaces and wedding rings to government officials in exchange for steel wristbands bearing the words “Gold for the Fatherland”. Even Rachele Mussolini donated her own wedding ring. The collected gold was then melted down and turned into gold bars, which were then distributed to the national banks.
Mussolini pushed for government control of business: by 1935, Mussolini claimed that three quarters of Italian businesses were under state control. That same year, he issued several edicts to further control the economy, including forcing all banks, businesses, and private citizens to give up all their foreign-issued stocks and bonds to the Bank of Italy. In 1938, he also instituted wage and price controls. He also attempted to turn Italy into a self-sufficient autarky, instituting high barriers on trade with most countries except Germany.
In 1943 he proposed the theory of economic socialization.
As dictator of Italy, Mussolini’s foremost priority was the subjugation of the minds of the Italian people and the use of propaganda to do so; whether at home or abroad, and here his training as a journalist was invaluable. Press, radio, education, films—all were carefully supervised to create the illusion that fascism was the doctrine of the twentieth century, replacing liberalism and democracy.
The principles of this doctrine were laid down in the article on fascism, written by Giovanni Gentile and signed by Mussolini that appeared in 1932 in the Enciclopedia Italiana. In 1929, a concordat with the Vatican was signed, the Lateran treaties, by which the Italian state was at last recognised by the Roman Catholic Church, and the independence of Vatican City was recognised by the Italian state; the 1929 treaty also included a legal provision whereby the Italian government would protect the honor and dignity of the Pope by prosecuting offenders. In 1927, Mussolini was baptised by a Roman Catholic priest in an attempt to assuage certain Catholic opposition, who were still critical of a regime that had taken away papal property and virtually blackmailed the Vatican. Since 1927, and more even after 1929, Mussolini, with his anti-Communist doctrines, convinced many Catholics to actively support him. In the encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno, Pope Pius XI attacked the Fascist regime for its policy against the Catholic Action and certain tendencies to overrule Catholic education morals.
The law codes of the parliamentary system were rewritten under Mussolini. All teachers in schools and universities had to swear an oath to defend the fascist regime. Newspaper editors were all personally chosen by Mussolini and no one who did not possess a certificate of approval from the fascist party could practice journalism. These certificates were issued in secret; Mussolini thus skillfully created the illusion of a “free press”. The trade unions were also deprived of any independence and were integrated into what was called the “corporative” system. The aim (never completely achieved), inspired by medieval guilds, was to place all Italians in various professional organizations or “corporations”, all of which were under clandestine governmental control.
Large sums of money were spent on highly visible public works, and on international prestige projects such as the SS Rex Blue Riband ocean liner and aeronautical achievements such as the world’s fastest seaplane the Macchi M.C.72 and the transatlantic flying boat cruise of Italo Balbo, who was greeted with much fanfare in the United States when he landed in Chicago.
Role of education and youth organizations
Nationalists in the years after the war thought of themselves as combating the both liberal and domineering institutions created by cabinets such as those of Giovanni Giolitti, including traditional schooling. Futurism, a revolutionary cultural movement which would serve as a catalyst for Fascism, argued for “a school for physical courage and patriotism”, as expressed by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1919. Marinetti expressed his disdain for “the by now prehistoric and troglodyte Ancient Greek and Latin courses”, arguing for their replacement with exercise modelled on those of the Arditi soldiers (“[learning] to advance on hands and knees in front of razing machine gun fire; to wait open-eyed for a crossbeam to move sideways over their heads etc.”). It was in those years that the first Fascist youth wings were formed Avanguardie Giovanili Fasciste (Fascist Youth Vanguards) in 1919, and Gruppi Universitari Fascisti (Fascist University Groups), in 1922).
After the March on Rome that brought Benito Mussolini to power, the Fascists started considering ways to ideologize the Italian society, with an accent on schools. Mussolini assigned former ardito and deputy-secretary for Education Renato Ricci the task of “reorganizing the youth from a moral and physical point of view”. Ricci sought inspiration with Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, meeting with him in England, as well as with Bauhaus artists in Germany.The Opera Nazionale Balilla was created through Mussolini’s decree of 3 April 1926, and was led by Ricci for the following eleven years. It included children between the ages of 8 and 18, grouped as the Balilla and the Avanguardisti.
According to Mussolini: “Fascist education is moral, physical, social, and military: it aims to create a complete and harmoniously developed human, a fascist one according to our views”. Mussolini structured this process taking in view the emotional side of childhood: “Childhood and adolescence alike (…) cannot be fed solely by concerts, theories, and abstract teaching. The truth we aim to teach them should appeal foremost to their fantasy, to their hearts, and only then to their minds”.
The “educational value set through action and example” was to replace the established approaches. Fascism opposed its version of idealism to prevalent rationalism, and used the Opera Nazionale Balilla to circumvent educational tradition by imposing the collective and hierarchy, as well as Mussolini’s own personality cult.
In foreign policy, Mussolini soon shifted from the pacifist anti-imperialism of his lead-up to power to an extreme form of aggressive nationalism. He dreamt of making Italy a nation that was “great, respected and feared” throughout Europe, and indeed the world. An early example was his bombardment of Corfu in 1923. Soon after he succeeded in setting up a puppet regime in Albania and in ruthlessly consolidating Italian power in Libya, which had been loosely a colony since 1912. It was his dream to make the Mediterranean mare nostrum (“our sea” in Latin), and he established a large naval base on the Greek island of Leros to enforce a strategic hold on the eastern Mediterranean. However, his first ‘baby steps’ into foreign policy seemed to portray him as a ‘statesman’, for he participated in the Locarno Treaties of 1925 and the attempted Four Power Pact of 1933 was Mussolini’s brainchild. Following the Stresa Front against Germany in 1935, however, Mussolini’s policy took a dramatic turning point and revealed itself once again to be that of an aggressive nature. This domino-effect of war began with the Second Italo-Abyssinian War.
In an effort to realise an Italian Empire or the New Roman Empire as supporters called it, Italy set its sights on Ethiopia with an invasion that was carried out rapidly. Italy’s forces were far superior to the Abyssinian forces, especially in regards to air power and were soon declared victors. Emperor Haile Selassie was forced to flee the country, with Italy entering the capital Addis Ababa to proclaim an Empire by May 1936, making Ethiopia part of Italian East Africa.
Although all of the major European powers of the time had also colonised parts of Africa and committed atrocities in their colonies, the Scramble for Africa had finished by the beginning of the twentieth century. The international mood was now against colonialist expansion and Italy’s actions were condemned. Retroactively, Italy was criticised for its use of mustard gas and phosgene against its enemies and also for its zero tolerance approach to enemy guerrillas, allegedly authorised by Mussolini.
When Rodolfo Graziani the viceroy of Ethiopia was nearly assassinated at an official ceremony, with the guerrilla bomb exploding among the people there, a very stronghanded reaction followed against the guerrillas, including those who were prisoners according to the International Red Cross. The IRC also alleged that Italy bombed their tents in areas of guerrillas military encampment; though Italy denied it had intended to, insisting that the rebels were targeted. It was not until the East African Campaign’s conclusion in 1941 that Italy lost its East African territories, after taking on a fourteen nation allied force.
Spanish Civil War
Italian military help to Nationalists against the anti-clerical and anti-Catholic atrocities committed by the Republican side worked well in Italian propaganda targeting Catholics. On 27 July 1936 the first squadron of Italian airplanes sent by Benito Mussolini arrived in Spain. This 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, his relationship with Adolf Hitler became closer, and he chose 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, helping Nazi Germany seize control of the Sudetenland. His “axis” with Germany was confirmed when he made the “Pact of Steel” with Hitler in May 1939, as the previous “Rome-Berlin Axis” of 1936 had been unofficial. Members of TIGR, a Slovene anti-fascist group, plotted to kill Mussolini in Kobarid in 1938, but their attempt was unsuccessful.
Munich Conference, war looming
Mussolini had imperial designs on Tunisia, and had some support in that country. In April 1939 with world focus on Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, looking to restore honour from a much older defeat Italy invaded Albania. Italy defeated Albania within just five days forcing king Zog to flee, setting up a period of Albania under Italy. Until May 1939, the Axis had not been entirely official, however during that month the Pact of Steel treaty was made outlining the “friendship and alliance” between Germany and Italy, signed by each of its foreign ministers. Italy’s king Victor Emanuel III was also wary of the pact, favouring the more traditional Italian allies like France.
Hitler was intent on invading Poland, though Galeazzo Ciano warned this would likely lead to war with the Allies. Hitler dismissed Ciano’s comment, predicting that instead that Britain and the other Western countries would back down, and he suggested that Italy should invade Yugoslavia. The offer was tempting to Mussolini, but at that stage world war would be a disaster for Italy as the armaments situation from building the Italian Empire thus far was lean. Most significantly, Victor Emmanuel had demanded neutrality in the dispute. Thus when World War II in Europe began on September 1, 1939 with the German invasion of Poland eliciting the response of the United Kingdom and France declaring war on Germany, Italy did not become involved in the conflict.
As World War II began, Ciano and Viscount Halifax were holding secret phone conversations. The British wanted Italy on their side against Germany as it had been in World War I. French government opinion was more geared towards action against Italy; they were itching to attack Italy in Libya. However, in September 1939, France swung to the opposite extreme, offering to discuss issues with Italy, but as the French were unwilling to discuss Corsica, Nice and Savoy, Mussolini did not answer.
Convinced that the war would soon be over, with a German victory looking likely at that point, Mussolini decided to enter the war on the Axis side. Accordingly, Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940. Italy joined the Germans in the Battle of France, fighting the fortified Alpine Line at the border. Just eleven days later, France surrendered to the Axis powers. Included in Italian-controlled France was most of Nice and other southeastern counties. Meanwhile in Africa, Mussolini’s Italian East Africa forces attacked the British in their Sudan, Kenya and British Somaliland colonies, in what would become known as the East African Campaign. British Somaliland was conquered and became part of Italian East Africa on 3 August 1940, and there were Italian advances in Sudan and Kenya.
Just over a month later, the Italian Tenth Army commanded by General Rodolfo Graziani crossed from Italian Libya into Egypt where British forces were located; this would become the Western Desert Campaign. Advances were successful, but the Italians stopped at Sidi Barrani waiting for logistic supplies to catch up. During 25 October 1940, Mussolini sent the Italian Air Corps to Belgium, where the air force took part in the Battle of Britain for around two months. In October, Mussolini also sent Italian forces into Greece starting the Greco-Italian War. After initial success, this backfired as the Greek counterattack proved relentless, resulting in Italy losing one quarter of Albania. Germany soon committed forces to the Balkans to fight the gathering Allies.
Events in Africa had changed by early 1941 as Operation Compass had forced the Italians back into Libya, causing high losses in the Italian Army. Also in the East African Campaign, an attack was mounted against Italian forces. Despite putting up a resistance, they were overwhelmed at the Battle of Keren, and the Italian defense started to crumble with a final defeat in the Battle of Gondar. However, when addressing the Italian public on the events, he was completely open about the situation saying “We call bread bread and wine wine, and when the enemy wins a battle it is useless and ridiculous to seek, as the English do in their incomparable hypocrisy, to deny or diminish it.” Part of his comment was in relation to earlier success the Italians had in Africa, before being defeated by an Allied force later. In danger of losing the control of all Italian possessions in North Africa, Germany finally sent the Afrika Korps to support Italy. Meanwhile Operation Marita took place in Yugoslavia to end the Greco-Italian War, resulting in an Axis victory and the Occupation of Greece by Italy and Germany. With the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, Mussolini declared war on the Soviet Union in June 1941 and sent an army to fight there. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he declared war on the United States.
Dismissed and arrested
Italy’s position became more and more untenable. After the defeat at El Alamein at the end of 1942, the Axis troops had to retreat to where they were finally defeated in the Tunisia Campaign in the spring of 1943. Also at the Eastern Front were major setbacks and the war had come to the nation’s very doorstep with the Allied invasion of Sicily. The home front was also in bad shape as the Allied bombings were taking their toll. Factories were brought to a virtual standstill due to a lack of raw materials, coal and oil. Additionally, there was a chronic shortage of food, and what food was available was being sold at nearly confiscatory prices. Mussolini’s once-ubiquitous propaganda machine lost its grip on the people; a large number of Italians turned to Vatican Radio or Radio London for more accurate news coverage. Discontent came to a head in March with a wave of strikes in the industrial north—the first large-scale strikes since 1925. Also in March, some of the major factories in Milan and Turin stopped production to secure evacuation allowances for workers’ families. The physical German presence in Italy had sharply turned public opinion against Mussolini; for example, when the Allies took Sicily, the public welcomed them as liberators.
Earlier, Mussolini had begged Hitler to make a separate peace with Stalin and send German troops to the west to guard against an expected Allied invasion of Italy. He feared that with the losses in Tunisia and North Africa, the next logical step for Dwight Eisenhower’s armies would be to come across the Mediterranean and attack the peninsula. Within a few days of the Allied landings on Sicily, it was obvious Mussolini’s army was on the brink of collapse. This led Hitler to summon Mussolini to a meeting in northern Italy on 19 July. By this time, Mussolini was so shaken that he could no longer stand Hitler’s boasting. His mood darkened further when that same day, the Allies bombed Rome—the first time that city had ever been the target of enemy bombing.
Some prominent members of the Italian Fascist government had turned against Mussolini by this point. Among them were Grandi and Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano. With several of his colleagues close to revolt, il Duce was forced to summon the Grand Council of Fascism on 24 July: the first time that body had met since the start of the war. When he announced that the Germans were thinking of evacuating the south, Grandi launched a blistering attack on him. Grandi moved a resolution asking the king to resume his full constitutional powers, in effect, a vote of no confidence in Mussolini. This motion carried by a 19–7 margin. Despite this sharp rebuke, Mussolini showed up for work the next day as usual. He allegedly viewed the Grand Council as merely an advisory body and did not think the vote would have any substantive effect.[ Tat afternoon, he was summoned to the royal palace by King Victor Emmanuel III, who had been planning to oust Mussolini earlier. When Mussolini tried to tell the king about the meeting, Victor Emmanuel cut him off and told him that he was being replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio. After Mussolini left the palace, he was arrested by Carabinieri on the king’s orders.
By this time, discontent with Mussolini was such that when the news of his ouster was announced on the radio, there was no resistance. In an effort to conceal his location from the Germans, Mussolini was moved around before being sent to Campo Imperatore, a mountain resort in Abruzzo where he was completely isolated. Given the large Nazi presence in Italy, Badoglio announced that “the war continues at the side of our Germanic ally” in the hopes that chaos and Nazi retaliation against civilians could be avoided. Even as Badolglio was keeping up the appearance of loyalty to the Axis, he dissolved the Fascist Party two days after taking over. Also, his government was negotiating an Armistice with the Allies, which was signed on 3 September 1943. Its announcement five days later threw Italy into chaos, a civil war of sorts. Badoglio and the king fled Rome, leaving the Italian Army without orders. After a period of anarchy, Italy finally declared war on Nazi Germany on 13 October from Malta; thousands of troops were supplied to fight against the Germans, others refused to switch sides and had joined the Germans. The Badoglio government held a social truce with the leftist partisans for the sake of Italy and to rid the land of the Nazis.
Italian Social Republic
Meanwhile, only two months after Mussolini had been dismissed and arrested, he was rescued from prison in the Gran Sasso raid by a special Fallschirmjäger unit on 12 September 1943; present was Otto Skorzeny. The rescue saved Mussolini from being turned over to the Allies, as per the armistice. Hitler had made plans to arrest the king, Crown Prince Umberto, Badoglio, and the rest of the government and restore Mussolini to power in Rome, but the government’s escape south likely foiled those plans.
By this time, Mussolini was in very poor health and wanted to retire. However, he was immediately taken to Germany for an audience with Hitler in his East Prussia hideaway. There, Hitler told him that unless he agreed to return to Italy and set up a new fascist state, the Germans would destroy Milan, Genoa and Turin. Feeling that he had to do what he could to blunt the edges of Nazi repression, Mussolini agreed to set up a new regime, the Italian Social Republic, informally known as the Salò Republic because of its administration from the town of Salò.
Mussolini lived in Gargnano on Lake Garda in Lombardy during this period, but he was little more than a puppet ruler under the protection of his German liberators—for all intents and purposes, the Gauleiter of Lombardy. After yielding to pressures from Hitler and the remaining loyal fascists who formed the government of the Republic of Salo, Mussolini helped orchestrate a series of executions of some of the fascist leaders who had betrayed him at the last meeting of the Fascist Grand Council. One of those executed included his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. As Head of State and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Italian Social Republic, Mussolini used much of his time to write his memoirs. Along with his autobiographical writings of 1928, these writings would be combined and published by Da Capo Press as My Rise and Fall.
Mussolini was first married to Ida Dalser in Trento in 1914. The couple had a son one year later and named him Benito Albino Mussolini. In December 1915, Mussolini married Rachele Guidi, his mistress since 1910, and with his following political ascendency the information about his first marriage was suppressed and both his first wife and son were later persecuted. With Rachele, Mussolini had two daughters, Edda (1910–1995) and Anna Maria (Forlì, Villa Carpena, 3 September 1929 – Rome, 25 April 1968), married in Ravenna on 11 June 1960 to Nando Pucci Negri, and three sons Vittorio (1916–1997), Bruno (1918–1941), and Romano (1927–2006). Mussolini had a number of mistresses among them Margherita Sarfatti and his final companion, Clara Petacci. Furthermore, Mussolini had innumerable brief sexual encounters with female supporters as reported by his biographer Nicholas Farrell.
Mussolini was an avowed atheist, however, motivated by a desire to consolidate his power in Italy, he submitted to baptism. Privately he remained hostile to the church.
Mussolini’s earliest political pamphlet was titled God does not exist. He was known to refer to priests as “black germs”, he had a secular civil wedding, and during speeches before large crowds he dared God to strike him dead.
Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were stopped by communist partisans Valerio and Bellini and identified by the Political Commissar of the partisans’ 52nd Garibaldi Brigade, Urbano Lazzaro, on 27 April 1945, near the village of Dongo (Lake Como), as they headed for Switzerland to board a plane to escape to Spain. During this time Claretta’s brother even posed as a Spanish consul Mussolini had been traveling with retreating German forces and was apprehended while attempting to escape recognition by wearing a German military uniform. After several unsuccessful attempts to take them to Como they were brought to Mezzegra. They spent their last night in the house of the De Maria family.
The next day, Mussolini and his mistress were both summarily executed, along with most of the members of their 15-man train, primarily ministers and officials of the Italian Social Republic. The shootings took place in the small village of Giulino di Mezzegra. According to the official version of events, the shootings were conducted by “Colonel Valerio” (Colonnello Valerio). Valerio’s real name was Walter Audisio. Audisio was the communist partisan commander who was reportedly given the order to kill Mussolini by the National Liberation Committee. When Audisio entered the room where Mussolini and the other fascists were being held, he reportedly announced: “I have come to rescue you!… Do you have any weapons?” He then had them loaded into transports and driven a short distance. Audisio ordered “get down”; Petacci hugged Mussolini and refused to move away from him when they were taken to an empty space. Shots were fired and Petacci fell down. Just then Mussolini opened his jacket and screamed “Shoot me in the chest!”. Audisio shot him in the chest. Mussolini fell down but he did not die; he was breathing heavily. Audisio went near and he shot one more bullet in his chest. Mussolini’s face looked as if he had significant pain. Audisio said to his driver “Look at his face, the emotions on his face don’t suit him”. The other members were also lined up before a firing squad later the same night.
On 29 April 1945, the bodies of Mussolini, Petacci, and the other executed Fascists were loaded into a moving van and trucked south to Milan. There, at 3 a.m., they were dumped on the ground in the old Piazza Loreto. The piazza had been renamed “Piazza Quindici Martiri” in honor of 15 anti-Fascists recently executed there.
After being shot, kicked, and spat upon, the bodies were hung upside down on meathooks from the roof of a gas station. The bodies were then stoned by civilians from below. This was done both to discourage any Fascists from continuing the fight and as an act of revenge for the hanging of many partisans in the same place by Axis authorities. The corpse of the deposed leader became subject to ridicule and abuse.
Fascist loyalist Achille Starace was captured and sentenced to death and then taken to the Piazzale Loreto and shown the body of Mussolini. Starace, who once said of Mussolini “He is a God”, saluted what was left of his leader just before he was shot. The body of Starace was subsequently strung up next to the body of Mussolini.
After his death and the display of his corpse in Milan, Mussolini was buried in an unmarked grave in Musocco, the municipal cemetery to the north of the city. On Easter Sunday 1946 his body was located and dug up by Domenico Leccisi and two other neo-Fascists. Making off with their hero, they left a message on the open grave: “Finally, O Duce, you are with us. We will cover you with roses, but the smell of your virtue will overpower the smell of those roses.”
On the loose for months—and a cause of great anxiety to the new Italian democracy—the Duce’s body was finally ‘recaptured’ in August, hidden in a small trunk at the Certosa di Pavia, just outside Milan. Two Fransciscan brothers were subsequently charged with concealing the corpse, though it was discovered on further investigation that it had been constantly on the move. Unsure what to do, the authorities held the remains in a kind of political limbo for 10 years, before agreeing to allow them to be re-interred at Predappio in Romagna, his birth place, after a campaign headed by Leccisi and the Movimento Sociale Italiano.
Leccisi, a fascist deputy, went on to write his autobiography, With Mussolini Before and After Piazzale Loreto. Adone Zoli, the Prime Minister of the day, contacted Donna Rachele, the former dictator’s widow, to tell her he was returning the remains, as he needed the support of the far-right in parliament, including Leccisi himself. In Predappio the dictator was buried in a crypt (the only posthumous honour granted to Mussolini). His tomb is flanked by marble fasces and a large idealised marble bust of himself sits above the tomb.
Mussolini was survived by his wife, Donna Rachele Mussolini, two sons, Vittorio and Romano Mussolini, and his daughter Edda, the widow of Count Ciano and Anna Maria. A third son, Bruno, was killed in an air accident while flying a P108 bomber on a test mission, on 7 August 1941. Sophia Loren’s sister, Anna Maria Scicolone, was formerly married to Romano Mussolini, Mussolini’s son. Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra Mussolini is currently a member of the European Parliament for the extreme right-wing party Alternativa Sociale; other relatives of Edda (Castrianni) moved to England after World War II.
Mussolini’s National Fascist Party was banned in the postwar Constitution of Italy, but a number of successor neo-fascist parties emerged to carry on its legacy. Alessandra Mussolini runs one of the primary neo-fascist parties in modern Italy, Azione Sociale. Historically, the strongest neo-fascist party was MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano), which was declared dissolved in 1995 and replaced by the National Alliance, which in the meanwhile has distanced itself from Fascism (its leader Gianfranco Fini once declared that Fascism was “an absolute evil”). These parties were united under Silvio Berlusconi’s House of Freedoms coalition and the leader of the National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, was one of Berlusconi’s most trusted advisors. In 2006, the House of Freedoms coalition was narrowly defeated by Romano Prodi’s coalition, L’Unione.