Benito Mussolini


Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), founder of Fascism and prime minister and dictator of Italy (1922-1943). Known as Il Duce (Italian for “the leader”), Mussolini centralized political power in Italy and bound the nation to him with his charisma. His vast personal power, strong-arm methods, and extreme nationalism made him a model for leaders of like-minded authoritarian movements in the 1920s and 1930s. German dictator Adolf Hitler saw Mussolini as a precursor, and many similarities existed between the Fascist and German Nazi movements. Allied with Hitler from 1938 to 1943, Mussolini helped plunge Europe into World War II (1939-1945).


Mussolini was born in Predappio, a small town in north central Italy, near the city of Forlì. He was the first son of a striving lower-class couple. His father was a blacksmith and his mother was a schoolteacher. Like many other families of this time and region, Mussolini's family held socialist convictions and was opposed to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The couple named their first son after Mexican revolutionary hero Benito Juárez , and his younger brother after medieval Catholic heretic Arnold of Brescia .

As a youth, Mussolini was known for his quick temper and arrogance. Educated in local schools, he earned a diploma in 1901 that qualified him to teach elementary school. Employment prospects in the area were scarce, however, and in 1902 he moved to Switzerland.


While abroad, Mussolini studied the works of socialist thinkers such as Karl Marx and became involved with socialist groups. Returning to Italy in 1904, he drew on his exposure to leftist ideas, his quick intelligence, and his growing talent as a journalist and speechmaker to advance in local socialist circles. In 1910 he married Rachele Guidi, with whom he would have five children.


When the war ended in November 1918, Mussolini was at loose ends politically. His sympathies lay with the nation's hundreds of thousands of war veterans, many unemployed and, most of all, disaffected with the liberal Italian state. With an eye on galvanizing their support, in March 1919 he founded a political movement called the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Leagues), whose members became known as Fascists. At first Mussolini organized young Fascists into armed squads in order to defend Fascist rallies. But soon these black-shirted squads were to attack and disrupt the rallies of rival political factions, especially the socialists. Mussolini thus introduced wartime tactics into peacetime politics.

In speeches and rallies Mussolini denounced inept politicians and incited nationalist fervor, hoping to seize the initiative from traditional opposition parties, notably the socialists. However, when Mussolini ran for parliament later that year—promising to replace the parliamentary monarchy with a republic, tax war profits, divide up the large estates for landless farmers, and grant women the vote—he failed miserably.


In 1920 and 1921 widespread labor strikes, riots over high food prices, and peasant land occupations and tax revolts swept the nation. Taking advantage of the chaos, Mussolini offered eager industrialists and landlords the services of his armed squads of Black Shirts as strikebreakers. Acting sometimes with the complicity of the government, the Fascist gangs also set about destroying left-wing and Catholic trade unions and socialist groups.

Over the course of 1921 Mussolini skillfully played a duplicitous political game. On one hand, he operated within parliamentary channels, transforming his movement into the National Fascist Party and muting or eliminating the more radical Fascist aims in order to attract support from the influential Nationalist movement and business interests. On the other hand, he openly threatened to overthrow the parliamentary government if it sought to suppress Fascist groups.

Far from condemning him, the weakening liberal government sought to enlist Mussolini's support. In preparation for the 1921 elections, the government brought the Fascist party into an electoral coalition, and 35 Fascists, including Mussolini, were elected to parliament. The Italian government believed Mussolini would abandon his violent tactics once he entered parliament, and that, in the meantime, his gangs were useful in cracking down on socialist activity.

However, Mussolini's overriding ambition was to seize power, and the opportunity came in the form of the Italian political crises of 1922. Over the course of that year several successive parliamentary governments collapsed, while Mussolini's Fascist rallies grew more popular and vocal. In October, as another cabinet fell apart, Mussolini threatened to order his tens of thousands of armed Black Shirts to occupy Rome if he were not asked to form the new government. Bands of Fascists began moving towards the capital in what would become known as the March on Rome. King Victor Emmanuel III at first leaned towards declaring a state of emergency and sending the army against the Fascists, but powerful interest groups, state officials, and army leaders convinced him that Mussolini should be given the chance to end what they considered the growing disorder of parliamentary rule. Consequently, at the end of October the king formally invited Mussolini to create a new governing coalition as prime minister. Mussolini thus began his rule as the legal head of government even though the Fascist party had never obtained more than 15 percent of the national vote.


In power but not yet dictator, Mussolini continued to exploit conservative fears that he was the only alternative to political chaos or, even worse, a socialist revolution. He pushed through a new electoral law that virtually guaranteed the Fascists a two-thirds majority in parliament following the 1924 elections. When opponents protested, he intimidated them with violence. After a high-placed gang of Black Shirts kidnapped and murdered outspoken socialist member of parliament Giacomo Matteotti in June 1924, widespread outrage almost toppled Mussolini from power. However, the opposition was in disarray and the king was unwilling to remove him. Faced with the choice between standing behind his Black Shirts or losing their loyalty, Mussolini acted decisively. Speaking before parliament in January 1925, he took full, personal responsibility for the actions of the Black Shirts—including all violence and murders committed in the name of Fascism—and affirmed that he alone could bring order to Italy. Over the next two years he disbanded parliament, dissolved all political parties except for his National Fascist Party, stiffened police measures against dissenters, set up the Special Tribunal for the Defense of the State to try political opponents, established complete censorship of the press, and otherwise curtailed civil liberties. Mussolini, Il Duce , was now the dictator of Italy.

From 1925 to 1940 Mussolini's major ambition was to reestablish Italy as a great European power. He stabilized the national currency, revamped government services such as the railroads, passed social legislation, and launched campaigns for economic self-sufficiency to reduce Italy's dependency on imports. He established national corporations or councils representing employers and workers to arbitrate labor disputes, ostensibly in the national interest, but mainly favoring business. He also made Italy a decisive player in international diplomacy. All of this was possible, Mussolini claimed, because he had overcome the class conflicts and ideological schisms of the liberal era, and had unified the Italian people behind him.

There is some truth to this. Most landowners, industrialists, and middle-class people saw Mussolini as Italy's savior because he brought social order and enacted pro-business policies. However, the majority of working-class Italians saw their standard of living drop after the Fascist government gave free rein to businesses, and many remained hostile. So did many Catholics when Mussolini banned many of their organizations. The peasant population, very numerous in this still rural country, was divided: Landowners favored Mussolini, while the landless were indifferent, if not hostile to him, especially after his government halted land reform measures in 1923.


Mussolini wooed mass support with fresh social policies and political propaganda. Under the slogan “Make Way for Youth,” the dictatorship established an all-encompassing mass organization for schoolchildren, young workers, and university students. In 1927 he drew up a labor charter that promised workers new rights as well as new responsibilities to the state. Though the Fascist state outlawed strikes, it recognized the right of its official trade unions to bargain collectively and it barred employer lockouts. It also set up a vast system of clubs for working people, called the dopolavoro , which organized leisure-time activities. Slowly, the dictatorship moved toward the goal of establishing what it called the corporatist system of representation . In this system, all of the different interests of the society, from big business to workers and shopkeepers and artisans, would negotiate their differences in view of the paramount interests of the state. Over the course of his rule, however, Mussolini allowed no debate about his strong support for free enterprise and disregard for workers' rights.

Reaching out to the Catholic Church, in February 1929 Mussolini concluded the Lateran Treaty with Pope Pius XI . Under the treaty, Italy recognized the independent sovereignty of the Vatican, paid reparations for the loss of autonomy the Vatican suffered in the 19th century, and made Roman Catholicism the official state religion. The once-anticlerical dictator thereby broke with the western liberal tendency to separate church and state. In turn, the Catholic Church supported Mussolini's regime more or less officially. The Catholic hierarchy was especially enthusiastic about Mussolini's attempts to raise Italian birthrates and his antifeminist acts, including laws that made abortion a heavily punished crime against the state and regulations discouraging women from working.


Although popular at home, Mussolini felt increasingly isolated by international opinion, especially by the disapproval of Italy's former allies France and Britain. In reaction, starting in 1936 he moved towards an alliance with Nazi Germany, under the leadership of dictator Adolf Hitler , who greatly admired Mussolini. Emboldened, Mussolini intervened in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) on the side of General Francisco Franco and his right-wing revolutionaries. Italian troops performed poorly in Spain, however, while Nazi Germany gave critical support that helped Franco win the civil war. This event showed Italy's growing dependence on the superior power and unflinching purpose of Hitler's Germany.

Race-consciousness in Italy had heightened with the conquest of Ethiopia in 1936, leading to the passage of laws preventing interracial marriages. Now allied with the Nazis, Mussolini in 1938 adopted anti-Jewish laws similar to those in Germany. Though the laws in Italy were less strictly observed than those in Germany, Italian Jews were fired from employment, deprived of property, and excluded from public schools. Worse, Fascist lists of “non-Aryan” people eventually became available to the Gestapo, the German secret police. After Italy fell under German occupation in September 1943, the Gestapo used these lists to round up thousands of Italian Jews for execution in concentration camps.

Eventually, Mussolini's war making proved his undoing and his country's as well. After the Fascists launched a costly campaign in April 1939 to conquer Albania, Italy was depleted of war material. Italians faced rationing of food and other supplies. In May Italy entered into an alliance with Germany, in what was called the Pact of Steel, but it was unprepared to fulfill the pact's military obligations. When Hitler unexpectedly invaded Poland in September 1939, Italy stayed neutral. Only after France surrendered to German invaders in June 1940 (and Mussolini thought the German-Italian conquest of Europe would soon be over) did Il Duce bring Italy into World War II. Thereafter, Italy had to pay dearly for German supplies. The army, its morale low and its leadership weak, performed badly. With rising hardships at home and the Italian army suffering defeats in Greece, North Africa, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Mussolini's popularity plummeted. However, living in an egocentric solitude with no checks on his despotic politics, he was utterly blind to public and Fascist Party opinion.

Allied forces landed in Sicily on July 10, 1943, provoking rebellion in the Fascist ranks. On July 25 the Fascist Party's governing body voted to hand executive power over to King Victor Emmanuel III, and the king had Mussolini arrested. As the Italian government surrendered to the Allies in early September, the German army began occupying the Italian peninsula. Hitler ordered the rescue of his old ally, and on September 12, in a daring aerial raid, German commandos successfully plucked Mussolini from his mountain prison at Gran Sasso, high in the Apennines. In the northern territories occupied by German forces, the Germans installed Mussolini as the leader of a new government called the Italian Social Republic, headquartered at Salò. From there, he boasted of reinvigorating Fascism and returning it to its rightful position in power in Italy. In reality, however, the Italian Social Republic was a mere puppet of the Nazis. In April 1945 as the ranks of Italian partisans, or resistance fighters, swelled and the Allied armies advanced north, Mussolini fled toward Switzerland hidden in a retreating German army convoy. Near Lake Como, partisans captured him. The next day, April 28, 1945, at Giulino di Mezzegra, Mussolini was executed with his mistress, Clara Petacci.


Mussolini's legacy is still disputed. Lasting practically the entire period between the world wars, his dictatorship oversaw Italy's transformation from a respected, but second-tier country to a modernized nation with great power pretensions. Apologists argue that Mussolini was an effective leader given Italy's legacy of class division, the inept liberal government he replaced, and the hard times a relatively poor country faced during the period between the wars. Had Mussolini not come under Hitler's sway and Italy stayed out of World War II, they argue, his regime might have lasted decades, like Franco's dictatorship in Spain.

However, whatever innovations that may have occurred came at a high cost. Under Mussolini, democratic freedoms were lost, corruption became rampant, and the division between the classes deepened. Moreover, Mussolini's overreaching and costly military misadventures started well before his connection with Hitler. Like all modern despots, Mussolini became increasingly blinded by his self-declared infallibility and the workings of his totalitarian party apparatus. Pushed further and further into an unwinnable war of conquest, Mussolini utterly subordinated his people's well-being to the interests of the Nazis. The ultimate result was catastrophic in terms of loss of civilian lives, military casualties, resources, and cultural pride. If Mussolini and his Fascist dictatorship appear more benign than Hitler and his frightful Third Reich, it is only because of different circumstances in the two countries. Ultimately, whatever positive may have occurred during Mussolini's regime likely could have developed just as well under a more democratic form of government.

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