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Benito Mussolini
1883 - 1945


The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini 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 Forlė 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.


Fascist State

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 one half 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.
 


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Mussolini's father was a blacksmith, his mother a teacher, and his wider family small landowners in the foothills of the Apennines in Emilia-Romagna. His father was active in the revolutionary socialist movement, and Benito Mussolini grew up in the fervid atmosphere of the international socialist movement of the late nineteenth century. He was educated locally, and apparently distinguished himself both by his intelligence and by his ungovernable temper. He qualified as a teacher, but after a brief period in this profession he emigrated to Switzerland, where he was active in the socialist movement as a writer and self-procalaimed intellectual. He was expelled from the cantons of Berne and Geneva, and eventually in 1909 found work in Trento as a journalist and trade union organizer. When eventually he was expelled from the region by the Austrian authorities, he returned to Romagna, where he spent a period in prison for organizing a general strike.

He came to national prominence when in 1912 he was appointed editor of the Socialist party newspaper Avanti! His combination of revolutionary intransigence and ideological flexibility soon brought him into conflict with the reformist leaders of the Socialist Party. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was firmly neutralist and internationalist (unusually, since this was the official party line), but the breakup of international socialism led him quickly to support intervention, the ideological justification of which he found in the idea of the nation as an independent actor above the notion of class. After military service (1915 – 17) he became increasingly active in support of the economic demands of returning veterans and argued (as did others) that Italy's victory had been "mutilated".

His "fasci di combattimento", one of several such groups from which the Fascist movement takes its name, were founded in Milan in March 1919. In the climate of revolutionary socialist fervour following the factory occupations in Turin, Fascists with their anti-parliamentary methods and radical nationalist demands increasingly appeared as protagonists in a potential civil war. After Mussolini's success in the elections of May 1921 and the formation of the National Fascist Party in October 1921, he moderated his rhetoric and sought to reassure the Court and the business community, both of his own moderation and of his capacity to control the Fascist squads. When the constitutional parties failed repeatedly to find a stable formula for government, Mussolini was asked by the King on 28 October 1922 to form a government. He marked the event several days later with his famous though unnecessary "March on Rome" (10 November 1922).

His majority depended initially on the Liberals and on the Catholics, whose parliamentary leader was De Gasperi. The support of the Catholics was particularly uncertain, and, to remedy this, Mussolini secured the acceptance in 1923 of a new electoral law giving the majority grouping two-thirds of the seats. Though controversial, this proved formally unnecessary, since in the elections of April 1924 Mussolini's "big list" of approved candidates won 66 per cent of the votes. There is little doubt that the Italian establishment including the Court, the army, and the major industrialists expected Mussolini to content himself with this minimum of constitutional reform and to provide stable parliamentary government until a new Liberal leader emerged. In fact the pace of change accelerated. In June 1924, the Socialist leader Matteotti was murdered by a Fascist squad. In protest, the opposition parties left parliament, there by granting Mussolini freedom from opposition and ensuring the collapse of liberal-democratic procedures. From this point on, both his formal authority and his effective power were unchallenged until his downfall in 1943.

During this nineteen-year period, Mussolini oscillated in domestic politics between economic innovation and social conservatism. His control of the media was complete, and was crucial to the social support of his regime. He promoted intervention in public works, particularly in the south, and pursued the development of the Corporatist state. He also achieved a settlement with the Vatican in the Lateran Pacts in 1929. In foreign affairs, his initial concern to avoid alienating the great powers gradually gave way to a more opportunistic line. After the success of the Abyssinian War (1935 – 6) he became more overtly pro-German, though this could be interpreted as a more noisy continuation of the traditional Italian foreign policy of manœuvring for advantage among unstable alliances. Mistrust of Hitler and concern over Italy's lack of preparedness kept Italy out of the war until May 1940. The short triumphant campaign for which Mussolini hoped became a long series of fruitless military entanglements and defeats, in North Africa, Greece, and Russia. Northern Italy suffered mass aerial bombing from late 1942 on, and the first real stirrings of popular opposition began to show themselves in the northern factories. Mussolini sacked some of his senior Cabinet ministers in February 1943, thereby creating an internal opposition, which began to conspire against him. In May 1943 the Axis forces surrendered in North Africa, and on 9 July 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily. After secret negotiations between the Allies and the Court (via the Vatican), and after a damaging and dramatic air-raid on Rome, the Fascist Grand Council ousted Mussolini on 25 July 1943.

In September 1943, Mussolini was freed from his house arrest by a German raid, and was established by Hitler as the puppet head of the Italian Social Republic, based at Salo' on Lake Garda. Without the power to implement his decisions, Mussolini re-discovered the taste for verbal radicalism and nationalist republican rhetoric. When in April 1945 the German forces in Italy surrendered, Mussolini tried to escape into Switzerland. He was captured by Communist partisans and was executed by them. As a politician and national leader, Mussolini is remembered by almost all except the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement as a symbol of what post-war Italy wanted to turn its back on.
 


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BENITO MUSSOLINI, (1883-1945), Fascist dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943. He centralized all power in himself as the leader (il duce) of the Fascist party and attempted to create an Italian empire, ultimately in alliance with HITLER's Germany. The defeat of Italian arms in WORLD WAR II brought an end to his imperial dream and led to his downfall.

Mussolini was born in Predappio, near Forli, in Romagna, on July 29, 1883. His father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith, and his mother, Rosa, was a schoolteacher. Like his father, Benito became a fervent socialist. 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.


Socialist Affiliations

Expelled by the Austrians, he became the editor at Forli of a socialist newspaper, La Lotta di Classe (The Class Struggle ). His early enthusiasm for Karl Marx was modified by a mixture of ideas from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the revolutionary doctrines of Auguste Blanqui, and the syndicalism of Georges Sorel. In 1910, Mussolini became secretary of the local Socialist party at Forli.

At this stage in his life his political views were almost the opposite of what they later became. He boasted of being an "antipatriot. When Italy declared war on Turkey in 1911, he was imprisoned for his pacifist propaganda. Appointed editor of the official Socialist newspaper Avanti, he moved to Milan, where he established himself as the most forceful of all labor leaders of Italian socialism. He believed that the proletariat should unite "in one formidable fascio (bundle), preparatory to seizing power. Some see this as the start of the Fascist movement.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Mussolini agreed with the other Socialists that Italy should not join it. Only a class war was acceptable to him, and he threatened to lead a proletarian revolution if the government decided to fight. But several months later he unexpectedly changed his position on the war, leaving the Socialist party and his editorial chair.


Birth of Fascism

In November 1914 he founded a new paper, Il Popolo d'Italia, and the prowar group Fasci d'Azione Rivoluzionaria. He evidently hoped the war might lead to a collapse of society that would bring him to power. Called up for military service, he was wounded in grenade practice in 1917 and returned to edit his paper.

Fascism became an organized political movement in March 1919 when Mussolini founded the Fasci de Combattimento. After failing in the 1919 elections, Mussolini at last entered parliament in 1921 as a right-wing member. The Fascisti formed armed squads to terrorize Mussolini's former Socialist colleagues. The government seldom interfered. In return for the support of a group of industrialists and agrarians, Mussolini gave his approval 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, Mussolini was invited by the king in October 1922 to form a government.


Fascist Dictatorship

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 "Duce, a man who 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.

Most 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 that was 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.

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 1930's 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 exaggerated attempt to make Italy self-sufficient. There was too much concentration on heavy industry, for which Italy lacked the resources.


Military Aggression

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 was forced to seek an alliance with Nazi Germany, which had withdrawn from the League in 1933. His active intervention in 1936-1939 on the side of Gen. Francisco 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.

As World War II approached, Mussolini announced his intention of annexing Malta, Corsica, and Tunis. In April 1939, after a brief war, he occupied Albania. Failing to realize that he had more to gain by trying to hold the balance of power in Europe, he preferred to rely on a policy of bluff and bluster to induce the Western democracies to give way to his increasing territorial demands. Although he had preached for 15 years about the virtues of war and the military readiness of Italy to fight, his armed forces were completely unprepared when Hitler's invasion of Poland led to World War II. He decided to remain "nonbelligerent until he was quite certain which side would win. Only after the fall of France did he declare war in June 1940, hoping that the war had only a few weeks more to run. His attack on Greece in October revealed to everyone that he had done nothing to prepare an effective military machine. He had no option but to follow Hitler in declaring war on Russia in June 1941 and on the United States in December 1941.

Following Italian defeats on all fronts and the Anglo-American landing in Sicily in 1943, most of Mussolini's colleagues turned against him at a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on July 25, 1943. This enabled the king to dismiss and arrest him.

Rescued by the Germans several months later, Mussolini set up a Republican Fascist state in northern Italy. 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. Increasingly he tried to shift the blame for defeat onto the Italian people, who had not been great enough to appreciate his imperial dream. In April 1945, just before the Allied armies reached Milan, Mussolini, along with his mistress Clara Petacci, was caught by Italian partisans as he tried to take refuge in Switzerland. He was summarily executed.

The Duce was survived by his wife, Rachele, by two sons, Vittorio and Romano, and his daughter Edda, the widow of Count Ciano. A third son, Bruno, had been killed in an air accident.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008