Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini
(1883 - 1945)
Benito Mussolini was the fascist dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943.
Mussolini created an anti-democratic, fascist state in Italy through
the use of propaganda. By using his total control of the media, he disassembled
the existing democratic government system.
Mussolini was born in Predappio, near Forli, in Romagna.
His father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith, and his mother, Rosa Maltoni,
was a teacher. Like his father, Benito became a socialist. He qualified
as an elementary schoolmaster in 1901. In 1902 he emigrated to Switzerland.
Unable to find a permanent job there and arrested for vagrancy, he was
expelled and returned to Italy to do his military service. After further
trouble with the police, he joined the staff of a newspaper in the Austrian
town of Trento in 1908. At this time he wrote a novel, subsequently
translated into English as The Cardinal's Mistress. Mussolini had a
brother, Arnaldo, who became one of the most important developers of
the original fascist Idea.
In November 1914 he founded a new newspaper, Il
Popolo d'Italia, and the pro-war 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, and after Fascists had organised
a demonstrative "Marcia su Roma" (Oct. 28th 1922), Mussolini
was invited by the king to form a new government.
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
(Il 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.
foreign policy, Mussolini soon shifted from pacifist anti-imperialism
to an extreme form of aggressive nationalism. An early example of this
was his bombardment of Corfu in 1923. Soon after this he succeeded in
setting up a puppet regime in Albania and in reconquering Libya.
It was his dream to make the Mediterranean "mare nostrum ("our
sea). In 1935,
at the Stresa Conference, he helped create an anti-Hitler front in order to defend the independence of Austria. But his successful
war against Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935-1936 was opposed by the League of Nations, and he sought an alliance with Nazi Germany,
which had withdrawn from the League in 1933.
His active intervention in 1936-1939 on the side of 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. However, he refused
to allow Jews to be deported to concentration
camps until Germany occupied Italy during the war.
As World War II approached, Mussolini announced his
intention of annexing Malta, Corsica, and Tunis. In April 1939, after
a brief struggle, 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. The fact that Italy
had began its military buildup before other powers became a disadvantage
as by 1939, its military infrastructure was becoming obsolete. His armed
forces were completely unprepared when Hitler's invasion of Poland led to World War II. He decided to remain "nonbelligerant"
until he was quite certain which side would win.
Only after the fall of France did he declare war in
8th of June 1940,
hoping that the war had only a few weeks more to run. His attack on Greece in October was a military
disaster, and his position in Greece required the assistance of German
troops. Following Hitler, he declared war on the Soviet Union 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 (the Conte Ciano, his son-in-law, included)
turned against him at a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on July
25, 1943. This enabled the king to dismiss and arrest him.
He was then sent to Gran Sasso, a mountain recovery
in central Italy (Abruzzo), in complete isolation.
Mussolini was substituted by the Maresciallo d'Italia
Gen. Pietro Badoglio, who immediately declared in a famous speech "La
guerra continua a fianco dell'Alleato Germanico" ("War continues
at the side of our German allies"), but was instead working to
negotiate a surrender; in a few days (Sep. the 8th) Badoglio would sign
a armistice with allied troops.
Rescued by the Germans several months later in a spectacular
raid by Otto Skorzeny, Mussolini set up a Republican Fascist state (RSI
- Repubblica Sociale Italiana) in northern Italy with him living in
Gargnano. But he was little more than a puppet under the protection
of the German Army. In this "Republic of Salo'", Mussolini
returned to his earlier ideas of socialism and collectivization. He
also executed some of the Fascist leaders who had abandoned him, including
his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano.
On April 28, 1945,
just before the Allied armies reached Milan, Mussolini, along with his
mistress Claretta Petacci, was caught by Italian partisans as he headed
for Chiavenna to board a plane for escape to Switzerland. They were
both shot on the spot along with their sixteen-man escort The next day
the bodies were hung in Piazzale Loreto (Milan) along with those of
other fascists to be abused by the crowds. Mussolini's body was then
taken to Predappio and the family chapel.
The Duce was survived by his wife, Donna Rachele, by
two sons, Vittorio and Romano Mussolini, and his daughter Edda, the
widow of Count Ciano. A third son, Bruno, had been killed in an air
accident while testing a military plane.
Mussolini's niece Alessandra, daughter of Romano Mussolini,
has served as a deputy in the Republican Chamber representing the Alleanza
Nazionale party for Naples.
Beat. Photos: USHMM
and National Archives