Summary of Mussolini:
Benito Mussolini was an Italian dictator and the first of the fascist rulers of twentieth century Europe. His initial successes, although much debated and overstated, were destroyed by his disastrous alliance with Hitler and entry into World War 2.
Youth of Mussolini:
Benito Mussolini was born on July 29th 1883 to a blacksmith who dabbled in socialist writing, and a Catholic school teacher. The family were poor, although Mussolini later exaggerated this for effect. He was a violent and uncontrollable child, expelled from several schools for attacking pupils with a penknife, but was also intelligent, passing examinations. Mussolini’s father took him to socialist meetings. When older, Mussolini worked for a short while as a teacher but, having been sacked, he moved to Switzerland and drifted from job to job.
Mussolini the Socialist:
While in Switzerland Mussolini read, wrote and spoke about socialism, beginning a reputation as a charismatic and powerful orator. This only grew once he returned to Italy in 1904, having been thrown out by the Swiss. After another brief stint as a teacher and then army service, he turned again to socialist writing, being arrested for his views and developing a reputation as one of Italy’s dominant young socialists. In 1912 he was entrusted with the role of editor of ‘Avanti!’, Italy’s official socialist periodical, and doubled the readership.
World War 1 and the turn to Fascism:
As a socialist, Mussolini initially opposed Italy’s entry into World War 1, but changed his mind as he pondered Marx’s notion that social revolution follows war. He began agitating in favour of the war, leading to his departure from Avanti and expulsion from the socialist party. He instead started a paper funded by a pro-war publisher called ‘The People of Italy’, developing a bitterly nationalist, pro-Italian philosophy. Then he was conscripted and fought, apparently bravely, until he left through injury in 1917.
Mussolini Rises to Power:
By the end of World War 1 Mussolini was both a dedicated anti-socialist and convinced a dictator was needed to solve Italy’s problems. He intended that man to be him. He formed a party to support these ambitions out of former soldiers, republicans and other revolutionaries. They were to be ‘fasci di combattimento
’, fighting bands who wore black, ideas stolen from D’Annunzio. Mussolini proved highly effective at seizing the public’s attention through his powerful, if confused, speeches and his journalism, and these bands of marauding ‘blackshirts’ soon grew and terrorised socialists, unions and unsupportive locals.
By late 1921 Mussolini’s fascists dominated substantial areas, while the socialists had been subdued. The centre party government did little to resist, and Mussolini made a move towards official power, being elected to parliament and courted to join a coalition; the king became a fan. Then, at a meeting of supporters, Mussolini threatened to march on Rome to seize power. The already weak government collapsed and the Italian king offered Mussolini the role of Prime Minister. He accepted. Only then did a ragtag band of blackshirts march on, and through, Rome. This event would later be mythologized as a seizure of power.
Mussolini as Dictator:
Mussolini became the youngest Prime Minister in Italian history, and he secured the powers of a dictator for a year, using it to secure the Fascists in parliament. He then won a dubious election in 1924, aided by the desperation of Italians who believed a strong leader would solve Italy’s problems. A one party state was established, with opposition crushed – sometimes murdered - and free speech halted. Although the king remained notionally in charge and the fascists didn’t have a broad base of support, Italy was turned into a dictatorship.
Propaganda portrayed Mussolini as a superman who united the country – he hadn’t - while massive investment in public works and programmes described as ‘battles’ were used to cover up the divisions. A reputation for dynamism was developed which, while largely false, remains to this day: Mussolini is often called the man who ‘made the trains run on time.’ But Mussolini did show political skill in holding the different factions of fascists together, charting an often pragmatic course in retaining power. His greatest success was settling the long standing disagreement between Italy and the Pope in the Lateran Pact.
Imperial Ambitions and World War 2:
Mussolini wanted more than a renewed Italy, he wanted an Italian empire. The invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 was successful, but turning the arsenal of modern war on an unprepared nation alienated Britain and France, pushing Mussolini closer to another imperially minded dictator: Adolf Hitler. The two concluded the Rome – Berlin Axis, and Mussolini was in awe of German success. His fears that a long war would ruin Italy were overcome by his greed for territory and the pressures of the militarist action his fascism espoused. Italy thus entered into World War 2 in 1940.
Despite his role as a national leader, and adoption of German style anti-Jewish measures, Mussolini was treated as a junior partner by Hitler, not even consulted over actions like the invasion of the Soviet Union. Mussolini then acted on his own by invading Greece, but had to be rescued by the Germans. Other Italian attacks ran into trouble because their military was poorly equipped and poorly lead, much of which was Mussolini’s fault. Public support for Mussolini’s regime was collapsing, especially after his enemies landed in Sicily, and Italy still had a mechanism to remove him: the Fascist Grand Council dismissed him and the King ordered his arrest.
Salo and Death
German special forces rescued Mussolini from his prison, and he was made the puppet figurehead of the north Italian Republic of Salo, propped up by German. With the enemy allies pushing the Germans ever higher in Italy, Mussolini was caught travelling in disguise towards Austria. He and his mistress were shot on April 28th 1945 and their bodies hung upside down in Milan. Celebrations followed.
Mussolini was a violent, egotistical and vain womaniser, known for his prominent jaw and fiery oration, who appeared to like few things as much as reading about himself in the paper. He might have survived like Franco if he had listened to his own fears over a war in alliance with Germany. That he didn’t was perhaps due to the same hunger for glory which drove him to power in the first place. He truly believed he was a man of destiny, but his ideology – such as it was - was one of deeply inconsistent policies and statements - sometimes pragmatic, sometimes conflicting - and his success at gaining power and holding it was heavily indebted to his opposition’s confusion. It’s worth pointing out the warnings of historians like Peter Neville who stress that it’s easy to portray Mussolini as a purely blustering buffoon but that, despite his manner, he did manage to hold power for over twenty years and wasn’t a puppet until the end.