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Mussolini

A Biography of Benito Mussolini, Fascist Dictator of Italy

By Steve Smith, Contributing Writer

Picture of Benito Mussolini, fascist dictator of Italy.

Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. (circa 1925)

(Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Historical Importance of Benito Mussolini: Benito Mussolini served as Italy’s 40th Prime Minister from 1922 until 1943. He is considered a central figure in the creation of Fascism and was both an influence on and close ally of Adolf Hitler during World War II. In 1943, Mussolini was replaced as Prime Minister and served as the head of the Italian Social Republic until his execution by Italian partisans in 1945.

Dates: July 29, 1883 -- April 28, 1945

Also Known As: Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, Il Duce

Biography of Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini was born in Predappio, a hamlet above Verano di Costa in northern Italy. Mussolini’s father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith and an ardent socialist who scorned religion. His mother, Rosa Maltoni, was an elementary school teacher and a very pious, devout Catholic. Mussolini had two younger siblings: a brother (Arnaldo) and a sister (Edvidge).

While growing up, Mussolini proved to be a difficult child. He was disobedient and had a quick temper. Twice he was expelled from school for assaulting fellow students with a penknife.

Despite all the trouble he caused at school, Mussolini still managed to obtain a diploma and then, a little surprisingly, Mussolini worked for a short time as a school teacher.

Mussolini as Socialist

Looking for better job opportunities, Mussolini moved to Switzerland in July 1902. In Switzerland, Mussolini worked at a variety of odd jobs and spent his evenings attending local socialist party meetings.

One of those jobs was working as a propagandist for a bricklayer trade union. Mussolini took a very aggressive stance, frequently advocated violence, and urged a general strike to create change. All of which led to him being arrested several times.

Between his turbulent work at the trade union during the day and his many speeches and discussions with socialists at night, Mussolini soon made enough of a name for himself in socialist circles that he began writing and editing several socialist newspapers.

In 1904, Mussolini returned to Italy to serve his conscription requirement in Italy’s peace-time army. In 1909, he lived for a short time in Austria working for a trade union. He wrote for a socialist newspaper and his attacks on militarism and nationalism resulted in his expulsion from Austria.

Once again back in Italy, Mussolini continued to advocate for socialism and to develop his skills as an orator. He was forceful and authoritative, and while frequently wrong in his facts, his speeches were always compelling. His views and his oration skills quickly brought him to the attention of his fellow socialists. On December 1, 1912, Mussolini began work as the editor of the Italian Socialist newspaper, Avanti!

In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that culminated in the start of World War I. On August 3, 1914, the Italian government announced that it would remain strictly neutral. Mussolini initially used his position as editor of Avanti! to urge fellow socialists to support the government in its position of neutrality.

However, Mussolini's views of the war soon changed. In September 1914, Mussolini wrote several articles supporting those who were backing Italy’s entry into the war. Mussolini’s editorials caused an uproar among his fellow socialists and in November 1914, after a meeting of the party executives, he was formally expelled from the socialist party.

Mussolini in World War I

On May 23, 1915, the Italian government ordered general mobilization of her armed forces. The next day, Italy declared war on Austria, officially joining World War I. Mussolini, accepting his call to the draft, reported for duty in Milan on August 31, 1915 and was assigned to the 11th Regiment of the Bersaglieri (a corps of sharpshooters).

During the winter of 1917, Mussolini’s unit was field testing a new mortar when the weapon exploded. Mussolini was severely wounded with more than forty pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. After a long stay at a military hospital, Mussolini recovered from his injuries and was then discharged from the army.

Mussolini and Fascism

After the war, Mussolini, who had become decidedly anti-socialist, began to advocate for a strong central government in Italy. Soon, Mussolini was also advocating for a dictator to lead that government.

Mussolini wasn't the only one ready for a major change. World War I had left Italy in shambles and people were looking for a way to make Italy strong again. A wave of nationalism swept across Italy and many people began to form local, small, nationalist groups. It was Mussolini who on March 23, 1919 personally assembled these groups into a single, national organization under his leadership.

Mussolini called this new group, Fasci di Combattimento (commonly called the Fascist Party). Mussolini took the name from the ancient Roman fasces, a symbol that contained a bundle of rods with an axe in the center.

A key component of Mussolini's new Fascist Party were the Blackshirts. Mussolini formed groups of marginalized ex-servicemen into squadristi. As their numbers grew, the squadristi were reorganized into the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicuressa Nazionale, or MVSN, which would later serve as Mussolini’s national security apparatus. Dressed in black shirts or sweaters, the squadristi earned the nickname “Blackshirts.”

The March on Rome

In the late summer of 1922, the Blackshirts made a punitive march through the provinces of Ravenna, Forli, and Ferrara in northern Italy. It was a night of terror; squads burned down the headquarters and homes of every member of both socialist and communist organizations.

By September of 1922, the Blackshirts controlled most of northern Italy. Mussolini assembled a Fascist Party conference on October 24, 1922 to discuss a coup de main or “sneak attack” on the Italian capital of Rome.

On October 28, armed squads of Blackshirts marched on Rome. Although badly organized and poorly armed, the move left the parliamentary monarchy of King Victor Emmanuel III in confusion. Mussolini, who had stayed behind in Milan, received an offer from the king to form a coalition government. Mussolini then proceeded to the capital supported by 300,000 men and wearing a black shirt.

On October 31, 1922, at the age of 39, Mussolini was sworn in as prime minister of Italy.

After elections were held, Mussolini controlled enough seats in parliament to appoint himself Il Duce ("the leader") of Italy. On January 3, 1925, with the backing of his Fascist majority, Mussolini declared himself dictator of Italy.

For a decade, Italy prospered in peace. However, Mussolini was intent on turning Italy into an empire and to do that, Italy needed a colony. So, in October 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. The conquest was brutal. Other European countries criticized Italy, especially for Italy's use of mustard gas. In May 1936, Ethiopia surrendered and Mussolini had his empire.

This was the height of Mussolini's popularity; it all went downhill from here.

Mussolini and Hitler

Out of all the countries in Europe, Germany had been the only country to support Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia. At that time, Germany was led by Adolf Hitler, who had formed his own Fascist organization, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (commonly called the NAZI Party).

Hitler admired Mussolini; Mussolini, on the other hand, did not even like Hitler at first. However, Hitler continued to support and back Mussolini, such as during the war on Ethiopia, which eventually swayed Mussolini into an alliance with Hitler.

In 1938, Italy passed the Manifesto of Race, which stripped Jews in Italy of their Italian citizenship, removed Jews from government and teaching jobs, and banned intermarriage. Italy was following in the footsteps of Nazi Germany.

On May 22, 1939, Mussolini entered into the “Pact of Steel” with Hitler, which basically tied the two countries in the event of war. And war was soon to come.

Mussolini’s Big Mistakes in World War II

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War.

On June 10, 1940, after witnessing Germany’s decisive victories in Poland and later France, Mussolini issued a declaration of war on France and Britain. It was clear, however, from the very beginning, that Mussolini was not an equal partner with Hitler -- and Mussolini did not like that.

As German successes continued, Mussolini became frustrated both at Hitler's successes and at the fact that Hitler kept most of his military plans a secret even from Mussolini. So Mussolini looked for a means of emulating Hitler’s accomplishments without letting Hitler know about his plans.

Against the advice of his army commanders, Mussolini ordered an attack against the British in Egypt in September 1940. After initial successes, the attack stalled and German troops were sent to reinforce the deteriorating Italian positions.

Embarrassed by his armies’ failure in Egypt, Mussolini, against the advice of Hitler, attacked Greece on October 28, 1940. Six weeks later, this attack stalled as well. Defeated, Mussolini was forced to ask the German dictator for assistance. On April 6, 1941, Germany invaded both Yugoslavia and Greece, ruthlessly conquering both countries and rescuing Mussolini from defeat.

Italy Turns on Mussolini

Despite Nazi Germany's amazing victories in the beginning years of World War II, the tide eventually turned against Germany and Italy. By the summer of 1943, with Germany bogged down in a war of attrition with Russia, Allied forces began bombing Rome. Members of the Italian Fascist council turned against Mussolini. They convened and moved to have the king resume his constitutional powers. Mussolini was arrested and sent to the mountain resort of Campo Imperatore in Abruzzi.

On September 12, 1943, Mussolini was rescued from imprisonment by a German glider team commanded by Otto Skorzey. Mussolini was flown to Munich and met with Hitler shortly thereafter. Ten days later, by order of Hitler, Mussolini was installed as head of the Italian Social Republic in Northern Italy which remained under German control.

Mussolini Executed

On April 27, 1945, with Italy and Germany on the brink of defeat, Mussolini attempted to flee to Spain. On the afternoon of April 28, while en route to Switzerland to board a plane, Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci, were captured by Italian partisans. Driven to the gates of the Villa Belmonte, they were shot to death by a partisan firing squad.

The corpse of Mussolini, Petacci, and other members of their party were driven by truck to the Piazza Loreto on April 29, 1945. Mussolini's body was dumped in the road and people of the local neighborhood abused his corpse. Sometime later, the bodies of Mussolini and Petacci were hung upside down, side by side in front of a fueling station.

Initially buried anonymously in the Musocco cemetery in Milan, the Italian government allowed Mussolini’s remains to be re-interred in the family crypt near Verano di Costa on August 31, 1957.

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