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.
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 Louis Auguste Blanqui, and the syndicalism of Georges Sorel.
In 1910, Benito 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 the Ottoman Empire (now 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.
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.
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 General 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.
Major works of Benito Mussolini
– Giovanni Hus, il verdico Rome (1913) Published in America under John Hus (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, l929) Republished by the Italian Book Co., NY (1939) under John Hus, the Veracious.
– The Cardinal’s Mistress (trans. Hiram Motherwell, New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1928)