Benito Mussolini Essay - Critical Essays

Mussolini, Benito

Introduction

Benito Mussolini 1883-1945

Italian politician, journalist, and autobiographer.

One of the most notorious dictators of the twentieth century, Mussolini left an important body of writings that reveal his transition from socialist agitator to founder and leader of Italian fascism. Both his journalistic output and his political ideology were strongly marked by a hyperbolic call to action and a defiant tone of rebellion as well as nationalist rhetoric regarding his belief in the possibility of a rebirth of the ideals of classical Rome.

Biographical Information

Mussolini was born in the village of Predappio in Italy's Romagna region. His father, a blacksmith with anarchist leanings, named him after three renowned revolutionaries. His mother, an elementary school teacher, was devoutly Catholic, sometimes to the point of mysticism, and she convinced Mussolini early on that he was destined for greatness. The young Mussolini was an avid reader of political and philosophical works—most significantly those of Friedrich Nietzsche and Niccolo Machiavelli—but, lacking motivation and acutely aware of his low social status, he drifted among odd jobs (at one point working as a French teacher) for several years before emigrating to Switzerland. There he lived homeless and unemployed for a time and was eventually taken in by a group of revolutionary Italian socialists. Mussolini soon proved himself a fiery orator for the socialist cause, and in 1908 he became an editor at an Italian socialist newspaper in Trent, Austria, where he refined his propagandist writing.

In 1912 Mussolini was appointed editor-in-chief of Avanti!, the official newspaper of Italian socialism, based in Milan. He was highly successful as a journalist and rose to a place of prominence in the Socialist Party. But in 1914 he abruptly reversed his stance against Italy's entrance into World War I, advocating that his country fight with the Allied forces. For that Mussolini was expelled from the Socialist Party and immediately started a pro-war newspaper called Il popolo d'Italia (The People of Italy), in whose pages he developed the founding principles of fascism. In 1915 he married Rachele Guidi, with whom he had lived since 1909. When Italy entered the war that year, Mussolini enlisted in the army; he saw active service but was released after being wounded in a practice session in 1917. He resumed publication of his newspaper in 1918. The next year, encouraged in part by the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, Mussolini founded a radical nationalist group called the Fasci di Combattimento, whose members included mostly war veterans. The group failed to make serious inroads in the election of 1919 but soon gained strong support among both wealthy landowners and the impoverished masses. In 1921 Mussolini's group organized formally into the Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party), which was characterized by extreme right-wing nationalism and left-wing economic reform. The party also featured the Blackshirts—squads of thugs officially responsible for beating and brutalizing dissenters, including Catholics, liberals, and socialists. In 1922 Mussolini's Fascists organized theMarch on Rome to protest a liberal call to strike. In response to the ensuing panic, King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini prime minister, with the responsibility of creating a new Italian government. Mussolini was officially installed as leader in 1924; although the Fascists employed ballot-box fraud to ensure his victory, he received more than enough genuine votes to elect him. Despite the ruthlessness of the Fascist Party secret police and the party's blatant use of strong-arm tactics, Mussolini was popular with most of the Italian people, who called him “Il Duce” (the leader). His rigid policies helped lift Italy out of its economic depression, and his passionate rhetoric promising a return to Italian imperialism further fueled the nationalist fervor.

In 1924 Mussolini called for open elections in Italy; but when Giacomo Matteotti—a legally elected Socialist—began his government service by exposing Fascist corruption, he was found murdered, ostensibly by Mussolini's henchmen. A parliamentary crisis followed, and the Fascists were widely denounced by their opposition. Subsequently, Mussolini reinstated his absolute dictatorship, creating policies of censorship and anti-unionism. He also signed the 1929 Lateran Treaty, which ended the discord between the Italian government and the Roman Catholic Church, establishing Vatican City and placing the pope in the role of sovereign; this move ensured an end to the Catholic stance against the Mussolini-led government. At this time, Mussolini's popularity soared at home—where he was regarded as a god-like figure—and abroad, including in the United States, where many in the artistic and intellectual community embraced him as a romantic symbol of power and masculine vigor. Once his domestic control was secure, Mussolini launched an intense foreign military campaign, invading and annexing Ethiopia from 1935 to 1936, aiding Spain's Generalissimo Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and entering into the alliance that would prove disastrous: his affiliation with Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler. Until that point, Mussolini had privately considered Hitler to be slightly insane, but, becoming increasingly unstable himself, he saw Germany's successful campaign in Europe as a complement to his own desire for power, going so far as to publicly adopt Hitler's anti-Semitism and allowing Italy to participate in the Nazi plan to exterminate European Jews. Although Mussolini sent troops to occupy Albania in 1939, Italy did not enter World War II until 1940. But Italy's involvement in the war turned out to be a catastrophe for Mussolini and the Axis nations: Italy suffered devastating defeats in Africa and Greece, and Mussolini himself fell into physical and mental collapse. King Victor Emmanuel and Fascist Party leaders quickly lost confidence in Mussolini, removing him from office and placing him under arrest at Mount Gran Sasso. German planes rescued him from his prison, and Hitler installed him as a puppet leader of the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy, where he became more detached from reality. But when Allied forces moved further into Italy, and an Allied victory was imminent, Mussolini was captured by communist rebels when he tried to escape to Austria with his mistress, Clara Petacci. The two were executed by machine gun fire on 28 April 1945; as a sign of Mussolini's total political failure, their bodies were hung in a public square in Milan.

Major Works

Despite his alliance with Hitler, Mussolini was well-regarded by his fellow Italians and by many in the international community, largely because of his reputation as a no-nonsense upstart with grandiose plans for Italy and because, unlike Hitler, he focused his message on Italian nationalism rather than racial purity. Even in his earliest forays into journalism, he exhibited an unusual talent for stirring emotions; the headlines he wrote, in particular, are remembered for their propagandistic, attention-grabbing quality. By the time he was appointed prime minister—threatening to seize the position by force if necessary—he had capitalized on this talent to present himself as a dynamic, charismatic leader who would lead Italy out of its chronic disorder and agrarian-based economy. In fact, many of Mussolini's early policies did cut government spending and bureaucracy and boost Italy's economy; because of the discipline with which he ran things, he became known as the leader who made Italy's trains run on time. He was especially noted for his speeches, which were impassioned but controlled and staccato, during which he exploited his personal magnetism and sexual bravado. But his success was in great part due to his encouragement of police brutality and his notion of himself as infallible dictator. He frequently sanctioned the assassinations of those he considered enemies, ruthlessly tortured and executed artists and intellectuals during his failed campaign to annex Ethiopia, and ultimately led Italy to disaster and indignity because of his appetite for ever-greater power.

Principal Works

La lotta di classe [editor] (newspaper) 1908-1912

Claudia Particella, l'amante del cardinale Madruzzo (serialized novel) 1910

Avanti! [editor] (newspaper) 1912-1914

Il popolo d'Italia [editor] (newspaper) 1914-1915, 1918-1922

Il mio diario di guerra, 1915-1917 (diary) 1923

My Autobiography, by Benito Mussolini (autobiography) 1928

Dottrina del fascismo [The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism] (nonfiction) 1933

Lo stato corporativo [The Corporate State] (nonfiction) 1936

Tempo del bastone e della carota [The Fall of Mussolini: His Own Story] (memoirs) 1948

Criticism

George Orwell (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: “Who Are the War Criminals?” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: My Country Right or Left 1940-1943, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1968, pp. 319-25.

[Orwell was an English novelist, essayist, and journalist. In the following review of The Trial of Mussolini,which was originally published in the London Tribune, Orwell argues against both the sense and the effectiveness of a war crimes trial for Mussolini, noting that before the advent of World War II, the dictator received support from other European leaders.]

On the face of it, Mussolini's collapse was a story straight out...

(The entire section is 2566 words.)

Piero Saporiti (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: “How Mussolini Fell,” in The Political Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 4, October-December, 1946, pp. 320-9.

[In the following essay, Saporiti details Mussolini's last days of power.]

Twenty-fifth July, 1943, started in Rome like any other Sunday. Under the burning sun, the rare passers-by who crossed the Piazza Venezia looked furtively towards the famous balcony from which, for many years, a meglomaniac had given them his orders. In front of the Palazzo Venezia, two sentries paced up and down. Everything looked normal enough, yet since the night before vague unquiet seemed to linger everywhere in the capital.

Twenty-six men were sitting in...

(The entire section is 3989 words.)

René Albrecht-Carrié (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: A review of The Fall of Mussolini: His Own Story, in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. LXIV, No. 3, September, 1949, pp. 469-71.

[In the following review of The Fall of Mussolini: His Own Story by Benito Mussolini, Albrecht-Carrié considers the volume a “distorted” account of the events surrounding Mussolini's last days in power but valuable nonetheless for posterity.]

“One fact has been definitely overlooked in everything that has been written on the Italian catastrophe of the summer of 1943: France originated the catastrophe on a specific date, November 8, 1942” (p. 5, text). This opening sentence of [The Fall of Mussolini: His Own...

(The entire section is 763 words.)

The English Historical Review (essay date 1951)

The English Historical Review (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: A review of Benito Mussolini: Memoirs 1942-1943, in The English Historical Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 260, July, 1951, p. 454.

[In the following review of Benito Mussolini: Memoirs 1942-1943, the anonymous critic considers the memoirs biographically and politically significant but otherwise lacking in substance.]

Benito Mussolini: Memoirs 1942-1943 consists of twenty-one articles written by Mussolini in the spring and early summer of 1944, and published, anonymously in the first instance, between 25 June and 18 July 1944 in the Corriere della Sera. They were...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1962)

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Duce and Führer,” in The Times Literary Supplement, November 30, 1962, p. 936.

[In the following review of The Brutal Friendship: Mussolini, Hitler, and the Fall of Italian Fascism,the anonymous critic calls the book “enthralling reading.”]

Mr. Deakin's The Brutal Friendship is above all a book for specialists and must be judged as such; within the stern limits he has set himself it is a very fine piece of writing and for the specialist it makes enthralling reading. As Mr. Deakin explains, the book grew out of a study of the events leading to the meeting of the...

(The entire section is 2576 words.)

L. B. Namier (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “Ciano's Early Diary,” in Europe in Decay: A Study in Disintegration 1936-1940, Peter Smith, 1963, pp. 106-28.

[In the following essay, Namier examines Mussolini and his regime using the diary of his foreign minister and son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano.]

In a secluded room of the Italian Foreign Office, the Palazzo Chigi, Ciano kept his diary, making in it his daily entries. Married to Mussolini's daughter Edda, an ambitious woman, he was appointed Foreign Minister in 1936, at the age of 33, and retained the post till February 1943. The diary, which starts on August 23, 1937, covers practically his entire term of office. He greatly cherished these records, and...

(The entire section is 6545 words.)

John P. Diggins (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “The American Writer, Fascism and the Liberation of Italy,” in American Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1966, pp. 599-614.

[In the following essay, Diggins explains the varied reactions of American literary intellectuals—including Henry Miller, John Horne Burns, Sinclair Lewis, and Ernest Hemingway—to Italian fascism and Mussolini, noting that few American writers managed to rise above “narcissistic nationalism” when dealing with the issue in their works.]

The sudden fall of Benito Mussolini in July 1943 brought poetic as well as political justice. The first nation to succumb to Fascism, Italy was the first to be liberated by the democracies....

(The entire section is 7329 words.)

John P. Diggins (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Mussolini as American Hero,” in Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America, Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 58-73.

[In the following essay, Diggins explores Mussolini's appeal to Americans as a signifier of heroic redemption.]

THE IMAGES OF MUSSOLINI

To conclude a study of the Mussolini vogue [in Mussolini and Facism: The View from America] by maintaining that in America he was nothing more than a press-manufactured celebrity is only half the story. Dismissing him as the product of a news-hungry media and a public given to dramatic “pseudo-events” ignores two salient facts: that neither publicity nor propaganda...

(The entire section is 5719 words.)

Luigi Barzini (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Not-So-Great Dictator,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXI, No. 16, October 17, 1974, pp. 22-4.

[In the following review of Mussolini: An Intimate Biography by His Widow, Barzini describes conditions in Italy that led to Mussolini's rise to power and many personal and character traits that may have led to his fall.]

Perhaps the ruin of Benito Mussolini was Giuseppe Garibaldi, the legendary hero of the Risorgimento. Like Mussolini, Garibaldi was a rough, self-taught, and credulous man of the people; in his youth he had had utopian and confused revolutionary ideas, but, in the end, he rallied to the king and, perhaps unwittingly, became a...

(The entire section is 3104 words.)

Reed Way Dasenbrock (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: ELH, Vol. 55, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 505-26.

[In the following essay, Dasenbrock chooses the middle section of Ezra Pound's Cantos as the basis to understanding Pound's changing views on Mussolini and Italian fascism during the 1930s. Dasenbrock argues that while Pound believed that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were to be equated politically with Mussolini, he also recognized the polarity of the two early American politicians, and his shift from Jeffersonian ideology to that of Adams, as seen in the Cantos, represents his changing thoughts regarding Mussolini's political doctrine.]

Certainly one of the difficulties faced by criticism of...

(The entire section is 9275 words.)

Stephen Sicari (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Reading Pound's Politics: Ulysses as Fascist Hero,” in Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship, Vol. 17, Nos. 2 & 3, Fall & Winter, 1988, pp. 145-68.

[In the following essay, Sicari examines Ezra Pound's Cantos written before the fall of Mussolini and Italian fascism to find evidence of Pound's conception of the prototypical fascist hero.]

To understand Ezra Pound's admiration for Italian Fascism in general and Mussolini in particular, we can examine the poet's conception of heroic action in those of The Cantos written before the fall of the Fascist State.1 In 1938 Pound described “the Malatesta cantos” as...

(The entire section is 9722 words.)

Thomas Cody (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Adams, Mussolini, and the Personality of Genius,” in Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship, Vol. 18, No. 3, Winter, 1989, pp. 77-103.

[In the following essay, Cody suggests that the attraction of Mussolini was related to the notion of “personality” advanced by the German Romantics, which sought to distinguish itself from both the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy by its tenet of inborn—rather than inherited or gained—superiority.]

In his book Fables of Aggression, Fredric Jameson suggests that both Wyndham Lewis' narratives and his fascist sympathies reveal efforts to defend the integrity of the subject against the threat posed...

(The entire section is 10713 words.)

Reed Way Dasenbrock (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Ezra Pound, the Last Ghibelline,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 16, No. 4, Spring, 1990, pp. 511-32.

[In the following essay, Dasenbrock argues that Ezra Pound's devotion to Mussolini must be understood within the context of Pound's reading and understanding of the political writings of the late-medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri, particularly in light of Dante's idealization of King Henry VII as a God figure, which may have influenced Pound's perception of Mussolini.]

No one can justly complain any longer, as once one could, that Pound's politics are a neglected topic. Everyone writing on Pound now has something to say about “the case of Ezra...

(The entire section is 9492 words.)