Article abstract: Mussolini was the first Fascist dictator. He founded the Fascist Party in 1919 and led it to power in Italy in October, 1922.
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was born on July 29, 1883, outside the village of Predappio, fifteen miles from Forli in the region of Romagna. His mother, Rosa, was a schoolteacher and a devout Catholic, who was able to provide modest support for the family. His father, Alessandro, had a much greater influence upon Mussolini’s character and outlook. His father, a blacksmith who drank more frequently than he worked, was a passionate character who was committed to an anarchistic nonideological vision of socialism. Life in the Mussolini household was tumultuous, and young Benito received harsh discipline but little affection. He later expressed pride in the fact that he was a loner who did not make friends. He assuaged his own deep inferiority complex by dominating others.
In imitation of his father, Mussolini became an instinctive and perpetual rebel. He was expelled from a Catholic boarding school at the age of ten for stabbing a fellow student. He continued his schooling, despite additional disciplinary interruptions, until he received his educational diploma in 1901. Apart from his rhetorical skill, his academic performance was rather mediocre.
After leaving school, Mussolini’s reputation as a promiscuous and brutal misanthrope flourished, but he accomplished little else. In 1902, at the age of eighteen, he fled to Switzerland to avoid induction into the army and worked intermittently as a laborer. He came into contact with exiled Russian Marxists and, under their influence, became a Marxist, though an eclectic one. His most consistent and persistent idea, the use of violence as a political weapon, predated his Marxism. In 1905, he took advantage of a general amnesty to perform his military service so that he could return to Italy.
After leaving the military in 1906, Mussolini passed a test to teach French on the secondary level and earned the title “professor.” He taught at several places without much success. In 1909, he was hired to edit a socialist weekly in the Austrian province of Trentino, but his intemperate writing landed him in jail, an experience with which he was not unfamiliar. Expelled from Austria, he returned to Forli where he edited a socialist weekly.
In 1910, he married Rachele Guidi, the daughter of his father’s mistress. Rachele was a simple peasant, completely uninterested in politics and her husband’s subsequent career. Though he and Rachele had five children, he was notoriously unfaithful.
Mussolini’s extreme radicalism and opposition to reformism isolated him from the leaders of the Italian Socialist Party, but he gained notoriety when he was jailed for his violent opposition to Italy’s 1911 war against Turkey for Libya. After his release from prison, he led the left wing in an attack against the party’s moderate leaders and, with their expulsion, became a member of the party directorate and editor of the national Socialist newspaper, Avanti!
In Avanti! Mussolini derided parliamentary activity and advocated revolution. In private, he expressed his desire to be the “man of destiny,” who would dominate the passive people. He was disillusioned when he failed to win the support of the people of Forli in the parliamentary race in 1913 and when the Socialist Party did not seize the opportunity provided by the massive but disorganized unrest of “Red Week” in June, 1914. The outbreak of World War I a few weeks later led to his break with the party if not with a vague idea of socialism. Believing that the war itself could be the catalyst for change, on October 18, 1914, without consulting the other party leaders or his coeditor, he published an editorial in Avanti! calling for Italian entry into the war.
Unable to win the party over to his new position, Mussolini was expelled and forced to give up the editorship of Avanti! On November 15, he launched his own paper, Il Popolo d’Italia. The paper was financed by France and other belligerents, but money also came from the Italian government and rich industrialists. Money, however, played no part in Mussolini’s defection.
Italy’s entry into the war in May, 1915, against the wishes of the parliamentary majority, through the damage done to Italy’s political, economic, and social stability, ultimately provided the conditions that contributed to the rise of Fascism. Mussolini’s political activities, however, were interrupted when he was conscripted in September, 1915, and sent to the front. After recovering from wounds received in February, 1917, when a mortar exploded, he was discharged, and he returned to his newspaper. His politics remained very fluid and opportunistic but were permeated with a hypernationalism.
At a meeting in Milan on March 23, 1919, Mussolini formally established the movement that would in November, 1921, become the Fascist Party. The miserable performance of the nascent party in the November, 1919, election and the failure of the sit-down strikes of 1920 led Mussolini to change his tack. Repudiating the remnants of his socialism, Mussolini recruited a militia of black-shirted hooligans who, with the avowed purpose of saving Italy from Bolshevism, terrorized the Left. Consequently, he received strong financial support from industrialists and large landowners frightened by the specter of social revolution. The Fascists won their first parliamentary seats in the May, 1921, election. With only thirty-five seats, however, their real strength was in their use of terror.
The anarchy created by the Fascists paved their way to power. The weakness of the government coupled with the collapse of the Left created a vacuum. Only the king, Victor Emmanuel III, and the army stood in Mussolini’s way. Many generals sympathized with the Fascists, but to preclude the opposition of those who did not, Mussolini unequivocally expressed his support for the monarchy.
Confident that there would be no opposition, Mussolini...
(The entire section is 2543 words.)