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.
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.
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.