Benito Mussolini

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Benito Mussolini

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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.

Early Life

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!

Life’s Work

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...

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change, on October 18, 1914, without consulting the other party leaders or his coeditor, he published an editorial inAvanti! 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 mobilized his Blackshirts on October 27 to march on Rome and seize power. The twenty-six thousand badly armed and disorganized Fascists would have been no match for the army, and Mussolini, himself, remained close to the Swiss border in case the coup miscarried. Victor Emmanuel, however, fearing that a divided army might not be able to resist successfully and that he might be replaced as king by his pro-Fascist cousin, the Duke of Aosta, changed his mind about approving Premier Luigi Facta’s declaration of martial law. In the face of this weakness, Mussolini would accept nothing less than the power to form a government. When the king submitted and confirmed this with a telegram, Mussolini made his “march” on Rome in a sleeping car on October 29.

Mussolini moved toward his goal of a one-party state gradually. His initial cabinet included representatives from all the parties except the Socialists and the Communists. After Mussolini promised to respect the law, his cabinet was not only confirmed by the parliament but also given the power to rule by decree for a year. Mussolini then proceeded to purge the police and the bureaucracy. A Fascist Grand Council, which in 1928 officially became the supreme organ of state power, was established as a shadow government and the Blackshirts were transformed into a state militia. The Acerbo Law, passed by parliament in July, 1923, promised the party with a plurality of the vote two-thirds of parliament’s seats, but it was unnecessary. Through terror and intimidation the Fascists, in April, 1924, were able to win 65 percent of the vote.

When the Socialist leader, Giacomo Matteotti, denounced the tactics of the Fascists, he was murdered in June by associates of Mussolini. The crime left Mussolini vulnerable, but the failure of his opponents to seize the initiative allowed him to move against them. In 1925, Mussolini abolished political liberties and, finally, outlawed the Socialist Party. By the end of the year, he had reduced the parliament to impotence by making himself head of the government, answerable only to the king, and had replaced elected officials throughout the peninsula with administrators appointed by himself. In October, 1926, he outlawed all anti-Fascist parties and then set up a secret police organization to cow the nation. By 1928, in fact and in law, Mussolini, as leader of the Fascist Party, had become the omnipotent head of the Italian state.

As he consolidated his power, Mussolini ushered in a transformation of Italian society that he labeled the corporate state. The interests of the state were dominant. Strikes were banned, and the interests of workers and capital were supposedly mediated through organizations called corporations. The party, however, dominated the corporations and the interests of workers received short shrift. With the Fascists supporting the interests of capital, the standard of living of Italian working people declined after 1922. Mussolini claimed that a Chamber of Corporations would eventually replace the old flawed parliament, but the project was not implemented until 1939 and even then was only window dressing for his dictatorship.

Mussolini pursued an adventurous and aggressive foreign policy. He conquered Ethiopia in 1936, supported the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, and took control of Albania in April, 1939. Alienated from the British and the French over Ethiopia and cooperating with Adolf Hitler in Spain, Mussolini signed the Axis Pact with Germany in October, 1936. The association with Nazi Germany eventually led to the importation of anti-Semitic laws into Italy, a military alliance, the May, 1939, Pact of Steel, and, finally, defeat.

Mussolini’s fate was sealed when he entered the war on June 10, 1940. He erroneously believed that a German victory was inevitable and wished to participate in the division of the spoils. The war, however, continued, and a series of humiliating Italian defeats in Greece, on the Mediterranean, and in North Africa led to the supplanting of Italy in those theaters by the Germans. Increasingly the Germans transformed Italy itself into a fiefdom. Mussolini’s dynamism had faded with time, and it was now sapped by defeat and a recurrent ulcer.

The defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa and massive labor unrest in the north of Italy led to a rupture in the Fascist movement. Hoping for a separate peace, leading Fascists began plotting against Mussolini. The court circle, too, began working to replace Mussolini with Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The king’s hesitation vanished with the Allied invasion of Sicily and bombing of Rome. The Grand Council of the Fascist Party, attempting to retain control of the government, on the night of July 24 and the early morning of July 25, revolted against Mussolini. That morning, Victor Emmanuel removed Mussolini from office but replaced him with Badoglio.

Mussolini, whose exit was welcomed by most Italians, was held in police custody until his rescue by German rangers on September 12. Flown to Hitler’s headquarters, Mussolini denounced Italy’s September 8 surrender to the Allies and, reverting to the socialist sentiments of his earliest Fascism, attempted to rally the working class to a new social Fascist regime. Mussolini was escorted back to Italy, where he proclaimed an Italian Social Republic for the north of Italy, headquartered at Salò on Lake Garda. Mussolini was a largely impotent puppet of the Germans, but he was able to revenge himself against five of the Fascist leaders who had revolted against him. Among them was his son-in-law and former foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, who was executed on January 11, 1944.

In April, 1945, the end was in sight. The Allies were advancing, partisan activity was increasing, and German forces in Italy were attempting to arrange terms with the Americans. Mussolini was incapacitated by indecisiveness. He met with leaders of the resistance in Milan but decided against surrender. He headed toward his vaunted but nonexistent Valtelline redoubt, and his vacillations cost him any chance that he might have had to cross into Switzerland. On April 27, he and his mistress, Clara Petacci, finally joined a German column headed for Austria. At Dongo, near the head of Lake Como, the Germans were stopped by a partisan brigade and Mussolini, disguised as a German, was discovered. When the partisans sought instructions from the indecisive National Liberation Committee in Milan, the Communists seized the initiative. Walter Audisio was dispatched from Milan to carry out the death sentence. Mussolini and Clara Petacci, who had insisted on being with her lover, were stood against a low wall at Giulino di Mezzegra and shot on April 28. Their bodies, along with those of fifteen other executed Fascist leaders, were brought back to Milan, where the corpses of Mussolini and Petacci were hung by their feet from a girder on the Piazalle Loreto for public display and excoriation.


Benito Mussolini’s egotistical quest for personal power led to a regime of which the only coherent themes were power and violence and finally resulted in the execution of the dictator and the defeat of Italy. Mussolini and his movement left behind some architectural remains and the Lateran Pact of 1929, a rapprochement between the Catholic church and the Italian state, with which it had been at odds since the Italian kingdom seized the Papal States in 1870. The onetime revolutionary, however, did not transform the class structure or the distribution of wealth in Italy but, rather, reinforced it. He left behind him conditions and structures that would promote class antagonism and produce, after his demise, Western Europe’s largest Communist Party.

Mussolini’s movement had, at best, an ad hoc program. More than anything it was his personal vehicle to power. Unfortunately, in his egotistical quest, he was able to play on the emotions and fears that many Italians experienced in the turmoil following World War I. Many believed that Italy had been inadequately rewarded for its war effort, but, after Mussolini’s enterprise, Italy was stripped of all its colonies and was smaller than it had been when he came to power. Mussolini did temporarily crush the Left and, perhaps more permanently, cemented Italy’s class structure in place, but when defeat loomed, the Italian establishment deserted him and sought a new protector against the Left in the conquering Americans.


Cassels, Alan. Fascist Italy. 2d ed. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harland Davidson, 1985. This is a short but balanced and cogent study of Fascist Italy and Mussolini. Contains a very useful critical bibliography.

Gregor, A. James. Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. A flawed revisionist work by a political scientist whose enthusiasm for intellectually formulated political constructs or models here takes precedence over the evidence of historical data. Gregor views Mussolini as the creative formulator of a theory of modernization rooted in, but transcending, Marxism.

Halperin, S. William. Mussolini and Italian Fascism. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1964. This is an excellent brief treatment supplemented by key documents. It is well written and clearly developed. Halperin, a respected academic, offers sound and insightful observations.

Joes, Anthony James. Mussolini. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982. This book, written by a historian for a popular audience, is a revisionist approach to Mussolini. Joes attempts to offer a positive assessment of Mussolini, depicting him as the leader who saved Italy from Bolshevism and restored order, prosperity, and self-respect to the country.

Mack Smith, Dennis. Mussolini. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. This book, written by a prominent English historian of Italy, is an excellent source. Although it presumes a certain amount of contextual knowledge, it is the best comprehensive biography of Mussolini written in English. Mack Smith convincingly portrays Mussolini as a violent and demagogic opportunist bent on attaining and retaining personal power.

Benito Mussolini

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Article abstract: Military significance: Mussolini glorified war and as dictator of Italy was determined to increase its power and influence through war. Between 1935 and 1945, the country fought a succession of conflicts in Africa and in Europe.

Benito Mussolini’s direct knowledge of strategy and tactics was scant, as his military experience was restricted to a two-year service in the Italian army during World War I. He was discharged early, in September 1917, for wounds received during grenade practice. Nonetheless, he returned to civilian life boasting of his life under fire. After the war, he determined to re-create the power of the old Roman Empire and mark his age “like a lion with its claws.” He created a paramilitary fascist government in 1919-1921 and became dictator of Italy in 1922.

He quickly became involved in a succession of exhaustive wars: Libyan War (1922-1932), Somalian War (1923-1927), Ethiopian War (1935-1936), Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and the conquest of Albania (1939). In 1933, Mussolini became the virtual commander in chief of Italy’s armed forces when he assumed control of the ministries of war, navy, and air.

Mussolini constantly fostered the impression he was a forceful, accomplished warrior, but in practice, his leadership was weak and erratic. He established no effective liaison between the military services to handle joint operations; he oftentimes urged offensives despite lack of adequate reserves and against the opposition of his commanders in the field. He frequently promoted men based on their “fascist merit” rather than real ability. Unwilling to admit an absence of adequate supplies, he fantasized about miracle weapons that would win the war. Mussolini usually ascribed reverses to the failure of his subordinates to show proper courage.

Mussolini’s Pact of Steel with German leader Adolf Hitler on May 22, 1939, brought Italy into World War II in September, 1939, a conflict for which it was ill-prepared militarily and psychologically. For a time, Mussolini tried to carry on a parallel war by concentrating his military actions in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. However, the Germans had to rescue his offensives in both Greece and Libya in 1940. Henceforth, Hitler took charge of future Italian operations. In 1941, Hitler saved Mussolini from a military coup. In July, 1943, Hitler rescued Mussolini from another attempt to overthrow him and installed him as puppet dictator over northern Italy. Mussolini was captured and shot by Italian partisans in 1945. Mussolini’s desire to create a nation of warriors led to a loss of Italian independence and to eventual defeat, humiliation, and impoverishment.

Further Reading:

Adams, Henry Hitch. Italy at War. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1982.

Blinkhorn, Martin. Mussolini and Fascist Italy. London: Routledge, 1994.

Knox, MacGregor. Mussolini Unleashed, 1939-1940: Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy’s Last War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Ridley, Jasper Godwin. Mussolini. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Smith, Denis Mack. Mussolini. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.


Critical Essays