The future dictator of Italy was born at Forli (Romagna) in 1883. His father was a blacksmith, his mother a schoolteacher. Before he was twenty Benito himself became a schoolmaster, but when threatened with military service he moved to Switzerland (1902), where this intelligent and well-spoken man became a manual labourer.
Inevitably, Mussolini was attracted by Socialism, particularly by the concept of the Trade Union. He returned to Italy in 1904 and got a job as a journalist, in which profession he worked for eleven years, though some say he spent more time agitating and provoking class hatreds than writing articles. He was a member of the Italian Socialist Party until it removed him from the ranks after he had publicly demonstrated in favour of war with Austria in 1915.
This time he couldn’t get out of fighting, because he was an advocate of it, and he was mildly wounded on the Izonzo Front, but he was soon back in Milan, where he became editor of El Popolo d’Italia. It was at this time that he formed groups of working men called fasci, whose task it was to agitate for social revolutionary change; these mobs were transformed in March 1919 into the Fascist Party.
The Fascists broke up Communist meetings, and were able to demand implementation of Italy’s demands at the Paris Peace Conference. Mussolini was strongly influenced by the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, from whom he borrowed much of the trappings and rituals of Fascism. Italy in this period was tottering on the brink of civil war. Riots broke out in Bologna, Florence and Milan.
King of Italy Victor Emmanuel III appointed Benito Mussolini Prime Minister in 1922. He was just thirty-nine years old. He promised the King to deal stoutly with Communism, and as Duce he headed a coalition of fascists and nationalists. By November of that year he had arbitrarily assumed dictatorial powers, and was attracting the undivided attention of European leaders, as well as an Austrian six years younger than he was called Adolf Hitler, who had fought in the Great War, and was thirsting for revenge against the victors.
Mussolini achieved the full Fascist state for Italy in 1928/29. The country became a single constituency, in which the people voted for or against 400 candidates chosen by the Fascist Grand Council. Among the Duce’s reforms were an extensive programme of public works, and he ended the conflict between the Church and State by passing the Lateran Treaties in 1929, establishing the Vatican City State.
Fellow journalists had by now noted that Benito’s foreign policies were, not to put too fine a point on it – aggressive. Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935, causing Haile Selassie to make an impassioned speech calling for help, at The League of Nations. Benito was at first rather intolerant towards Hitler’s Germany, because he rightly believed Austria would be annexed, one way or the other, but then Hitler pointed out to him that Nazism and Fascism were similar in tone and method, and besides, all other nations had cringingly criticised Mussolini’s offensive against Abyssinia. They agreed to differ, and set up the Axis in 1936. It could not work, because Hitler felt inferior to the blustering Mussolini with his outsize ego and outsize desk (it was said to be four metres long and mounted on a high platform). Mussolini was always the resented senior partner.
Encouraged after his moderately successful invasion of Abyssinia, Mussolini annexed Albania at Easter, 1939. Dark clouds were gathering over Europe. Hand in glove with Adolf, Benito declared war against Britain and France on 10 June 1940, though France had already capitulated. One assumes that he as a trained journalist, would have known that.
In October, Italian soldiers landed in Greece with occupation in mind, but the Greeks fought like their ancestors and he was repulsed, much to the annoyance of Adolf Hitler and his generals, who had expected to use Greece as a platform for the raiding of the Balkans and, eventually, Soviet Russia. Mussolini also suffered defeats in Libya and East Africa. He now had the reputation of being a loudmouth who couldn’t deliver the goods.
The Duce’s prestige, never high in the rest of Europe, and now shaky in Italy, began to fade. The people remembered that Fascism had always advocated war as the best means to any end, but it appeared he wasn’t much good at it. By 1941 the Duce was in effect a German pensioner, with a permanently irritable Hitler grimacing when Benito attempted public speech. On 25 July, 1943 Marshall Badoglio, backed by Victor Emmanuel forced him to resign. He was banged up in a prison on a mountain top in the Appennines, but was rescued by the brilliant intervention of German paratroops led by Otto Skorzeny on 12 September, 1943. He then set up a Republican Fascist Government to govern Salo, a small town in German-occupied northern Italy.
Italian partisans had had enough of Il Duce. On 28 April, 1945, he was captured by his fellow countrymen, who promptly shot him and his mistress Clara Petacci. A little later the corpses were hung upside down in a garage forecourt in Milan, and much photographed. European journalists, perhaps in solidarity with the dictator’s former profession, found the killing of the mistress unacceptable.
Like so many leaders before and after him, Benito Mussolini was a formidable orator. His speeches and his command of public relations, presenting him as all-powerful, enabled his incompetence to remain hidden for years.