Mussolini, Benito

(1883–1945)
   Mussolini was born in the foothills of the Apennines in Predappio (Romagna). His father and grandfather were both peasants who were jailed for their commitment to the nascent socialist movement, while his mother was a schoolmistress and a devout Catholic. Mussolini, though a voracious reader, seems to have been an ill-tempered child who was twice suspended from school for knifing fellow students. After leaving school he had a number of teaching appointments, but everywhere he went he managed to antagonize the authorities. After fleeing to Switzerland and France to avoid military service in 1903–1904, his political activities and riotous conduct led to his being arrested and expelled. Fascist historians subsequently misrepresented this ignominious period in Mussolini’s life by asserting that he had studied at the University of Geneva. Ageneral amnesty for deserters, however, allowed him to repatriate and clear his record by 18 months of military service. While Mussolini was serving in the military, his mother died. Mussolini returned to Predappio as soon as his period of conscription was over and became both a (rather incompetent) schoolteacher and a socialist activist of growing notoriety.
   In 1909, Mussolini immigrated once more, this time to the Trentino (then under Austrian rule) where he honed his growing skills as a propagandist as editor of Il Popolo (The People), an irredentist newspaper published by the leader of the Italian community, Cesare Battisti. Repeatedly arrested by the Austrian authorities, Mussolini’s inevitable expulsion only enhanced his standing among Italian nationalists.
   Mussolini opposed the war in Libya, which the reformist majority of the Partito Socialista Italiano/Italian Socialist Party (PSI) had backed, and served a five-month prison sentence in 1911 for antiwar activities. One of his cellmates was Pietro Nenni. On his release, Mussolini was determined to wrest control of the PSI from the reformists. Taking advantage of the membership’s hostile reaction to a visit to the royal palace made by Leonida Bissolati to congratulate the king on escaping from an assassination attempt, Mussolini made a violent speech against Bissolati’s policy of obtaining social reforms through cooperation with the Italian state. Mussolini’s motion to expel Bissolati and the other leaders of the PSI’s moderates achieved an unexpectedly large majority, and Mussolini briefly became the party’s dominant personality.
   Mussolini became editor of the party newspaper, Avanti! In 1914, he was torn between the party line of neutralism and the will to intervene. His hope appears to have been that a military bloodbath would stimulate revolutionary conditions. Unilaterally, he changed the editorial policy of the paper to one backing interventionism, but he was unable to carry the party leadership with him and was expelled. Undaunted, Mussolini launched a paper of his own, Il Popolo d’ltalia (The People of Italy), in November 1914, with substantial financial aid from businesses in the war industries. By 1915, he had become an expansionist, advocating the creation of an Italian empire in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Mussolini was called up in September 1915 and seems to have performed his duties as a soldier competently, being promoted to corporal, but without particular distinction. In February 1917, he was wounded by an accidental explosion during grenade training; Fascist hagiographers would later make much of this injury and claim that the war began to go badly for Italy when Mussolini was constrained to leave the front! Mussolini returned to Il Popolo d ‘Italia, where he took an increasingly nationalist and populist line and abandoned socialism, as he himself put it, with a “sigh of relief.”
   In March 1919, Mussolini founded the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento. The new movement had no clear ideology; Mussolini’s speeches and articles drew upon a mishmash of anarchist, socialist, nationalist, and syndicalist themes. But the movement’s appeal for action, which it backed up by a campaign of terror against the PSI in the streets and fields of Italy, appealed to Italy’s numerous disaffected former soldiers, and Mussolini showed great skill in trimming his tactical sails to suit the needs of the moment. He became prime minister in October 1922 after the March on Rome, but governing with respect for democracy was not the hallmark of his premiership. In his first speech to Parliament, he made clear his contempt for the institution, saying that he could have bivouacked his blackshirts in “quest’aula sorda e grigia” (“this deaf, gray hall”). Fascist bullyboys terrorized the rival parties; the opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti was murdered; and all opposition parties, newspapers, and independent political activity was banned in 1925–1926. He had become Duce, the leader, and his word was law.
   Like the rulers of Soviet Russia, Mussolini set out to create a new man for a new century, but his methods seem somewhat infantile in retrospect. Great emphasis was put on flag-waving rallies, grandiose architecture, and educational propaganda. Mussolini himself struck heroic poses; spoke to what the Fascist press called “oceanic crowds” of carefully choreographed enthusiasts; and launched symbolic battles for grain, land reclamation, and fertility. Quite a number of foreign visitors were taken in by the facade: Winston Churchill and a stream of other eminent upper-class British visitors regarded Mussolini as one of the great men of the age. In retrospect, however, we can see that he was merely a semi-intellectual with a gift for propaganda and political intrigue. Mussolini was extremely skilled at making sure that rivals for influence within the Fascist movement, such as Italo Balbo,were promoted to jobs distant from the power centers in Rome. Above all, although he invented the word, he was not a totalitarian dictator on the model of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, though he may have liked to have been. He was much less ruthless, less obsessed, and more human, and Fascist Italy was consequently a much more livable place than the terrible dictatorships of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Mussolini was also prone to vainglory. His downfall can ultimately be traced to the fact that he began to believe his own propaganda. Contemptuous of democratic Britain and France, puffed up by Italy’s bloody military victory in Ethiopia, his ego flattered by Hitler’s skillful diplomacy (notably during a five-day official visit to Germany in September 1937 and Hitler’s return visit in April 1938), Mussolini threw in Italy’s lot with Nazi Germany. Mussolini soon became the junior partner in Hitler’s plans, though the German dictator continued to the end to regard the Duce with esteem and friendship. As the war progressed, Mussolini, who was also suffering from a serious stomach illness, proved to be an inadequate war leader: out of touch with reality and unable to direct the war effort with the energy and rationality that the Fascist system, in which power was entirely concentrated in the Duce’s own hands, demanded. When, after the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, the Fascist Grand Council deposed Mussolini, there was no popular protest—even among active Fascists. Il Popolo d’Italia, announcing the news, simply replaced Mussolini’s photograph on the front page with one of Marshal Pietro Badoglio.
   Mussolini was rescued by the Germans from his hotel-prison on top of the Gran Sasso mountain in September 1943. For the last two years of his life he ruled the puppet Republic of Salo and must bear great responsibility for the savagery of the civil war fought in northern Italy in those years. On 28 April 1945, as Mussolini, his mistress Clara Petacci, and a handful of diehards were trying to escape into Switzerland, they were captured by partisans and summarily executed; Mussolini was hung by his heels in Milan’s Piazza Loreto, where his corpse was vilely treated by the crowds.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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