Biography of Benito Mussolini, Fascist Dictator of Italy

Historical photo of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler

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Benito Mussolini (July 29, 1883–April 28, 1945) served as Italy’s 40th Prime Minister from 1922 to 1943. As a close ally of Adolf Hitler during World War II, he is considered a central figure in the birth of European fascism. In 1943, Mussolini was replaced as prime minister and served as the head of the Italian Social Republic until his capture and execution by Italian partisans in 1945.

Fast Facts: Benito Mussolini

  • Known For: Mussolini was a fascist dictator who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943.
  • Also Known As: Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini
  • Born: July 29, 1883 in Predappio, Italy
  • Parents: Alessandro and Rosa Mussolini
  • Died: April 28, 1945 in Giulino, Italy
  • Spouse(s): Ida Dalser (m. 1914), Rachelle Guidi (m. 1915-1945)
  • Children: Benito, Edda, Vittorio, Bruno, Romano, Anna Maria

Early Life

Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was born on July 29, 1883, in Predappio, a hamlet above Verano di Costa in northern Italy. Mussolini’s father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith and an ardent socialist who scorned religion. His mother, Rosa Maltoni, was an elementary school teacher and a devout Catholic.

Mussolini had two younger siblings: a brother, Arnaldo, and a sister, Edvidge. Growing up, Mussolini proved to be a difficult child. He was disobedient and had a quick temper. Twice he was expelled from school for assaulting fellow students with a penknife. Despite all the trouble he caused at school, though, Mussolini still managed to obtain a diploma and even worked for a short time as a school teacher.

Socialist Leanings

Looking for better job opportunities, Mussolini moved to Switzerland in July 1902. There he worked a variety of odd jobs and spent his evenings attending local socialist party meetings. One of his jobs was working as a propagandist for a bricklayer trade union. Mussolini took a very aggressive stance, frequently advocated violence, and urged a general strike to create change, all of which led to him being arrested several times.

Between his turbulent work at the trade union during the day and his many speeches and discussions with socialists at night, Mussolini soon made enough of a name for himself in socialist circles that he began writing and editing several socialist newspapers.

In 1904, Mussolini returned to Italy to serve his conscription requirement in Italy’s peace-time army. In 1909, he lived for a short time in Austria working for a trade union. He wrote for a socialist newspaper and his attacks on militarism and nationalism resulted in his expulsion from Austria.

After he returned to Italy, Mussolini continued to advocate for socialism and to develop his skills as an orator. He was forceful and authoritative, and while frequently wrong in their facts, his speeches were always compelling. His views and his oratory skills quickly brought him to the attention of his fellow socialists. On December 1, 1912, Mussolini began work as the editor of the Italian Socialist newspaper Avanti!

Changing Views

In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that culminated in the start of World War I. On August 3, 1914, the Italian government announced that it would remain strictly neutral. Mussolini initially used his position as editor of Avanti! to urge fellow socialists to support the government in its position of neutrality.

However, his views of the war soon changed. In September 1914, Mussolini wrote several articles supporting those who were backing Italy’s entry into the war. Mussolini’s editorials caused an uproar among his fellow socialists and in November 1914, after a meeting of the party executives, he was formally expelled from the party.

Wounding

On May 23, 1915, the Italian government ordered the general mobilization of armed forces. The next day, Italy declared war on Austria, officially joining World War I. Mussolini, accepting his call to the draft, reported for duty in Milan on August 31, 1915, and was assigned to the 11th Regiment of the Bersaglieri (a corps of sharpshooters).

During the winter of 1917, Mussolini’s unit was field testing a new mortar when the weapon exploded. Mussolini was severely wounded, with more than 40 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. After a long stay at a military hospital, he recovered from his injuries and was discharged from the army.

Turn to Fascism

After the war, Mussolini, who had become decidedly anti-socialist, began to advocate for a strong central government in Italy. Soon he was also advocating for a dictator to lead that government.

Mussolini wasn't the only one ready for a major change. World War I had left Italy in shambles and people were looking for a way to make the country strong again. A wave of nationalism swept across Italy and many people began to form local nationalist groups.

It was Mussolini who, on March 23, 1919, personally assembled these groups into a single, national organization under his leadership. Mussolini called this new group Fasci di Combattimento (the Fascist Party).

Mussolini formed groups of marginalized ex-servicemen into squadristi. As their numbers grew, the squadristi were reorganized into the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicuressa Nazionale, or MVSN, which would later serve as Mussolini’s national security apparatus. Dressed in black shirts or sweaters, the squadristi earned the nickname “Blackshirts.”

The March on Rome

In the summer of 1922, the Blackshirts made a punitive march through the provinces of Ravenna, Forli, and Ferrara in northern Italy. It was a night of terror; squads burned down the headquarters and homes of every member of both socialist and communist organizations.

By September 1922, the Blackshirts controlled most of northern Italy. Mussolini assembled a Fascist Party conference on October 24, 1922, to discuss a coup de main or “sneak attack” on the Italian capital of Rome. On October 28, armed squads of Blackshirts marched on Rome. Although badly organized and poorly armed, the move left the parliamentary monarchy of King Victor Emmanuel III in confusion.

Mussolini, who had stayed behind in Milan, received an offer from the king to form a coalition government. Mussolini then proceeded to the capital supported by 300,000 men and wearing a black shirt. On October 31, 1922, at the age of 39, Mussolini was sworn in as prime minister of Italy.

Il Duce

After elections were held, Mussolini controlled enough seats in parliament to appoint himself Il Duce ("the leader") of Italy. On January 3, 1925, with the backing of his Fascist majority, Mussolini declared himself dictator of Italy.

For a decade, Italy prospered in peace. However, Mussolini was intent on turning Italy into an empire and to do that the country needed a colony. In October 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. The conquest was brutal. Other European countries criticized Italy, especially for the nation's use of mustard gas. In May 1936, Ethiopia surrendered and Mussolini had his empire. This was the height of Mussolini's popularity; it all went downhill from there.

Mussolini and Hitler

Out of all the countries in Europe, Germany had been the only one to support Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia. At that time, Germany was led by Adolf Hitler, who had formed his own fascist organization, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (commonly called the Nazi Party).

Hitler admired Mussolini; Mussolini, on the other hand, did not like Hitler at first. However, Hitler continued to support and back Mussolini, such as during the war on Ethiopia, which eventually swayed Mussolini into an alliance with him. In 1938, Italy passed the Manifesto of Race, which stripped Jews in Italy of their Italian citizenship, removed Jews from government and teaching jobs, and banned intermarriage. Italy was following in the footsteps of Nazi Germany.

On May 22, 1939, Mussolini entered into the “Pact of Steel” with Hitler, which essentially tied the two countries in the event of war—and war was soon to come.

World War II

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, initiating the Second World War. On June 10, 1940, after witnessing Germany’s decisive victories in Poland and France, Mussolini issued a declaration of war on France and Britain. It was clear, however, from the very beginning, that Mussolini was not an equal partner with Hitler—and Mussolini did not like that.

Over time, Mussolini became frustrated both with Hitler's successes and with the fact that Hitler kept most of his military plans a secret from him. Mussolini looked for a means of emulating Hitler’s accomplishments without letting Hitler know about his plans. Against the advice of his army commanders, Mussolini ordered an attack against the British in Egypt in September 1940. After initial successes, the attack stalled and German troops were sent to reinforce the deteriorating Italian positions.

Embarrassed by his armies’ failure in Egypt, Mussolini, against the advice of Hitler, attacked Greece on October 28, 1940. Six weeks later, this attack stalled as well. Defeated, Mussolini was forced to ask the German dictator for assistance. On April 6, 1941, Germany invaded both Yugoslavia and Greece, ruthlessly conquering both countries and rescuing Mussolini from defeat.

Italy Revolts

Despite Nazi Germany's amazing victories in the early years of World War II, the tide eventually turned against Germany and Italy. By the summer of 1943, with Germany bogged down in a war of attrition with Russia, Allied forces began bombing Rome. Members of the Italian Fascist council turned against Mussolini. They convened and moved to have the king resume his constitutional powers. Mussolini was arrested and sent to the mountain resort of Campo Imperatore in Abruzzi.

On September 12, 1943, Mussolini was rescued from imprisonment by a German glider team commanded by Otto Skorzey. He was flown to Munich and met with Hitler shortly thereafter. Ten days later, by order of Hitler, Mussolini was installed as head of the Italian Social Republic in Northern Italy, which remained under German control.

Death

On April 27, 1945, with Italy and Germany on the brink of defeat, Mussolini attempted to flee to Spain. On the afternoon of April 28, on their way to Switzerland to board a plane, Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci were captured by Italian partisans.

Driven to the gates of the Villa Belmonte, they were shot to death by a partisan firing squad. The corpses of Mussolini, Petacci, and other members of their party were driven by truck to the Piazza Loreto on April 29, 1945. Mussolini's body was dumped ​in the road and people of the local neighborhood abused his corpse. Some time later, the bodies of Mussolini and Petacci were hung upside down in front of a fueling station.

Although they were initially buried anonymously in the Musocco cemetery in Milan, the Italian government allowed Mussolini’s remains to be re-interred in the family crypt near Verano di Costa on August 31, 1957.

Legacy

Although Italian Fascism was defeated during World War II, Mussolini has inspired a number of neo-fascist and far-right organizations in Italy and abroad, including the People of Freedom party and the Italian Social Movement. His life has been subject of several documentaries and dramatic films, including "Vincere" and "Benito."

Sources

  • Bosworth, R. J. B. "Mussolini." Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
  • Hibbert, Christopher. "Benito Mussolini: a Biography." Penguin, 1965.