"My objective is simple. I want to make Italy great, respected and feared."
Benito Mussolini was the inventor of Fascism, a form of government he introduced into Italy in the 1920s. Many of Mussolini's fascist ideas were adopted by German leader Adolf Hitler and the two men became friends. Italy and Germany fought together during World War II (1939-45). At first beloved by Italians, Mussolini was so hated by the end of the war that when he tried to escape from Italy, he was captured and shot by some of his own countrymen. His body was hanged by the feet and displayed to jeering crowds.
Born into poverty, chaos
Before it was united in 1861 under one king, Italy was divided into many large and small states separated by rivers and mountains. Both before and after becoming one nation, Italy was a mostly poor country with few natural resources. Much of the land was owned by a few rich landowners. Peasants, most of them farm laborers who could find work only at harvest time, lived in poverty. Taxes were high under the new king, his advisors were inexperienced, and riots by citizens were common.
Into this chaos Benito Mussolini was born on July 29, 1883, the first of three children of Alessandro Mussolini, a blacksmith and an atheist (he did not believe in God), and Rosa Maltoni, an elementary school teacher and devout Roman Catholic. The family was poor, but many others in the small village were worse off. Alessandro named his son Benito Amilcare Andrea, in honor of three leaders of revolutions whom he admired.
Alessandro instilled in his son his political ideas that the world was an unjust place and rebellion against those in authority was the only solution. Mussolini's mother had high aspirations for her children; she valued education and hoped to see them rise in the world.
Laura Fermi, Mussolini's biographer, described the young man as violent, stubborn, restless, and sullen, a bully with few friends. Unable to control him, his mother sent him at the age of nine to a Roman Catholic boarding school in a nearby town. The school enrolled students from all social classes. Mussolini was assigned to the poor children's table at mealtimes, where the food was not as good as the food given to wealthier students. This was Mussolini's first real exposure to injustice, and the bitter lessons he learned stayed with him for the rest of his life. After two years, an unhappy and rebellious Mussolini was expelled. The remainder of his school years were marked by violence; he was a loner and a rule breaker, but bright enough to have graduated with honors and a diploma entitling him to teach in elementary school. On weekends and holidays at home, he had absorbed his father's talk of revolution. He carried these ideas back to the schoolyard and dazzled his schoolmates with his public speaking skills.
Jobs were scarce in Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century, and many Italians were forced to leave the country to seek work elsewhere in Europe. Mussolini joined them in 1902, moving to Switzerland, where he was eventually arrested for vagrancy (homelessness) and sent to jail. Upon his release, he fell in with a group of Italian socialists, who helped him launch his career as a journalist. Socialists support socialism, an economic system in which the production and distribution of gods are controlled by the government, and cooperation rather than competition is stressed. He began to write about the difficulties experienced by Italians who left home to find work and were then cruelly treated and underpaid. He tried to organize Italian workers in protests. He gave speeches promoting the use of violence by the working classes against those in authority.
In 1904, Mussolini returned to Italy and joined the army, where he served for two years. After his release he continued his work preaching against the government. In 1910, Mussolini married Rachele Guidi, the daughter of poor peasants; they eventually had four children. (Mussolini also fathered at least one child by one of his many mistresses.) A few years later he was named editor of Avanti! (Forward!), an Italian socialist party newspaper. Mussolini described his own writing style as "electric" and "explosive." He took extreme positions on the issues he wrote about, and soon he was recognized as a leader among socialists. When he spoke in favor of Italy entering World War I (1914-18) on the side of the Allies (United States, Great Britain, Soviet Union, and France), the socialist party expelled him (the socialist party believed in noninvolvement, or neutrality). Mussolini then started his own newspaper, the pro-war Il Popolo d'Italia (The People of Italy). He served for 17 months in the Italian army during World War I and was wounded by an exploding shell.
Rise of Fascism in Italy
Italy had entered World War I with great hopes of gaining land and international respect. Although the Allies won the war, Italians were not happy with their share of the spoils nor with the fact that their country was a financial ruin. This discontent presented Mussolini and his followers with an opportunity to stir up the people against the countries that had emerged strong and rich from the war. They formed a group called the Fasci di Combattimento ("Union for Struggle" or "Fighting Leagues") in 1919. This army of young, black-shirted war veterans was given direction by Mussolini, who supplied them with weapons and inspired them with his speeches. They sought supporters throughout the country for their cause—the revitalization of Italy through political power. Despite this following, when he ran for political office in 1919, Mussolini lost.
The loss caused Mussolini to rethink his political ideas. Where once he had felt sympathy for Italy's peasants, now he sought the support of landowners and the army. He thought these groups should unite, seize power, and form a new government. Although he promised rewards for everyone, Mussolini's new cause became personal power; he sought to place himself in the position of dictator. This is believed to be the real beginning of the Fascist movement.
The Fascists, who employed brutal tactics against their opponents, became so powerful that by 1922 they were threatening to march on Rome and seize the government. The king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, was alarmed enough that he invited Mussolini to become prime minister, and at age 39, Mussolini became the youngest person in Italian history to hold that position. In a matter of only four years, Mussolini was essentially in charge of Italy, although the king remained in office because the people loved him. Mussolini was given the nickname il Duce (pronounced ill doo-chay), which means The Leader. He began to build roads, to restore crumbling statues of Roman heroes, and to make improvements to help farmers; he even saw to it that the trains ran on time. His efforts to convince Italians to have more children to increase a population devastated by the war led to social reforms such as aid to unmarried mothers and a campaign to conquer diseases. He built up the army and navy with a view to conquering foreign lands. He seemed to be on the way to returning Italy to the glory it had known as the Roman Empire. His popularity soared.
Mussolini assumed control of Italy at a time when people were looking for a hero, someone they could believe in who would lead their country to greatness. Mussolini's biographers call him a writer of dull and boring speeches. Yet by the power of his public speaking, by his gestures and tone of voice, he was capable of inspiring tremendous enthusiasm in the crowds who gathered to hear him. Standing only five feet six inches tall and sporting a small mustache, Mussolini nevertheless gave the impression of great power during his passionate speeches. His audiences were enthralled, lining up below his balcony and shouting "Du-ce! Du-ce!"
Mussolini spoke eloquently of his great love of Italy and his firm belief that Italy could once again be great. He had an uncanny knowledge of what his audience wanted to hear, and he gave them what they wanted—whether he actually believed what he was saying or not.
As a journalist, Mussolini used his own newspaper to inflame people with words and to mislead them with half-truths about his own character and qualifications. He used the newspaper to build up a picture of himself as a great man—and he himself came to believe that he was.
Mussolini ordered his photograph to be hung in every schoolroom in Italy. The photograph was captioned: "Mussolini is always right." So from a very early age children learned that they were to listen to what their leader said and to obey. Mussolini promised much and indeed he delivered much, but it was at the price of his followers' freedom.
Fascism in practice
Mussolini ruled Italy under a form of government he called Fascism. The name comes from the Latin fasces, a bundle of rods tied around an ax with the blade projecting from the top of the bundle. The fasces symbolized the supreme power of the government in ancient Rome. (Rome, the capital of Italy, was once the center of a vast and mighty empire.) Mussolini, who had grown up hearing stories of the glory of ancient Rome, hoped to make Italy a world power once again.
Under Fascism, Italy was headed by a leader called a dictator, who held absolute power over the individual person. All persons were expected to work together for the betterment of the country. No one had a right to protection from the dictator, even if he were unreasonable or unjust. Mussolini's slogan was "to believe, to obey, to combat." Under his Fascist government, the secret police and military enforced his policies in sometimes cruel ways. Public opinion began to turn against him.
Mussolini next directed his efforts abroad, engaging Italy in a war in Ethiopia (Africa) in order to begin creating a new Roman Empire. Although he triumphed over Ethiopia, the war caused great losses of both money and lives. Still, his victory helped revive his popularity. Peasants in the fields knelt before him, women held up their babies for him to bless, and government-controlled newspapers referred to him as "our divine Duce." Mussolini began to be caught up in his own legend, believing that he was always right and refusing to take advice or criticism.
Influence on Hitler
In Germany, although he was not yet in power, Adolf Hitler had heard tales of the Fascist takeover of Rome. He began to borrow from Mussolini's speeches, telling Germans they should hold their heads high (after their defeat in World War I) and work to rebuild a mighty country. Hitler added a new component to Fascism, though—the myth of racial purity and Aryan (white, non-Jewish) superiority. This new component led to what would become known as the Holocaust. The Holocaust refers to the period between 1933 and 1945 when Nazi Germany systematically persecuted and murdered millions of Jews and other innocent people. Hitler and Mussolini gave Fascism such a bad reputation that the term is no longer used to describe a form of government.
In time, Hitler's admiration for Mussolini's ideas turned into a liking for Mussolini himself. The two arranged to meet and join forces with an aim to making their countries world powers. Mussolini admired what he saw on his visit to Germany—the rows of disciplined soldiers, marching in unison in their crisp, well-fitting uniforms. He admired their style of marching, called goosestepping, and returned home determined to achieve the same effect with the Italian armed forces. However, he was never able to adequately prepare his country for war and, as a result, his troops suffered greatly.
Attitude toward Jews
Hitler viewed the Jews as a poisonous race who weakened the purity of the Aryan blood. Mussolini, however, did not share Hitler's hatred for Jews, and in fact he had many Jewish friends and acquaintances. Some of them had helped him found the Fascist movement. Mussolini was widely quoted as saying "Anti-Semitism does not exist in Italy." Thus Jews and others were stunned when Mussolini adopted anti-Jewish laws in 1938. His friendship with Hitler had grown close, and Mussolini felt that Italian Jews were becoming too vocal in their objections to his relationship with Germany.
Mussolini's main hope had been that his alliance with Germany would win power and respect for Italy. Germany's aggressive policies led to all-out world war beginning in 1939. Although Italy had neither the heart nor the military power to fight and at first proclaimed a policy of "non-belligerency," by 1940 Mussolini had entered his reluctant country in World War II on Hitler's side. Italian disenchantment with Mussolini and his repressive policies grew. By now Mussolini was showing the effects of a disease that affected both his mental and physical abilities (possibly syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease). He lost weight and experienced severe stomach pains. Soon the Germans, who had never been popular with Italians, were controlling affairs in Italy, and Mussolini was taking orders from Hitler, his former admirer.
The Allies (United States, Britain, Russia, and France) invaded the island of Sicily off the southern coast of Italy in 1943, adding to unrest in the country. By this time, in his own words, Mussolini was "the most detested, indeed hated, man in Italy." On the verge of physical and mental collapse and in complete disgrace, Mussolini was finally dismissed by the king and imprisoned. Shortly after, he was rescued by the Germans and taken to Hitler's headquarters in Germany. Hitler ordered Mussolini back to northern Italy to announce he was once again in charge. By then Mussolini was extremely ill and dependent on morphine for the relief of severe stomach pain. He was no longer in a position of real power when Hitler's Final Solution (the total elimination of European Jews) moved into northern Italy. During this campaign, more than 8,000 Italian Jews were sent to German concentration camps, places where people regarded as "enemies of the state" were imprisoned.
Italy declares war on Germany
From Sicily the Allies moved to the Italian mainland, and on September 3, 1943, a devastated Italy surrendered and shortly after declared war on Germany. With the Allies, the Italian army began a bitter, bloody march northward, driving the Germans out and looking for Mussolini. He tried to escape the Allied advance but was captured by his countrymen near Como and shot, together with his lover, Clara Petacci, who had insisted on joining him in his final moments. He left behind his wife, two sons, and a daughter. One son later wrote a book describing his father as a cold man who showed little affection for his children.
After the war ended in 1945, many Italians wanted to forget Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party politics. For the next half a century, Italian politics was controlled by parties stressing socialist ideas. But the rule of the old parties was beset by scandals, quarrels, and chaos. In the late 1980s and 1990s new political parties began to emerge. One such party was the Italian Social Movement, a neo-fascist party that favors black shirts and military-style salutes. ("Neo" means a new form.) In 1992, 47 years after Benito Mussolini was shot, his granddaughter, former movie actress Alessandra Mussolini, age 29, won election to Italy's law-making body (Parliament) for the Italian Social Movement (now called the National Alliance). "Mamma mia!" she exclaimed upon hearing the news. "In my wildest dreams I never imagined such a result."
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