Mussolini started out as a socialist but his outlook changed and he became a fascist. He rose to power in Italy and, believing that the Germans would win the war, he sided with Germany. Although Mussolini enjoyed high popularity when he first came to power, this changed as Italy’s fortunes in the war worsened.
Benito Mussolini was born in Italy on July 29, 1883. His father was a socialist and a blacksmith. He often encouraged him to disobey authority. His mother was a school teacher.
Mussolini was sent to a boarding school when he was eight years old. He was expelled three years later (at the age of eleven) when he stabbed another student in the hand. Even though he had difficulties at school, he graduated from school in 1901 and passed the qualifications for becoming an elementary teacher.
Mussolini moved to Switzerland in an attempt to escape military service but when he became involved in the socialist movement in Switzerland, he was sent home. He immediately returned to Switzerland and another attempt to deport him was blocked by socialists in the Swiss government. While in Switzerland, Mussolini became popular as a result of the speaking ability and the force of his personality.
He returned to Italy when his mother became sick and died. Once in Italy, he worked for an Italian socialist newspaper.
Mussolini was kicked out of the Socialist Party in 1914. One of the reasons was support over the war. Mussolini supported the war while the Italian Socialist Party opposed the war. When Mussolini began to criticize the party for their opposition to the war, he was kicked out of the party.
It was at this time that Mussolini stopped supporting the main socialist idea of class conflict and began to support a view of nationalism that went beyond class lines. He still accepted the idea of revolution but no longer felt the government needed to be led by the working class.
Mussolini attempted to set up a new organization and called themselves Fascists. The new party often clashed with government authorities as well as with the socialists. The initial party was disorganized and did not have a set of unifying principles.
When Italy entered World War I in 1915 (on the side of Britain and France), Mussolini was called up for duty. There is some debate in regards to his service. In his diary, Mussolini sets himself up as an important, charismatic leader but he actually served in quiet safe areas. He was possibly wounded as a result of a training accident with grenades but some scholars claim that he used these minor injuries to cover up the fact that he had neurosyphilis (a sexually transmitted disease [syphilis] that has reached the brain or spinal cord).
Once back in Italy, Mussolini completely abandoned his earlier socialist principles and reorganized his fascist party (now called the Fascisti). Mussolini ran for political office in 1919, but was unsuccessful. He tried again in 1921 and won a seat in parliament. The new fascist organization organized armed groups called Blackshirts which were used to attack socialists, communists, and anarchists. Mussolini also approved of the use of the Blackshirts as strikebreakers. The fascists were supported by the wealthy and the state which saw Mussolini as the only one being able to restore order to Italy.
The country was in chaos and the Fascists had organized a “March on Rome” to put pressure on the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III. The king knew that he had to choose for a government to be formed by either the Socialists or the Fascists so he chose the Fascists. The king invited Mussolini to form the new government on October 28, 1922 and on October 31, Mussolini became the youngest premier in Italian history.
There was no longer a need for the March on Rome but since a large number of fascists had gathered for the march, Mussolini continued with the march but now instead of a demand for a new government, it was a victory march.
During the first few years Mussolini’s government was a coalition government. In June 1924, Mussolini’s government passed a law that gave any coalition that received at least twenty-five percent of the vote two thirds of the seats in Parliament. This law was then applied to the elections that had just been held in April of the same year—an election in which the fascists used violence, intimidation, and cheating to win a majority.
When a socialist politician, Giacomo Matteotti, called for the election to be annulled because of these problems, he was killed by the fascists. The oppositions response was weak and on January 3, 1925, Mussolini gave a speech were he accepted all responsibility for the violence and proclaimed a dictatorship.
Mussolini took control of the press and used his secret police to silence all dissent. He used propaganda to get his message across and was even able to get the Roman Catholic Church to recognize his government in return for the recognition that Vatican City was an independent country.
Laws were rewritten and all teachers had to swear to defend the state. Newspaper editors were personally chosen by Mussolini and all reporters needed to be approved by the state. This need for approval was kept secret so the public thought they still had a free press.
Mussolini also began to turn his eye towards foreign conquest. In 1936, Italy invaded Ethiopia. The invasion resulted in several atrocities being committed, including the use of chemical weapons and the execution of the local population. The use of chemical weapons were publicized by the International Red Cross and shortly after this, Red Cross tents were “accidently” bombed nineteen times (possibly more) by the Italian forces.
World War II
In addition to invading Ethiopia, Mussolini also signed a treaty of friendship with Germany on October 25, 1936. In 1939, Mussolini signed another treaty with Hitler to form a military alliance between the two countries but Mussolini was hesitant to join in World War II on Hitler’s side.
He was in negotiations with the British Prime Minister, who wanted Italy to enter the war on Britain’s side just as it did during World War I. Mussolini did not want to join the losing side. Mussolini was sure that Hitler was going to win the war so on June 10, 1940, Mussolini declared war on both Britain and France.
The Italian army joined Germany in the Battle of France by attacking the French line at the border between Italy and France. Mussolini also sent his forces to attack the British in Africa. The Italians had a lot of initial success and were able to capture part of East and North Africa. Mussolini also ordered his forces into Greece.
Although the Italians enjoyed a lot of initial success, they were soon to suffer a number of defeats. They suffered a lot of losses in North Africa and Hitler was forced to send troops to help the Italians. When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, Mussolini decided to send in Italian troops to support the invasion. Mussolini hoped that the Soviets would prove to be an easy victory to offset the losses Italy had suffered in North Africa and restore his prestige.
The Italians suffered a lot of losses in the fight with the Soviet Union and it was very unpopular. The Italian population felt that fighting the Soviet Union was not Italy’s concern and Mussolini’s popularity was damaged.
In 1943, after a string of defeats, Italy was in a precarious position. Members of Mussolini’s government began to turn against him and forced Mussolini to convene the Grand Council of Fascism. At this meeting, one of the top government officials Dino Grandi moved for a vote requesting that the king return to power. The vote passed nineteen to eight.
Mussolini tried to ignore the resolution and continued to work but he was called to the palace where King Victor Emmanuel III told him that he had been replaced. When Mussolini left the palace, he was arrested and held at a ski retreat on Gran Sasso mountain. While he was being held, Mussolini’s replacement, Pietro Badoglio, negotiated a surrender with the Allies.
Mussolini was rescued in a raid by German forces and set up in northern Italy where Mussolini set up an Italian Social Republic. He lived here for the next few years but was basically a puppet of the Germans.
The war was coming to an end and the Allies had won. Mussolini and his mistress tried to reach Milan so that he could escape on a plane to Austria. They were caught by Italian communists and on April 28, 1945, both were shot. The bodies, along with the bodies of other fascists, were hung upside down in a major square in Milan. Many people abused Mussolini’s body in revenge for the atrocities he committed as dictator of Italy.
The body was eventually removed and buried in an unmarked grave. The body was removed in 1950 by neo-fascists but Mussolini’s widow requested that the body be returned and it was buried in the family crypt.