Italian fascist leader and dictator. Born 1883 in Dovia di Predappio (Emilia Romagna), died 1945.
Born the son of a blacksmith (Alessandro Mussolini) and a teacher (Rosa Mussolini), Mussolini's views were clearly influenced by early exposure to the socialist politics of his blacksmith father. As a young man, Mussolini worked as a teacher briefly, in Gualtieri (Reggio Emilia). To avoid conscription, he then moved to Switzerland, where he lived from 1902 to 1904. He was later to benefit from a general amnesty on deserters, in 1906.
Returning to Italy, Mussolini became politically active, and achieved some notoriety for his outspoken criticism of the war in Libya (1911-1912). He became a prominent leader of the extreme left wing of the Italian Socialist Party, and editor of the socialist daily newspaper Avanti!, in 1913.
With the beginning of World War I, however, Mussolini's political views appear to have undergone a sea-change: he declared his support for the nationalist cause, and joined the interventionist movement. Opposed to participation in the war, the Socialist Party saw no recourse but to expel him from their ranks. Cut adrift, Mussolini founded a new newspaper, the Popolo d'Italia. The new daily advocated Italian participation in the war on the Allied side. As a result of this, it received financial support from the French, as a propaganda measure.
In 1915, Mussolini enlisted in the army, and achieved the rank of corporal. He was to use this "military career", such as it was, to great effect in his later life.
After the end of the war, Mussolini gathered to himself a crowd of disaffected war veterans and other dissatisfied Italians, and organised them into the Fasci di combattimento, nationalist gangs dressed in black shirts (copying the style adopted by D'Annunzio's followers). The Fasci pursued a confrontational, violent policy, clashing repeatedly with Communists and Socialists. Their watchword was a call for the restoration of order by force. Strikes, violence and social unrest contributed to an overall atmosphere of national breakdown.
In 1921, Mussolini was elected to the Italian parliament, and in the same year, the National Fascist Party of Italy was officially organised. With continued unrest, Mussolini sent his Fascists off on a march to Rome. Arriving at Rome, the marchers were admitted into the city at the orders of the King, and Mussolini (who was in Milan at the time) was asked to form a government. Taking over the premiership, Mussolini set off to convert the government from a constitutional monarchy into a dictatorship, inspired by the ancient Roman empire. Over the next few years, Mussolini had several opponents murdered, organised a secret police force, and imposed extensive censorship on the media. In 1928, the parliament was dismissed, and Italy was organised entirely as a Fascist "corporative state".
As the dictator of Italy, Mussolini (called il Duce, "the Leader", by his followers) deliberately adopted a Roman imperial style, surrounding himself with as many references to the grandeur of ancient Rome as possible. With the construction of monumental buildings, and with an extensive effort in archaeological restoration of ancient Roman edifices, Mussolini's Italy was an Italy that dwelt on past greatness, and had expectations of future greatness.
With the growth of German National Socialism in the 1930s, it was perhaps inevitable that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would have to reach an understanding. Even so, Mussolini was initially standoffish. Mussolini, though in many ways a thug, was essentially a sane man, and Hitler was not. Hitler was not to Mussolini's liking. However the international community's diplomatic coolness towards Italy following the war in Ethiopia in 1935 made Hitler more attractive as an ally. A three-part mutual understanding between Hitler, Mussolini and Francisco Franco of Spain led to Italian and German aid to the Spanish Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, from 1936. In 1938, Mussolini aided Hitler in the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany, and in 1939, Germany and Italy entered into a formal alliance.
Mussolini was never violently opposed to the Jews, but under German pressure, he found himself forced to institute a series of anti-Jewish measures. These did not enjoy great support by the Italian public, however.
With the outbreak of World War II, Mussolini chose to play a waiting game. Italy did not enter the war on the German side until June, 1940, shortly before the fall of France. The war did not go well for Italy. Losses in Greece and Africa, and the prospect of invasion of Italy by the Allies, led to unrest in the Fascist party. In July, 1943, Mussolini was deposed and imprisoned.
A few months later, on September 12, 1943, a daring rescue by German paratroopers freed Mussolini from his prison at Gran Sasso in the Abruzzi, and he was put in place as the leader of the Salò Republic, the Fascist puppet state set up in Northern Italy. In the final days of the war in Europe, on April 28, 1945, he was captured in Giuliano di Mezzegra, along with his mistress, Clara Petacci The two were tried in a summary court-martial and shot. The bodies were displayed in a public square in Milan, and buried in unmarked graves. Later, Mussolini's body was moved to his family's mausoleum.