Mussolini, Benito

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Mussolini, Benito

Benito Mussolini ruled as dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943. His political philosophy, which he called fascism, was based on the total domination of the government in all spheres of political, social, economic, and cultural life. Initially seen by the Italian people as a hero, Mussolini was driven from government before the end of World War II.

Mussolini was born in Dovia di Predappio, Italy, on July 29, 1883, the son of a socialist blacksmith. He embraced Socialism as a teenager and as a young man became a schoolteacher and socialist journalist in northern Italy. In 1902 he moved to Switzerland and earned a living as a laborer. He returned to Italy in 1904 to perform his required military service and then resumed his teaching.

His wanderlust, however, resumed. He went to Trent, Austria, in 1909 and worked for a socialist newspaper. He was expelled from Austria after he publicly urged the return of Trent to Italy. In 1912 he became editor of Avanti!, the most important Italian socialist newspaper, with headquarters in Milan. When World War I broke out in August 1914, Mussolini proved unwilling to toe the socialist line. Socialists argued that disputes between nations were not their concern and that Italy should stay out of the conflict. Mussolini disagreed, whereupon the socialists expelled him from the party. This expulsion radically changed Mussolini's political outlook. He founded Il Popol d'Italia (The People of Italy), a strident newspaper that argued that Italy should enter the war against Germany. When Italy did join the war, Mussolini enlisted in the army and served from 1915 to 1917, when he was wounded.

After the war Mussolini started his own political movement. In 1919 he formed the Fascist party, called the Fasci di Combattimento. The name fascism is derived from the Latin fascis, meaning bundle. The fasces is a bundle of rods strapped together around an axe. A symbol of authority in ancient Rome, it represented absolute, unbreakable power. Mussolini promised to recreate the glories of the Roman Empire in a movement that was nationalistic, antiliberal, and antisocialist.

Mussolini's movement struck a chord with lower-middle-class people. Supporters wore black shirts and formed private militias. In 1922 Mussolini threatened a march on Rome to take over the government. King Victor Emmanuel capitulated to this threat and asked Mussolini to form a government. Once in power Mussolini abolished all other political parties and set out to transform Italy into a fascist state.

Initially Italians and foreign observers saw Mussolini as a strong leader who brought needed discipline to the economy and social structure of Italy. He poured money into building the infrastructure of a modern country. In a country known for disorganization, it was said that Mussolini made the trains run on time. He also, however, abolished trade unions and closed newspapers that did not follow the party line. He used the police to enforce his rule and imprisoned thousands of people for their political views.

In the 1930s Mussolini sought to make Italy an international power. In 1935 Italy invaded the East African country of Ethiopia. Mussolini ignored the League of Nations' demand that he withdraw and proceeded to conquer the country. In 1936 he sent Italian troops to support General Francisco Franco's Loyalist Army in the Spanish Civil War. By the end of the 1930s, Mussolini also moved closer to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. In 1939 he invaded nearby Albania.

Mussolini did not enter World War II until June 1940, when he invaded the south of France. At first his alliance with Hitler appeared propitious. However, the Italian army suffered defeat in North Africa, and the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943. Mussolini's regime crumbled. King Victor Emmanuel dismissed Mussolini as the head of state on July 25, 1943. Mussolini was briefly imprisoned, but German troops rescued him. Hitler directed Mussolini to head an Italian puppet state in northern Italy, then under the control of German forces. As the Allies moved north in 1945, Mussolini tried to escape to Switzerland. He was captured by Italian partisans and shot on April 28, 1945. The bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were displayed to jeering crowds on the streets of Milan.

Further readings

Axelrod, Alan. 2001. The Life and Work of Benito Mussolini. Indianapolis, Ind.: Alpha.

Bosworth, R.J.B. 2002. Mussolini. London: Arnold; New York: Oxford Univ. Press.