How Italian dictator Benito Mussolini became the first face of fascism

A decade before Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933, Mussolini became 20th-century Europe’s first fascist dictator – but, writes Jonny Wilkes, his new ‘Roman Empire’ was in ruins before the end of World War II

Mussolini salutes in front of the statue of the Roman emperor Nerva, in the 1930s

Alongside Adolf Hitler, the name of Benito Mussolini is inextricably linked with the rise of fascism in 20th-century Europe. But in his youth, Mussolini was an ardent socialist. Even his name had left-wing connotations: born on 29 July 1883 in the Italian town of Predappio, his parents christened him Benito, after a liberal Mexican president, and gave him two middle names, Amilcare and Andrea, in homage to two Italian socialists. Following an unruly childhood – he was kicked out of two schools for attacking students with a penknife – Mussolini spent time in Switzerland writing for socialist newspapers and even going to prison for the cause.

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His socialism crumbled, however, in the face of World War I. By 1914, Mussolini had become a leading left-wing figure in Italy, and as editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti! (Forward!), he oversaw a huge increase in the paper’s circulation. Mussolini had initially argued vociferously against Italy’s involvement in the war, but a sudden change of heart caused consternation among his fellow socialists, who called for his expulsion from the party.

Committing to a different kind of politics, Mussolini formed his own right-wing newspaper and served in the trenches with the Bersaglieri, the sharpshooters, until he was wounded. He returned home a fledgling fascist, and in 1919 set up the Fascist Party, with himself as leader.

Mussolini had an imposing presence, with a powerful physique and almost hypnotic oratorical style – an effective blend of charismatic and callous

How and when did Mussolini gain power?

In the years after World War I, Italy was in a dire state. Calls grew louder for a strong leader, and Mussolini – once more a popular journalist, and figurehead of the Italian fascists – put his name forward. He had an imposing presence, with a powerful physique and almost hypnotic oratorical style – an effective blend of charismatic and callous – which appealed to the downtrodden. He set about building support, while removing opponents with his armed and uniformed squads, known as the Blackshirts.

The fascists soon controlled swathes of the country, and Mussolini saw his opportunity to seize power. In October 1922, tens of thousands of Blackshirts marched on Rome in a show of force. King Victor Emmanuel III gave in and handed over the government to Mussolini – making him prime minister at the age of 39. From the beginning, he ruled as de facto dictator, driven by his belief that it was his destiny to forge a new Roman Empire, with himself as Caesar.

Mussolini cemented his dictatorship in early 1925, when the murder of one of his strongest critics, Giacomo Matteotti, led the fascist’s political opponents to boycott parliament, meaning the last vestiges of dissent disappeared. On 3 January 1925, he addressed the now powerless parliament: “I, and I alone, assume
the political, moral and historic responsibility for everything that has happened. Italy wants peace and quiet, work and calm. I will give these things with love if possible, and with force if necessary.”

Mussolini (right) found an ally in Hitler, though theirs would never be an equal partnership
Mussolini (right) found an ally in Hitler, though theirs would never be an equal partnership (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

When did Mussolini become Il Duce?

Taking the name ‘Il Duce’ (The Leader), Mussolini dismantled any remaining bastions of democracy. He clamped down on free press and filled papers and cinemas with propaganda; he created a youth movement to indoctrinate the next generation; and he turned Italy into a police state with networks of spies and secret police. And Mussolini’s cult of personality meant he garnered praise – both at home and abroad – for his public works.

To build an empire, Mussolini needed to conquer territory, so in 1935 he launched an invasion of Ethiopia

To build an empire, though, Mussolini needed to conquer territory, so in 1935 he launched an invasion of Ethiopia, one of the few African states not under European control. The Italian military – armed with superior weaponry, including mustard gas – swiftly overwhelmed Ethiopian forces, and the capital of Addis Ababa was captured within a year.

Adolf Hitler – going against the League of Nations – supported the invasion and made it clear that he regarded Mussolini’s Italy as an ally. As World War II loomed, the two fascist dictators signed the Pact of Steel to establish the Axis Powers. Mussolini even introduced anti-Jewish laws in Italy to ingratiate himself with the Führer. But Hitler would always be the dominant partner, and the war proved hugely damaging for Italy and for Mussolini. His armies suffered humiliating defeats in Greece and North Africa, but worse was still to come.

When was Mussolini defeated, and when did he die?

Once the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943, the mystique of Mussolini evaporated. The Fascist Grand Council turned on him, voting him out of power, and the king ordered his arrest. There was no last stand: his supporters were nowhere to be seen, and Il Duce went down with a whimper.

Despite, two months later, being rescued from prison in a daring operation by German commandos, Mussolini’s return to power amounted to nothing more than heading a puppet regime in northern Italy, now under German occupation. His second reign came to an end as the Allies advanced.

Trying to flee dressed in a Luftwaffe uniform, Mussolini, along with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, was captured by partisans. On 28 April 1945 they were shot, their bodies bundled into a van to be taken to Milan and hung upside down in a public square. Italians made their opinions of Mussolini known by kicking, spitting and throwing stones at the corpses. Mussolini wished to be Caesar of his own Roman Empire, but it seems he forgot what happened to the most famous Caesar of all.

A dictator’s death: how Stalin, Hitler, Mao and other self-styled strongmen met their ends

History shows that dictatorships usually end at best in ignominious fashion. And unlike the most successful democratically elected leaders, dictators are rarely mourned except by a few extremists, writes historian Frank Dikötter.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini give a fascist salute

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the November 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed