Who Was Benito Mussolini?
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, who went by the nickname “Il Duce” (“the Leader”), was an Italian dictator who created the Fascist Party in 1919 and eventually held all the power in Italy as the country’s prime minister from 1922 until 1943. An ardent socialist as a youth, Mussolini followed in his father's political footsteps but was expelled by the party for his support of World War I. As dictator during World War II, he overextended his forces and was eventually killed by his own people in Mezzegra, Italy.
Family and Early Life
Mussolini was born on July 29, 1883, in Italy. His father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith and an impassioned socialist who spent much of his time on politics and much of his money on his mistress. His mother, Rosa (Maltoni), was a devout Catholic teacher who provided the family with some stability and income.
The eldest of three children, Mussolini showed much intelligence as a youth but was boisterous and disobedient. His father instilled in him a passion for socialist politics and defiance against authority. Though he was expelled from several schools for bullying and defying school authorities, he eventually obtained a teaching certificate in 1901 and, for a brief time, worked as a schoolmaster.
In 1902, Mussolini moved to Switzerland to promote socialism. He quickly gained a reputation for his magnetism and remarkable rhetorical talents. While engaging in political demonstrations, he caught the attention of Swiss authorities and was eventually expelled from the country.
Mussolini returned to Italy in 1904 and continued promoting a socialist agenda. He was briefly imprisoned and, upon release, became editor of the organization's newspaper, Avanti (meaning "Forward"), which gave him a larger megaphone and expanded his influence.
While Mussolini initially condemned Italy's entry into World War I, he soon saw the war as an opportunity for his country to become a great power. His change in attitude broke ties with fellow socialists, and he was expelled from the organization.
In 1915, Mussolini joined the Italian army and fought on the front lines, reaching the rank of corporal before being wounded and discharged from the military.
Fascist Party Founder
On March 23, 1919, Mussolini founded the Fascist Party, which organized several right-wing groups into a single force. The fascist movement proclaimed opposition to social class discrimination and supported nationalist sentiments. Mussolini hoped to raise Italy to levels of its great Roman past.
Mussolini’s Rise to Power
Mussolini criticized the Italian government for weakness at the Treaty of Versailles. Capitalizing on public discontent following World War I, he organized a paramilitary unit known as the "Black Shirts," who terrorized political opponents and helped increase Fascist influence.
As Italy slipped into political chaos, Mussolini declared that only he could restore order and was given the authority in 1922 as prime minister. He gradually dismantled all democratic institutions. By 1925, he had made himself dictator, taking the title "Il Duce" ("the Leader").
To his credit, Mussolini carried out an extensive public works program and reduced unemployment, making him very popular with the people.
Invasion of Ethiopia
In 1935, determined to show the strength of his regime, Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. The ill-equipped Ethiopians were no match for Italy's modern tanks and airplanes, and the capital, Addis Ababa, was quickly captured. Mussolini incorporated Ethiopia into the new Italian Empire.
World War II and Adolf Hitler
Impressed with Italy's early military successes, German dictator Adolf Hitler sought to establish a relationship with Mussolini. Flattered by Hitler's overtures, Mussolini interpreted the recent diplomatic and military victories as proof of his genius. In 1939, Mussolini sent support to Fascists in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, hoping to expand his influence.
That same year, Italy and Germany signed a military alliance known as the "Pact of Steel." With Italy's resources stretched to capacity, many Italians believed Mussolini’s alliance with Germany would provide time to regroup. Influenced by Hitler, Mussolini instituted discrimination policies against the Jews in Italy. In 1940, Italy invaded Greece with some initial success.
Hitler's invasion of Poland and declaration of war with Britain and France forced Italy into war, however, and exposed weaknesses in its military. Greece and North Africa soon fell, and only German military intervention in early 1941 saved Mussolini from a military coup.
At the Casablanca Conference in 1942, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt devised a plan to take Italy out of the war and force Germany to move its troops to the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. Allied forces secured a beachhead in Sicily and began marching up the Italian peninsula.
With pressure mounting, Mussolini was forced to resign on July 25, 1943, and was arrested; German commandos later rescued him. Mussolini then moved his government to northern Italy, hoping to regain his influence. On June 4, 1944, Rome was liberated by Allied forces, who marched on to take control of Italy.
Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were executed on April 28, 1945, in Mezzegra (near Dongo), Italy, and their bodies were hung on display in a Milan plaza. Following the liberation of Rome by Allied forces, the pair had attempted to escape to Switzerland but were captured by the Italian underground on April 27, 1945.
The Italian masses greeted Mussolini's death without regret. Mussolini had promised his people Roman glory, but his megalomania had overcome his common sense, bringing them only war and misery.
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