Il Duce

Ralph Zuljan

Benito Mussolini, the man who made the Italian trains run on time, was born in Predappio, Italy on July 29, 1883, the eldest of three children. His father, Allesandro, was a blacksmith, part-time journalist and fervent socialist. Benito's mother, Rosa, was a deeply religious schoolteacher.

Mussolini's education was characterized by disobedience and aggression. He was a bully at school and was sent to the Salesian fathers boarding school, where he was the recipient of increasingly severe punishments, ending in expulsion when he assaulted a fellow student with a penknife. From the school in Faenza he went on to a school at Forlimpopoli and was expelled, again for stabbing a fellow student.

Despite his penchant for violence Benito was very bright. He did well in his examinations at the normal school and obtained a teaching certificate. He did not teach for long. He was incapable of controlling a class and was already developing a reputation as a political agitator and for remarkable rhetorical talent. Young Mussolini read widely and was acquiring a peculiar pastiche of conflicting philosophies and political theories that would become his own unique brand of politics.

At the age of 19 Benito Mussolini gave up on a teaching career and went to Switzerland. He remained there for some time, living hand to mouth, working at whatever menial job came his way and acquiring a deep hatred of "the rich". Mussolini was dabbling in political journalism, falling afoul of the police and becoming involved in trade unions and the labor movement. This pattern would follow for the next several years. Over the course of his career as a political journalist and agitator Mussolini was jailed upwards of a dozen times.

In 1910 Mussolini began living common-law with Rachele Guidi. As befitted ardent Socialists there was neither a religious nor civil wedding. Altogether Benito and Rachele had five children, Edda (1910), Vittorio (1916), Bruno (1919), Romano (1927) and Anna Maria (1929). There was a civil wedding in 1915, followed by a religious ceremony and baptism of the children in 1925. This last was probably prompted by Mussolini's diplomatic overtures to the Holy See taking place at that time, it certainly did not arise from a belief in the sanctity of marriage for Mussolini kept mistresses all his life.

After Mussolini returned to Italy he once again took up teaching and, once again, gave it up. He returned to trade union work, journalism and extreme politics. He was very successful at journalism, eventually editing the official Socialist newspaper, Avanti!, in which he was militant against Italian involvement in World War 1. However, his militancy changed its direction, he came to believe the Marxist tenet that social revolution always follows war. He resigned from the newspaper, was expelled from the Party, and joined the army. The birth of Fascism soon followed.

Severely wounded while on a training exercise Mussolini returned home. He continued his journalism career, and became Italy's number one political agitator. His incredible magnetism and public speaking skills disguised the fact that his speeches, when analyzed, were completely contradictory and his facts blatantly incorrect.

In the summer of 1922 a general strike was called and Mussolini vowed to stop it. The Fascist "March on Rome" was organized; it brought down the government and King Victor Emanuelle asked Mussolini to form the new one. He was given full dictatorial powers for a year, during which he secured legislation that ensured the Fascist Party would retain its power. Despite this he was wildly popular, ending the perpetual labor unrest, revitalizing the economy, reviving Italian nationalism, making peace with the Papacy and generally improving the quality of life in Italy. He was heralded worldwide as a statesman of genius.

But Mussolini dreamed of Empire and invaded Abyssinia in October 1935. Germany was the only supporter of this move, which was the basis for the Pact of Steel, the beginning of the Rome-Berlin Axis.

The peculiar nature of the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini deserves notice. Hitler had a tremendous admiration for Mussolini and the two appeared, on the surface, to be friends. However, the admiration was largely one-sided, for Mussolini did not admire Hitler. He was envious of German successes, but did not trust Hitler to fulfill the obligations of a treaty partner. In fact, Germany never shared war plans with Italy and operated largely in secret throughout Italian involvement in the Second World War.

Mussolini's performance as war leader was abysmal. In order to avenge himself for German secrecy Mussolini unilaterally elected to invade Greece. It was a disaster, requiring a German rescue. The same thing happened in North Africa. The Allies successfully invaded Sicily in July 1943 -- their first successful landing in Fascist Europe. The Fascist Grand Council voted to depose Mussolini and he was arrested by order of the King.

Il Duce, the Leader, was imprisoned on two different islands before being removed to a secure location in the Abruzzi mountains. Hitler's admiration for Mussolini prompted a daring (and successful) commando raid and Mussolini escaped to Munich.

Hitler suggested to his friend should return to Italy and establish a new Fascist government in the north. This plan was agreed upon and the Republica Sociale Italiana was established at Salo. Punitive action against those who had voted to depose Mussolini followed, including the execution of his own son-in-law.

Even Mussolini admitted his was only a puppet government under German command. The Allies were advancing rapidly through Italy, German defenses were collapsing and Mussolini waited for the end.

He was not, however, going to go quietly. Despite all advice to the contrary he determined to make one last stand in the mountains. He had only a dozen supporters left.

As might be expected, the plan failed; Mussolini attempted to escape into Austria disguised as a German soldier. He was recognized, arrested and shot, along with Claretta Petacci, his mistress of eleven years, on April 28, 1945. The bodies were desecrated and hung head downward in the Piazza Loreto in Milan.

Originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on January 1, 2001.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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http://www.onwar.com/articles/0101.htm