Il Duce, “the leader,” was born in Predappio, in northern Italy, on July 29, 1883. His father was a socialist blacksmith and his mother a school teacher.
A brilliant but unruly student, he qualified for teaching in elementary schools in 1901 and soon afterward fl ed to Switzerland to avid military service, where he was arrested for vagrancy and then expelled. He had repeated confrontations with the police.
Mussolini’s Marxism was greatly influenced by Nietzsche’s reactionary modernism and Social Darwinism, Spengler’s anthropological and historical pessimism, and Sorel’s revolutionary syndicalism. However, before World War I he had remained true to the socialist commitment to pacifism, so much so that during the war between Italy and Turkey (1912) he was apprehended for pacifist propaganda.
He eventually broke away from the party in 1914, following the outbreak of World War I. The Italian government had temporarily opted for neutrality and tested the waters to see which side would offer a better deal for an Italian military intervention. The Socialist Party condemned the war, arguing that it was a carnage that would only benefit big industrialists. Initially inclined to stick to the party line, within a few weeks Mussolini made a sudden about-face and joined the prowar side. His inextinguishable ambition, moralistic intransigence, and aggressive temperament led to his resignation from the editorship of Avanti and from the party.
In November 1914 he founded Il Popolo d’Italia, the would-be Fascist official newspaper. When Italy joined the war on the side of the Entente, Mussolini was conscripted and attained the rank of corporal. In 1917 he was wounded during grenade practice and returned to Milan, where he launched his own political party in 1919. Badly defeated at the first general elections, held in the same year, Mussolini resolved that fighting workers’ militancy would earn him the respect of the middle and upper middle classes. Consequently, he organized the rank-and-file members of the party, who were mostly war veterans, in armed squads (squadracce) and instructed them on how to intimidate Catholic and Socialist political activists.
When three liberal governments in a row failed to restore order, King Victor Emmanuel III asked Mussolini to form a new government in October 1922. The famous March on Rome was rather a triumphal parade of the winning side. Liberal deputies, more concerned with the unrest of the working classes than with liberal safeguards, did not object to the imposition of strict censorship and to an electoral reform that clearly favored the Fascist Party.
As a result, between 1925 and 1926, following the murder of the Socialist leader, Giacomo Matteotti, Mussolini transformed his government into a dictatorship and Italy into a police state by abolishing all other parties; controlling the press, trade unions, and youth education; centralizing the economy; and having his opponents silenced by the secret police and the Fascist Party militia.
He then propagated through the mass media the main tenets of the Fascist ideology, which was described as the third way between socialism and the market ethos. Mussolini dismissed liberal democracy as decadent and unable to stir the souls of the masses and imposed his ostensibly antimaterialistic, antipositivistic, ruralist, and at once militarist and technocratic worldview, intending to offset universalist and cosmopolitan trends as well as bourgeois hedonism and its obsession with rights to the detriment of duties. Mussolini preached the inequality of individuals, human groups, and nations and portrayed citizens as mere corpuscles immersed in the eternal stream of history and of the internal dynamics of the organic Fascist state.
Mussolini also advocated absorption of private conscience into the collective conscience of the body social, which entailed the subordination of individual welfare to the needs of communal welfare and the abolition of individual rights. Mussolini’s economic policies involved autarchic neoprotectionism, centralizedcontrol of the national economy, a meticulous division of labor, large industrial cartels, and the coordination of transnational economic blocs. Mussolini’s conception of totalitarian demography privileged quantity over quality, and he offered prizes for the most prolific mothers. His ruralist bent arose from his fear that industrial cities exerted devastating effects on people’s health, which was intolerable for a country that was bound to revive the glories of the Roman Empire and therefore needed as many ablebodied men as possible.
In 1929, with the Lateran Treaty, Mussolini made several important concessions to the pope in exchange for his recognition of the Italian state. This allowed il Duce to reach the height of his popularity and power.
However, fascism could not exist without the prospect of an approaching victorious war. From the start, Mussolini had toyed with the idea of re-conquering the Mediterranean basin, and this explains his decision to bombard Corfu in 1923, to exterminate the seminomadic Libyan Bedouins who refused to surrender, and to invade Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935–36 and subdue it by means of mustard gas, phosgene, flamethrowers, the slaughter of civilians, forced labor camps, and scorchedearth tactics. He also bombed Red Cross encampments in Ethiopia as a retaliation for their denunciations of the Fascist atrocities.
The ensuing international sanctions drove Mussolini out of the League of Nations and into a deadly alliance with Adolf Hitler, which was sealed by the Nazi-Fascist intervention in the 1936–39 Spanish civil war on the side of the future Spanish dictator, general Francisco Franco.
A pact of mutual defense, the Pact of Steel, which paved the way to World War II, was finally signed by Mussolini and Hitler in May 1939. After the proclamation of the empire (May 1936), he adopted segregationist and anti-Semitic legislation more extensive and stricter than that of Nazi Germany.
The German attack against Poland in September 1939 took Mussolini by surprise. In spite of Mussolini’s militaristic rhetoric, the Italian army had demonstrated in Spain that it was not prepared for a full-scale conflict with the world’s major powers. However, completely blinded by the prospect of a quick defeat of France, he declared war in June 1940, only to be bitterly disappointed when the United Kingdom refused to give up the fight and defeated the Italians in Egypt and Libya, and the Greeks not only halted the Italian invasion of northern Greece but also forced the Italian army into an inglorious retreat at the end of 1940. From then on Mussolini’s fate was in the hands of Germany.
Thus, the king ordered that Mussolini be placed under arrest. The former Duce was rescued by German paratroops a few months later and proclaimed the Italian Social Republic, nothing but a puppet state in German occupied northern Italy. To prove his loyalty to Hitler, Mussolini had his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, executed on the charge of treason.
By the end of 1944, approximately 16 free partisan republics had been formed in various valleys of northern Italy, and the Social Republic was quickly sliding into an all-out civil war and was being carpet bombed by the Allies. In April 1945 the German army was retreating, thousands of partisans were streaming from the valleys into the cities, and Mussolini once again attempted to seek refuge in Switzerland. He was recognized and arrested by the partisans and summarily executed along with his mistress Claretta Petacci in a village on Lake Como.