Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini: First World War

Benito Mussolini was born in Forli, Italy, in 1883. After working briefly as a schoolteacher, Mussolini fled to Switzerland in 1902 in an effort to evade military service.

Mussolini returned to Italy in 1904 and over the next ten years worked as a journalist and eventually became editor of Avanti. Mussolini was active in the socialist movement but moved to right in 1914 when the Italian government failed to support the Triple Alliance. In 1915 Mussolini resigned from the Socialist Party when it advocated support for the Allies in the First World War.

When Italy entered the war Mussolini served in the Italian Army and eventually reached the rank of corporal. After being wounded he returned to Milan to edit the right-wing Il Popolo d'Italia. The journal demanded that the Allies fully supported Italy's demands at the Paris Peace Conference.

After the war Mussolini attacked Vittorio Orlando for failing to achieve Italy's objectives at the Versailles Peace Treaty and helped to organize the various right-wing groups in Italy into the Fascist Party. After a series of riots in 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini in an attempt to prevent a communist revolution in Italy.

Mussolini headed a coalition of fascists and nationalists and parliamentary government continued until the murder of the socialist leader, Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. Left-wing parties were suppressed and in 1929 Italy became a one-party state. Mussolini also carried out an extensive public-works programme and the fall in unemployment made him a popular figure in Italy.

Italy controlled Eritrea and Somalia in Africa but had failed several times to colonize neighbouring Ethiopia. When Mussolini came to power he was determined to show the strength of his regime by occupying the country. In October 1935 Mussolini sent in General Pietro Badoglio and the Italian Army into Ethiopia.

The League of Nations condemned Italy's aggression and in November imposed sanctions. This included an attempt to ban countries from selling arms, rubber and some metals to Italy. Some political leaders in France and Britain opposed sanctions arguing that it might persuade Mussolini to form an alliance with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Over 400,000 Italian troops fought in Ethiopia. The poorly armed Ethiopians were no match for Italy's modern tanks and aeroplanes. The Italians even used mustard gas on the home forces and were able to capture Addis Ababa, the capital of the country, in May 1936, forcing Emperor Haile Selassie to flee to England.

Adolf Hitler had been inspired by Mussolini's achievements and once he gained power in Germany he sought a close relationship with Italy. In October 1936 the two men signed a non-military alliance.

In 1939 Italy invaded Albania and soon afterwards Mussolini signed a full defensive alliance with Nazi Germany (the Pact of Steel). However, Mussolini did not declare war on Britain and France until 10th June 1940.

Mussolini already had over a million men in the Italian Army based in Libya. In neighbouring Egypt the British Army had only 36,000 men guarding the Suez Canal and the Arabian oilfields. On 13th September, 1940, Marshall Rodolfo Graziani and five Italian divisions began a rapid advance into Egypt but halted in front of the main British defences at Mersa Matruh.

In October 1940, Mussolini declared war on Greece. Attempts by the Italian Army to invade Greece ended in failure. The war was also going badly in North Africa. Although outnumbered, General Archibald Wavell ordered a British counter-offensive on 9th December, 1940. The Italians suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back more than 800km (500 miles). British troops moved along the coast and on 22nd January, 1941, they captured the port of Tobruk in Libya from the Italians.

By the end of 1941 Italy was totally dependent on Nazi Germany. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Galaezzo Ciano, became increasingly dissatisfied with the way Mussolini was running the country. After a series of heated arguments with Mussolini, Ciano resigned in February, 1943.

At the Casablanca Conference Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt discussed ways of taking Italy out of the war. It was eventually decided to launch an invasion of Sicily, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, south-west of Italy. It was hoped that if the island was taken Benito Mussolini would be ousted from power. It was also argued that a successful invasion would force Adolf Hitler to send troops from the Eastern Front and help to relieve pressure on the Red Army in the Soviet Union.

The operation was placed under the supreme command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. General Harold Alexander was commander of ground operations and his 15th Army Group included General George Patton (US 7th Army) and General Bernard Montgomery (8th Army). Admiral Andrew Cunningham was in charge of naval operations and Air Marshal Arthur Tedder was air commander.

On 10th July 1943, the 8th Army landed at five points on the south-eastern tip of the island and the US 7th Army at three beaches to the west of the British forces. The Allied troops met little opposition and Patton and his troops quickly took Gela, Licata and Vittoria. The British landings were also unopposed and Syracuse was taken on the the same day. This was followed by Palazzolo (11th July), Augusta (13th July) and Vizzini (14th July), whereas the US troops took the Biscani airfield and Niscemi (14th July).

General George Patton now moved to the west of the island and General Omar Bradley headed north and the German Army was forced to retreat to behind the Simeto River. Patton took Palermo on 22nd July cutting off 50,000 Italian troops in the west of the island. Patton now turned east along the northern coast of the island towards the port of Messina.

Meanwhile General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army were being held up by German forces under Field Marshal Albrecht Kesselring. The Allies carried out several amphibious assaults attempted to cut off the Germans but they were unable to stop the evacuation across the Messina Straits to the Italian mainland. This included 40,000 German and 60,000 Italian troops, as well as 10,000 German vehicles and 47 tanks.

The loss of Sicily created serious problems for Mussolini. It was now clear that the Allies would use the island as a base for invading Italy. A meeting of the Fascist Grand Council is held on 24th July and Galaezzo Ciano gets support for his idea that Italy should sign a separate peace with the Allies. The following day Victor Emmanuel III told Mussolini he was dismissed from office. His successor, Pietro Badoglio, declared martial law and placed Mussolini under arrest.

On 29th July 1943, Adolf Hitler had a meeting with Otto Skorzeny about the possibility of rescuing Benito Mussolini, imprisoned high in the Abruzzi Apennines. Skorzeny agreed and on 13th September he led an airbourne force of commandos to the hotel where he was being held. Mussolini was soon freed and Skorzeny flew him to safety.

Mussolini now set up the Salo Republic, a fascist regime in German-occupied northern Italy. His first was the arrest and execution of five of those who had voted against him on the Fascist Grand Council, including his son-in-law, Galaezzo Ciano.

On 18th May, 1944, Allied troops led by General Wladyslaw Anders (Polish Corps) and General Alphonse Juin (French Corps) captured Monte Cassino. This opened a corridor for Allied troops and they reached Anzio on 24th May. The German defence now began to disintegrate and General Harold Alexander ordered General Mark Clarkto trap and destroy the retreating 10th Army. Clark ignored this order and instead headed for Rome and liberated the city on the 4th June.

After the capture of RomePietro Badoglio resigned and Invanoe Bonomi formed a new government. In an attempt to bring the country together Bonomi's government included left-wing figures such as Benedetto Croce and Palmiro Togliatti.

The Allied armies now pursued the German 10th Army and took Grosseto (16th June), Assisi (18th June), Perugia (20th June), Florence (12th August), Rimini (21st September), Lorenzo (11th October) until being held on the Gothic Line in the northern Apennines. The arrival of winter weather meant that a renewed offensive did not begin until 9th April, 1945.

On 23rd April the 8th Army began to cross the River Po at Mantua. German resistance now began to collapse and Parma and Verona were taken and partisan uprisings began in Milan and Genoa.

With Allied troops approaching, Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, attempted to escape to Switzerland. They were captured at Lake Como by Italian partisans on 27th April, 1945. The following day they were shot and their bodies displayed in public in Milan.

Becco Giallo, underground newspaper (1924)
Becco Giallo, underground newspaper (1924)

Primary Sources

(1) Benito Mussolini, speech (1929)

In the creation of a new State which is authoritarian but not absolutist, hierarchical and organic - namely, open to the people in all its classes, categories and interests - lies the great revolutionary originality of Fascism, and a teaching perhaps for the whole modern world oscillating between the authority of the State and that of the individual, between the State and the anti-State. Like all other revolutions, the Fascist revolution has had a dramatic development but this in itself would not suffice to distinguish it. The reign of terror is not a revolution: it is only a necessary instrument in a determined phase of the revolution.

(2) Francesco Nitti, speech (1929)

The ignoble phenomenon of a dictatorship is a shameful blot on European civilization. Reactionary minds, which are indignant at red dictatorships, have only sympathy with 'white' dictatorships, which are equally, if not more bloodthirsty, no less brutal and unjustified by any ideal, even a false one.

The Fascist government abolished in Italy every safeguard of the individual and every liberty. No free man can live in Italy, and an immoral law prevents Italians from going to a foreign country on pain of punishment. Italy is a prison where life has become intolerable. Everything is artificial - artificial finance - artificial exchange - artificial public economy - artificial order - artificial calm.

Without a free parliament, a free press, a free opinion and a true democracy, there will never be peace.

(3) George Seldes wrote about Benito Mussolini in his book You Can't Print That! (1929)

He began coldly, in a voice northern and unimpassioned. I had never heard an Italian orator so restrained. Then he changed, became soft and warm, added gestures, and flames in his eyes. The audience moved with him. He held them. Suddenly he lowered his voice to a heavy whisper and the silence among the listeners became more intense. The whisper sank lower and the listeners strained breathlessly to hear. Then Mussolini exploded with thunder and fire, and the mob - for it was no more than a mob now - rose to its feet and shouted. Immediately Mussolini became cold and nordic and restrained again and swept his mob into its seats exhausted. An actor. Actor extraordinary, with a country for a stage, a great powerful histrionic ego, swaying an audience of millions, confounding the world by his theatrical cleverness.

(4) Benito Mussolini, message to the British Ambassador to Italy (7th July, 1939)

Tell Chamberlain that if England is ready to fight in defence of Poland, Italy will take up arms with her ally, Germany.

(5) Benito Mussolini, letter to Adolf Hitler (August, 1939)

If Germany attacks Poland and the conflict is localised, Italy will give Germany every form of political and economic aid which may be required.

If Germany attacks Poland and the allies of the latter counter-attack Germany, I must emphasize to you that I cannot assume the initiative of warlike operations, given the actual conditions of Italian military preparations which have been repeatedly and in timely fashion pointed out to you.

(6) Benito Mussolini, speech declaring war on the Allies (10th June, 1940)

Fighters of the land, the sea and the air, Blackshirts of the revolutions and of the legions, men and women of Italy, of the Empire, and of the kingdom of Albania.

Listen - the hour marked out by destiny is sounding in the sky of our country. This is the hour of irrevocable decision. The declaration of war has already been handed to the Ambassadors of Britain and France.

We are going to war against the plutocratic and reactionary democracies of the West, who have hindered the advance and often threatened the existence even of the Italian people.

The events of quite recent history can be summarized in these words - half-promises, constant threats, Blackmail and finally as the crown of this ignoble edifice the League siege of the 52 States. This reference was to sanctions.

Our conscience is absolutely tranquil. With you the whole world is witness that the Italy of the lictor has done what was humanly possible to avoid the hurricane which is overwhelming Europe, but all was in vain.

It would have been enough to revise the treaties to adapt them to the vital demands of the life of nations, and not to regard them as infrangible throughout eternity.

It would have been enough not to have persisted in the policy of guarantees which have shown themselves to have been above all fatal for those who accepted them. It would have been enough not to have rejected the proposal which the Fuhrer made last October when the Polish campaign came to an end.

But all that belongs to the past. We are to-day decided to face all the risks and sacrifices of war. A nation is not really great if it does not regard its undertakings as sacred, and if it recoils them those supreme trials which decide the course of history.

We are taking up arms after having solved the problem of our land frontiers." he went on. We want to break off the territorial and military chains which are strangling us in our sea for a people of 45.000.000 inhabitants is not truly free if it has no free passage over the ocean.

The gigantic struggle is only a phase of the logical development of our revolution. It is the struggle of peoples poor, but rich in workers against the exploiters who fiercely hold on to all the wealth and all the gold of the earth. It is the struggle of the fruitful and young peoples against the sterile peoples on the threshold of their decline. It is the struggle between two centuries and two ideas.

Now that the die is east and we have our own will burned the bridges behind us. I solemnly declare that Italy does not intend to drag into the conflict other peoples who are her neighbours by sea and land. Let Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Egypt, and Greece take note of these words of mine, for it will depend entirely on them whether they are fully confirmed or not.

At a memorable meeting that in Berlin - I said that according to the law of Fascist morality when one has a friend one stands by him to the end.

We have done that and we shall do it with Germany, with her people, and her victorious armed forces. On the eve of this event of historic importance we address our thoughts to his Majesty the King emperor and we salute equally the head of a allied Greater Germany.

(7) William Joyce, Germany Calling (29th July, 1943)

And, for the personal point of view, if that be allowed to me, I can only say that when I joined the first Fascist movement in Britain on 6th December 1923 I saw that night in Battersea the mob violence, the Red Flags, the broken heads and the broken bodies, the typical evidence of the disruption which Communism can bring into a nation; and while I heard the dismal wail of the 'Red Flag' intoned by the sub-men out for blood, I thought of Mussolini and of what he had been able to do for Italy. I was not pro-Italian, I was merely pro-human; there were many millions of people throughout the world at about that time who had the same thoughts; and when I look back upon these 20 years I can only say that Mussolini has, in that period, become one of the greatest figures in history. The shades of the great Romans up to the time of Augustus, and unborn generations of Italian people, can pay homage to this great leader whose stature time can only increase.

(8) The Manchester Guardian (30th April, 1945)

Mussolini, with mistress, Clara Petacci, and twelve members of his Cabinet, were executed by partisans in a village on Lake Como yesterday afternoon, after being arrested in an attempt to cross the Swiss frontier. The bodies were brought to Milan last night. A partisan knocked at my door early this morning to tell me the news.

We drove out to the working-class quarter of Loreto and there were the bodies heaped together with ghastly promiscuity in the open square under the same fence against which one year ago fifteen partisans had been shot by their own countrymen.

Mussolini's body lay across that of Petacci. In his dead hand had been placed the brass ensign of the Fascist Arditi. With these fourteen were also the bodies of Farinacci and Starace, two former general secretaries of the Fascist party, and Teruzzo, formerly Minister of Colonies who had been caught elsewhere and executed by partisans.

Mussolini was caught yesterday at Dongo, Lake Como, driving by himself in a car with his uniform covered by a German greatcoat. He was driving in a column of German cars to escape observation but was recognised by an Italian Customs guard.

The others were caught in a neighbouring village. They include Pavolini, Barracu, and other lesser lights in Fascist world on whom Mussolini had to call in later days to staff his puppet Government.

This is the first conspicuous example of mob justice in liberated Italy. Otherwise the partisans have been kept well under control by their leaders. The opinion expressed this morning by the partisan C.-in-C., General Cadorna, son of the former field marshal, was that such incidents in themselves were regrettable. Nevertheless, in this case he considered the execution a good thing, since popular indignation against the Fascists demanded some satisfaction. The risk of protracted trials, such as has been taking place in Rome, was thus avoid.

(9) Ann Stringer, United Press (12th June, 1945)

"I was never close to him when he was high: I was always near him when he was down." With that weeping epitaph, Benito Mussolini's gray-haired widow summed up her life with the flamboyant Duce who left her for a younger, prettier mistress at the height of his Fascist power.

Pouring out her words between choking sobs, Donna Rachele revealed in an exclusive interview that she spoke to the doomed Duce by telephone only six hours before he was slain by a band of Italian partisans near Milan last April.

We spoke informally in the six-room apartment in an abandoned synthetic rubber factory where she and her two youngest children are being held in British protective custody. Throughout the interview, Donna Rachele defended her dead husband against every accusation - except his final infidelity with Clara Petacci, who shared his death and humiliation in the bloody public square in Milan.

For the red-haired Clara, Mrs. Mussolini had nothing but hatred and a fierce satisfaction that Benito's mistress was dead. Her eyes literally flashed when Clara's name was mentioned. She pushed herself far back in her chair, sat up straight and spat out: "They've done well to hang her. She was the only one around Mussolini who had anything really to do with the Germans."

Then speaking even more furiously and pounding the table before her she almost shouted: "Mussolini (she always referred to him that way) never had anything to do with women. He never let them have any influence over him. That was propaganda just to ruin him."

She trembled with anger and emotion as she spoke, but the frail widow, still attractive in spite of her 50 years, maintained her dignity, presenting a far different picture from the hulking, peasant-type woman I have been led to expect.