Brash, arrogant and vain in the extreme, Benito Mussolini dreamt of making Italy a superpower, akin to the great Roman Empire of old with him at its helm. Il Duce, ‘the Leader’, as he liked to be known, ruled Italy from October 1922 to his downfall in 1943, increasing his power from that of prime minister to fascist dictator. But as a boy, Mussolini was brought up with firm socialist ideals and, as a young man, became a leading figure in Italian socialist circles.
Born in the northern Italian town of Predappio in Forli on 29 July 1883, Benito Mussolini was the son of Alessandro Mussolini, a blacksmith by trade and a republican socialist and ardent anti-Catholic, and a schoolteacher mother, a devout Catholic. Despite his parents’ opposing views on religion, the couple had married and bore three children, Benito being the eldest. Named after three leading socialists, Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini helped his father working in the forge and inherited Alessandro’s political views – nationalistic, socialist and republican.
A Catholic Education
At his mother’s insistence, Mussolini attended a Catholic school where he fared poorly and took to bullying, twice accused of assaulting children with a knife and throwing stones during Mass. Eventually he was expelled.
Despite his poor performance at school, Mussolini qualified as a schoolteacher but by then he was too enthralled by politics and agitation than holding down a responsible job.
In June 1902, in an attempt to avoid conscription, Mussolini moved to Switzerland and became attached to a group of Italian socialists. He worked as a bricklayer, dabbled in journalism and joined a trade union. His agitation and calls for civil unrest got him arrested and deported back to Italy. (Pictured is his Swiss police mugshot, dated 19 June 1903). He soon returned to Switzerland only to be re-arrested.
In 1905, he returned to Italy for good and despite having previously avoided conscription, now voluntarily joined the Italian army, serving for two years.
Following his discharge from the army, Mussolini wrote for and edited several socialist newspapers and was regarded as the rising star of Italy’s left. In 1911, he led the protests against Italy’s war against Libya, denouncing it as an imperialist, capitalist conflict. His outspokenness earned him five months in prison. But it also earned him the attention of Italy’s most influential socialists and in April 1912, was appointed editor of Italy’s national socialist newspaper, Avanti, ‘Forward’. Mussolini excelled and, increasing the newspaper readership fivefold, enjoyed the opportunity of writing and having his views heard throughout the country.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 saw Italian socialists divided on whether to support the war or not. Prior to the war, Italy was part of an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. When Italy finally entered the war on 23 May 1915, it did so on the side of the allies, namely Great Britain, France and Russia. Mussolini initially opposed the war on the grounds that it pitted workers against workers but then, becoming increasingly nationalist in his outlook, he swapped sides, believing that the Germans, a reactionary and imperialist foe, needed defeating and that the socialists were out of touch with the new reality and socialism itself was outdated.
His new view of war put him in conflict with Italy’s socialists and resulted in his expulsion from the party. In December 1914, Mussolini formed his own political movement, the Fasci d’azione rivoluzionaria or Fascisti (Fascists).
In September 1915, Mussolini rejoined the Italian army where he was praised for his bravery and devotion, and reached the rank of corporal before being wounded in 1917. He returned home to edit a new right-wing newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia and strengthen his political party, the Fascists.
Italy was treated dismissively during the post-war talks at the Paris Peace Conference, causing its prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, to walk out and leaving Italy disappointed by its spoils of war. Orlando, heavily criticised by Italy’s rising right, led by Mussolini, was soon ousted from office. Italy descended into a period of chaos and political violence as socialists, communists and fascists fought on the streets and riots, strikes and disorder threatened to undermine the country. Mussolini’s supporters, advocates of governing with a firm hand, wore black shirts and Mussolini’s authoritarian leadership, at a time of near anarchy, had wide appeal. Mussolini’s fascists ransacked the offices of Avanti.
The March on Rome
On 24 October 1922, Mussolini spoke at a rally in Naples: ‘Either the government will be handed to us or we will seize it for ourselves by marching on Rome.’ Luigi Facta, the Italian prime minister, requested that the king, Victor Emmanuel III, declare a state of martial law and to allow him to use the army to squash the fascists. The king refused. Facta resigned and on 28 October, the March on Rome happened, the king appointed Mussolini prime minister and asked him to form a new government. Mussolini’s years in power had began.