Mussolini: History in an Hour

Mussolini‘Il Duce’, Benito Mussolini, was one of the key figures in the creation of fascism. Famed for his dictatorial style, his political cunning and admired – initially – by Hitler, Mussolini led the National Fascist Party and ruled Italy as Prime Minister from 1922 until his ousting in 1943. In so doing, he paved the way towards Italy’s defeat in World War Two, and some of the 20th century’s most destructive ideologies and practices.

Following expulsion from Italian Socialist Party, Mussolini denounced all efforts of class conflict, and instead later commanded a Fascist March on Rome to become the youngest Prime Minister in Italian history. Thereafter he set about dismantling the apparatus of democracy and initiated what would become known as the one-party totalitarian state. With World War II came defeat, humiliation and his bloody deposing. Explaining his ideologies, policies, actions and flaws, ‘Mussolini: History in an Hour’ by History in an Hour’s founder, Rupert Colley, is the concise life of the man whose ideas helped create some of the worst horrors of the modern history.

This, in an hour, is Mussolini…

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Early Years
World War One
Mutilated Victory
March on Rome
The Matteotti Crisis
Mussolini and the Pope
The Duce’s Cult of Personality
Mussolini’s Women
Mussolini’s Foreign Adventures
Mussolini’s Wars
Austria, Czechoslovakia and Albania
Mussolini’s Downfall
The Rescue of Mussolini
The Italian Social Republic
Execution of a Dictator
The Italian Holocaust
Mussolini’s body


Claretta Petacci – a summary

Claretta Petacci, born 28 February 1912, was perhaps the biggest love in Benito Mussolini’s life, a man 28 years her senior. Brought up in a wealthy family, Clara’s father was the pope’s personal physician.

Having been devoted to the Duce since childhood, she first met him, quite by accident, in 1932, when he drove pass 20-year-old Petacci in his car. Over the coming weeks, she pursued him relentlessly until, eventually, she secured an audience with him. Mussolini, never one to resist a woman’s advances, soon took her to bed.

Benito and Rachele MussoliniAlthough Mussolini was married and had five children, he and Petacci were to remain lovers until their deaths in 1945. (Pictured: Mussolini with his wife and their first three children, c1923).

Clara’s diaries

Petacci kept a detailed diary of their time together which, in 1949, was seized by the Italian authorities. The diary, under Italian law, was kept locked away for seventy years and only published in 2009. The detailed entries provide intimate details of her relationship with Mussolini, and a record of his inner thoughts. Mussolini, often bored, would ring her several times a day. As a lover, he is portrayed as a boastful and needy man, often fishing for compliments, and in need of constant reassurance about his looks, his virility and the love of both Clara and the Italian people.

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Galeazzo Ciano – a summary

In 1930, the dashing and rich 27-year-old Galeazzo Ciano married Edda Mussolini, daughter to the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Six years later, he became Mussolini’s foreign minister. Yet, on 11 January 1944, on his father-in-law’s orders, he was executed.

© Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporationGaleazzo Ciano’s father had made a name for himself as an admiral during the First World War. An early supporter of Benito Mussolini’s, he built his fortune through some unethical business deals. Thus, Galeazzo, born 18 March 1903, was brought up in an environment of wealth and luxury, and inherited his father’s love for fascism. Father and son both took part in Mussolini’s 1922 ‘March on Rome’.

Diplomacy and Marriage

Ciano studied law before embarking on a diplomatic career which took him to South America and China. In between postings, on 30 April 1930, he married Edda Mussolini, hence becoming Mussolini’s son-in-law – facilitating a rapid rise up the promotional ladder. The couple were to have three children although Ciano, like his father-in-law, had numerous affairs. He was certainly disliked by his mother-in-law who, understandably, thoroughly disproved of his womanizing.

In 1935, Mussolini made Ciano his minister for propaganda. The same year, Ciano volunteered for action in Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, serving in a bomber squadron and reaching the rank of captain. He returned to a hero’s welcome and in June 1936, aged only 33, Mussolini appointed him minister of foreign affairs, replacing Mussolini himself. (Ciano’s father, meanwhile, was serving as the president of the Chamber of Deputies, a post he held from 1934 to shortly before his death in 1939).

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Victor Emmanuel III – a summary

On 29 July 1900, the king of Italy, Umberto I, was assassinated. The throne passed to his 30-year-old son, who, as Victor Emmanuel III, would reign until 1946, a period which saw both world wars and the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascists.

Victor Emmanuel IIIBorn in Naples on 11 November 1869, the future king was so short, the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, nicknamed him the dwarf, and, in private, Mussolini called him the ‘little sardine’. He ruled over an Italy that had been in existence as a unified nation only since 1871. Despite unification, Italy was a deeply-fragmented society, steeped in poverty and corruption, and ruled over by a succession of weak coalition governments. But, as a figurehead king, Victor Emmanuel III chose to ignore the affairs of state, preferring instead to focus on his vast collection of coins.

World War One

With the outbreak of war in July 1914, Italy initially adopted a position of neutrality despite having been in alliance, the Triple Alliance, with Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire since 1882. Victor Emmanuel favoured participation in the war, partly as a means of enhancing Italy’s reputation on the international stage. Italy duly entered the war in May 1915, not as allies of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but on the side of the Triple Entente allies – France, Russia and Great Britain.


After 1918, Victor Emmanuel again retired to the sidelines as Italy struggled to cope with the post-war instabilities of demobilization, unemployment and inflation. Socialists, communists, anarchists and the newly-formed fascists fought on the streets and on the farms in a vicious cycle of ever-increasing violence.

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Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s first wife

In Milan during 1914, the future fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, married Ida Dalser, a 34-year-old beautician who soon bore him a child, Benito Albino Mussolini. Dalser sold her business to help her husband fund his new newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, ‘The People of Italy’.

The marriage did not last and before the birth of Benito Jr, on 17 December 1915, Mussolini had married Rachele Guidi, his long-term mistress and mother to his first child, Edda, who had been born in 1910.

Ida DalserUnsurprisingly, Ida, left penniless, was furious with the way Mussolini had treated her. Following the end of the First World War, she claimed she had proof that in early 1915 Mussolini had taken bribes from the French government to use his influence to commit neutral Italy to declare war against Austria-Hungary. (Italy did indeed declare war against the Central Powers in May 1915). Had this allegation come to light it would have ruined Mussolini’s fledging career.

Mussolini ordered the destruction of the marriage records and stopped paying his first wife maintenance as previously ordered by the courts.

Forced into drastic action, Mussolini had her abducted. Beaten and forced into a straitjacket, she was declared insane and interned against her will in an asylum. Benito Junior was placed in various boarding schools and, as he grew up, was told that his mother had died. He was ordered to stop referring to Mussolini as his father and had his surname changed to Bernardi.

Benito MussoliniIn 1935, Benito, like his mother, was forcibly incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. Both remained incarcerated until their deaths – Dasler on 3 December 1937 of a ‘brain hemorrhage’, and Benito killed on 26 August 1942, aged 26, following a series of injections designed to induce coma.

Meanwhile, despite numerous affairs and dalliances, Mussolini remained with his second wife, Rachele, throughout his life. They were to have five children.

The story of Mussolini and Dalser was dramatized in the 2009 Italian film Vincere.

MussoliniRupert Colley

Mussolini: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats and downloadable audio.

See also article on Rachele Mussolini.

Rachele Mussolini – a summary

In 1914, in Milan, the future fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, married Ida Dalser, a 34-year-old beautician who soon bore him a child, Benito Albino Mussolini. The marriage lasted just a few months and on 17 December 1915, before the birth of Benito Jr., Mussolini, at the time at home on army sick leave, married Rachele Guidi in a civil ceremony. Guidi had been his long-term mistress and mother to his first child, Edda, who had been born in 1910.

Mussolini and Rachele Guidi shared the same place of birth – the town of Predappio in the area of Forlì in northern Italy. Guidi had been born 11 April 1890. She and Mussolini had first met when Mussolini appeared at her school as a stand-in teacher. Guidi’s father had warned her against marrying the penniless Mussolini: ‘That young man will starve you to death,’ he warned. After the death of her father, Guidi’s mother began a relationship with Mussolini’s widowed father.

In December 1925, ten years after their civil marriage, Rachele and Mussolini were married in a Catholic church. It was less a romantic gesture than an attempt by Mussolini to ingratiate himself with the pope, Pius XI. The Mussolinis were to have five children. As dictator, Mussolini preached about the importance of the family and liked to portray his own family as a model fascist household. But in truth, he had little time for his children and could number his lovers by the hundred. Rachele knew about her husband’s many indiscretions. In an interview with Life magazine in February 1966, Rachele said, ‘My husband had a fascination for women. They all wanted him. Sometimes he showed me their letters – from women who wanted to sleep with him or have a baby with him. It always made me laugh.’

A beautiful companion

Benito and Rachele MussoliniIn 1923, Rachele took on a lover of her own – according to Edda in an interview in 1995, shortly before her death, and only broadcast in 2001. Rachele, according to Edda, told Mussolini, ‘You have many women. There is a person who loves me a lot, a beautiful companion.’ Mussolini may have been shocked but he did nothing to stop the affair, which, apparently, lasted several years.

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The Italian Social Republic – a summary

Proclaimed on 23 September 1943, the Italian Social Republic was a short-lived state headed by fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Benito MussoliniThe war had been going badly for Mussolini’s Italy, so much so that a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on 25 July 1943 voted to have Mussolini removed. One of those who voted against Mussolini was his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. The following day, Mussolini was dismissed by the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III: ‘My dear Duce, it’s no longer any good. Italy has gone to bits… The soldiers don’t want to fight any more… At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.’

Mussolini was immediately arrested and imprisoned. His successor, Pietro Badoglio, appointed a new cabinet which, pointedly, contained no fascists. The Italian population rejoiced.

On 8 September, Italy swapped sides and joined the Allies and, on 13 October 1943, declared war on Germany.


Meanwhile, Mussolini was kept under house arrest and frequently moved in order to keep his whereabouts hidden. On 26 August, he was moved into the Campo Imperatore Hotel, part of a ski resort high up on the mountains of Gran Sasso in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. It was here, on 12 September, that Mussolini was dramatically rescued.

Italian Social RepublicOn Hitler’s orders, Mussolini was returned to German-occupied northern Italy as the puppet head of the Italian Social Republic, based in the town of Salo on Lake Garda, hence it was often referred to as the Salo Republic. Mussolini wasn’t keen; much preferring the idea of being allowed to slip away into quiet retirement but Hitler had no intention of letting the now reluctant dictator so easily off the hook.

Having established his make-believe republic, Mussolini’s first priority was to deal with his son-in-law and other ‘traitors’ who had voted against him at the Fascist Grand Council meeting in July. Ciano had gone to Germany only to be forced back to Mussolini’s new republic. Despite the pleas of his daughter and Ciano’s wife, Edda, Mussolini had Ciano and five colleagues tried in Verona in January 1944, and five, including Ciano, were executed by firing squad on the 11 January. To add to the humiliation, they were tied to chairs and shot in the back. Ciano’s last words were ‘Long live Italy!’ Continue reading

The Rescue of Mussolini – a summary

The rescue of Mussolini: On 12 September 1943, in an audacious expedition, the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, was rescued from imprisonment by a group of German commandoes.


The war was not going well for Italy and Mussolini. Campaigns against Greece and Albania had ended in ignoble defeat and things were going poorly for Italian forces fighting in North Africa. The Italian people were beginning to taste the bitter fruit of disillusionment with their leader.

Benito MussoliniOn 20 January 1943, Mussolini had a meeting with his foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, who was also his son-in-law. Believing the war to be a lost cause, Ciano urged Mussolini to seek terms with the Allies. Mussolini flatly refused. (Indeed, Ciano had approached his British counterpart, Anthony Eden, the previous November but had no joy. Ciano had been dubious about Italy’s participation in the war from the start. When, on 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on France, Ciano wrote in his diary, ‘I am sad, very sad. The adventure begins. May God help Italy!’) Ciano paid for his lack of faith when, on 5 February 1943, his father-in-law sacked him from his post. Ciano took up a post within the Vatican who were also holding discussions with the Allies into the make-up of a potential non-fascist Italian government.

The end in sight

Allied troops landed on Sicily on 10 July 1943, where they enjoyed an ecstatic welcome from the islanders. By mid-August the German forces escaped the island by crossing over the narrow Strait of Messina onto the Italian mainland. Mussolini appealed to his ally, Adolf Hitler, to send reinforcements but with German forces tied up on the Eastern Front, where they had just lost the crucial Battle of Stalingrad, no help was forthcoming.

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Benito Mussolini – the socialist

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

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The March On Rome – a summary

The March on Rome was the grand name given to the events that led to Mussolini’s seizure of power on 28 October 1922.

The Italian King

The threat of civil war in Italy loomed large and Mussolini and his fascist party decided to stage a coup despite knowing they were no match for the Italian army. Indeed, Luigi Facta, the Italian Prime Minister, asked the king, Victor Emanuel III, to declare a state of martial law and to allow the use of the army to squash Mussolini and his followers. The king initially agreed and then, fearing that such an action would spark a civil war, changed his mind. Appalled, Facta resigned.

20,000 fascists began the March On Rome but stopped 30 kilometres north of the capital where half of them promptly returned home. Mussolini himself joined the march at various stages to have his photograph taken and be seen as marching shoulder-to-shoulder with his men. The photos show Mussolini with his jaw jutting, his chest inflated and his steely eyes fixed on his destiny. But there was only so much marching Mussolini wanted to do and he arrived in the capital by express train.

The King and His New Prime Minister

The king believed it was better to have Mussolini within his government than causing unrest from the outside so he offered the fascist leader a role in his government. But Mussolini refused everything but the top job. The bluff worked, and on 28 October 1922, the king duly appointed Mussolini Prime Minister.

The following day the march did take place but the victory had already been won, so this was more of a celebratory stroll than a revolutionary march.

The Murder of a Socialist

Eighteen months later, Mussolini’s government won convincingly at the polls. When the socialist politician, Giacomo Matteotti, spoke out against the election, claiming that fraud and intimidation had won it for the fascists, he paid for his outspokenness with his life. Matteotti’s murder caused a national outcry but there was no proof of Mussolini’s involvement and the king stood by him. In disgust, politicians of all persuasions withdrew from parliament, which allowed Mussolini opportunity to consolidate his power and form his dictatorship.

Mussolini Rupert Colley

Mussolini: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats and downloadable audio.

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