by Brett Theisen
Rocori High School, Coldspring, Minnesota.
"Everything about Fascism was a fraud...Fascist rule was corrupt, incompetent, empty; Mussolini was without either ideas or aims...In 1943, Fascism collapsed overnight. Not a single Fascist attempted to defend the regime that had lasted twenty years and had boasted itself of such power. It simply fell down like a house of cards, which was all it really was." (Taylor 1). This is from AJP Taylor's 1977 book, The War Lords.
Like the house of cards, Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy was mostly rooted in dreams--dreams of power and conquest. This brings up the question of how the son of a blacksmith could rise to become one of the most feared leaders of the twentieth century. Specifically, why did Benito Mussolini change from being a pacifist member of the socialist party to the founder of Fascism and a ruthless dictator? In order to answer this question, two main points must be examined: first, a look at Mussolini's shifting political views; second, his dreams of total control. After these points are covered, it will be clear that Mussolini changed his political views and beliefs in order to pursue his dreams of a New Roman Empire.
Growing up in Predappio, Italy, as the son of a blacksmith and a schoolteacher, both of whom were socialists, Mussolini naturally adopted their beliefs (Smith 1). These beliefs included anti-war feelings and pacifism, the exact opposite of what his beliefs would later become (4). As a teenager, he was known to have boasted about being an "antipatriot".
Mussolini became an editor of a Socialist newspaper near his hometown and printed his views. After a short stay there, he moved to Milan and became editor of the official Socialist newspaper, Avanti!. At this point, he was still adamantly against Italy joining WWI. Before long, though, Mussolini's views began to shift. He believed that the party should unite "in one formidable fascio (bundle) preparatory to seizing power" (6). When his views turned to pro-war, however, he was thrown out of the Socialist party. Some examples of how fast his views changed are shown in these articles from Avanti! :
(26 July 1914) - "Down with the War! Down with arms and up with humanity!"
(10 Oct. 1914) - "To offer the same kind of opposition to all wars...is stupidity bordering on the imbecile. Do you want to be spectators of this great drama? Or do you want to be its fighters?" (Brooman 6) Upon being dismissed by the Socialists, Mussolini founded his own newspaper, called Il Popolo d'Italia, or The People of Italy. He used this to spread his new ideas and gather support. This is an excerpt from the first issue: "I address my first word to you, the young men of Italy, the young men of the factories and universities, the young men...to whom fate has given the task of making history. It is a word which in normal times I would never have used but which today I utter loudly and clearly, the fearful and fascinating word-War." (6)
This article is further evidence of Mussolini's drastic change of thinking. At this point, Mussolini joined the Italian Army and went off to battle. Upon return, he started the Fascist movement. Throughout his years as the leader of Italy, he proved to the world that he was nothing more than a man who continually wanted more power for himself and would do anything to get it. This was evident in the way he terrorized his political opponents, often having them beaten or, in the case of Giovanni Matteotti, murdered (20). In his later years in power, Mussolini turned to imperialism. His attempts at building a New Roman Empire eventually led to his removal as dictator and his assassination.
Evidently, Mussolini's major changes in political views and beliefs were fueled by something. That something was his ever-growing dreams of total control. The subsequent examples will show how Benito Mussolini's main purpose throughout his life was to rise to a position of control and authority. Even as a boy, Mussolini would get in fights and disobey his teachers. He wanted to be the one who told people what to do. As a Socialist, he was not only a writer for newspapers, but also the editor. During his tenure at Avanti! he became the most powerful figure in Italian Socialism (Smith 6).
When his thoughts turned to war and he was dismissed from the party, he immediately regained power by founding his own newspaper (Il Popolo d' Italia) and a pro-war group called Fasci d' Azione Rivoluzionaria (6). As historian Denis Mack Smith of Oxford explains, "He evidently hoped the war might lead to a collapse of society that would bring him to power."
After the war, Mussolini joined the Arditi Association, a military group of commandos that had been heroes in WWI but had never gotten their promised compensation from the government. These associations became the base of Fascism. Before long, Mussolini became a leading member. He wanted to organize them into militias and serve as their leader.
On the 23rd of March, 1919, Benito Mussolini founded the Fascist party, officially called the Fascio di Combattimento. They announced to the world, "We swear to defend Italy. For her we are prepared to kill and to die." (Brooman 9). At this point, Mussolini began to break away from the Arditi, as the Fascists gained more power. Although they failed in the 1919 elections, the Fascists gained 35 seats in 1921 with the backing of Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, an anti-socialist. Mussolini was one of the Fascists elected to parliament.
Throughout 1921-22, the Fascist battle groups were training and gaining strength. The ultimate goal was an invasion of Rome. This "March on Rome" took place on October 28, 1922. With 40,000 armed Fascists surrounding Rome, the King invited Mussolini to form a new government rather than risk a bloody civil war (15). Two days later, Benito Mussolini was named Prime Minister of Italy, at the age of 39. In addition to that, he also made himself Foreign Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, large steps towards dictatorship.
In an early speech to parliament, he boasted about being able to take over the whole country using force, had that been his wish. He also threatened to close parliament and use the building to house his soldiers (16). After these threats, he asked parliament to grant him full power for one full year. This was approved by an overwhelming majority.
It was during 1924 that the Fascists really gained full control of Italy. In the weeks prior to the elections, the MVSN (National Security Guards; Mussolini's personal police force) beat and tortured the opposition (17). All of this led to the Fascists obtaining a 65% majority in parliament. A great example of what Mussolini was willing to do to stay in power was the aforementioned Matteotti murder. Although it has never been proven that Benito Mussolini directly ordered the murder of the prominent socialist leader, most historians accept that conclusion based on the evidence (20). Having now gained full control of the government, Mussolini began to introduce censorship laws and got rid of all democratically elected mayors. He gave himself a new title--Head of Government. Parliament and the King were now powerless. This is where the name Il Duce comes from; in Italian it means "the leader". In time, the legend of Il Duce grew. He was known as "a man who was always right and could solve all the problems of politics and economics" (Smith 8).
Mussolini's aim (which was never really accomplished) "was to place all Italians in various professional organizations or 'corporations', all of them under government control" (11). This obviously shows a great need for power exhibited by Mussolini.
In order to really have the upper hand in Italy, however, a leader would have to have an agreement with the Catholic church and the Pope. In 1929, this is exactly what Mussolini did. With the Pope's support, Mussolini also gained the support of many who had previously opposed him. Having "conquered" his own country, Mussolini now turned his attention overseas.
He put a pro-fascist government in place in Albania and re-established the colony of Libya. His goal "was to make the Mediterranean 'mare nostrum' (our sea)" (14). On the 2nd of October, 1935, Mussolini began what he called his "imperial journey". This included the invasion of Abyssinia in Africa. He wanted to create a super-colony called Italian East Africa, which would include Eritrea, Somaliland, and the Kingdom of Abyssinia. With the fall of Emperor Haille Selassie's capital, Addis Ababa, in May 1936, it appeared that Mussolini's dreams of a New Roman Empire were coming true. In 1936, Mussolini also sent troops to Spain to side with the pro-fascist troops of General Francisco Franco. This action, along with his occupation of Abyssinia, was condemned by the League of Nations. At this point, he had few allies left. He chose to side with another dictator, Adolf Hitler. Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy became partners in October of '36 under the Berlin-Rome Axis (Brooman 29). Mussolini saw this as a way to further expand his empire.
In the years that followed, Mussolini began to believe his military was much stronger than it actually was. In 1939, his armies occupied Albania. He also announced that he intended to annex Malta, Corsica, and Tunis (Smith 15). This was really the beginning of the end for Benito Mussolini.
When Hitler invaded Poland later in 1939, Italy didn't mobilize it's forces for nine months due to an inadequate number of tanks, weapons, and men. Mussolini finally ordered his armies into the war during 1940, when it seemed that the Germans were near victory (Brooman 30). He sent forces first to France, and then later to Greece and the British colonies in North Africa. The latter was a huge mistake given the strength of the British and American armies stationed there. It just goes to show how blind Mussolini was when it came to assessing the strength of his regime. He always overestimated his capability for war. Instead of analyzing situations, he just did the things he thought might give him more of a stranglehold on Southern Europe.
When the efforts failed, Italy had lost over 300,000 troops, along with Italian East Africa (30). By 1942, Libya was the one remaining Italian colony. This was also lost by May 1943 to the Allied forces. Having defeated the Italians and Germans in Africa, the Allies now set their sights on mainland Italy. Less than one month after the invasion, Mussolini's colleagues turned against him. This allowed the King to dismiss him and have him arrested.
This would have been the end of Benito Mussolini had he not been rescued by German commandos. After his rescue, he set up the Republic of Salo in northern Italy (Brooman 31). It was one last weak attempt at regaining control, but it shows just how hard it was for Mussolini to accept that he no longer was in power. All he really became was a puppet of Hitler.
In 1945, with the Allies gaining new ground and the Republic of Salo shrinking daily, Mussolini tried to escape to Switzerland. A few miles from the border, he was caught by an Italian opposition group and thrown in prison. On April 28, the Duce was executed by gunshot (Sifikas 132). His dreams of an empire that fueled him throughout his life had finally come to an end.
For twenty years, Benito Mussolini--Il Duce--was the leader of fascism in Europe. During this reign, he continually sought more power for himself, often ignoring the possibility of danger and horrible consequences to himself and the Italian people. During WWII alone he sent over 300,000 Italians to be slaughtered by Allied forces.
Just when it looked like he had accomplished his dream of building a new empire, he sent depleted troops into Greece and North Africa, hoping to gain even more power. This mistake cost him every colony he had conquered throughout his regime, not to mention the support of his colleagues. Eventually, Mussolini's need for control led to his assassination by his own people. He was a man driven by one thing and that was power. His views and beliefs as a child and young adult meant nothing to him in the end. All he cared about was becoming more powerful until, finally, his "house of cards" came crashing down upon him.
So, why did Benito Mussolini's political beliefs change drastically throughout his life? The answer is simple: Benito Mussolini's views changed due to his thirst for power and absolute dominance of all Italian possessions.