Last modified 11 September 2011.
First published 4 June 2001. Updated 28 May 2010
AKA 'Il Duce' (The Leader).
Kill tally: Over 400,000 Italians killed during the Second World War. At least 30,000 Ethiopians killed during Italian occupation of Ethiopia.
Background: The factious Italian confederation emerges from the First World War on the side of the victorious Allies and with its eastern African colonies in Eritrea and Somalia in tact. But serious economic problems plague the state. Inflation escalates and unemployment climbs. The political climate is also destabilised as left and right groups from around the country resume their struggle for influence.
Mini biography: Born on 29 July 1883 near Predappio in the Forli Province of Romagna, in northeastern Italy, into a working class family. His father is a blacksmith, his mother a school teacher.
1901 - After a difficult childhood during which he is twice expelled from schools for attacking fellow students but easily passes his exams, Mussolini obtains a teaching diploma and works for a year as a schoolteacher at Gaultieri, northeast of Parma, until he is dismissed.
1902 - By now a committed socialist, he emigrates to Switzerland, where he gains a reputation as a journalist, public speaker and political agitator. He is arrested and imprisoned several times.
1904 - He reenters Italy and is drafted into the army for the compulsory two-years of national service.
1906 - When he returns to journalism and political agitation he is again arrested and imprisoned. The arrests continue over the following years as his reputation as a leading Italian socialist begins to rise. He becomes editor of the socialist newspaper 'La Lotta di Classe' (The Class Struggle) in 1909, is appointed secretary of the Socialist Party branch at Forli in his home province in 1910, then in 1912 is appointed editor of the official Socialist newspaper, 'Avanti!' (Forward!) and moves to Milan. Under Mussolini's guidance the paper's circulation soon doubles.
1914 - On the editorial pages of 'Avanti!', Mussolini at first opposes Italy's involvement in the First World War. But, believing that the conflict could bring about the overthrow of capitalism and the opportunity for social renewal, he changes his position and begins to advocate Italian intervention in the war.
At odds with his socialist peers, he resigns from 'Avanti!' and is expelled from the Socialist Party. He assumes the editorship of the pro-war 'Il Popolo d'Italia' (The People of Italy) but does not join the armed forces until he is conscripted. He sees active service and receives a serious wound from a training accident.
1918 - Mussolini returns from the war a confirmed antisocialist. He now believes that only a firm, authoritarian government headed by "a man who is ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep" can overcome the political and economic problems seemingly endemic to Italy.
1919 - At a gathering of war veterans, revolutionary socialists and futurists in Milan in March, Mussolini organises the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Veteran's League), creating a new and powerful force in Italian politics and bringing the word 'fascism' into the public mind. The term is derived from the Italian word 'fascio', meaning 'union' or 'league', and refers to the ancient Roman symbol of discipline and authority, the 'fasces', the standard of rods and an axe borne before Roman officials.
Supporters distinguish themselves by wearing black shirts and by their nationalistic, antiliberal and antisocialist ideals. Working in squads they haunt the countryside, persecuting socialists and unionists, breaking up strikes, burning down union and Socialist Party offices and intimidating local governments.
By late 1921 the fascists control large parts of rural Italy. Mussolini uses his charisma and talent at public speaking to popularise the movement as the bastion of Italian nationalism and a bulkhead against the communist "threat". He receives support from landowners and the urban middle-class.
1921 - At elections for parliament, 35 fascists, including Mussolini, win seats. In November Mussolini organises the movement into a formal political party, the National Fascist Party. The fascists also form their own trade unions, the 'syndicates', to control the labour force.
1922 - When the socialist-led Confederation of Labour calls an antifascist protest strike in the August Mussolini challenges the government to prevent it then sends his fascist squads in as strikebreakers. At a gathering of 40,000 fascists in Naples on 24 October he demands that government be "given to us, or we will seize it by marching on Rome." Four days later the fascist militia begins the march. Mussolini stays in Naples to await the outcome.
On 31 October the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, summons Mussolini to Rome and asks him to form a new government. Mussolini is appointed prime minister of a coalition government and begins transforming Italy into a fascist regime, where the individual belongs to the state.
He will remain as prime minister, and Italy will be ruled by fascists, for 21 years. The fascist squads are incorporated into an official voluntary militia for national security and the party expands with new recruits.
1924 - At elections held under a corrupted electoral system the fascists win 64% of the vote and 374 seats. When parliament meets, Giacomo Matteotti, the Socialist Party's parliamentary deputy and one of the most effective critics of the regime, denounces the elections as a sham. On 10 June Matteotti is kidnapped and brutally murdered by fascists. The assassins are led by Mussolini's press officer.
1925 - On 3 January, following political and social unrest unleashed by Matteotti's murder, Mussolini seizes dictatorial control and promises to crack down on dissenters. The fascists launch a program to achieve economic and social stability, introducing large-scale public works and a one-party, police state.
Constitutional safeguards against government autocracy are removed. All social, economic and political power is centred on Mussolini. Opposition parties, trade unions, the free press and freedom of speech are banned. The leaders of opposition parties and unions are forced into exile. Public servants are required to swear allegiance to fascism. Mussolini handpicks newspaper editors. A military tribunal is set up to try antifascist "subversives".
In 1928 all executive power is ceded to the Fascist Grand Council, making it the supreme constitutional authority of the state. When the Great Depression devastates the world economy in 1929, Mussolini's policies are able to spare Italy from the full impact of the crisis. His popularity grows and all over the country his speeches draw huge crowds.
1932 - Mussolini grants Croatian fascist Ante Pavelic asylum in Italy and provides his Ustase movement with training camps, protection and financial support. The Ustase soon begin a campaign of terror bombings within Yugoslavia. With Mussolini's backing Pavelic will go on to lead the 'Independent State of Croatia' during the Second World War. Pavelic's reign will be one of the bloodiest of the war and will result in 600,000 to one million deaths.
Mussolini will also provide funds to the Spanish Falange, a fascist-style organisation that will plot with Spanish nationalists to overthrow Spain's elected government.
Meanwhile, in an article co-written with Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini provides a comprehensive definition of fascism. Titled 'The Doctrine of Fascism', the article states, "Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State ... It is opposed to classical liberalism ...
"The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian and the Fascist State ... interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people.
"Fascism is ... opposed to that form of democracy which equates a nation to the majority, lowering it to the level of the largest number; but it is the purest form of democracy if the nation be considered as it should be from the point of view of quality rather than quantity, as an idea, ... expressing itself in a people as the conscience and will of the few, if not, indeed, of one ...
"Fascism does not, generally speaking, believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace. It therefore discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it. All other tests are substitutes which never place a man face to face with himself before the alternative of life or death. Therefore all doctrines which postulate peace at all costs are incompatible with Fascism.
"Fascism denies that numbers, as such, can be the determining factor in human society; it denies the right of numbers to govern by means of periodical consultations; it asserts the irremediable and fertile and beneficent inequality of men who cannot be leveled by any such mechanical and extrinsic device as universal suffrage. Democratic regimes may be described as those under which the people are, from time to time, deluded into the belief that they exercise sovereignty, while all the time real sovereignty resides in and is exercised by other and sometimes irresponsible and secret forces."
1935 - Seeking to expand the Italian Empire in eastern Africa, Mussolini orders the invasion of Ethiopia on 3 October. During the ensuing seven-month campaign the Italian forces use chemical weapons and air power to defeat the Ethiopians. Mussolini announces the Italian victory to a jubilant crowd of 400,000 in Rome on 9 May. In 1937, following a failed assassination attempt on the Italian colonial governor, 30,000 Ethiopians are executed.
1936 - Mussolini joins with German fascist dictator Adolf Hitler in the Rome-Berlin Axis. In 1937, Italy joins Germany and Japan in the 'Anti-Comintern Pact', an agreement to fight the spread of communism.
The Spanish Civil War begins on 18 July when Spanish Nationalists led by Francisco Franco stage a coup against the country's left-leaning Republican Government. Mussolini provides support to Franco and his Nationalist forces. Franco will go on to win the war.
1938 - Following Hitler's lead, the Italian fascist government passes antisemitic laws discriminating against Jews in all sectors of public and private life and preparing the way for the deportation of thousands of Italian Jews to German death camps during the Second World War. Almost 7,000 Italian Jews will be deported. Of these, 5,910 will be killed.
On 29 September Mussolini is a co-signatory to the 'Munich Agreement' between Britain, France, Germany and Italy. The agreement, which cedes the German-speaking area in the north of Czechoslovakia to Germany, is an ill-fated attempt to avoid the Second World War.
On 11 October Mussolini tells his mistress, Claretta Petacci, "those bloody Jews, they should be destroyed, I'll carry out a massacre like the Turks did. I'll build an island and put them all there. ... They don't even have any gratitude, recognition, not even a letter of thanks. ... They say we need them, their money, their help."
1939 - When Germany occupies all of Czechoslovakia in March Mussolini decides to complete the slow annexation of Albania begun soon after he came to power. Italy invades on 7 April. The Italian-trained Albanian Army is soon overcome, and on 12 April the Albanian parliament votes to unite the country with Italy.
In May, as Germany prepares for war, Mussolini and Hitler agree to a formal military alliance, the 'Pact of Steel'. German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.
Mussolini delays Italy's entry into the war until it appears that Germany will conquer all of Western Europe without his aid. Finally, on 10 June 1940, he joins the Germans and declares war on the Allies. From the start, Hitler treats Mussolini as a junior ally, withholding details of Germany's military plans and failing to provide notice of major offensives.
1940 - Smarting from Hitler's secrecy, Mussolini orders the invasion of Greece on 28 October without informing the Germans. The campaign is a disaster and the Germans are forced to intervene in April 1941.
In Africa the Italians launch an attack on British-occupied Egypt from their colony of Libya in September 1940.
1941 - By the start of the year the Italians have been pushed back into Libya. In February Hitler deploys the Afrika Korps led by General Erwin Rommel to launch a counteroffensive against the British.
Italians sent to support Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June also fail.
The United States enters the war when the Japanese air force bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December. Italy and Germany declare war on the US on 11 December.
1942 - The German offensive in North Africa is stopped at the beginning of November when Allied troops led by General Bernard Law Montgomery force the German Afrika Korps into a retreat. By 13 May 1943 275,000 Germans and Italians have surrendered. The war in North Africa is over, signalling the end of Italy's African Empire and causing Joseph Goebbels, Germany's propaganda minister, to comment, "We have the worst allies that could possibly be imagined."
1943 - The Allies prepare to land in Sicily and Italy. In the wake of the Italian defeats, Mussolini's popularity begins to nosedive.
The Allied invasion of Sicily comes in July. Italy also appears ripe to fall. Mussolini's days seem numbered. On 24 July an overwhelming majority of the Fascist Grand Council passes a resolution effectively deposing him. The following day he is arrested. He is imprisoned on the island of Ponza off Naples, moved to a remoter island off the coast of Sardinia, then placed in a supposedly impregnable hotel high in the mountains of Abruzzi, east of Rome. But German SS commandos stage a daring rescue on 12 September and he escapes to Munich.
On Hitler's suggestion, Mussolini establishes a new fascist "government" (the 'Italian Social Republic') at Salò on Lake Garda in German occupied territory in Italy's north. The new "government" is nothing more than Hitler's puppet and, with Allied forces advancing northward, will be short lived.
Meanwhile, the legitimate Italian Government signs an armistice with the Allies on 3 September and declares war on Germany in October. The Allies take Naples in same month but because of strong resistance from the German forces now occupying Italy do not reach Rome until June 1944. Florence is liberated in August and the northern cities in April 1945.
1945 - With Germany's defeat imminent, Mussolini attempts to flee to Switzerland disguised as a German soldier but is recognised by Italian partisans and captured on 27 April. He and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, are shot and killed near Lake Como the following day.
Their bodies are then transported to Milan where they are hung by the feet with piano wire in Piazza Loreto for public display and humiliation. All of Italy rejoices at the downfall of the dictator and the end of the conflict.
Mussolini's body is buried in an unmarked grave at the Musocco cemetery outside Milan. On 23 April 1946 it is dug up by a neo-fascist and hidden. Over three months later it is retrieved by the police and secretly interred in the chapel of the Cerro Maggiore convent near Milan. On 31 August 1957 Mussolini's remains are permanently laid to rest at the family plot in Predappio.
Over 46 million Europeans have died as a result of the war, including 410,000 Italians. Worldwide, over 60 million have died.
1946 - Following a referendum in June, Italy is declared a republic with a new antifascist constitution.
1948 - The first parliamentary elections of the new republic are held in April. A neofascist party advocating Mussolini's ideals wins only 2% of the vote. Italy has repudiated fascism.
Comment: Benito Mussolini, the father of fascism - in retrospect not exactly the century's greatest claim to fame. In its heyday though Italian fascism's economic achievements were at worst respected and at best admired by the rest of the world, and there was no bigger admirer than German dictator Adolf Hitler. Hitler took Mussolini's tenets and applied Nazi ruthlessness to produce a far more rigorous and pervasive fascist state that finally exposed the sterility of the ideology, but not without a sickening human cost.
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