In July 1943, a sick and declining Benito Mussolini was aged 60. He was far from being the heroic figure who, two decades earlier, had imposed the first Fascist dictatorship in history. Since the beginning of that year, the same people who had hoisted him to power, the king, the military and business people, had been trying to find a way to get Italy out of its disastrous venture in the Second World War and to put an end to the fateful alliance with Hitler’s Germany. Few of Mussolini’s traveling companions and Fascist leaders still believed in victory for Germany or the greatness that victory would bring to Italy. Most of them had lost all respect for Il Duce, the formerly infallible dictator, and were plotting the best way to overthrow him. The landing of Allied forces in Sicily, on 9th June 1943, forced the crisis to break.
A few days later, during the night of 24-25th July, the Grand Council met, the main organ of the political decision of the Fascist Party, which Mussolini had always controlled as he wished. A group of leaders led by Dino Grandi, Galeazzo Ciano, and Giuseppe Bottai wanted to break away from Germany and proposed handing back control of the military to the king, Victor Emmanuel III, which in practice meant kicking Mussolini out. Nineteen members of the Grand Council voted in favor, seven against, one abstained and Roberto Farinacci alone defended a closer alliance with Germany and the radicalization of Italian Fascism following the German model. “Gentlemen, you have initiated the crisis of the regime”, Mussolini told them after hearing the result of the voting.
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Once informed of the Grand Council’s decision, the King ordered Mussolini’s arrest and replaced him with a general he trusted, Pietro Badoglio. With the police and army mobilized, the main Fascist leaders advised their militants to obey the King. Within a few hours, a dictatorship that had lasted twenty years collapsed. The new Government prepared the surrender of Italy, signed on 8th September 1943. The Allies invaded Italy from the south and the Germans occupied the center and north of the country. Over the following months, until April 1945, Italy was the setting for two wars: one international, between the Allies and the Germans, and the other civil, between the Fascists who supported the Nazis and the anti-Fascist resistance, which had spread like wildfire since the fall of Il Duce.
But Mussolini was not dead, and history was reserving a starring role for him at the end of the drama. On 12th September, a special SS team freed him from where he was being held on Mount Gran Sasso, a little over a hundred kilometers northeast of Rome, and took him by plane to Munich.
From that city in Germany, after a brief meeting with Hitler, he announced his decision to punish the King and the traitors of 25th July and proclaimed the creation of a new Fascist regime, the Italian Social Republic, also known as the Salò Republic, after the small town in the north of Italy where part of his Administration was set up. In fact, that new regime had neither State, nor an army, and was under the control of the Nazis. But for Mussolini, and for a few radical Fascists and anti-Semites who were with him, such as Roberto Farinacci, Giovanni Preziosi, or Alessandro Pavolini, it represented a return to the dream of social revolutionary Fascism which they had never been able to realize after coming to power in October 1922.
Benito Mussolini was born in Predappio, in the agricultural region of Romagna, on 29th July, 1883. The son of a Socialist blacksmith and a schoolteacher, the young Benito forged his rebelliousness as a brilliant propagandist in Socialist newspapers, first in Forli, where he was in charge of La Lotta di Classe, and then as editor of the influential Avanti! of Milan. This was where he was when the First World War broke out in August 1914, and a bitter debate arose in Italian society between intervention or neutrality.
At first Mussolini, like most Socialists, was opposed to the war and the intervention of Italy, but in October that year, he changed his position to one of “active neutrality”, and shortly afterward he defended joining in the war on the side of France and Great Britain. After that crucial decision to abandon anti-militarism and internationalist convictions, he was sacked as editor of Avanti! and expelled from the Italian Socialist Party. That moment saw the beginning of the birth of a new, anti-Marxist Mussolini, convinced that Italy’s intervention in the war would give rise to a new kind of revolution that would overturn the Liberal system, destroy Socialist power and lead a new dominant class to power.
In spite of the initial optimism of the interventionists, the war was lengthy and destructive and caused a commotion within Italian society that would have enormous consequences. Almost six million men were called up, mostly peasants, and a million of them left their lives on the battlefields.
When the war finished, Italy, as a member of the winning side, won important territorial gains at the cost of its traditional enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire; but it did not get any colonies, the imperial ambition of the nationalists, which gave rise to the myth of the “mutilated victory”. Meanwhile, the old parliamentary electoral system had collapsed, and the social conflict and unrest generated by the harsh post-War conditions were perceived by people in the establishment as a prelude to revolution, a continuation of what had begun in Russia in 1917.
In this way, the Fascist seeds were sown, in the midst of the post-War crisis, with the urgent need on the part of industrialists and landowners to re-establish social control over peasants and workers. The Fascists mobilized an important sector of ex-combatants, students, professionals, land administrators, and small and medium businessmen. All these became the social base for the paramilitary groups, for the policy of violent squadrismo against trades-unionists, which defended social order from the threat of revolution. The dominant classes, the Catholic Church and the military accepted Fascism as an alternative to the old political class, as an expression of radical nationalism and as an antidote for the egalitarian aspirations of Liberal Democracy and Socialism. And in October 1922, it got its great chance. King Victor Emmanuel III refused to decree martial law and use the Armed Forces against the Fascist rebel march on Rome. The Liberal Luigi Facta resigned, and Benito Mussolini replaced him as leader of the Government on 29th October. He rose to power with a combination of paramilitary violence and political maneuvering, without any need to take power by force or to win elections. He was 39 years old and was not going to miss out on his conquest.
In his long period of domination, Mussolini went through the first decade of consolidation and a final phase of crisis and disintegration, which was unstoppable from the moment when he chose to enter the Second World War on Hitler’s side in June 1940. During all that time, Fascism worked as an instrument for the spread of power, always respectful towards the social hierarchies, in spite of the Populist revolutionary rhetoric of its most radical leaders, and subordinate to the traditional apparatus of the State.
King Victor Emmanuel III, Pope Pius XI – who had been elected a few months before the march on Rome – the business world, the elites of Italian society, and the army were delighted with Mussolini and never gave him any problems; not even at first, in one of his worst moments, when a group of Fascist bullies kidnapped and murdered the Socialist MP, Giacomo Matteotti, in June 1924. What followed the crisis caused by that assassination was Mussolini’s most absolute dictatorship. He accumulated positions and ministries, set repressive legislation in motion which sent the political opposition underground, and instituted a far-reaching, innovatory social experiment, hailed by propaganda and the cult to Il Duce, of new relationships between power and the masses.
These were the years when the National Fascist Party and its youth and feminine sections welcomed millions of new members, and the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro, the system of control and organization of leisure time, ran thousands of theatres and cinemas, orchestras, libraries and sports groups. In that period, from 1926 to 1935, Italian Fascism reached its peak, and was, until Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, the exemplary model for authoritarian movements of the Right.
The aggressive foreign policy of Nazi Germany, which quickly changed the diplomatic order of things in Europe, also contributed to modifying the so far conservative orientation of the Italian Fascist regime. Mussolini used the foreign policy as a platform to increase his personal prestige and power. Between 1935 and 1939, Italy got involved in three wars in succession, in Ethiopia, Spain, and Albania. At first, Mussolini stood apart from the Second World War, but when the German armies were advancing inexorably through the Low Countries and France in the spring of 1940, he informed General Badoglio, the Chief of Staff, that Hitler would soon win the war and that Italy needed “a few thousand dead in order to be able to attend the peace conference as a nation at war”. On 10th June, Italy joined the war, a decision to which few objected at the time.
The war turned out to be an absolute fiasco for Italy and, two years later, fearing defeat, all sectors of the old pre-Fascist elite which had maintained their powerful presence during the dictatorship, from the King to the Vatican and including the army prepared Mussolini’s fall from power. Il Duce revived for a while, in the Salò Republic, and was able to take his revenge on some of those who had betrayed him, such as his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, married to Edda, Mussolini’s eldest daughter, and an influential Minister for Foreign Affairs in Fascist Italy from June 1936 to February 1943. In spite of Edda’s pleas, Ciano was executed by firing squad on 11th January 1944.
By then Mussolini was a puppet dictator at the beck and call of the Nazis, gradually losing control over Italy that he supposedly governed. In March and April of 1945, while the Nazis were carrying out secret negotiations with the Allies for surrender, Mussolini was uselessly trying to set up contacts with the British through the Catholic Church. On 27th April 1945, he joined a convoy of Nazi soldiers who were fleeing the Allied advance. When the lorries were stopped by a group of partisans, Mussolini was discovered wrapped in a blanket and dressed in a German uniform. On 28th he was executed together with his latest lover, Clara Petacci, and the next day their bodies and those of other famous Fascists, such as Roberto Farinacci or Achille Starace, were hung head down in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan.
Although Mussolini always seems to occupy a lesser place next to other criminals of the time such as Hitler, Stalin, or Franco, the balance of so much war and tyranny was brutal, and at least a million Italians died on the battlefields of Libya, Ethiopia, Spain, Albania and later on their own soil during the Second World War. And the person most responsible for so much spilled blood was Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini and his imperial and totalitarian ambitions. It is good to remember this at moments when history is being manipulated when illustrious Italian politicians and leaders are proclaiming him as the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.
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