Renowned both for his shaved head and for making the infamously bad Italian train system run on time, dictator Benito Mussolini plunged his nation into a global conflict for which it was woefully unprepared. Aligning himself with Adolf Hitler, he sought world domination — only to lose the support of his own people and ultimately his life.
Benito Mussolini was born on July 29, 1883, in Dovia di Predappio, Italy. His father was a blacksmith and his mother an elementary school teacher. Mostly self-educated, Mussolini became a teacher and socialist journalist in northern Italy. He married Rachele Guidi in 1910 and fathered five children.
Mussolini opposed Italy's 1912 war with Libya and was jailed for expressing his views. Shortly after his release, he became editor of Avanti!, the Socialist Party's newspaper in Milan. He initially opposed involvement in World War I, considering it “imperialist,” but changed his mind and called for Italy to fight on the side of the Allies. He was expelled from the Socialist Party and soon started his own newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia (The People of Italy), which would eventually become the voice of the Fascist movement.
Mussolini and several other young war veterans formed the Fasci di Combattimento in March 1919. The organization, which took its name from the fasces, an ancient symbol of Roman discipline, promoted a nationalistic, antiliberal, antisocialist position that attracted many middle-class Italians. The party, its members dressed in telltale black shirts, grew quickly, making a name for itself by attacking peasant leagues, socialist groups, and any others it deemed a threat to Italian nationalism.
In 1922, the Fascists — under direction from Mussolini — marched on Rome. A nervous King Victor Emmanuel III invited Mussolini to form a coalition government. He seized the opportunity, and within four years was able to maneuver the nation into a totalitarian regime, with himself as Il Duce (the leader).
Eager to create a modern Roman Empire, Mussolini defied the League of Nations and, in a very quick war, conquered Ethiopia in 1936. The populace supported this initiative, but Mussolini's popularity quickly plummeted when he backed Generalissimo Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, developed an alliance with Nazi Germany, legislated anti-Semitism, and invaded Albania in 1939.
The relationship between Hitler and Mussolini was primarily one of convenience for both men. Hitler saw Mussolini as a role model who could teach him much about dictatorial control. However, as Mussolini made one mistake after another, Hitler lost his respect for the Italian leader. Mussolini, on the other hand, disliked Hitler from the beginning.
Promising to support Austrian independence, Mussolini described Hitler to an Austrian official as “a horrible sexual degenerate, a dangerous fool.” According to Mussolini, fascism recognized the rights of the individual, as well as of religion and the family. Nazism, on the other hand, was “savage barbarism.”
However, as much as Mussolini found Hitler foolish, he couldn't help but be impressed by Hitler's quick rise to power and his accelerating military might. In October 1936, Germany and Italy signed a secret alliance that promised a joint effort on issues of foreign policy. The pact was the beginning of the Axis.
In September 1937, Mussolini met Hitler on the Führer's home turf. He toured German military factories and attended a huge rally in Berlin. The two men joined hands before the massive crowds and pledged eternal cooperation.
Mussolini was eager to join the war in Europe after Hitler's conquest of Poland but was forced to wait until his own army could be strengthened. Italy officially entered the war in June 1940 after Germany had taken France. In quick succession, Italy attacked British territory in Africa, invaded Greece, and joined Germany in dividing Yugoslavia and attacking the Soviet Union. Italy eventually also declared war on the United States.
But Mussolini's Italy was not Hitler's Germany, and some early military successes were quickly countered by major defeats. The country's unprepared army was devastated by heavy casualties, and the Italian people began to question their role in the global conflict. On July 16, 1943, after the Allied invasion of Sicily, Italian Fascist leaders met with Mussolini and demanded a session of the Fascist Grand Council. Mussolini, sensing that his days as ruler of Italy were numbered, stalled with the excuse that he would soon be meeting with Hitler. Mussolini hoped to peacefully end his nation's alliance with Germany, but Hitler was able to talk him out of it.
On July 24, the Grand Council met for the first time since 1939. After Mussolini offered a lengthy speech on Italy's current position in the war, the council voted to depose him. King Victor Emmanuel deposed Mussolini on July 25, 1943, and replaced him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio, chief of the Italian General Staff. In September, King Victor Emmanuel and Badoglio brokered an armistice with the Allies — who had invaded southern Italy — that effectively removed Italy from the Axis.
Mussolini was arrested shortly after his removal from office, possibly because Italian authorities hoped to use him as a bargaining chip with the Allies. Though moved to a number of locations over the next couple of months, he was finally rescued by a German raid on September 12 and flown to Vienna, then to Munich, where he was reunited with his wife. On September 14, Mussolini met with Hitler at the Führer's compound in Rastenburg.
Hitler placed Mussolini in charge of a puppet state in northern Italy known as the Italian Socialist Republic. But the job came at a hefty price. In exchange for his freedom, Mussolini was forced to give Germany Trieste, the Istrian Peninsula, and South Tyrol.
Mussolini had little real authority over his nonexistent state, which was actually controlled by the Germans. However, in January 1944 he used what little power he had to order a public trial of his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who had been arrested by the Germans the previous August. Mussolini was enraged that Ciano had participated in his ouster as the leader of Italy and wanted to make examples of Ciano and four other former members of the Fascist Grand Council. Ciano and the others were found guilty of treason and executed by firing squad on January 11.
As the Allies swept through Italy in April 1945, Mussolini visited his wife in Milan and encouraged her to flee the country. He left Milan in a motorcade with his longtime mistress, Clara Petacci. On April 27, Italian partisan guerrillas stopped the motorcade at gunpoint near Dongo on Lake Como and yanked Mussolini and Petacci from their cars. The next day, Mussolini, Petacci, and twelve other captured Fascist leaders were executed by the guerrillas and their bodies hung upside down from a gas station girder in Milan. Allied officials eventually ordered the bodies removed.
The bodies were buried in an unmarked grave. Later, Mussolini's body was removed and buried in Predappio next to his son Bruno, who had died in a 1941 air crash.