Benito Mussolini: Mussolini
Byron King gives us a biography of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
HIS FULL NAME WAS Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini. He was born in the small village of Predappio, in Provenza Forlì, on July 29, 1883. He died at Giulino di Mezzegra, near Como, on April 28, 1945. In between those two dates, he made quite a bit of history. Or perhaps, history made Mussolini. Things are seldom as they seem.
The name of Mussolini is famous today. From our perspective, looking back in time, it seems an immutable historical fact that Mussolini led Italy. Or did he rule Italy? Or did he ruin Italy? Or was it some of all? And was it destined? Could things not have been different? What do we really know about this man? Who was he, and what was the nature of his time?
Mussolini’s father Alessandro was a blacksmith. His mother, Rosa Maltoni, was a teacher. The proud parents held ardently socialist leanings and named their son Benito after the famous Mexican president and revolutionary figure, Benito Juárez.
By the age of eight, young Benito was banned from his mother’s church because of his refusal to follow the strict Catholic protocols that were, at the time, expected of young boys. A few years later, Mussolini was expelled from school after stabbing a fellow student, and throwing an inkpot at a teacher who entered into the fray.
Despite these events, Mussolini was eventually permitted to re-enroll in school, where he received good grades. In 1901, at age 18, young Mussolini earned a certification as an elementary school teacher. Looking for work, in 1902 he moved to Switzerland but was unable to find a permanent job. Swiss police arrested him on charges of vagrancy, and expelled Mussolini back to Italy.
After a series of odd jobs, in 1908 Mussolini joined the staff of a newspaper in the Austrian town of Trento. While in Trento, Mussolini wrote a rather spicy novel, whose English translation is The Cardinal’s Mistress. This was, in its own way, part of the revenge of the little boy who had been banned from his mother’s church. Continuing with his writing, and in the era just preceding what would come to be known as the Great War, Mussolini was a widely known socialist journalist. He ran his own tub-thumping publication that had a narrow but influential readership.
Benito Mussolini: “Strength Out of Unity”
Socialist or not, Mussolini was attracted to the ancient Roman symbol of the life-and-death power of the state, represented by the “fasces.” Fasces are bundles of reeds that were used by Roman “lictors,” the magistrates charged with carrying out judicial punishments that required whipping the offenders. (For example, Jesus Christ was whipped by a lictor, at the order of Pontius Pilate.) When bound together, the reeds of the fasces were stronger than they were when separate. In its own way, this symbol of “strength out of unity” reflects the intellectual debt that fascism owes to socialism. To Mussolini’s way of thinking, fascism was an advanced and improved form of socialism. Mussolini also incorporated into this philosophy a large measure of Italian nationalism, rooted in admiration for the ancient Roman imperium.
Mussolini hoped to see a renewal of Italy’s ancient Roman greatness, which in his view was the next logical outgrowth of the unification of Italy that dated from the 1860s. It was a common strain of thought among many Italians at that time. To this end, Mussolini was an Italian irredentist with respect to the city of Trieste, and the Isonzo-Caporetto region east of Venice. These areas were then under the control of the Austrian Empire. It should come as no surprise that after fighting between Germany, Russia, France, and England broke out in 1914, Mussolini strongly advocated Italy’s entry into the war to fight, whom else, but the Austrians.
Mussolini was not alone in his blood lust. Many elements of the civilian population, as well as leading figures in civil government and military circles, believed that Italy could, if she wished, seize what territory she desired. Like Meiji Japan of that era, Italy had made remarkable strides as a developing economic and industrial power in the late 19th century. The Italians could field a modern army that was well trained and equipped, and led by many competent officers who had attended fine military schools. Just as the Japanese had won a decisive victory over the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905, the Italians believed that they could and would make quick work of any foe, particularly the hapless Habsburgs.
But as Karl von Clausewitz wrote in his great treatise On War, first published in 1832, “No one starts a war — or rather no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” In this sense, the Japanese planned their war with Russia by starting with the end-state that they wanted to obtain. Then they worked backwards. It is not overstating the case to say that long before the first Japanese torpedo detonated against the side of a Russian ship at anchor in Port Arthur, China, the Japanese had a comprehensive plan to fight and defeat their opponent. This was not the case with the Italian entry into war with Austria. The net strategic assessment of the Italians was woefully deficient, and they had no Earthly idea of the mess they were about to create for themselves. But this gets ahead of the story.
Benito Mussolini: The Making of a War Hero
Soon after Mussolini’s war-wish came true in 1915, he applied to join the Italian Army. Because of his leftist leanings, however, and his previous political opposition to the incumbent political power, the Italian Army hierarchy refused his application and told him to await the call up of his Reserve unit, the “Class of 1884.” One can almost hear the staff discussion on that issue: “Colleagues, we have no need of this Mussolini. And if we ever have to call up those reservists, it will be a cold day in hell.”
Thus in the early days of the war, Mussolini endured the insults of his contemporaries (using what was probably the Italian word for “chickenhawk”). Having advocated for his nation to go to war, there was Mussolini, safely in the rear and holding down a civilian job, going home each night to sleep with his girlfriend between clean sheets. But the war against the Austrians was not quick or easy, contrary to the early handicapping.
The weather must have gotten chilly in hell, and the god of war Mars granted Mussolini his wish to serve. Mussolini’s reserve unit was recalled to active duty about six months into the fighting. The newly mobilized Mussolini again applied to be an officer. But the army commanders had the measure of this man, and had no need for socialist officers. Mussolini was issued his military kit, and assigned the rank of corporal. By the standards of the day, however, Mussolini was well educated, and his commanding officer offered him a job as regimental clerk. Mussolini scoffed and replied, “I joined the Army to fight, not to type.”
Not long after he was mobilized, Mussolini went to the front lines with his unit of fanti, Italian regular infantry, mostly peasants from the south of Italian peninsula. Almost all of the fighting between the Italians and Austrians during the war was in the region of Isonzo, in the Julian Alps, the location of the numerous battles of the Caporetto. It was there that Mussolini made his name as a hero in Italy’s tragedy.
Mussolini’s first encounter with the Austrians was as part of a bayonet charge, met by hot-firing Austrian machine guns. The fight dissolved into an exchange of rifle sniping and hand grenade tosses. After several hours, Austrian sappers approached and blew up the Italian trenches, killing over 30 of Mussolini’s comrades before his eyes. The war had become personal to the now-32-year-old socialist newspaper editor.
Mussolini’s efforts in this combat were meritorious, and earned him a field nomination from his commanding officer to an officer’s training program. But about one week after reporting for this training, Mussolini was summarily dismissed from the program at the order of the Commando Supremo of the Italian Army. As before, the instructors reviewed his records and determined that there was no room for socialist rabble-rousers in the officer corps of the Italian Army.
Mussolini returned to the front lines with the rank of sergeant. Not long thereafter, he was loading a mortar when one of the rounds detonated prematurely. Mussolini was severely wounded, suffering over 40 shrapnel wounds, a smashed shoulder, and severe wounds to one of his legs. Mussolini was evacuated to the rear, where he almost died. A number of medical corpsmen refused to treat him because they remembered his name and recalled his support for Italy to enter the conflict. The medics called Mussolini “the man who started this damn war.”
But Mussolini survived his wounds. He was discharged from the army. And he returned to the rear, and to civilian life, as a war hero. Adding to his luster, in a somewhat perverse fashion, Mussolini’s son, by his mistress, was killed in combat and awarded the “Medaglia d’Oro,” or “Gold Medal, Posthumous” for bravery.
Meanwhile, the fighting continued in Isonzo. It was not so much a war as a slaughter. As was true of much of the Great War, operational maneuver stalled and broke down into static lines of trench warfare. The majority of fighting was over what came to be called “the last 300 meters.” Italian casualties at Caporetto were of Biblical proportions, numbering in the many hundreds of thousands. What Verdun was to Britain, Isonzo was to Italy. It was at Isonzo where a generation of Italy’s sons were broken on the hard rocks of the Alpine slopes.
During the course of the fighting with the Austrians, the Italian Commando Supremo became aware of the need for specially trained mountain assault troops to work in that harsh “last 300 meter” environment. The army raised special units to suit this purpose, called arditi (“the daring ones”). These were men of a certain violent predisposition, often with criminal backgrounds and screened from applicants for just that purpose. They were trained to be fearless. The arditi troops had a unique uniform of brown mountaineer pantaloons, black shirt, and fez hat, and they all carried a long trench knife. Tens of thousands of these fighters were fed into the Battles of the Caporetto, almost all who survived being utterly brutalized during the vicious combat.
Benito Mussolini: Postwar Italy
The Great War ended with Italy not having won its much-anticipated and hoped-for swift, decisive victory over the Austrians. Casualties were immense. Many towns, and even some regions of the country, had lost almost all of their young men. The war-wounded filled the hospitals up and down the Italian peninsula. The nation was broke, its treasury depleted, its industries starved of investment and resources. Agriculture stalled in the face of a precipitous worldwide slump in commodity prices.
Post-war, the arditi became a social problem for Italy. Quickly mustered out at the conclusion of hostilities, these toughest of the tough returned to a broken and insolvent land, with no prospect for jobs in the post-war recession that gripped Italy. Former arditi rapidly formed bonds and associations, and the by-now aspiring politician Mussolini quickly organized and capitalized on these fighters without portfolio. Mussolini appealed to their sense of betrayal, urging on the arditi with his mesmerizing talk of how they had been “abandoned by their nation.” Thus the arditi became the political muscle for Mussolini, the backbone of his ascendancy, his “black shirts” as we know them today.
Leveraging the arditi, the Fascists formed armed squads of black-shirted war veterans to terrorize socialists and communists alike, and anyone else who stood in their way. The central authorities seldom interfered, because the national government of Italy was insolvent and the nation was descending into anarchy. In return for the political support of a group of industrialists and agrarians, Mussolini used his influence to break strikes by organized labor. As he formed bonds with the corporatists and industrialists, he abandoned his former revolutionary agitation. To all intents and purposes, Mussolini was a sober and legitimate national leader who promoted and promised an Italian resurgence, not to mention internal state security, if only he could obtain control over the levers of power.
Mussolini officially founded the Fascist movement, Fasci di Combattimento, on Feb. 23, 1919. After failing in his first run for political office in the 1919 elections, Mussolini eventually was elected to a seat in the Italian Parliament in 1921. It was with the arditi that Mussolini formed the nucleus of his political base, enabling his rise to power. Feeding on the sense of betrayal and abandonment of this segment of Italy’s veteran population, Mussolini rolled into political office.
In 1922, as one ruling faction after another failed to get a grip on Italy’s slide into anarchy, King Vittorio Emanuele III invited Mussolini to form a new government. The king believed that if he did not choose a government under either the Fascist or Socialist party, Italy would break out into civil war in the near future. Mussolini, ever the showman and taking his cue from the ancient Caesars, marked his ascent to power with the massive “March on Rome,” in which hundreds of thousands of his followers descended by torch-light upon the capital city.
Mussolini initially received broad supported from the Italian parliament. With the assistance of a “liberal” coalition, he introduced strict censorship to combat the forces of anarchy. In 1925, he introduced the “Press Laws” which required that all journalists must be registered Fascists. By cracking down on opposition newspapers, he was able to assume dictatorial powers after the elections in 1926. To ensure his grip on power after these electoral successes, he dissolved all other political parties.
Mussolini made skillful use of his absolute control over the press, and gradually built up the legend of Il Duce, the man who never slept. He offered himself as a leader who always made the correct decisions “in the interests of the people,” and who could solve all the problems of politics and economics through the ability of central government to regulate the civil and economic affairs of the nation.
Mussolini was a master propagandist, both at home and abroad. Here, his training as a journalist was invaluable. He carefully cultivated the image — through printed press, radio, film, and in the schools — that Fascism was the ascending doctrine of the 20th century, replacing classical liberalism and representative democracy.
At various times after his appointment as prime minister in 1922, Mussolini personally took over the ministries of the interior, of foreign affairs, of the colonies, of the corporations, of the army and the other armed services, and of public works. Sometimes he held as many as seven departments simultaneously, as well as holding the office of prime minister. He was also head of the all-powerful Fascist party and commanded the armed local Fascist Militia, the “Black Shirts” who kept order by terrorizing any political resistance in the cities and provinces. The rest, as they say, is history.
benito Mussolini: The Roots of Fascism
While Mussolini brought the new name of Fascism to his governance, it is not as if he was inventing new governmental mechanisms out of whole cloth. From 1859 to 1925, the Italian government had run national deficits in 46 out of 66 years. That is, during only 20 years was the Italian budget balanced. The national debt grew, and grew larger, and grew larger still. The debt had to be serviced, and Italy saw itself exporting funds — in the form of gold in those gold standard days — as interest payments to foreign creditors.
Through it all, and certainly during the many years before anyone had ever heard of Mussolini, there was a consensus of national opinion that that the Italian government was acting “on behalf of the people.” And who can argue with that worthy goal, framed as it is in such an upbeat and conclusory term? Thus did the provinces, the cities and towns, and eventually “the people” themselves surrender their sovereignty to the central authority. Government leaders, often-as-not bewildered as to what to do in their political roles, turned to — what else? — government debt as a device for creating purchasing power. It is not as if there was ever a vote or a referendum on the subject of governance-by-spending, and no one approved it in principle. Even when Mussolini was just a socialist crank, publishing his small newspaper, there was no effective resistance to the growth of a central Italian governmental authority. People were becoming accustomed to the sweet fruits of a paternalistic state, and then they began to demand its largesse as if it all were some sort of national entitlement.
An immediate result of the growth of central government in Italy in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries was the ever-growing reliance upon institutionalized social-welfare measures to mitigate the condition of the indigent, the unemployed, the sick, the aged. Who could be so hard of heart as to oppose such a worthy undertaking? Increasing government spending, and its concomitant increase in national debt, became part of the standard tool kit for the Italian political class. But beneath the surface, perhaps insidiously but very steadily, this need for spending opened the door to an easy surrender to political elements that were most interested in militarism and its handmaiden, imperialism.
Between the 1860s and 1914, Italy lost much of the intellectual force behind any argument or political theory that the government should be restrained, or the economic system should remain relatively unburdened by regulation. And when debt threatened to overwhelm the nation, Italy’s politicians found the means to distract the people and quiet opponents. That is, if the country had no natural enemy to be cultivated, then an enemy had to be invented. In a Faustian sense, Europe’s Great War came along just in time to mask the inherent flaws of the Italian system of governance, at least for a few more years. And is that not the nature of much of what passes for political governance?
When the Great War ended, Italy was a hollow shell of a nation. She was broke, torn by factionalism, a nation that had lost its young men by the division. And she was also a nation with a political system based on central political control focused on the direction chosen by the national government. Her provinces and cities and towns had forgotten how to run themselves without direction from Rome.
Benito Mussolini: What If…?
The Battles of the Caporetto, fought in the Valley of the Isonzo, defined Italy’s participation in the Great War. But had Mussolini died from the effects of the exploding mortar shell, what would have been the fate of Italy and the world? Absent the Great War, some other person might have come to power in Italy, and governed with a different form of “-ism.” Or absent Italy participating in the Great War, which is what made Mussolini a hero and created the embittered power base of his political wing, would Mussolini have remained merely a minor socialist voice on the fringes of power? Hold that thought.
Mussolini did not just create Fascism in Italy out of nothing precedent. It takes a certain kind of cultural and political soil for Fascism to take root in a nation. This soil is what had evolved in Italy over many decades, quite absent any input from Mussolini. And it required only a man with a certain kind of vision to bring about a certain kind of result. Italy had in place the apparatus of central state planning, and big-government spending via massive public debt. Post war, and because of that war, Italy was falling apart. Mussolini saw his chance, and he and his Black Shirts took over.
All the laws, the police, the judges, and agencies and bureaus that he needed to create a Fascist state were in place in Italy. Il Duce just walked into the leadership role and it was all there waiting for him. Mussolini and his like-minded fellows captured the pre-existing, centralized institutions of the Italian government. With just a few minor changes to these institutions of central control within Italy, which were the legacy of the previous 60 years of political evolution, Mussolini was in a position to label his administration as a Fascist form of government.
But as we asked earlier in this article, was it destined? Could it not have been different? Think of some alternatives. Imagine if Mussolini had died of his wounds. Who would have filled the post-war vacuum? Someone else, to be sure, but what kind of man? Imagine another Italian war hero taking control, without the socialist leanings of Mussolini, nor his visions of grandeur of the Roman Empire. Or what if Mussolini had become an officer in the Italian Army, and had been exposed to the different social conscience of that class of Italian society? What would that have done to his worldview after the end of the Great War?
When I think of the history of Italy, and how that history spawned the likes of Mussolini, I have to wonder about other nations. Think of a nation that has a large central government that governs based upon a policy of taxing, borrowing, and spending. Think of a nation with large and unpayable national debts. Think of a nation with a zealous, almost missionary-like foreign policy that seeks to spread its own form of “Pax Romanum” across the world. And think of a nation that, in the process, gets itself into a long and costly war without performing the requisite strategic assessment beforehand. Are there valid historical parallels to what happened in Italy? Of course not, everything is the same between two different lands and two different times. But what are the similarities between then and now, and what are the differences that matter? Finally, I have to wonder whether nations are pushed by history, or pulled by destiny. Maybe it is both. And may God help us if it is out of our control.
Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
November 2, 2005