Benito Mussolini: This Was the Life of Il Duce

Born in 1883 at Predappio, Benito Mussolini became the Duce of the Italian Fascist regime.

May 24, 2024By Maria-Anita Ronchini, MA History & Jewish Studies, BA History

benito mussolini life duce


In April 1945, as the Allies were advancing into Lombardy, a group of Italian partisans stopped a small convoy of German soldiers near Dongo, a village on the northwestern shore of Lake Como. Among them, they found Benito Mussolini, the former Duce of Italy, who was trying to escape to Switzerland. Twenty years before, Mussolini had turned the Kingdom of Italy into a fascist state, persecuting political opponents and crushing free speech. After playing a crucial role in the development of European fascism, he was ousted from the government in 1943. Rescued by German soldiers, Mussolini served as head of the Republic of Salò until 1945.


Benito Mussolini: The Early Years

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Young Benito Mussolini. Source: Fatti per la storia


Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was born in Predappio, a small town in Emilia Romagna, on July 29, 1883. His father, a staunch socialist, was a blacksmith. His mother, Rosa Maltoni, taught in the local school. He had two siblings, Arnaldo and Edvige. A troublesome child, Benito Mussolini was expelled from school after he attacked a fellow student with a penknife. Despite his unruly behavior, he passed his final examination and obtained a teaching diploma.


In 1902, looking for better employment prospects, young Benito Mussolini moved to Switzerland, where he worked many different jobs. Following his father’s footsteps, he soon began writing political pieces for several socialist newspapers. In Switzerland, Mussolini also became known for his rhetorical skills, delivering public speeches for a labor union. As the union’s propagandist, he frequently advocated violent actions. More than once, his aggressive oratory led him to be arrested by the police.


In 1904, twenty-one-year-old Mussolini returned to Italy to answer his call-up notice for mandatory conscription. After a brief period working as a teacher, he reverted to journalism. His political activity often landed him in trouble. In 1909, for example, he was expelled from the territories of the Habsburg Empire. Around this time, Mussolini also became involved with Rachele Guidi, who would later become his wife.

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In the 1910s, Benito Mussolini’s ability as a political orator gained the attention of the Italian Socialist Party’s leadership. As a result, in 1912, he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Avanti! (Forward!), Italy’s leading socialist newspaper. Under his editorship, the Avanti!, based in Milan, soon increased its circulation and influence.


Between Socialism and Nationalism

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Headline of the December 31, 1914 issue of Il Popolo d’Italia, the newspaper founded by Benito Mussolini after his expulsion from the Socialist Party. Source: Cultura Bologna


After the outbreak of World War I, a heated debate between the pacifists and the interventisti, who advocated Italy’s involvement in the conflict, divided the Italian peninsula. Initially, Mussolini supported the government’s policy of neutrality. However, in the editorial published on October 18, 1914, he voiced a different opinion, urging Italy to join the military efforts. His editorial was met with outrage by the Socialist leaders, who immediately expelled Mussolini from the party. The future Duce responded by founding a new newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia (The People of Italy), where he continued to write articles calling for Italy’s entry into the war.


In 1915, after the Italian government decided to take part in the world conflict, Benito Mussolini was drafted into the Bersaglieri, a corps of sharpshooters. Two years later, he received an extended leave from the army due to injuries sustained during a weapon field test gone wrong. He also resumed his editorship of Il Popolo d’Italia.


The war irreparably worsened the rift between Mussolini and the Socialist Party. In the tense post-war political landscape, he firmly rejected socialist internationalism, advocating the merits of a firm nationalism. As the economic crisis led to widespread socio-political upheaval, Mussolini soon emerged as one of the staunchest critics of the liberal government, accused of having led a disastrous military campaign that culminated in the humiliating defeat of Caporetto in 1917. From Mussolini’s perspective, the economic crisis and the lack of social stability were proof of the failure of liberal democracy.


Benito Mussolini & the Origins of the Fascist Movement

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A group of Blackshirts at Piazzale San Sepolcro, Milan, 1919. Source: Fanpage


In postwar Italy, Mussolini was not the only one advocating for the need to overthrow the liberal order. Across the Italian peninsula, numerous far-right groups started to emerge. On March 23, 1919, at Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan, Benito Mussolini united the heterogeneous supporters of the nationalist movement into the Fasci di combattimento (Fighting Bands). The first members of the Fasci included former socialists, unionists, war veterans, Futurists, and Arditi. They all shared the same disdain for the liberal government.


The Fasci di combattimento was partly inspired by the Fasci d’azione rivoluzionaria (Revolutionary Action Bands), a movement founded by Mussolini in 1914-1915 to promote Italy’s intervention in World War I. The term fasci (fasces) has Latin origins. In ancient Rome, the fascis was a bundle of wooden rods, often including an ax, displayed in official ceremonies. For the fascists, it came to symbolize the strong bond tidying them together.


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The Manifesto of the Fasci di combattimento published in Il Popolo d’Italia. Source: Museo Nazionale della Resistenza, Milan


From the beginning, the Fasci di combattimento began to carry out attacks against socialists and trade unionists who, in the so-called Biennio Rosso (Two Red Years), organized strikes and demonstrations. The Fascists’ actions soon gained the sympathies of landowners and industrialists, who feared the left-wing parties’ increased influence. Despite an initial electoral defeat in November 1919, Mussolini’s personal charisma and anti-socialist rhetoric increased the base of his movement. Between 1920 and 1921, as Italy seemed on the brink of civil war, the fascists, nicknamed Camicie Nere (Black Shirts) after the color of their uniforms, burned down the offices of trade unions and socialist organizations, attacking and killing political opponents.


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Propaganda poster advertising the “Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution,” ca. 1932. Source: Catalogo generale dei Beni Culturali


During the following turbulent years, known as Biennio Nero, Mussolini presented himself and his movement as the only existing barrier between social order and the looming threat of a Bolshevik revolution. At the same time, he voiced the frustration of those Italians who accused the liberal government of having failed to secure the territorial promises made by the Entente powers. Using an expression coined by the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, Mussolini referred to Italy’s victory as “mutilated.”


Defying the Parliament: The March on Rome & the First Fascist Government

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Benito Mussolini in Rome after King Victor Emmanuel III appointed him prime minister, October 30, 1922. Source: Focus


As the fascist movement grew, Mussolini began to modify its initial ideological basis. While the Manifesto of the Fasci included elements derived from his socialist past, the new program of the Partito Nazionale Fascista (Fascist National Party), or PNF, founded to reorganize the movement, championed territorial expansionism, corporatism, the end of the class struggle, and the universal mission of the Catholic Church.


In 1922, when the PNF controlled most of Italy, Benito Mussolini finally decided to challenge the government. After having violently stifled an anti-fascist strike, he organized the so-called March on Rome to topple the liberal order and gain power. Between October 27 and 30, across the peninsula, the squadristi (members of the fascist Action Squads) began to advance toward the capital, sacking and destroying the offices of newspapers and political opponents. Mussolini, however, opted not to march with his supporters, only traveling to Rome in a sleeper train after King Victor Emmanuel III assigned him the task of forming a new national government.


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Mussolini delivers his discorso del bivacco (bivacco speech) at the Chamber of Deputies, November 16, 1922. Source: Museo Nazionale della Resistenza, Milan


Though the March on Rome was more a nationwide “punitive expedition” than a full-scale violent revolution, Mussolini did not hide that his ultimate goal was the eradication of the liberal and parliamentary political system. Addressing the parliament on November 16, Mussolini famously threatened: “I could have made this drab silent hall into a camp [bivacco] for my squads … I could have barred the doors of parliament and created a government which was only made up of Fascists: but I didn’t want to, at least for now.”


The Matteotti Crisis

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The funeral of Giacomo Matteotti, August 21, 1924. Source: Casa Museo Giacomo Matteotti, Fratta Polesine


In 1924, after passing a special election law (Acerbo Law) to secure its control of the Parliament, the PNF received 65 percent of the votes. In May, socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti held a speech in the Chamber to denounce the fascist violence and intimidation surrounding the national elections. On June 10, 1924, he was kidnapped by a group of fascists in Rome. His battered body was discovered in August. Matteotti’s murder shook the nation. Faced with the abrupt loss of public favor, Mussolini feared for the future of his government.


However, when a group of opponents walked out of the Parliament (an event known as “Aventine Secession”), hoping for the king to demand the PNF leader’s resignation, Mussolini was free to organize and implement a counteroffensive. On January 3, 1925, in a Parliament virtually void of opposition deputies, Mussolini declared:


“They said Fascism is a horde of barbarians …, a movement of bandits and marauders! … Very well, I now declare before this assembly and before the entire Italian nation, that I assume, I alone, full political, moral, and historical responsibility for all that has happened.”


It was the beginning of Mussolini’s dictatorship.


Il Duce

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Propaganda poster of Benito Mussolini. Source: Catalogo generale dei Beni Culturali


After 1925, Mussolini, now the undisputed Duce of Italy, set to dismantle the liberal and parliamentary system. In particular, the so-called leggi fascistissime (“super fascist” laws), a series of decrees issued between 1925 and 1926, transformed the Kingdom of Italy into a dictatorial state. Slowly, the fascist regime oversaw every aspect of people’s lives, from their education to their free time. Crede, Obbedire, Combattere (Believe, Obey, Fight) declared a famous fascist motto. The secret police, known as OVRA, monitored and stopped all anti-fascist activities. Political opponents were sent to jail or exiled to remote locations.


As stated in the first article of the 1927 Labor Charter, Mussolini saw the nation as an “organism whose aim, whose life and whose means of action are superior to those of the single individuals … It is a moral, political and economic unity, which finds its complete expression in the Fascist State.”


The Labor Charter, introducing corporatism as the new economic system, cemented Mussolini’s self-portrait as a responsible leader who vouched for the stability and order of the nation. After all, according to a common saying, the Duce had even “made the trains run on time.”


A group of Ethiopians salute an image of Benito Mussolini in Mekelle, November 1935. Source: Foreign Affairs


As the Head of Government, Mussolini deliberately created a cult of personality around himself. In the newsreel and propaganda movies distributed by the Istituto Luce (Light Institute), he was usually depicted as a heroic leader, riding on horseback or bare-chested in the fields with Italian farmers. Mussolini also developed a dramatic oratory style, full of striking metaphors and theatrical gestures. His grandiloquent speech delivery and exaggerated poses never failed to rouse his audience.


Mussolini’s propaganda was full of references to Latin and ancient Roman imagery. In 1936, after the end of the Italo-Ethiopian colonial war, the Duce boastfully announced from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia “the reappearance of the empire on the fatal hills of Rome.” A racial legislation carefully regulated the interactions between Italians and Ethiopians. In 1938, Mussolini also introduced a series of anti-Semitic laws, discriminating and persecuting Italian and foreign Jews.


Benito Mussolini & Adolf Hitler

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Benito Mussolini with Adolf Hitler. Source: Smithsonian Magazine


In the 1930s, Mussolini sought to play the role of the impartial mediator between the Western powers and the countries aiming to dismantle the world order established at Versailles. To this end, for example, he promoted the Munich Conference to solve the issue of the Sudetenland, a territory Adolf Hitler claimed was rightfully German. By 1938, Mussolini had linked the fascist regime with the Third Reich. The following year, the so-called Pact of Steel formalized the political and military alliance between the two countries.


At the outbreak of World War II, however, Mussolini initially opted against entering the conflict right away. Only on June 10, 1940, when the German army had already defeated France, did the Duce announce his decision to join the war.


“Fighters of land, sea and air, Blackshirts of the revolution and of the legions, men and women of Italy …,” proclaimed Mussolini in front of an enormous crowd gathered in Piazza Venezia, “The hour destined by fate is sounding for us. The hour of irrevocable decision has come. A declaration of war already has been handed to the Ambassadors of Great Britain and France.”


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Benito Mussolini during a public speech. Source: University of Oslo


Despite Mussolini’s rhetoric, Italy’s military campaigns were unsuccessful. Determined to launch a “parallel war” to prove the strength of his regime to his powerful ally, Mussolini ordered an offensive against the British forces in Egypt, followed by the invasion of Greece. However, the attacks soon stalled, and Germany sent its troops to aid the ill-equipped Italian soldiers. Similarly, in 1943, the Italian Army in Russia, or ARMIR, severely lacking in adequate winter gear, was forced to retreat through the Soviet Union’s territories.


The Fall of the Fascist Regime & Benito Mussolini’s Death

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The bodies of Benito Mussolini and Claretta Betacci in Piazzale Loreto. Source: Focus


Mussolini’s disastrous military expeditions contributed to the erosion of public support for his fascist regime. In particular, his failures alienated the country’s elites, who had played a crucial role in securing his rise to power. On July 25, 1943, the members of the Grand Council passed a vote of no confidence against the Duce. Later that day, leaving a meeting with King Victor Emmanuel III, Mussolini was arrested. He was then imprisoned at Campo Imperatore, a hotel on the Gran Sasso mountains. Across the peninsula, jubilant crowds of Italians took to the street to celebrate the fall of the Duce.


After a group of German soldiers helped him escape from his prison, Mussolini founded the Italian Social Republic, also known as the Republic of Salò, a new fascist state near Lake Garda. The republic assisted the occupying German army’s operations against the Resistance and collaborated in the deportation of Italian Jews.


In April 1945, Mussolini, his long-time lover Claretta Petacci, and some high-ranking fascist officials were arrested and shot by a group of partisans as they were trying to escape to Switzerland. On April 28, their bodies were hanged upside down at a gas station in Piazzale Loreto, a square in Milan where the Germans had previously exposed to the public fifteen dead partisans. A large crowd gathered in Piazzale Loreto to vent their anger on the body of the former Duce of Italy.

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By Maria-Anita RonchiniMA History & Jewish Studies, BA HistoryMaria Anita currently works as a writer in Italy. She holds a BA in History from the University of Bologna and a MA in History & Jewish studies from LMU-Munich. Her primary interest is the relationship between memory and history. Maria Anita is passionate about analyzing the construction of historical narratives and collective memories. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching tv, and writing fiction.