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The Real Mussolini

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini appears to stride through 20th-century Italian history like a buffoon, a fascist dictator whose ludicrous posing was dwarfed by the incalculably more sinister nature of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime. In reality, as shown in Channel 4's The Real Mussolini – which includes an interview with veteran journalist Indro Montanelli, who died in July 2001 – the original fascist was a much more complex character.

Young socialist

Mussolini was born in 1883. As a young man, he was a rousing orator, a tireless journalist – and a socialist. In 1912, after years of hack journalism and self-promotion, he was appointed editor of the Socialist Party newspaper Avanti!, preaching left wing revolution.

But, when the First World War broke out, and Mussolini called for Italy to ally itself with France, he was expelled from the party, whose policy was neutrality. When Italy joined the war, Mussolini fought in the army, then after peace in 1918 rebuilt his political career by appealing to his fellow ex-servicemen. The result was a new political philosophy: a combination of nationalism, authoritarian discipline and charismatic leadership. Mussolini called it Fascism.

Successful Fascist

The Fascist movement was launched in 1919. As a succession of governments faced strikes, factory occupations and riots, Fascist gangs presented themselves as the only force able to restore order. Their methods were increasingly violent; when a general strike was called in 1922, Fascists burned down Socialist Party buildings and destroyed the presses of Avanti!.

Mussolini then started the March on Rome, a show of strength aimed at making him dictator. But although this appeared to be a coup, in fact its success depended on support from Italy's king, Victor Emmanuel III. In the event, Mussolini didn't march to Rome – he went to Rome by train and became prime minister by royal appointment.

Mussolini's rule was brutally authoritarian: the parliament was packed with Fascists, opposition newspapers were banned, and opponents of the regime were beaten up. However, the regime was also genuinely popular – Mussolini was part celebrity and part saint. About 3,000 different picture postcards portraying him were independently produced under Fascism, with total sales approaching 100,000,000.

Fascism was not Nazism: Mussolini didn't share Hitler's obsessive racism. There was no systematic discrimination against Jews; and political opponents were imprisoned or exiled to remote regions of Italy rather than thrown into concentration camps.

Fatal attraction

In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany. Although Mussolini was the senior Fascist, he soon recognised Hitler as the dominant figure on the European stage. Reversing his earlier policies, and despite the fact that he had once had a Jewish mistress, Mussolini introduced anti-Semitic legislation.

In 1935, Mussolini tried to demonstrate Italy's power by invading Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). The following year, Italy joined Germany in providing military support to General Franco's Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, while Hitler supported Mussolini's fantasies about a new Italian empire. In 1940, Italy entered the Second World War on Germany's side.

Mismanaged, ill-equipped and worn down by years of fighting in Abyssinia and Spain, Italian forces were routed in Greece and got bogged down in North Africa. In the spring of 1943, they were driven out of Africa; on 10 July, Allied forces landed in Sicily. Soon after, Mussolini was deposed by the Fascist Grand Council and the king. In September, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, and Mussolini was arrested and held in a remote hotel in the Apennines.

But Hitler couldn't let Italy fall without a fight: the Germans invaded the country, Mussolini was rescued by German crack troops, and taken to the northern lakeside resort of Salò, where he was proclaimed head of a new Italian republic. Here, he attempted to reinvent Fascism, but the real power lay with the Nazis.

Endgame

In 1945, after much bitter fighting, the Germans withdrew from Italy, and on 27 April 1945 Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were captured by Italian Resistance forces. They were both shot, in confused circumstances, the following day. The bodies were put on public display, hung by the feet. The dead dictator was now hated as fiercely as he had once been loved.

Mussolini remains a figure of contradictions: the socialist who became a Fascist; the buffoon who loved dressing up but was terrified of people laughing at him; the family man who nevertheless kept several mistresses; the supporter of the racist Hitler who enjoyed black jazz music; the moderniser who used images of antiquity. Although democratic politicians such as Winston Churchill were his fans, seeing him as a bulwark against communism, Mussolini's attraction to Hitler proved to be his downfall.

After the end of the war, another Italian Republic was founded and the Fascist party was banned. But the veterans of the Salò republic set up the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement). Renamed the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), the party is now part of Italy's coalition government. The names have changed, but the legacy of right wing authoritarianism lives on.

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