While trying to flee to neutral Switzerland at the end of World War II, on the 27th of April 1945, Italian politician Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were executed at Giulino di Mezzegra, in the Province of Como, by Communist partisans. He had been born on the 29th of July 1883 in Predappio, in the province of Forli-Cesena.
A World War I veteran, Mussolini in 1919 founded the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Fasci of Combat). His socialist origins are evident, as the original name of this political movement, which he created in 1914, was Fasci d’Azione Rivoluzionaria (Fasci of Revolutionary Action). A “fascio”; plural “fasci”, can refers to a “bundle”, “sheaf”, or figuratively “league”, and became the symbol of Fascism. A new formal name was adopted in 1921, and in use until the Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party) lost power in 1943. Its short-lived successor, the Partito Fascista Repubblicano (Republican Fascist Party), could only be founded with German help and vanished into history the day Mussolini died.
Taking advantage of Italy’s political instability and the weakness of King Victor Emmanuel III, after his famous March on Rome in October 1922, Mussolini became the youngest Italian Prime Minister before Matteo Renzi in 2014. Step by step he consolidated his position until he seized absolute power in 1925, calling himself from then on “Il Duce” (from Latin Dux, “General”) or “The Leader”.
Although clearly anticlerical, Mussolini ended the long struggle between the Italian state and the Papacy, recognizing the independence of the Vatican in 1929. He also managed to finally crush a revolt in Libya, a colony since 1912, in 1932. Meeting with Adolf Hitler for the first time in 1934, he informally agreed to the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936. The uneven friendship between the two countries resulted in the 1939 Pact of Steel, shortly after the Kingdom of Albania had become an Italian protectorate.
During the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936, Il Duce supported victorious General Francisco Franco. The same year, the Ethiopian Empire was conquered and merged with two other older colonies, Eritrea and Somalia, into Italian East Africa. It quickly fell apart during World War II, in the North African Campaign from 1941 to 1943. Italian troops also participated in the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad. When it became clear that after the Allied landed in Sicily in July 1943 Italy was definitely on the losing side, the Fascist Grand Council voted him out of power shortly afterwards.
He offered no resistance, was arrested, and finally transferred to a mountain plateau in Central Italy. In the course of the Gran Sasso Raid, Mussolini was rescued by German commandos in September 1943 and brought to Salò, a small town in the province of Brescia. From there, a provisional government backed by Germany, the Italian Social Republic, controlled an ever shrinking territory that at the beginning extended south of Rome. The sad remnants of it surrendered one day after the Germans did, on the 1st of May 1945. At that time the great leader had already been assassinated.
Fascism was a totalitarian political and social movement in 20th century Italy, characterized by corporatism and nationalist exaltation. It tried to offer an alternative to liberal democracy like in the United States of America, and the brutal regime installed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by the Bolsheviks. In strong contrast to National Socialism, in the beginning it lacked an obvious anti-Semitic component. There were quite a few Jews who adhered enthusiastically to Mussolini’s program.
For 27 years Il Duce had a Jewish lover, Margherita Sarfatti, who even wrote a biography of him. In 1934, he still declared that “there has never been antisemitism in Italy.” Apparently, the concept of “difesa della razza” (defense of the race) gained momentum during Italy’s colonial war in Africa. Only in 1938, racial laws were passed and enforced, full three years after Germany. As a result, about 8,000 Italian Jews perished.
Due to the strong leftist influence in Western media and academia, the term “Fascism” nowadays often randomly refers to all of Europe´s right-wing governments in the 20th century. It´s especially used for Germany, Spain and Croatia, but also for Portugal, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland or the Baltic States, sometimes even for Greece.
The fact that in Franco´s Spain, the National Catholic side actually won the internal struggle with José Antonio Primo de Rivera´s party Falange Española, which showed clear fascist tendencies and opposed neutrality, is just one of the important differences between those regimes, including Mussolini´s Italy. Therefore, there must not be lumped together.
Benito Mussolini was a unique historical figure, and his successors, beginning with the Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano), never recreated any of the notorious glamour he always stood for.