Benito Mussolini was Europe’s first 20th-century fascist dictator. His rise to power in Italy came during a tumultuous period characterised by economic instability, social unrest, and political disillusionment.
As the founder of the National Fascist Party, Mussolini spearheaded the rise of Fascism – a radical and authoritarian political ideology that sought to transform Italy into a centralised, corporatist state. Obtaining power by a combination of political opportunism, propaganda, intimidation, and the exploitation of the country’s economic and social grievances, as Italy’s dictator, he centralised control, suppressed dissent, and embarked on a path of aggressive expansion, leading the nation into World War Two.
What factors led to Mussolini’s rise to power, and how did this come crashing down?
Early 20th century Italy
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italy faced numerous challenges that contributed to political instability and discontent among its citizens. Unification, achieved in 1861, had not brought about the expected prosperity for the newly-formed nation, and Italy remained socially, economically, and politically divided. Southern regions lagged behind the industrialised north, and rural poverty was widespread.
Furthermore, Italy’s involvement in World War One had resulted in significant human and economic losses, contributing to a sense of disillusionment among its population.
Mussolini’s early life and development of Fascist ideology
Benito Mussolini was born on 29 July 1883, in Predappio in northeastern Italy to a working-class family with socialist beliefs. He followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming involved in left-wing politics and working as a journalist for various socialist publications, including Avanti! (1912-1914) – the official daily newspaper of Italy’s Socialist Party – where he honed his skills in propaganda and persuasive writing, amassing a large following.
However, during World War One, Mussolini’s political beliefs dramatically switched to the right, when he became a supporter of Italy’s war effort. After subsequently being expelled from Avanti!, he founded the pro-war Il Popolo d’Italia group, and served in the Italian army from 1915-1917 with the bersagliere (sharpshooters).
Wounded, he returned home a convinced anti-socialist, and returned to editing publications. As early as February 1918, he advocated for government by dictatorship to address Italy’s crises, hinting at his own potential leadership.
Mussolin’s growing disillusionment with socialism and belief in nationalism, anti-Marxism, and authoritarianism led him to develop the ideology of Fascism. He advocated for a strong, centralised state that prioritised national unity and glorified military power, with his political ideas including themes of racial superiority, xenophobia, and imperialism.
Mussolini viewed class struggle as destructive, instead favouring class collaboration through corporatism, where different economic classes would work together under state control.
He propagated these beliefs through his writing and speeches, including his 1919 manifesto, The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism, which helped gain support for his political movement, fasci di combattimento (Combat Squads).
These squads of black-shirted nationalist paramilitary supporters, known as the ‘Blackshirts’ (from which his far-right movement of fascism derived its own name – fascismo) were the precursor to his Fascist Party.
Mussolini’s path to power
To bolster his political position, Mussolini used tactics of intimidation and violence, organising his Blackshirts to wage campaigns of terrorism and intimidation against leftist institutions, suppressing opposition and disrupting socialist gatherings. These actions created an atmosphere of fear, contributing to Mussolini’s appeal as a leader who could bring order and discipline to the country.
In 1921, Mussolini transformed his paramilitary movement into a formal political party, the National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF), capitalising on the growing frustration with Italy’s political establishment and promising a solution to the nation’s problems. The PNF gained support from disaffected war veterans, landowners, and conservative elements who sought stability and order.
As a result of his growing popularity and political manoeuvring, in 1921, Mussolini was elected to the lower chamber of Italy’s parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, a significant step in his rise to power.
The March on Rome
In October 1922, amidst widespread civil unrest and threats of a socialist-led general strike and communist revolution, Mussolini and 30,000 of his Blackshirt militia organised the March on Rome. Although the march itself was relatively uneventful, it effectively pressured King Victor Emmanuel III to invite Mussolini to form a new government.
The plan worked and on 31 October 1922, Mussolini was appointed Italy’s Prime Minister, as well as interior minister – crucially giving him control over the police. This began his path to becoming the undisputed dictator of the country.
Mussolini’s consolidation of power and impact on Italy
Once in power, Mussolini worked to centralise control, dismantling democratic institutions and consolidating authority in the hands of the Fascist Party. He assumed his role as dictator and adopted the title Il Duce (‘The Leader’), fostering a cult of personality. Opposition was suppressed through censorship, intimidation, and the establishment of a secret police force.
Mussolini implemented policies that aimed to revitalise the Italian economy and strengthen the military. He banned labour strikes and initiated social reforms and ambitious public works projects, such as draining marshlands, building roads, and promoting infrastructure development, that garnered widespread popular support. However, these initiatives were often poorly planned and financially burdensome, leading to economic difficulties and increased public debt.
His regime pursued an aggressive foreign policy, seeking to expand Italy’s colonial empire and revive the image of the Roman Empire with himself as a modern-day Caesar. The conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-1936 demonstrated his willingness to use military force to achieve his goals, but also sparked international condemnation and Italy’s isolation on the world stage.
Alliance with Nazi Germany
As tensions in Europe escalated, Mussolini sought to strengthen his position through alliances. In 1936, he formed the Rome-Berlin Axis with Nazi Germany, aligning Italy with Adolf Hitler’s territorial expansion ambitions and supporting each other’s fascist plans.
On 22 May 1939 Mussolini and Hitler formalised their alliance with the ‘Pact of Steel’, a military and political alliance creating the Axis powers, which later went on to include Japan. Wary of German power, Mussolini saw this partnership as a defensive measure against potential wars with Western democracies, and as a source of support for his Balkan plans.
Although hesitant to join World War Two due to Italy’s strained resources from pre-existing economic issues and their Ethiopian conquest, Mussolini feared losing claim to conquered European lands resulting from Hitler’s advance, and entered the war in 1940.
However, Italy’s military performance in the war was uninspiring, and the country struggled to keep up with the military capabilities of the major powers. The alliance between Italy and Germany was marked by mutual distrust, sharing only vague prospective plans and with each reacting rather than acting together.
Italy’s decline and Mussolini’s downfall
As the war progressed, Italy suffered significant military defeats in North Africa, Greece, the Soviet Union and the Balkans, which weakened Mussolini’s regime and eroded domestic support, as Italians questioned the direction he was taking the country. Economic hardships and wartime rationing further added to his declining popularity.
In 1943, as Allied forces launched a daring invasion of Sicily and advanced towards Rome, Mussolini’s fascist allies in the Fascist Grand Council – fearing for their own survival – orchestrated his removal from power. Fearing complete ruin, King Victor Emmanuel III dismissed Mussolini from his position as Prime Minister on 25 July 1943 and had him arrested.
Last days and legacy
After being rescued by German troops, Mussolini briefly led the puppet Italian Social Republic at Salò in northern Italy from September 1943. As Germany’s power waned, he attempted to escape to Switzerland but was captured by Italian partisans on 27 April 1945. The next day, Mussolini and his then mistress, Clara Petacci, were executed by firing squad. In a symbolic display of contempt and of the end of Fascist rule in Italy, their bodies were subsequently hung upside down in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto.