28 April 1945 – Benito Mussolini

Benito MussoliniThere’s nothing like a fascist dictator to really wind people up. And Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini wound the Italians up to such an extent there was a real hate campaign against him by the end.

Leftie

Mussolini started off fine and bizarrely, in his early years, he even had socialist tendencies working as a journalist for a socialist newspaper. But it didn’t last long and the First World War soon put a stop to that and he came back a changed (and right-wing) man – the seeds of raving dictator were germinating.

The right-wing following started small with just 200 people joined his Milan fascist following in 1919, which comprised ex-army men who would persecute the left-wing extremists. This went unchallenged by the government at the time and so the following grew until Mussolini was able to take a seat on the Chamber of Deputies.

Less is MOR

His rise was like a star in the ascendancy. His party marched on Rome and they swiped power from the then Prime Minister – Luigi Facta. Even the King supported Mussolini over the incumbent PM. And Mussolini enjoyed the backing of other notables – businessmen, the armed forces, even the centre right.

He started off fairly middle of the road, setting up a coalition of all the mainstream political divisions and seduced people into following him. But his end goal was one of complete power. He slowly disbanded powerful working class institutions, such as the unions as well as privatising industries and making it easier for landowners to rent out. All he did bolstered the richer classes at the expense of the proletariat.

Right on

Meanwhile he was paving the way for a solid dictatorship – which was to earn him the title Il Duce (or leader) – bringing down the barriers in his way. In just six years he was able to realise his dream and the propaganda kicked in to placate the masses. Indeed there was little or no opposition to the rise of the fascist machine at this point. However, an Irish woman by the name of Violet Gibson did take a pot shot that grazed his nose, an American planned an assassination but was caught and executed and when a fellow Italian’s attempt failed he was lynched right there and then.

To be fair though, there seemed to be little to oppose. He produced measures to offset economic or employment worries. He even seduced people into giving up their gold, which in turn was melted down and made into gold bars to bolster the country’s gold reserves.

All those industries he’d privatised earlier were taken back and placed under so-called state control and he imposed strict trade sanctions with the rest of world – except for Germany – and this was the start of an uneasy relationship with a fellow dictator.

Ousted

With this relationship there came a shift from splendid isolation to aggression – he was a dominating force in Libya and Albania for example. And he famously ousted Haile Selassie from his homeland Ethiopia. But while Hitler was an outward fan of the Italian leader, the feeling was not mutual. Importantly, Mussolini was not a racist. He just wanted to extend his territory and impose Italian culture on those countries and extensions of his empire. Hitler, on the other hand, wanted to eradicate those who didn’t fit within his view of Aryanism. Nevertheless, Mussolini had a vision of being an ‘Axis Power’ – a superpower alongside Berlin and bit by bit Hitler emerged as the dominant leader.

However, it was not just Hitler, Mussolini also teamed up with Franco in the Spanish Civil War. But he was careful not to burn bridges in the years running up to the Second World War. Crucially its armed forced were seriously thin on the ground thanks to all the imperialistic moves in the run-up to the war.

Safe bet?

German occupation of France was looming, so Italy thought they were backing the stronger horse and declared war on the Allies. Steeled by a successful invasion of Yugoslavia and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, Italy announced it was at war with the US too.

That brought the winning streak to an end. With crashing defeats in Tunisia and in the east, Italy became vulnerable when the Allies arrived in Sicily.

But it was the internal unrest that did the most damage. Italy was suffering from depleted resources and Allied bombing had brought production to its knees. Mussolini was so diverted by war that internal propaganda had lost the focus, so the war-weary Italians turned to the Church for solace. And the anti-Semitic activities of Hitler mobilised the Jewish contingent in Italy, which rose up against Il Duce. Even the military leaders were losing the faith, instead they turned to the Allies.

Friend or foe

Mussolini was eventually arrested in 1943 and by then Italy was a total mess. Divided loyalties equalled turmoil in the now desecrated country, which was still occupied by Germans, but the new government signed a treaty with the Allies. The inhabitants didn’t know what to think and in-fighting kicked on. By mid-October Italy had completely defected to the Allies side and turned on its former Germanic friends.

In the meantime, an incarcerated Mussolini was saved by the Germans in the hope that he’d be able to resurrect a Fascist party in the north. But such was the unrest that he attempted to escape to Spain via Switzerland with his bit of stuff, Clara Petacci.

Grave issues

Unfortunately for the pair, they were caught by the communists and they wound up at Mezzegra, on Lake Como up in the north. It was there that they were famously executed on the quiet by a firing squad alongside 13 other fascist supporters. Mussolini was 61. Their bodies were then strung upside down publicly in the capital of Milan from the roof of an Esso petrol station in an act of vengeance and as a deterrent for insurgents still supporting the fascist cause.

He was buried in an unmarked grave – but he was soon dug up by sympathisers proving that even in death he was able to cause havoc too. His body was literally on the run, but he was finally interred in the town where he was born.

Pop goes the weasel

But the evils of his legacy live on. His life and times inspired the likes of the 1991 film ‘Bugsy’, starring Warren Beatty on a mission to kill Il Duce, while the man himself was played by Antonio Banderas in ‘Benito: The Rise and Fall of Mussolini’ in 1993, as well as featuring in Franco Zefferelli’s ‘Tea With Mussolini’.

Pop culture didn’t let the right-wing weasel rest, either with Alexei Sayle’s parody in ‘The Young Ones’, plus a merciless stint on the ‘Simpsons’.

Also on this day

28 April 1954 – Thomas Ronald Lewis Harries

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