13 Facts About Benito Mussolini
For a brief moment in time, Benito Mussolini was an Italian hero, praised by millions for giving the nation a taste of its lost greatness. But he’s better known as the father of fascism, a brutal dictator, and Hitler’s role model. Here are 13 facts about one of the darkest political figures of the 20th century.
1. MUSSOLINI WAS EXPELLED FROM SCHOOL.
Born in 1883 in Verano di Costa, about 40 miles southeast of Bologna, Benito Mussolini was a difficult child. His father was a blacksmith and a devout Socialist. Prone to insolence and violence, Mussolini was sent by his parents to a strict Catholic boarding school. But the new environment hardly tempered his behavior, and at age 10 he was expelled for stabbing a fellow student with a penknife. Before turning 20 he stabbed a few more peers, including one of his girlfriends.
2. HE WAS INFLUENCED BY LES MIS.
Mussolini was deeply moved by Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables. How he first encountered the novel isn't clear. Some historians say that Mussolini’s father used to read it aloud to the family at home, while other accounts claim that Mussolini heard it read in public by the residents of his hometown in winter gatherings.
3. HE WROTE A BODICE-RIPPING NOVEL.
In 1909, Mussolini penned The Cardinal’s Mistress, a lurid historical fiction set in 17th-century Italy. Originally published as an anti-religious newspaper serial, the book version became wildly popular and was contemporaneously translated into 10 languages. Mussolini himself described it as “a novel for seamstresses and scandal” and “a nasty book.” With its unbridled language and licentious plot, the novel made fun of the Catholic Church.
4. HE FOUNDED A FASCIST POLITICAL PARTY.
Mussolini’s first direct stab at politics was with the Fascist Revolutionary Party, which he founded in 1915. The “Fascist Manifesto,” circulated in 1919, was an early blueprint for a populist movement, calling for full voting rights for men and women, abolition of the Senate (which was dominated by the aristocracy), and massive taxation on the wealthy.
But in 1921 Mussolini rebranded and reorganized the party as the National Fascist Party, this time putting much more emphasis on honoring (and even glamorizing) Italian national identity.
5. NOT SURPRISINGLY, MUSSOLINI WAS INSPIRED BY THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
Nostalgia was central to Mussolini’s fascist movement. To engage the public, Mussolini repurposed many antiquated symbols associated (whether accurately or not) with Rome’s historical glory, like the stretched-arm salute and the perched eagle. Even the word fascist echoes the Roman fasces, a bundle of sticks bound together that were used in ancient Rome to signify authority. But Mussolini was actually using an existing term, fascis, which was popular with Italian radical groups as early as the 1890s.
6. MUSSOLINI TERRORIZED HIS FELLOW COUNTRYMEN.
Though fascism valorized traditional values and national unity, in practice Mussolini and his followers acted more like a homicidal mob. They terrorized northern Italy by targeting Communists and vandalizing newspaper offices and social clubs. Within two years, Mussolini oversaw the murder of nearly 2000 political opponents within Italy.
7. HE FORCED THE KING OF ITALY ASIDE.
Victor Emmanuel III was king of Italy when Mussolini launched his grassroots party. But in October 1922, when Mussolini and his followers marched on Rome, Emmanuel feared that resisting the fascists would only result in more bloodshed and chaos. The king put up no resistance as Mussolini’s mob barged into the area. In fact, he ended up legitimizing the march by appointing Mussolini prime minister, thinking that the appointment would push Mussolini to cooperate with parliament. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Instead, Mussolini leaned on his popularity to establish a dictatorship in 1925.
8. MUSSOLINI ENACTED ANTI-SEMITIC POLICIES WITHOUT WARNING.
Unlike the führer in Nazi Germany, Il Duce didn’t focus too harshly on Jews—up to a point. Until 1938, Italian Jews were seen as part of the nation, and were allowed to join the Fascist Party. “The Fascist government has no intention whatsoever of taking political, economic, or moral measures against Jews,” an official memo from the time reassured the public.
But this changed almost overnight. In July 1938, the government began passing anti-Jewish laws. A few months later Mussolini announced that “foreign Jews” would be deported and those naturalized after January 1919 would lose their citizenship. Exactly what led to the change is unclear; historians debate the extent to which Mussolini himself harbored anti-Semitic beliefs. It’s thought to be likely that he considered expelling Jews an easy way to ingratiate himself to his Nazi allies.
9. HITLER CRIED WHEN HE MET MUSSOLINI.
For Adolf Hitler, Mussolini was a role model. Hitler admired his political skill, his dramatic style, and his talent for using brute nationalism to mobilize the masses. In 1923 Hitler tried and failed to replicate Mussolini’s power grab in Germany; the botched “Beer Hall Putsch” would land Hitler in jail for a time. Once in power, Hitler adopted many of his Italian counterpart’s dictatorial affectations, including the infamous salute.
Mussolini relished Hitler’s adoration. He told his mistress, Claretta Petacci, in 1938 that Hitler “had tears in his eyes” when the two had met. “At heart, Hitler is an old sentimentalist,” Mussolini said, according to Petacci’s journals.
10. HITLER CAME TO MUSSOLINI’S RESCUE.
By the middle of World War II, Hitler’s Germany became the unmistakable leader of the Axis Powers in Europe. Throughout the war, Italy’s influence diminished, and by 1943 Mussolini had become a liability to his Nazi ally. The Italian Grand Council voted to depose Il Duce. To everyone’s surprise, King Emmanuel asserted his power and had Mussolini arrested—after informing him that he was, at that moment, “the most hated man in Italy.”
Hitler came to the rescue. On September 12, 1943, a group of German glider pilots rescued Mussolini from his prison in a mountainside hotel in central Italy. The colonel in charge of the mission told Mussolini that Hitler had sent him and that he was now free. Mussolini reportedly responded, “I knew my friend Adolf wouldn’t desert me.”
11. MUSSOLINI HAD HIS SON-IN-LAW EXECUTED …
At Hitler’s command (and with the help of German forces), Mussolini seized power again in northern Italy. Upon regaining control, he immediately sought revenge on members of his close circle who he believed had betrayed him. One of them was his own son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, the Fascist government’s foreign minister. Ciano’s son later wrote a memoir on this historical moment titled When Grandpa Had Daddy Shot.
12. … AND THEN MUSSOLINI SUFFERED THE SAME FATE.
In the final years of the war, Mussolini was able to keep his power only through German force, which was dwindling as well. He knew his time was running out. “Seven years ago, I was an interesting person. Now, I am little more than a corpse,” he said in a 1945 interview. “I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.” He ended up fleeing with Claretta Petacci and others to the Swiss border, disguised as a member of the Luftwaffe. But he was recognized by Communist partisans, who shot him and Petacci on April 28, 1945 (two days before Hitler’s suicide). His body was brought back to Milan, where it was dragged along the streets and hung upside-down for public display.
13. HIS MOST FAMOUS QUOTE ISN’T REALLY HIS.
As a populist leader, Mussolini loved speaking directly to the people. Thousands would flock to the crowded square to watch the charismatic orator opine about national greatness. But perhaps his most famous aphorism—“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”—isn’t a Mussolini original. According to etymologist Barry Popik, Mussolini used the quote to commemorate WWI’s Battle of the Piave River, where an infantryman wrote on a wall, “Better live one hour like a lion than a hundred years like a sheep.” But even that wasn’t the origin of the saying—as early as 1800, Tipu Sultan of Mysore in modern India is credited with saying that he “would rather live two days like a tiger, than two hundred years like a sheep.”