01/03 – Benito Mussolini

Mussolini surrounded by armed guards in the 1920s, prior to embracing his infamous quasi-military outfit. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1925, Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini abruptly announced his transition from democratically-elected Prime Minister to cartoonish dictator. For his first years in power – after coming to prominence with his March on Rome in 1922 – Il Duce (The Leader) consolidated power by the usual fascist means of imprisoning enemies and censoring critics. Following that, he incited violence against minorities and perceived enemies whilst gradually expanding his political reach until nearly all important decisions – including military ones – were made by him. Obsessed with austere notions of “blood and soil” and the supremacy of the state over all, Mussolini was a skilled orator and an expert at exhorting disaffected young men to violence. While his gangs of Black Shirts terrorized minorities and political enemies, the Italian dictator set about trying to expand his new, Rome-inspired empire. All in all, Mussolini’s steps to power were emulated closely by most other fascist leaders in the 1930s (and the present day).

Prophetic comedian Charlie Chaplin drew heavily from Mussolini’s cartoonish reputation for his 1940 film “The Dictator”. (Wikimedia Commons)

WWII was Mussolini’s chance to seize new land and earn new prestige. But for the Italian dictator, the war resulted in a series of humiliations. His troops could barely hold their own against the Ethiopian Army, retreated thousands of miles in North Africa, and eventually gave up altogether when Allied troops landed in Italy in 1943. Hitler – once Il Duce’s biggest fan – was forced to step in and help the ridiculous little dictator out of his predicament. As the war continued, more Italians – who had never embraced fascism to the same degree as their German counterparts – turned on Mussolini, and eventually lynched him and his wife in Milan. Mussolini may have been a pathetic failure of a leader (and partial inspiration for Charlie Chaplin’s The Dictator) but his legacy is one of obscene violence, political corruption and, perhaps worst of all, inspiring a broad fascist movement in Europe in the 1930s.

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