In World War I (1914-1918) Italy joined forces with the allies, Britain and France, but victory was costly in lives and money. Rising Communist power spawned a counter movement from the right wing. A spellbinding orator called Benito Mussolini emerged with a black-shirted Fascist movement. When, in 1922, Italian Socialists/ Communists threatened a general strike, the Fascists used it as a pretext to seize control of transport, communications and all essential services. Within three years Mussolini had short-circuited parliamentary democracy and assumed dictatorial powers.
Mussolini was born in 1883 and was a restless, disobedient child who grew up a bully (he was expelled from school for stabbing a fellow student). In his youth he supported Socialist causes, then did a complete turnaround, and was expelled by the Socialist party.
During World War I he enlisted in the army, was wounded and returned to journalism, but this time as a right-wing rabble-rouser. His fiery speeches captivated peasants, discontented-socialists, veterans and the unemployed. After a march on Rome led by Mussolini in 1922, King Emmanuel III, thoroughly intimidated, appointed him Premier. He was only 39 years old.
Fascists demanded military order, national pride and often prejudice against other races. Facism became popular in the 1930’s because it seemed to be a way out of the economic decline and the Great Depression.
Adolph Hitler brought fascism to Germany in 1933, then Spain, Portugal, Austria, the Balkan States and South America followed. It was a prelude to the greatest war in world history.
WORLD WAR II
In Italy Mussolini was said to have “made the trains run on time” and his social policies won him the approval of the Italian people. Mussolini was not a great man but he was a splendid actor. Jutting out his jaw he hypnotized the Italian people for 21 years. His picture hung in every classroom and everyone was taught that IL DUCE, “the leader” was always right. The more successful he was, the more radical he became, and he imagined a new Roman Empire. “Only a weak nation wants peace” he said. “The whole nation must be militarized. I consider the Italian nation in a permanent state of war.”
In 1935, to expand Italy’s colonies in Africa, he cruelly used poison gas in his invasion of Ethiopia, but the world turned away from the appeals of the Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie.
Mussolini and his Fascist supporters were now addicted to power and imagined Italy as a mighty military nation. Adolph Hitler, the new powerful leader of Nazi Germany, praised Mussolini as “the leading statesman in the world.”
On a visit to Germany, Mussolini was awed by the enormous power that nation was building. He saw weapons in seemingly endless numbers rolling off the assembly lines — tanks, airplanes and guns. It was the beginning of a fatal military union between the two countries called the “Axis.”
ITALY GOES TO WAR AND FAILS
Mussolini imagined himself an equal partner of Adolph Hitler, but finished up as Hitler’s puppet. As World War II broke out in 1939 Italy attacked towns on the French Riviera but were turned back. Then Italy’s forces in Africa were defeated by the British. The ineptitude of Mussolini’s army was clear, when the attempt to invade Greece ended with Italian troops in full retreat. Although Italian forces later fought bravely at El Alamein, Hitler lost patience with his Italian partner and started taking control of Italy to defend it from the threat of British and American invasion.
With the military situation crumbling, Mussolini’s enemies began plotting his removal from power and in July 1943 he was taken by his own people and placed under house arrest. Fascism in Italy was essentially dead.
The only person to whom Mussolini was now useful was Hitler, who needed to keep Italy on his side. The Italians realized this and in order to avoid Mussolini being rescued by pursuing Germans, they hid him in a hotel high in the mountains.
A DARING GERMAN RESCUE
On September 8 1943, the new Italian Government surrendered to the Allies, reversed alliances and declared war against Germany. The Germans reacted by occupying Rome.
Hitler then appointed Otto Skorzeny as commander of a special commando unit to find Mussolini and bring him to Germany. Through German agents, Skorzeny found out where he was. But getting undetected to a hotel on the peak of a mountain, reachable only by cable car, and guarded by 250 Italian Police, was another matter altogether.
On September 12, 1943, German planes towed twelve gliders over the mountains and released them to circle down towards the tiny clearing next to the hotel. Eight commando-carrying gliders landed successfully, plus a light Storch airplane. With a gun pressed into his back the Germans forced a captured Italian general to approach the hotel, calling the guards not to shoot. Mussolini watching from his second floor window, also shouted for no shooting. The police gave up easily and Skorzeny rushed to Mussolini’s room. At first the German was not sure he had the right man. Mussolini was unshaven and looked old and ill. Humiliated at having to be rescued by Germans, not Italians, Mussolini was a first reluctant to leave but finally agreed.
Skorzeny, a big man crowded into the tiny plane with Mussolini. With its engine screaming the overloaded plane bounced over the rough ground, dipped its nose as if to plunge down the mountain then gradually steadied clearing the next mountain peak by a few yards.
TIME RUNS OUT FOR MUSSOLINI
Back in Germany, Hitler persuaded Mussolini to set up a new government in northern Italy to restore Italian fascism. Mussolini made an attempt to rally the support he had once been able to command, and executed some of those who had betrayed him, including his son-in-law, Ciano.
But with the Allies bombing German positions in Italy, and normally easygoing Italians, sick and tired of grand nationalistic speeches, Mussolini’s time had run out.
He attempted to retreat towards Lake Como but now armed Italian partisans, mainly Socialists, were hiding in the mountains waiting to ambush German efforts. Mussolini and his mistress were captured and shot.
On April 29, 1944, his body was taken to Milan where it was hung upside-down from a girder. All through the day, people jeered and spat at the now hated body.
S E Q U E L
With the Allies’ victory in 1945, Italy started anew. The Royal Family was voted out, and went into exile. A new constitution was adopted and Italy was back in the democratic mainstream.
Without it’s expensive colonies, and free from the ravages of war, Italy has emerged as an economic power in Europe.
Despite a volatile parliamentary system and constant changes in government, Italy is once again an optimistic, confident country and a respected member of the world community.
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