Benito Mussolini was born on July 29th 1883 near Predappio, in north-east Italy. His father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith while his mother, Rosa, was a school teacher. Mussolini had a younger brother and younger sister. Despite having two incomes coming in to the house, the Mussolini’s were poor, as were many families in Italy at this time.
As soon as he was able to do so, Mussolini helped out his father in his forge. Working with his father gave the two time to talk. Alessandro was a socialist and a republican. He believed that there should be a fairer share of wealth in Italy and that the monarchy should be scrapped. Alessandro wanted the people to decide who should lead them. He did not accept a system whereby his son would automatically follow the king. Many Italians shared the views of Mussolini’s father and it would have been normal for the young Mussolini to take on board what his father said.
Alessandro was also a firm believer that all Italians should live under Italian rule. Some Italians lived under the rule of Austria in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and people like Alessandro could not accept this. In this sense, Alessandro was a nationalist.
The young Mussolini grew up in an environment where the talk would have been about socialism, republicanism and nationalism. He also grew up supporting the view of his father that the Roman Catholic Church was an enemy of Italy as it did not support the state itself.
Mussolini did not take to school. He found that he rebelled against most things. Catholic monks ran his first school. His mother had insisted on him attending such a school but his behaviour was so bad that he got expelled from it.
Mussolini did better at his next school and he went on to become a qualified teacher even if he was not interested in teaching. Mussolini had developed passions for politics.
In June 1902, Mussolini went to Switzerland. He took with him no obvious skills and he was forced to live rough. He got involved with some Italian socialists who worked in Switzerland, got employment as a bricklayer and joined a trade union. He got expelled from Switzerland in 1903 when he suggested a general strike – a very revolutionary idea then.
He went to France but returned to Italy to do his military service. After this he went to a region called Trentino. This area was in north Italy but the Austrians ruled it. The Austrian authorities soon marked him down as a troublemaker as he encouraged trade unions and attacked the Catholic Church. He was expelled from Trentino in 1909.
Mussolini went south to the Po Valley. Here he helped the farmers in their efforts to get a better wage. He became the secretary of the local socialist party in Forli and became the editor of the socialist newspaper "The Class Struggle" (La Lotta di Classe).
In 1911, the Italians attacked Libya in North Africa. Mussolini led demonstrations against this attack in Forli. He was arrested and sent to prison for five months. However, his action had got him noticed by socialist movements outside of Forli. He was rewarded with the job of editor of "Avanti" (Forward) the socialist newspaper – an appointment he got in April 1912. Most of the contents in the paper he did himself. The popularity of the paper increased and his views reached many people and thus expanded his influence.
World War One saw a major change in Mussolini. At the start of the war, as with most if not all socialists, he condemned the war as workers being forced to fight other workers while the factory bosses got richer at their expense. However, his views changed during the war.
In "Avanti" he wrote:
|"Let a single cry arise from the vast multitudes of the proletariat and let it be repeated in the squares and streets of Italy: down with war! The proletariat provides raw material, cannon fodder with which states make their history."|
In October 1915, five months after Italy’s entry into World War One, Mussolini left "Avanti". He now saw the war as a "great drama" not to be missed.
|"It is to you, young men of Italy…..that I address my call to arms…..Today I am forced to utter loudly and clearly in sincere good faith the fearful and fascinating word – war!"|
Mussolini still claimed to be a socialist but his colleagues disagreed. At a meeting in Milan they decided to expel him from the Socialist Party. He told them
|"You cannot get rid of me because I am and always will be a socialist. You hate me because you still love me."|
Why did Mussolini change his stance? It is possible that the influence of his father’s nationalism might have taken precedence over his socialism. But Mussolini, like many others in Europe, answered his country’s call when it was needed. In August 1915, Mussolini had been called up for military service.
Mussolini in World War One
He joined the army and rose to the rank of corporal. A mortar bomb wounded him in February 1917 and this put an end to his military service.
Italy got very little out of the Treaty of Versailles. She had fought on the side of the Allies and expected more as a member of the conquering nations. In fact, Orlando, the Italian representative at Versailles, had been barely spoken to by the American, British and French representatives. This by itself, insulted Italian national pride.
After the war, Mussolini became very influenced by Gabriele D’Annunzio; an Italian nationalist who felt Italy should have got more out of the Versailles Treaty. During the war, D’Annunzio had made daring flying raids over Austria and showered some cities there with pamphlets explaining Italy’s rights to territory in the Adriatic. He became a national hero. In particular, D’Annunzio believed that Italy had a right to Fiume. After World War One, this port was given to the newly created Yugoslavia but many Italians lived there. D’Annunzio tried to take the port using force.
As editor of the paper "Il Popolo d’Italia", Mussolini raised money for D’Annunzio via an appeal in the paper. Mussolini learned a great deal from D’Annunzio about public speaking. D’Annunzio held public meetings where his supporters were expected to join in. Gesticulating at the audience, D’Annunzio would ask them questions and expected them to reply. Mussolini used a lot of this approach in his own public speaking.