Mussolini is subject to a multitude of misconceptions, primarily driven by the prevailing animosity of contemporary Western “elites” towards anything associated with the pre-1945 era. Contemporary academia, as the influencer and driver of all mainstream popular opinion, often erroneously portrays Mussolini as an avariciously greedy, self-serving narcissist who prioritized personal enrichment over the welfare of Italy. Generally speaking, popular imagination, fueled by deliberately falsified and ahistorical narratives, often depicts him as a grotesque buffoon. Furthermore, Mussolini is also unjustly portrayed as a coward, which contradicts the reality of his character and his wartime service record in the First World War. When discussing Mussolini or any other subject, it is always pertinent to ask the question Cui bono? which translates from Latin as “to whom is it a benefit?” This simple yet powerful question enables us to analyze who stands to gain or benefit from any situation or topic at hand. Moreover, it illuminates the underlying motivations behind the presentation of the topic for popular consumption, providing valuable insight into the forces influencing it. When we peel back the propagandistic delusions perpetuated by postmodern academia, a more nuanced, realistic, captivating image of Mussolini emerges.
Il Duce and Greed
As is widely known and often used against him, even in the present, Mussolini was a former socialist whose views on the bourgeoisie, the old capitalist elite, and a degenerated monarchy did not endear him to these entrenched power-centers following his ascension to power after his famed March on Rome (Marcia su Roma) in October 1922. Following this momentous event, on October 30, 1922, King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini to the position of Prime Minister, granting him not only immense honors but also the potential to acquire great wealth.
In contrast to lesser individuals in similar positions, Mussolini displayed a disdainful attitude towards wealth. According to the diaries of Italian Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini viewed the relentless pursuit of wealth as a disease, suited for lesser types. Furthermore, Mussolini held a derisive attitude towards the existing nobility in Italy and Europe as a whole. He went so far as to flatly reject the idea of ennobling Italo Balbo, a revered Italian General and leader of the Blackshirts (Camicie Nere). In reality, Mussolini was known for his frugality and had little interest in financial grandeur. During Mussolini’s earlier years as a member of the Socialist Party, he displayed a generous nature by frequently giving away his money and lands to friends. Additionally, despite being offered a higher salary, he willingly accepted less than his predecessors when he served as the Editor of Avanti! (Forward) newspaper.
After the epoch-making March on Rome, and during his tenure as Prime Minister, Mussolini earned an income of 32,000 Italian lire, which he chose not to accept for several years. His personal friend, Richard Washburn Child, the American Ambassador to Italy, who assisted in writing and translating Mussolini’s My Autobiography into English, described Il Duce and his family as being impoverished, despite his significant role in the Italian government as Prime Minister. Moreover, Mussolini’s contempt for wealth was evident in the multitude of governmental policies he enacted, all aimed at serving the Italian people and the State, rather than catering to elite plutocratic interests. For example, The Battle for Grain (Battaglia del grano) was an initiative undertaken by the Italian government to implement policies aimed at increasing agricultural production, particularly wheat, to achieve self-sufficiency (autarchy) in food production. The goal was to alleviate hunger and ensure food security for the entire population. Mussolini also initiated a sweeping series of governmental programs geared towards large-scale land reclamation, dubbed the Battle for Land (Battaglia per la Terra), these various projects sought to reclaim and cultivate marshes and other uninhabitable areas. This effort aimed to provide additional farmland to feed Italy’s populace, whilst simultaneously acting to create employment opportunities for the poor. The draining and reclamation of these swamp geographic locales also helped to dramatically reduce malarial infection, particularly in Southern Italy.
In terms of governmental efforts to institute a more meritocratic system of government, which aligned more with Fascist ideology, Il Duce undertook several major initiatives. Most notably, in 1928, he implemented a provision reserving a significant percentage of seats in the both the Italian Senate (Senato del Regno) and the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) for combat veterans, most of whom were not wealthy. Additionally, Mussolini abolished the long-standing requirement for members of the Italian Foreign Service to be wealthy and well-connected, thereby opening up this esteemed career field to a wider segment of the Italian population. These initiatives were widely acclaimed and garnered much support from the people of Italy.
Amidst the distortions and falsehoods that surround Mussolini’s life, it is natural for some to question his personal and public stance on greed and the acquisition of unearned wealth. However, it is essential to approach this inquiry, like any other, within the framework of Cui bono? (to whom is it a benefit?). By doing so, we can gain a deeper understanding of the challenges he encountered and gain a clearer perspective on how Mussolini is portrayed in the present day. His economic policies, diverging from the vested interests of wealthy and influential industrialists, encountered significant resistance as Italy transitioned towards a corporatist model of economic reorganization. This parallel to present times serves as an illustration of the intentional undermining and discrediting of individuals and groups perceived as challenging the interests of those in power.
Il Duce and Cowardice:
Due to the lack of sympathy towards Axis figures, or any historical or contemporary movements or individuals who act against the prevailing power structure in the West, mainstream academics escape criticism when hurling baseless insults against Mussolini. These derogatory remarks, more often than not, contradict the actual historical context and reality of Mussolini’s actions. This is especially true when it comes to Mussolini and the allegations of his cowardice.
As a factual statement, Mussolini participated in a diverse range of sporting activities, many of which were inherently risky, including fencing, auto racing, skiing, horse riding, and even lion taming. He possessed a genuine fondness for big cats and even kept a pet lion named Ras. His inclination for engaging with these powerful creatures frequently raised concerns among his staff, who were apprehensive about his safety. Men who are cowardly do not keep lions as pets.
One of the most notable accusations leveled against Mussolini regarding his alleged cowardice is the claim often made by contemporary academics that his professed patriotic and heroic nationalism was merely a political façade. They argue that Mussolini himself lacked the courage to perform any acts of bravery. This critique often relies on false narratives surrounding his military service in Italy during the First World War, with the intention of discrediting any perception of him as a courageous individual and combat soldier. This narrative is ahistorical and can be seen as a form of historical revisionism, employed for contemporary propagandistic purposes rather than being grounded in reality. In reality, Mussolini consistently demonstrated considerable bravery and courage throughout his life, remaining true to the warrior ethos that formed the fundamental essence of the Fascist ideological worldview.
Let’s start by briefly examining some aspects of Mussolini’s military service record and his evolving worldview. Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Mussolini had actually already served in the military as part of Italy’s compulsory service, specifically with the Bersaglieri (“Sharpshooters”). However, it’s important to note that in 1902, while still a radical international socialist, he fled to Switzerland to avoid military conscription. During this self-imposed exile, his perspectives on socialism began to shift as he delved into the works of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Vilfredo Pareto, Georges Sorel, and others. Georges Sorel had a significant influence on Mussolini, especially his advocacy for overthrowing decadent liberal democracy and capitalism through direct action. This period marked the beginning of Mussolini’s ideological transformation, which gradually progressed from international socialism to revolutionary nationalism, ultimately culminating in the formalization of Fascist ideology.
In connection to the above, one can argue that evidence of Mussolini’s bravery can also be found in his defiance of the established doctrines of contemporary European international socialism. Starting during his time in Switzerland and spanning over a decade, Mussolini’s philosophy underwent a profound transformation. He rejected egalitarianism, a fundamental principle of socialism and all variants of liberalism, as he believed that socialism had faltered in light of the failures of Marxist determinism and social democratic reformism. Instead, Mussolini sought to incorporate Nietzsche’s ideas to strengthen socialism.
While initially associated with socialism, Mussolini’s writings eventually indicated his abandonment of Marxism and radical egalitarianism in favor of Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch. He aimed to revitalize Italy by establishing an anti-egalitarian order based on the principles of a merit-based hierarchy. This divergence from the Italian Socialist Party became evident during the First World War, particularly regarding the party’s non-interventionist stance. In contrast, Mussolini actively and vocally supported Italy’s war efforts, which resulted in his expulsion from the party in 1914. Many contemporary individuals have come to understand the difficulty of challenging the established powers, and this defiance in the face of overwhelming odds serves as evidence of Mussolini’s courage.
Regarding the criticism surrounding Mussolini’s military service in the First World War, it’s important to highlight that he made a deliberate and determined attempt to join the Italian army in 1915, despite being exempted due to his role as a newspaper editor and his relatively older age of 32. Additionally, his affiliation as a revolutionary socialist made the Italian government reluctant to provide military training to someone with his political background. These circumstances presented significant challenges to his efforts to enlist, and as a result, the Italian government purposefully delayed Mussolini’s enlistment for as long as possible. In a state of despair, he even contemplated joining the French Foreign Legion as an alternative means of contributing to the war effort.
Finally, in August 1915, the Italian government relented and allowed Mussolini to join the war effort. Because of his revolutionary ideology, the government initially offered him a clerk position, which he vehemently refused, stating, “I prefer to remain with my comrades in the trenches. […] I came to fight a war, not write.” Mussolini arrived at the treacherous battle front in the Alps after undergoing a two-week refresher course with his former military unit, the Bersaglieri. He was subsequently deployed to the Isonzo front, actively participating in the Second Battle of the Isonzo in September 1915 and the Third Battle of the Isonzo in October 1915.
After being recognized for his outstanding performance on the battlefield, Mussolini earned a promotion to acting corporal as a testament to his “merit in war.” His meritorious conduct on the battlefield earned him admittance into Italy’s officer candidate school. However, his admission was subsequently blocked by military officials due to his past political affiliations. After recovering from typhus and a brief period of recuperation, Mussolini quickly returned to the frontlines in 1916, showcasing his unwavering dedication to the Italian war effort. He actively participated in the conflict near the Austrian lines at Fort Marlborghetto, where intense and brutal fighting unfolded. Despite the high stakes and constant danger, Mussolini fearlessly volunteered to lead a reconnaissance unit, which bravely withstood relentless enemy fire.
During his wartime service, Mussolini was renowned for engaging in the particularly dangerous practice of flinging live grenades back into enemy trenches. He described this activity as follows: “My specialty was to throw back hand grenades before they could explode, a dangerous game. But if you did it quickly, you could hurl it back in time to have it go off in the enemy’s trenches. And then, I taught my troops how to handle our own grenades. Often, you had to light the fuse close to your face with a cigarette because matches didn’t burn long enough. And then, you would hold the lit grenade in your hand for a few moments. If you didn’t, they would land in time to be thrown back at you.” These are certainly not the words, deeds, or actions of a coward.
In March 1917, Mussolini’s wartime service came to an abrupt end when an explosion occurred while loading a mortar shell into an overheated cannon. This resulted in the tragic deaths of five soldiers and severe injuries to Mussolini. He suffered numerous fragmentation injuries, a damaged right collarbone, lacerations on his thighs, multiple puncture wounds on his legs, and temporary paralysis in his arm. In total, more than 40 pieces of shrapnel had pierced his body. After sustaining these injuries, some soldiers from his unit refused to assist in his evacuation due to his pro-war intervention beliefs. The subsequent surgeries to stabilize him and remove the shrapnel were performed without anesthesia.
Even towards the end of his life, Mussolini did not lack courage. As the Allied victory in the Second World War became inevitable, he was offered the opportunity to escape to Francoist Spain. However, he adamantly refused, responding with a question: “And do you also have a plane for all the Blackshirts in Italy?” Instead, he chose to stay in Italy and continue the fight, establishing the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana) in parts of northern and central Italy. Although Mussolini had plans to make a last stand at Valtellina with 3,000 members of the Black Brigades, the organized militia force of the Italian Social Republic, the lack of German support and cooperation prevented this from materializing.
In April 1945, Mussolini was captured by Communist partisans. Witnesses described his appearance during his capture as such: “His face was like wax, and his gaze was glassy, yet somehow blank. I interpreted this as complete exhaustion, but not fear.” While in captivity, he knew his life was nearing its end and insisted on an honorable death. His last words were either “Shoot me in the heart” or “Shoot me in the chest.” Alternatively, some scholars argue that Mussolini was shot in the back, contradicting his final request. This discrepancy has been used to support the claim that he was killed while fleeing from the enemy. While it is true that Mussolini and his associates were captured after the collapse of the Italian Social Republic and the subsequent collapse of German military’s position in Italy, they were attempting to flee Italy in order to avoid the unfortunate fate that ultimately befell them. Upon their capture, they were subjected to brutal treatment, being beaten, defiled, and ultimately murdered. Their bodies were mutilated and put on public display.
Contrary to popular perception, Mussolini’s life and deeds were far from cowardly, nor were they driven by greed. Unfortunately, his personality and actions have been simplified and vulgarized in order to perpetuate postwar historical narratives. There are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, it aligns with the Allied propaganda of the post-World War II era, which aimed, and still aims, to uphold the postwar liberal rules-based international order and discredit anything or anyone that challenges or jeopardizes its global hegemony. Secondly, by suggesting that Mussolini was a complex individual, it humanizes him and may lead people to sympathize with him or even consider illiberal political solutions to modern-day problems. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors, highlighting the importance of factoring this truth into any evaluation of history. Furthermore, it is again prudent to always ask the question, “Cui bono?” This question often helps to uncover the underlying motives and interests behind historical narratives, shedding light on potential biases and hidden agendas.