Content warning: imagery of dead bodies.
Oft cited alongside Hitler and Nazi Germany are his counterparts in Japan and Italy. The three nations – and their leaders – created the Axis Powers. Benito Mussolini of Italy and Emperor Hirohito of Japan have been cast into the shadow of Hitler’s atrocities in the Holocaust. These leaders have become a footnote in history books. But, if they are to be a footnote, they should read:
1. Benito Mussolini was the founder of Fascism, which gave rise to Hitler’s Nazi Party.
2. Emperor Hirohito’s ambivalence enabled some of the worst human experimentation and torture of innocent civilians of WWII.
From bully to schoolteacher, from a pacifist to a soldier, from a socialist to a fascist, Benito Mussolini underwent many transformations in his life. Mussolini was born in Italy in 1883 to a Catholic schoolteacher and a socialist blacksmith. Young Mussolini was a bully. He stabbed another student when he was 11 years old. He later followed in the footsteps of both his mother and his father by becoming a socialist and a schoolteacher. His beliefs were vented through a socialist newspaper. His paper was filled with his anti-government, anti-war, anti-Catholic, and anti-monarchy ideologies.
The creator of Fascism was described as “a revolutionary socialist with deep anarchic roots and a highly developed affinity for revolutionary labor-unionism.” (If you have read the mini-blog on fascism, you'll understand why this is so baffling.) He became one of Italy’s most prominent socialists, denouncing Italy’s “imperialist war” in Libya. (Remember this when we talk about later incursions into Abyssinia ordered by Mussolini.)
That is, until WWI. Italy’s socialists split between neutralists and interventionalists. The official stance of the Italian Socialist Party was to remain neutral. Mussolini himself initially supported this idea. However, as the socialists appeared to continually fail Italy and its soldiers, Mussolini became more supportive of the idea of intervention. He became critical of the weakness of the Italian Socialist Party. To Mussolini, the Central Powers (which included Germany) were the aggressors. Italy could benefit from intervening and reclaiming Italian-majority lands from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mussolini was kicked out of the socialist newspaper and ousted from the Italian Socialist Party, so he began his own newspaper. The once neutral, socialist Mussolini began taking money from English industrialists. The British Secret Service also gave him funding in exchange for printing anti-pacifist propaganda.
By 1919, Italy was on the brink of collapse. It suffered from rampant unemployment and fear of a communist uprising. (Somewhat discussed in this blog post and to be discussed in further detail in a future post.) Mussolini returned from WWI, having been wounded in a training exercise, with a renewed nationalist vigor. He believed that the men returning from war should be the new elite. They should receive land for putting their lives on the line for their country.
Early on, Mussolini was interested in socialist philosophers like Karl Marx. But he was also fascinated with theories by Nietzsche. In particular, he was interested in the notion of “übermensch,” a German phrase meaning “over human.” It was a term coined by Nietzsche to describe a drive for humanity to create a better human. Hitler and Mussolini would hijack and distort this term. Hitler would use it to push his “Aryan Race” agenda and would also coin the term “untermenschen” to describe “subhumans,” such as Jews. (Nietzsche himself vehemently opposed Anti-Semitism.)
Drawing on inspiration from people like Plato and Gabriele D’Annunzio, Mussolini created the Fascist Party. This party was ultra-nationalist, anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic, classist, aggressive in foreign policy, and believed in totalitarianism and forcible militarization of the state. Mussolini drew people in with charismatic speeches. He promised to bring back the glory days of the Roman Empire and believed it needed a new emperor for the people to pledge fealty to. And that role could only be filled by himself. Mussolini was called “Il Duce” or “the Boss.” In 1922, he laid out his plan to take his massive, violent black-shirted fascist militia and march upon the Parliament. His goal: to wrest the Prime Minister seat for himself.
It worked. The king feared a civil war if he denied Mussolini’s demands. He also thought fascism would be a better option than communism, so he relented. Upon becoming prime minister, Mussolini began consolidating power. He put men he could manipulate into cabinet seats. He abolished all political parties but the fascist party in 1925.
Male Insecurity's Poster Child
Upon Mussolini’s entry into power, he started clumsily playing the role of the “gentlemen.” In order to impress the elites, he attempted to act as if he had always been part of the upper-echelons of society. This was a tactic he would use continually throughout his life. He would change his mind or himself to appeal to the whims of the people. Mussolini was a deeply insecure person - obsessed with a façade of machismo and virile masculinity. He unabashedly took mistresses, despite being married with a daughter. He used propaganda to further his infallible image - one of a macho warlord.
He joined the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations formed after WWI). Shortly after, he spit on the Treaty of Versailles by attacking Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). He felt Abyssinia was an easy target and wanted his slice of African colonial expansion. He used poison gas against the people. The death toll reached 500,000. His actions in Abyssinia would later lead to WWII. From him, Hitler learned that the Treaty of Versailles could be broken with no consequences.
Adolf Hitler began to rise to power in Germany in the 1930s, well after Mussolini had established rule over Italy. He was a fan of Mussolini, even writing him a letter asking him for an autograph. Mussolini declined. Hitler modeled Nazism after Fascism, though the Anti-Semitic, racial purity issue was unique to Nazism.
Mussolini would later (like many of his stances) change his mind to appease others.
Eventually, Mussolini would come to accept Hitler as a junior partner. He did, however, have a healthy fear of the military strength of Germany. This power structure would not last long. Hitler’s rapid militarization and expansion of power shoved Mussolini into the subordinate role. Mussolini’s attack on Abyssinia spelled ruin for the Italian economy and Italy’s power on the world stage. He tried to fight back with anti-Hitler propaganda, but failed.
The Munich Agreement forced Mussolini into the role of peacemaker between Hitler and the Allies. He facilitated the arrangement, giving Hitler the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in exchange for his promise (broken within a year) not to seize any more land in Europe. Although Mussolini was celebrated for this, his role diminished his reputation as a warmonger.
The Pact of Steel would cement Mussolini’s subordination. The Pact said Italy would go to war if Germany did. This was in May 1939. In September, Hitler would invade Poland, causing Britain and France to declare war on Germany. Italy would be dragged into the war. The world would soon become the stage for their petty betrayals. In November 1939, the Non-Aggression Pact arranged between the USSR and Germany became public knowledge. Mussolini had not known about this agreement in advance. As a response, Italy invaded Greece in 1940, intent on making land grabs without Hitler’s knowledge. Italy also invaded multiple African states. But these invasions all ended in abject failure, forcing Mussolini to seek help from Germany to win the wars he had started. Mussolini blustered and blamed the soldiers for the failures, not himself.
He constantly sought to appease Hitler. To do so, he imposed Racial Purity and Anti-Semitic Laws in Italy, much to the confusion of Italian Jews. One-third of Italian Jews had joined the fascist party. Mussolini’s mistress was Jewish herself. (However, this is not to say that Italy hadn’t been deeply racist prior to this alliance. During the war in Abyssinia, Italy imposed a number of laws stripping Africans of their human rights, placing them as subordinate to their white colonizers, and forbidding intermingling of the races. They just hadn't been particularly Anti-Semitic.) Mussolini began to call Italians a pure Aryan race, despite former derision for the term and Germany’s outright repudiation of the Italians as an Aryan race.
Three years of military disasters weakened the foundations of Italian Fascism. The Council of Fascism was forced to take drastic measures. With the help of the king, they removed Mussolini from power. Once again, Hitler was forced to come to Mussolini’s aid. He quickly rescued Mussolini and Germany invaded North Italy. South Italy signed an armistice with the Allies. This split led to a brutal civil war. Hitler instated Mussolini as the head of North Italy. However, he was merely Hitler's puppet. Mussolini ordered the killings of many top fascists who had cooperated with the king in removing him from power. For the first time, Italian Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.
Mussolini would later be shot in April 1945 in an attempt to escape to Spain from Italy when the war began to fail.