A former socialist, Mussolini had fought in the First World War after baulking at the Socialist Party’s pacifism. He and his cohorts and fellow travellers would later violently reject socialism in favour of fascism, a doctrine he had cultured since around 1917.
That violent revolt came after Mussolini’s fascists had tried to enter into a number of pacts by offering bribes and promises to leftist groups which they rejected outright.
As elsewhere in Europe, the spectre of Soviet-style communism hung like a prevailing promise and threat, and the early militant resistance to fascism led to the outlawing of any political or social body that fascists felt could act as a conduit to the godless march of communism.
These refusers of bribes and threats became the ‘Antifascists’ that came to be virulently derided and quarantined in Italian society as ‘Bolsheviks’ - the dangerous followers of the emerging Soviet Union. But so deep were social and economic societies for the betterment of working people in Italian society, in particular in village life, that fascists often tried to mimic or mirror socialist organisations or bodies. As a result, although the fascists were violently opposed to social ideas, they could at administrative level exhibit incompetence or ambivalence in how to deal with dissenting voices.
Fascism strived to be absolute in its dominance and suppression of every facet of Italian life and society. It quarantined those who refused to acquiesce, but antifascism was active throughout Mussolini’s tenure.
The popular neo-Marxist, Italian Communist and Parliamentarian Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned by Mussolini in 1926 and allowed to suffer indignity and great ill health. Gramsci still managed to produce masterful works until his death from sickness in 1937. Other, similar regimes would surely have expunged a figure like Gramsci immediately, but ‘Il Duce’ suffered as much from his own vanity and desperate desire for popularity as he did from his war wounds.
Mussolini’s followers had distinguished themselves during the turbulent times sweeping Europe post WWI by donning blackshirts and declaring a brutal war on organised workers and strikers. Whole villages, declared ‘Bolshevik villages’, suffered fascist raids and intimidation as well as the prevailing isolation imposed on them by fascists.
Mussolini was determined to not just rule Italy, but to expand its interests and allies. He was to be the Omni power, the Duce.
Mussolini attempted to expand Italian interests into Africa and neighbouring, smaller European countries, but the Italian army was not always successful and their invasions often became debilitating, bogged down struggles. Early relations with Nazi Germany and Hitler were cool or at best cordial, but the two joined forces during the Spanish Civil War to back the fascist regime of General Franco. As Italian forces intervened with pious brutality Mussolini was also to realise he was viewed by the Nazi power Germany as very much a subordinate.
As Europe began to fall under Hitler’s jackboot, against the advice of other fascists, Mussolini sent his forces into WWII in 1940. On the back of debilitating struggles in Africa, Italians made a disastrous attempted foray into Greece, where they were routed and sent fleeing back into Albania.
Italian society quickly grew tired of Mussolini’s bloodlust. Joining Italian troops in an Axis with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan exposed Italians to a brutality unlike they had ever witnessed before. Italian society was quickly scandalised and desertion from the army widely encouraged by village and family matriarchs.
By 1943 the Italo-German Axis was in freefall. Defeated in Tunisia, Italian troops were desperate to return home and end the fighting. In July, Anglo-American forces landed in Sicily, enabling a greater supply and support to the growing- in-confidence partisans in the north of the country.
The Sicily landings were also a signal for the partisans to begin what became a guerrilla war, sometimes described as “a civil war”. The mountain ranks of partisans swelled with deserters and the ‘red’ villages prepared themselves for a civil war with the local fascist militias, whose murderous brutality had grown to a frenzy during the war years.
Whilst retreating, Italian soldiers were murdered, arrested and tortured by their former Nazi comrades.
Not every returnee was an anti-fascist. Their country was now occupied by increasingly hostile Nazi forces in one half and the Allies in the other. It was neighbour against neighbour, soldier against soldier.
Germany also expelled Italian soldiers from occupied France, sending them fleeing unarmed and into the mercy of advancing partisan groups backed by the Soviets. It was a fight for their lives just to get home and surrender, or in many cases, take up arms against fascism and Nazism.
Later in 1943 Mussolini would be relieved of his duties and imprisoned by a council of fascists and the Italian Royal family. He was liberated from prison by Nazi commandoes. In September 1943 Mussolini was installed in a newly created ‘Republic of Salo’ near Brescia in Lombardy. And so began two years for Mussolini of being Hitler’s puppet on a string.
Bomb attacks and targeted assassinations of Nazi and fascist personnel in major cities were carried out by Gruppi di Azione Patriottica (Patriotic Action Groups) to cripple the Nazi war effort and the fascists’ control of public order and stir the fighting spirit in those anti-fascists who were abiding by a “wait-and-see” stance. Although the new fascist government wanted to negotiate a surrender, for many Italians, it was both the fascists and the Nazis that had to go. (This has been somewhat glossed over by modern Italian fascists.)
On 28 April 1945 Italian partisans ambushed German military vehicles carrying Mussolini further into hiding, and he was executed by the side of the road by a communist partisan, identified as Walter Audisio.
Partisans would hang Mussolini’s and others’ bodies in Piazzale Loreto (a town square in Milan), where only a few months earlier fascists had left as a warning the bodies of 15 Italian partisans shot by the Gestapo as a reprisal for a partisan attack on a German military convoy. Milanese lined and queued for hours to spit on the body of Mussolini and in some cases, attempt to disfigure the corpses. Local fascists were disarmed and beaten in the streets.
With the liberation of Italy came vicious revenge. The communists also used the opportunity to arm factory workers in some northern cities and the Allies feared Italy was on the brink of bloody revolution.