By David Lippman
Released from the Army in 1906, Mussolini takes a teaching job at Tolmezzo near the Austrian frontier for nine months. He berates priests, swears in public, and contracts a venereal disease from a married woman. Parents keep their children home from the coarse teacher’s influence. At year’s end, his contract is not renewed. He fails at another teaching post at Oneglia on the Riviera, and finally goes home to Predappio, to find the farm workers on strike against the landlords. Mussolini jumps into the fray, helping the workers wreck threshing machines operated by strikebreakers. The prefect calls the troops, and a squadron of cavalry escorts the future Duce to jail in Forli.
Unimpressed by the law and courts, Mussolini talks tough, calling for violent revolution. The proletariat or the bourgeoisie must perish, he tells audiences. Violence is a political weapon. He claims to have drawn his ideas from William James, Mark Twain, and even Robinson Crusoe, but his main mentor seems to be Friedrich Nietzsche.
Often unshaven, his ears and hat covering his eyes, vulgar, Mussolini casts an eccentric shadow in Forli.
He goes to Trent in Austria-Hungary, as secretary of the Chamber of Labor and editor of a weekly socialist paper, but finds the work too hard – he has to do it all himself. He tries writing an anti-clerical novel, but can’t find a publisher. After some time in jail for political activities, he heads back to Predappio.
There, in October 1909, Benito keeps his old promise to Rachele Guida, telling Rachele’s sister Pina, “I want Rachele to be the mother of my children – but tell her to hurry, I’m pushed for time.” Rachele breaks into her piggy bank, tosses her clothes into a shawl, and runs out of the house, hair uncombed, to live in Benito’s house as his common-law wife.
Alessandro is unimpressed, saying, “Leave the girl alone – think of what your mother went through because of me. Your politics will bring suffering to you and the woman who shares your life.” Alessandro’s right, but Benito whips out a revolver and says, “Here are six bullets – one for Rachele, five for me.” Everyone gives in. Benito and Rachele take their poor furniture and cracked china into a messy apartment in Forli’s Via Merenda.
Now Mussolini founds his own newspaper for the Forli socialists, La Lotta di Classe – The Class Struggle – and writes all of its four pages, using his marriage bed as editorial office. The newspaper’s circulation is only 350, but its readers are fanatical. Circulation jumps to 1,000. After Mussolini takes power in 1922, copies of the paper disappear from libraries and archives. Mussolini tramps the roads of Romagna, speaking for Socialism, often 30 miles a day. He calls himself a “walking gramophone.” His main message: parliamentary politics are a waste of time, democracy in Italy only caters for men on the make: lawyers seeking prestigious parliamentary seats for their firms’ promotion, professors seeking academic promotion, journalists seeking self-promotion.
The newspaper lauds Marx, Darwin, and Machiavelli, and denounces the Church. He attacks them for serving capitalism, poisoning young minds, and persecuting Jews. He also blasts the military, opposing irredentist pressure for war against Austria to reclaim Trent and Trieste from the Habsburgs. Mussolini flaunts his disdain for how politicians use thugs and hooligans to intimidate voters, and calls for assassination as a justifiable tactic.
Money is short. When his daughter Edda is born on September 1, 1910, he carries home a 15-lire cradle. When not talking politics or working on his newspaper, he struggles to learn how to play his second-hand violin. But his political work dominates. When the price of milk in Forli goes up, Mussolini leads a mob into the Town Hall. “Either the price of milk is revised,” he bellows at the mayor, “or I’ll advise these people to pitch you and all your bigwigs over the balcony.” The price of milk goes down.
Mussolini writes a violently anti-clerical novel for a Socialist newspaper in Trent, which he himself admits is trash – a lecherous cardinal on the prowl – but it enjoys some success – outside of Italy. In fact, it is not published in Italy until after his death.
At the annual socialist party congress in Milan in October 1910, Mussolini cuts a balding, ill-dressed, unshaven and coarse figure among the middle-class intellectual party leadership. The academics and theorists are unimpressed with the harsh peasant, who denounces universal suffrage and social reform in his speeches. Mussolini stalks home and secedes from the party. He gains support in Forli, but little elsewhere.
When Italy goes to war with Turkey in September 1911 to take over Libya, Mussolini writes, “Before conquering Tripoli, let Italians conquer Italy. Bring water to parched Puglia, justice to the South and education everywhere. On to the streets for a General Strike!” He regards the war as a prelude to general insurrection.
In Forli, workers march out to halt the troop trains and rip up the tracks, and the region comes to a standstill, with shops shuttered. Cavalrymen scatter the strikers with their sabers. The strikers rip up fences and fight back, but the troops are too powerful. They arrest Mussolini, and charge him with “instigation to delinquency.” He acts as his own lawyer, saying to the judges, “If you acquit me, you will give me pleasure; if you condemn me, you will do me honor.” But he also denies having anything to do with the violence. All he did was publish a newspaper.
The judges are happy to oblige. They sentence him to a year in jail, but cut it to five months in Forli Jail’s Cell 39. A complete man, he says, should have several years as part of his education, especially if his imprisonment could be depicted as martyrdom. There, like Hitler, he starts writing his autobiography, but also wonders about his future. “I have a wild restless temperament. What will become of me?”
Otherwise, Mussolini is a model prisoner – cheerful, noisy, and indulgent to the hardened criminals, explaining to them how their prison time is the result of the system’s failures. Just what convicts want to hear . . . it’s not their fault they robbed the bank.
Benghazi was a dangerous place in 1911.
Outside the cell, Italy’s troops battle the Turks for control of Libya’s arid deserts. The Italians seize the port of Tobruk, a town of 20,000 people on a strong natural harbor, turning it into a pleasant garrison town centered about its main square, Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele. The Italians also build a town hall, a bank, a water-distillation plant, an electrical plant, a cold-storage facility, a hospital, and a “Grand Hotel,” to provide the residents and visitors with some amenities. They also build a church and a mosque.
The water plant may be the most important structure in the otherwise unimpressive community’s line of regimental buildings – as water is a scarce commodity in the Libyan desert, but also important is the three-story naval headquarters the Italians build on a hill overlooking the port – which is not finished by 1940.
Tobruk is important enough to the Italians that they also start building fortifications around it, to ward off the raiding and contumacious Senussi tribesmen, or any other possible enemy. But nobody seriously expects that the fly-swept town and its brackish-tasting water will have any importance in any war. There is nothing of interest in Libya but sand.
Incredibly, Mussolini’s rhetoric and activities gain him fame and respect in Italy’s Socialist Party. Nine months after emerging from jail, Mussolini is being called “Duce” of all Italian Socialists, and wows the crowd at the Party’s National Executive Committee at the 1912 national convention in Reggio. He comes down hard on Leonida Bissolati, a prominent socialist, for congratulating the king on the failure of an assassination attempt. Socialists should not congratulate kings, Mussolini says. He demands Bissolati’s expulsion from the party. The congress votes to do so.
Mussolini’s performance results in him being appointed as editor of its official newspaper, Avanti. He heads off to Milan on December 1, 1912, to assume his duties, which pay 500 lire a month.
Mussolini displays a formidable grasp of the Italian language, but a less clear one of politics. His attacks are malicious and misdirected, his opinions contradictory, but always theatrical and striking. The newspaper’s circulation jumps from 28,000 to 100,000. Socialists applaud his stuff. Opponents call him a “hired tool,” “slimy reptile,” “paranoiac,” “ninth-rate hack,” and “criminal lunatic.”
In 1913, Mussolini becomes Forli’s Socialist representative at the Socialist National Election. In October, he stands for the elections on an anti-militarist, anti-clerical, anti-imperialist, and anti-nationalist program. He gets whipped.
The next year the Great War breaks out, and Italy initially greets this catastrophe by staying on the sidelines. Mussolini publishes an anti-war manifesto on July 29, 1914. But on October 18, he prints an article in Avanti calling for the Socialist Party to back Italy’s entry into the war. Before the Socialists can react, Mussolini launches his own newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, whose two tough slogans, “He who has steel has bread” and “A revolution is an idea which has found bayonets,” enable it to sell out in an hour on Milan’s streets.
The Socialists are furious. They call him to account at the Teatro del Popolo, at a mass meeting. Mussolini mounts the stage amid 3,000 Socialist delegates screaming, “Traitor! Sellout!” They hurl coins at the stage, shouting, “Chi paga?” (“Who’s paying?”)
Beneath catcalls and boos, Mussolini grabs a glass tumbler, holds it aloft, and crushes it, sending blood trickling down his fist. He shouts, “You hate me because you still love me! You have not seen the last of me!” Then he storms out. The Socialists expel Mussolini from the party.
Yet incredibly, now that Mussolini has become a militarist, he gains massive support. Italian irredentists are eager to re-take lands lost to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By March 1915, Mussolini’s newspaper has a circulation of 100,000. More importantly, Mussolini is getting financial support from French agents, eager to bring Italy into the war on the Entente side. All over Italy, groups calling for intervention in the war spring up, and Mussolini becomes their symbol and spokesman. Among the Italians who join the cause is the 19-year-old Dino Grandi.
Mussolini does more than write and edit newspaper articles. He leads pro-war demonstrations, often landing in jail. On April 12, 1915, his rally in Rome leads to him spending eight hours in clack. A month later, he urges followers to “shoot a few deputies in the back.”
On May 24, 1915, Italy enters the war, and Mussolini happily goes forward to do his part, as a member of the 11th Bersagliere Regiment, holding trenches at Carnia. On his way to the front, Mussolini finds time to hurl a girlfriend’s dinner into the sea at Genoa, father a son by a beauty parlor operator named Ida Dalser, and finally marry Rachele in a civil ceremony on December 16, 1915.
Mussolini spends 17 months up the line with the 11th Bersagliere, 3,000 feet above ground level in the Alps. He and his buddies endure Austrian heavy artillery, below-zero temperatures, and going for a month without water for washing. As they will 20 years later, the Italian Army lacks modern field guns, adequate supplies, and effective leadership.
Yet Mussolini puts up with all of it – even the stewed salt cod for Christmas dinner – scribbling out diary entries under a quavering sardine-oil lamp, which are published in Il Popolo d’Italia. When he returns on leave to Milan, Mussolini finds the bed too soft, so he sleeps on the marble floor of his apartment. He tells a buddy, Cpl. Cesare Ravegnani: “One fine day, I’ll be the master of the world – you come to me then and I’ll fix things.” Ravegnani retorts, “You big bald hunk, what rubbish are you talking?”
Mussolini’s war ends at 1 p.m. on February 23, 1917, 23 days after his promotion to lance-sergeant. By now the 11th Bersagliere are holding Hill 144 on the Carso, a range of limestone north of the Adriatic. During a practice-firing of an artillery piece, two shells explode in the red-hot barrel, killing four men instantly, hurling Mussolini 15 feet, filling him with 44 shrapnel fragments. Second Lt. Francesco Caccese, first on the scene, finds Mussolini’s eyes “fixed in a terrifying stare, the jaws clamped tight in a desperate effort to hide his pain.” Later, more than 400 former Bersaglieri will claim to have carried Mussolini down from the battlefield.
Hauled down to the field hospital with a fever of 103, Mussolini requires 27 operations in a month, all but two without anesthetic. He is unable to resume writing his column until June.
In August, Mussolini hobbles home to Milan on crutches. He has to wear buttoned or zip-lined boots to hold his left leg together, or his wounds will suppurate. Mussolini’s crippled condition reflects that of Italy: in October 1917, German and Austrian troops drive through the Italian Army at the Caporetto amid pelting rain. A million Italian soldiers flee 60 miles in a rout. The Germans capture 250,000 POWs, 1 million rifles, and 6 billion lire of winter clothing.
The defeat infuriates pro- and anti-war parties in Italy. Socialists call for “not one more winter in the trenches!” Mussolini, once an anti-monarchist and anarchist, urges a “Stand to A Finish” campaign. He writes letters to his old pals at the front, signing them, “Your old bersagliere, almost sawn in half,” exhorting them to fight on.
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the new School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.