by David Lippman
With a five-man entourage, Mussolini heads to the train station through the drenching rain, past newsboys selling copies of his paper with his editorial. They shout in best old-movie fashion, “Resignation of Facta! Mussolini called by the King! Read all about it!”
Mussolini boards the 8:30 p.m. DD-17 Milan-Rome express’s first-class wagon, wearing a gray raincoat, guarded by Fascists, his compartment filled with flowers. The train’s engineer and fireman stand by their steed, wearing their war medals, to greet the new Premier.
Mussolini is brief: he tells the men staying behind to burn down the offices of the Socialist daily paper Avanti at dawn, to make sure they can’t call for a general strike and counter-revolution. As a band plays, the train glides off into the murk.
On the train, Mussolini confirms to a reporter that his cabinet of 30 will have 15 non-Fascists. The ride is a triumphal progress, with troops lined up at main stations for inspection.
Mussolini arrives in Rome.
Mussolini arrives in Rome at 11 a.m., wearing black shirt, morning coat, black trousers, bowler hat, and white spats, looking haggard. At 11:45 a.m., he and his crew arrive at the Quirinale Palace, where King Vittorio Emanuele is waiting. Mussolini strides into the chamber and dramatically announces, “Your Majesty will forgive my attire – I come from the battlefield.” Behind him, 60,000 Fascists are pouring into Rome.
Mussolini’s takeover of Italy now moves with breathtaking speed. On the 30th, he starts going to government ministries, firing anyone who is not at his desk by 9 a.m. All public documents must bear the double date: 1922 and Year I of the Fascist Era. He puts himself through a tough pace: at his desk by 8 a.m., still at work at 9 p.m. He lives in a small dingy apartment at 156 Via Rasella.
Mussolini creates the Fascist Grand Council consisting of senior officials, fires 35,000 civil servants, merges the Nationalist Party with the Fascists, and sets up a Fascist Militia that swears allegiance to him alone. He signs hundreds of orders and memos, banning cars from slamming on their horns, adding one-way streets, banning hansom cabs, and still finds time to attend ceremonies across Italy, ranging from factory openings to a worker’s silver jubilee.
“I want 50,000 Italians working like clockwork,” he says, and the ministers try to obey. Finance Minister Alberto de Stefani sleeps in his office, rising to work at 5 a.m., attacking the nation’s deficit. Edoardo Torre, hired to reform the national railway system, arrives at the Alessandria station to go to Rome to start his job, only to find the train is running 14 minutes late. He fires the driver, hires another one from the crew room, and rides to Rome on the footplate at full speed. Finding that Italy’s railways are losing 3,000 percent more to train robberies in 1922 than in 1915, Mussolini ships trunks filled with Fascist militiamen, who leap out when the robbers attack, taking them into custody. That ends the robberies. Stunts like this start the story that Mussolini makes the trains run on time.
Emilio de Bono to Mussolini's right, Italo Balbo with the crazy hair and eyes.
Mussolini also moves vigorously against parliament. On November 16, he tells the Chamber of Deputies, “I could have turned this drab gray hall into a bivouac for my Blackshirts, and made an end of Parliament. It was in my power to do so, but it was not in my wish.” Then he pauses and adds, “At least, not yet.”
Another pause, and “The Chamber must understand that I can dissolve it – in two days or two years. I claim full powers.” He gets them in a vote two days later, 275 to 90.
In August 1923, assassins cut down General Enrico Tellini and four staff officers, while they are demarcating the Albanian-Greek border, on the Greek side of the border. Mussolini demands homage, the killers’ execution, and £500,000 from Greece in five days. All poverty-stricken Greece can offer is the apology. Mussolini sends his fleet to bombard and seize the island of Corfu. The League of Nations takes 27 days to react – and finally orders Greece to pay compensation. Then the Italians leave the island.
Mussolini is now the sole ruler of Italy. His goons intimidate foreign ambassadors and murder his biggest opponent, socialist Giacomo Matteoti, in 1924 yet his popularity is such that he survives the outcry. Instead Mussolini becomes a demigod. “Mussolini is always right!” bellows Italian propaganda, and he puts on a show to achieve it: treaties with the Papacy, 600 new telephone exchanges across the country, 4,000 miles of new roads, massive ocean liners that conquer the oceans . . . and Minister of Aviation Italo Balbo, who flies with 25 planes from Rome to Chicago in a demonstration of Italian technical prowess.
Mussolini attacks the Mafia, hurling the dons and Mafiosi in jail. He plugs up the Ponine Marshes south of Rome, and begins a re-development campaign around the sleepy ports of Anzio and Nettuno, bringing in farms. He spends freely on development, raising the public debt. He builds modern armaments, which he then sells to foreign nations, easing the debt crisis, but keeping his own army deficient. He wages the Battle of the Wheat for eight years, trying to make Italy self-sufficient in wheat, while neglecting fruit, oil, and wine. Mussolini himself goes in the field to thresh his own share of wheat.
Italy builds itself for war and aggression. Bachelors face tax increases, wile married men with families get benefits, ranging from being first in line for jobs to reduced trolley fares. Women who bear seven children get medals. Militiamen have to salute expectant mothers.
In schools, children start their day by intoning, “I believe in the supreme Duce, creator of the Blackshirts, and in Jesus Christ, his sole protector.” They learn questions, “If Mussolini earned 56 lire per month as a teacher, how many did he earn per day?”
“The masses must obey,” Mussolini thunders when he makes being a member of the Fascist Party obligatory for all. “They cannot afford to waste time searching for truth.”
Hard to believe, but Mussolini was never a university president.
Nor does Mussolini accept anything but applause from his inner circle. His cabinet meetings run all night. Anyone who gives a true opinion risks dismissal. Once, he asks a senior diplomat, back from a League of Nations conference on poison gas, which is the deadliest of all such weapons. “Incense, Excellency,” says the diplomat, who instantly gets on the retired list. Often people who have “resigned” learn their fates by telegram from Mussolini.
It is this dictator Hitler meets with, to discuss the future of Austria. Hitler is at first annoyed with Mussolini. Hitler shows up in a yellow raincoat and civilian suit, while Mussolini is in full kit – black uniform, spurred boots, dagger at his side, fringed fez on the head, wearing all his medals and gold braid. Hitler whirls on his Ambassador to Rome, Ulrich von Hassell, and demands, “Why didn’t you tell me to wear my uniform?”
At the airport, the band plays German marching songs, but Mussolini shows contempt for his guest. As they drive to Venice, the crowds lining the road yell “Duce! Duce!” but never mention Hitler. At the villa outside Venice, the two supermen “bark at each other like two mastiffs,” according to Ribbentrop. Mussolini talks without an interpreter, and his ungrammatical and heavily accented German makes no favorable impression on Hitler.
Hitler wants a customs union with Austria. Mussolini does not want his northern neighbor to be part of the Reich. The two argue. When Hitler leaves, he gets nothing he wants, and heads home visibly angry. Mussolini tells his wife, the Fuhrer is “A violent man with no self-control, and nothing positive came of our talks.” Mussolini will not tolerate the customs union. But he has some more important advice for the German: it takes one set of men to make a revolution, but another to maintain the new order. “It rests with you,” Mussolini tells Hitler, “to put your house in order.”
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 always pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.