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The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




Italy under Fascism



The economic crisis and the dashed expectations of acquiring a colonial empire after World War I radicalized Italy's political right and led in 1922 to the establishment of Europe's first fascist dictatorship under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. He cleverly exploited Italian aspirations to "Great Power" status. After moving closer both ideologically and politically to the German Nazi regime, "II Duce" led Italy into World War II against the Allies on Germany's side.


The Rise of Mussolini

Mussolini's Fascist movement emerged victorious in 1922 out of the domestic turmoil that followed World War I. The ambitious Mussolini turned the state into a personal dictatorship, while retaining a nominal monarchy.


By extending the possibility of territorial gains and financial advantages, Great Britain, France, and Russia convinced the formerly neutral Italy into World War I in 1915. Emerging on the victorious side at the end of the war despite a marginal military contribution, Italy nevertheless resented how it had been sidelined during the peace negotiations. With half a million dead and an economic depression, internal divisions brought the country to the brink of civil war.

The nationalist right, under the slogan of 1 "Mutilated Victory" and led by 2 Benito Mussolini, turned into a violent and thuggish mass movement.

In Rome and elsewhere, the 5 Fascisti fought fierce street battles against socialist and communist groups, while the moderate parties were incapable of controlling the situation.

1 Meeting of the Fascist chamber in 1939

2 Benito Mussolini

5 March of the Fascist youth organization
"Balilla" in Italy, 1939

When Mussolini marched on Rome in October 1922 and demanded the power of state.

King Victor Emmanuel III acquiesced and appointed him prime minister, invested with extensive powers.

Kinq Victor Emmanue

With the king's approval, Mussolini used the internal crisis that resulted from the murder of Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti in 1925 to resolutely build up a "leader dictatorship." All opposition parties were outlawed, the parliament was dissolved, individual civil rights were repealed, and Mussolini's personal power was institutionalized. The Church and the king retained their rights within the framework of the regime.

In 1929, Mussolini and Pope Pius XII concluded the 4 Lateran Treaty, which granted the Vatican autonomous status.

Mussolini initially maintained his distance from Hitler and the German Nazi regime, even promising to protect Austria from a forced union with Germany. In 1935, he formed the Stresa Front with France and Great Britain to prevent further violations of the Versailles Treaty by Germany. However, dreams of empire soon saw him change his policies and alignments.

4 Signing of the Lateran Treaty in
1929; Mussolini (right) and
Cardinal Gasparri, (seated)

Cardinal Gasparri and Benito Mussolini after
exchanging treaty ratifications in the Hall of Congregations, the Vatican, June 7th, 1929.

Mussolini signs the Lateran
Pact of 1929, which brought
into being the Vatican City State.

Mussolini and Pope Pius XII 1933 by Diego Rivera

see also collection:

Diego Rivera



The 1922 "March on Rome"

The Fascist demonstrations of October 27-31, 1922, became known as the "March on Rome" and served as a model for Hitler's followers.

Fascist groups advanced to within a few miles of Rome following Mussolini's declaration in Naples that he would use force if necessary in
order to take over the government.

The large protest marches, attended by around 30,000, that converged in Rome on October 30 in fact took place without Mussolini—he had already been made prime minister the day before.

Benito Mussolini and Fascist blackshirts during the March on Rome in 1922

Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.




Alliance with the Nazi Regime

During the 1930s, Italy and the German Reich increasingly leaned toward each other. Mussolini hoped to realize Italy's imperialist dreams of a new Mediterranean empire by fighting alongside Hitler in World War II. However, abject military failures soon left him dependent on Hitler.


Mussolini's campaign against 6 Ethiopia (Abyssinia prior to WWI) in 1936 was the beginning of his cooperation with Hitler's Nazi regime and of the so-called 7 Berlin-Rome "Axis."

6 Italians enter Gondar in Ethiopia, 1935

7 Italian Fascist symbols being
erected in preparation for Mussolini's
visit to Berlin in 1937

Germany was the only nation that supported the unprovoked Italian attack on a nation that had long been independent. Following a full-scale invasion that involved the use of tanks, bombers, and chemical weapons against the non-mechanized Ethiopian army, Victor Emmanuel III was proclaimed "emperor of Ethiopia."

The Italian-German relationship strengthened in the ensuing years. Italy resigned from the League of Nations in 1937 and did not protest when Hitler annexed Austria into the German Reich in 1938. Together, Italy and Germany supported the coup led by General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Italian Fascism also moved closer to National Socialism ideologically. Whereas the racial supremacy doctrine had not initially been part of the Italian fascist agenda, in 1938 most of the Jews in Italy lost their civil rights and were excluded from public offices.

In May 1939, the two 8 dictators concluded the "Pact of Steel," a friendship and alliance agreement that defined the conditions for a common European war.

8 Adolf Hitler on a State Visit to Benito Mussolini in Rome (1938)

While Italy still reacted hesitantly to Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939, the rapid German victory against France erased all doubts and Italy declared war on the Allied powers on June 10,1940.

Mussolini's goal was to conquer the 9 Mediterranean region, including Greece and North Africa, and found a new "Roman" Empire.

The Tripartite Pact of September 27, 1940, committed Italy, Germany, and Japan to wage war against any nation siding with the Allies.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, 1940

Military failures soon ensured 10 Italy's complete dependence upon Germany's political and military leadership and fanned the flames of internal crisis that ultimately culminated in Mussolini's downfall.

9 Italian torpedo boat in the
Mediterranean Sea, 1942

10 German Stukas flying across the Mediterranean region
to help the Italians, 1941

Following air-strikes and the Allies' invasion of Sicily, the king forced Mussolini to resign on July 25, 1943, and had him arrested. When General Eisenhower announced a cease-fire with Italy a little while later, German troops occupied Rome. Mussolini was freed by German paratroopers and under the protection of German troops founded the fascist "Italian Social Republic" in Salo, northern Italy. On July 9, 1944, Rome was taken by the Allies, and following the surrender of German armed forces in Italy, Mussolini's puppet government was dissolved.

Communist partisans 11 executed the former dictator on April 28,1945, as he was fleeing to Swizerland.

Benito Mussolini and his girlfriend Clara Pettaci

The bodies of Mussolini and Clara Pettaci


11 The bodies of Mussolini and his girlfriend Clara Pettaci, who were publicly hanged by partisans in 1945


Benito Mussolini and Clara Pettaci



Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

Italian dictator
in full Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, byname Il Duce (Italian: “The Leader”)
born July 29, 1883, Predappio, Italy
died April 28, 1945, near Dongo

Italian prime minister (1922–43) and the first of 20th-century Europe’s fascist dictators.

Early life
Mussolini was the first child of the local blacksmith. In later years he expressed pride in his humble origins and often spoke of himself as a “man of the people.” The Mussolini family was, in fact, less humble than he claimed—his father, a part-time socialist journalist as well as a blacksmith, was the son of a lieutenant in the National Guard, and his mother was a schoolteacher—but the Mussolinis were certainly poor. They lived in two crowded rooms on the second floor of a small, decrepit palazzo; and, because Mussolini’s father spent much of his time discussing politics in taverns and most of his money on his mistress, the meals that his three children ate were often meagre.

A restless child, Mussolini was disobedient, unruly, and aggressive. He was a bully at school and moody at home. Because the teachers at the village school could not control him, he was sent to board with the strict Salesian order at Faenza, where he proved himself more troublesome than ever, stabbing a fellow pupil with a penknife and attacking one of the Salesians who had attempted to beat him. He was expelled and sent to the Giosuè Carducci School at Forlimpopoli, from which he was also expelled after assaulting yet another pupil with his penknife.

He was also intelligent, and he passed his final examinations without difficulty. He obtained a teaching diploma and for a time worked as a schoolmaster but soon realized that he was totally unsuited for such work. At the age of 19, a short, pale young man with a powerful jaw and enormous, dark, piercing eyes, he left Italy for Switzerland with a nickel medallion of Karl Marx in his otherwise empty pockets. For the next few months, according to his own account, he lived from day to day, jumping from job to job.

At the same time, however, he was gaining a reputation as a young man of strange magnetism and remarkable rhetorical talents. He read widely and voraciously, if not deeply, plunging into the philosophers and theorists Immanuel Kant, Benedict de Spinoza, Peter Kropotkin, Friedrich Nietzsche, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Kautsky, and Georges Sorel, picking out what appealed to him and discarding the rest, forming no coherent political philosophy of his own yet impressing his companions as a potential revolutionary of uncommon personality and striking presence. While earning a reputation as a political journalist and public speaker, he produced propaganda for a trade union, proposing a strike and advocating violence as a means of enforcing demands. Repeatedly, he called for a day of vengeance. More than once he was arrested and imprisoned. When he returned to Italy in 1904, even the Roman newspapers had started to mention his name.

For some time after his return little was heard of him. He once more became a schoolmaster, this time in the Venetian Alps, north of Udine, where he lived, so he confessed, a life of “moral deterioration.” But soon tiring of so wasteful a life, he returned to trade-union work, to journalism, and to extreme politics, which led yet again to arrest and imprisonment.

During a period of freedom in 1909, he fell in love with 16-year-old Rachele Guidi, the younger of the two daughters of his father’s widowed mistress; she went to live with him in a damp, cramped apartment in Forlì and later married him. Soon after the marriage, Mussolini was imprisoned for the fifth time; but by then Comrade Mussolini had become recognized as one of the most gifted and dangerous of Italy’s younger socialists. After writing in a wide variety of socialist papers, he founded a newspaper of his own, La Lotta di Classe (“The Class Struggle”). So successful was this paper that in 1912 he was appointed editor of the official Socialist newspaper, Avanti! (“Forward!”), whose circulation he soon doubled; and as its antimilitarist, antinationalist, and anti-imperialist editor, he thunderously opposed Italy’s intervention in World War I.

Soon, however, he changed his mind about intervention. Swayed by Karl Marx’s aphorism that social revolution usually follows war and persuaded that “the defeat of France would be a deathblow to liberty in Europe,” he began writing articles and making speeches as violently in favour of war as those in which he previously had condemned it. He resigned from Avanti! and was expelled from the Socialist Party. Financed by a publisher who favoured war against Austria, he assumed the editorship of Il Popolo d’Italia (“The People of Italy”), in which he unequivocally stated his new philosophy: “From today onward we are all Italians and nothing but Italians. Now that steel has met steel, one single cry comes from our hearts—Viva l’Italia! [Long live Italy!]” It was the birth cry of fascism. Mussolini went to fight in the war.

Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, E. F. L. Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax and count Galeazzo Ciano
at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in Rome.

Rise to power
Wounded while serving with the bersaglieri (a corps of sharpshooters), he returned home a convinced antisocialist and a man with a sense of destiny. As early as February 1918, he advocated the emergence of a dictator—“a man who is ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep”—to confront the economic and political crisis then gripping Italy. Three months later, in a widely reported speech in Bologna, he hinted that he himself might prove to be such a man. The following year the nucleus of a party prepared to support his ambitious idea was formed in Milan. In an office in Piazza San Sepolcro, about 200 assorted republicans, anarchists, syndicalists, discontented socialists, restless revolutionaries, and discharged soldiers met to discuss the establishment of a new force in Italian politics. Mussolini called this force the fasci di combattimento (“fighting bands”), groups of fighters bound together by ties as close as those that secured the fasces of the lictors—the symbols of ancient Roman authority. So fascism was created and its symbol devised.

At rallies—surrounded by supporters wearing black shirts—Mussolini caught the imagination of the crowds. His physique was impressive, and his style of oratory, staccato and repetitive, was superb. His attitudes were highly theatrical, his opinions were contradictory, his facts were often wrong, and his attacks were frequently malicious and misdirected; but his words were so dramatic, his metaphors so apt and striking, his vigorous, repetitive gestures so extraordinarily effective, that he rarely failed to impose his mood.

Fascist squads, militias inspired by Mussolini but often created by local leaders, swept through the countryside of the Po Valley and the Puglian plains, rounded up Socialists, burned down union and party offices, and terrorized the local population. Hundreds of radicals were humiliated, beaten, or killed. In late 1920, the Blackshirt squads, often with the direct help of landowners, began to attack local government institutions and prevent left-wing administrations from taking power. Mussolini encouraged the squads—although he soon tried to control them—and organized similar raids in and around Milan. By late 1921, the Fascists controlled large parts of Italy, and the left, in part because of its failures during the postwar years, had all but collapsed. The government, dominated by middle-class Liberals, did little to combat this lawlessness, both through weak political will and a desire to see the mainly working-class left defeated. As the Fascist movement built a broad base of support around the powerful ideas of nationalism and anti-Bolshevism, Mussolini began planning to seize power at the national level.

In the summer of 1922, Mussolini’s opportunity presented itself. The remnants of the trade-union movement called a general strike. Mussolini declared that unless the government prevented the strike, the Fascists would. Fascist volunteers, in fact, helped to defeat the strike and thus advanced the Fascist claim to power. At a gathering of 40,000 Fascists in Naples on October 24, Mussolini threatened, “Either the government will be given to us, or we will seize it by marching on Rome.” Responding to his oratory the assembled Fascists excitedly took up the cry, shouting in unison “Roma! Roma! Roma!” All appeared eager to march.

Later that day, Mussolini and other leading Fascists decided that four days later the Fascist militia would advance on Rome in converging columns led by four leading party members later to be known as the Quadrumviri. Mussolini himself was not one of the four.

He was still hoping for a political compromise, and he refused to move before King Victor Emmanuel III summoned him in writing. Meanwhile, all over Italy the Fascists prepared for action, and the March on Rome began. Although it was far less orderly than Fascist propaganda later suggested, it was sufficiently threatening to bring down the government. And the king, prepared to accept the Fascist alternative, dispatched the telegram for which Mussolini had been waiting.

Benito Mussolini in Rome

Mussolini’s obvious pride in his achievement at becoming (October 31, 1922) the youngest prime minister in Italian history was not misplaced. He had certainly been aided by a favourable combination of circumstances, both political and economic; but his remarkable and sudden success also owed something to his own personality, to native instinct and shrewd calculation, to astute opportunism, and to his unique gifts as an agitator. Anxious to demonstrate that he was not merely the leader of fascism but also the head of a united Italy, he presented to the king a list of ministers, a majority of whom were not members of his party. He made it clear, however, that he intended to govern authoritatively. He obtained full dictatorial powers for a year; and in that year he pushed through a law that enabled the Fascists to cement a majority in the parliament. The elections in 1924, though undoubtedly fraudulent, secured his personal power.

Many Italians, especially among the middle class, welcomed his authority. They were tired of strikes and riots, responsive to the flamboyant techniques and medieval trappings of fascism, and ready to submit to dictatorship, provided the national economy was stabilized and their country restored to its dignity. Mussolini seemed to them the one man capable of bringing order out of chaos. Soon a kind of order had been restored, and the Fascists inaugurated ambitious programs of public works. The costs of this order were, however, enormous. Italy’s fragile democratic system was abolished in favour of a one-party state. Opposition parties, trade unions, and the free press were outlawed. Free speech was crushed. A network of spies and secret policemen watched over the population. This repression hit moderate Liberals and Catholics as well as Socialists. In 1924 Mussolini’s henchmen kidnapped and murdered the Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, who had become one of fascism’s most effective critics in parliament. The Matteotti crisis shook Mussolini, but he managed to maintain his hold on power.

Mussolini was hailed as a genius and a superman by public figures worldwide. His achievements were considered little less than miraculous. He had transformed and reinvigorated his divided and demoralized country; he had carried out his social reforms and public works without losing the support of the industrialists and landowners; he had even succeeded in coming to terms with the papacy. The reality, however, was far less rosy than the propaganda made it appear. Social divisions remained enormous, and little was done to address the deep-rooted structural problems of the Italian state and economy.

Mussolini might have remained a hero until his death had not his callous xenophobia and arrogance, his misapprehension of Italy’s fundamental necessities, and his dreams of empire led him to seek foreign conquests. His eye rested first upon Ethiopia, which, after 10 months of preparations, rumours, threats, and hesitations, Italy invaded in October 1935. A brutal campaign of colonial conquest followed, in which the Italians dropped tons of gas bombs upon the Ethiopian people. Europe expressed its horror; but, having done so, did no more. The League of Nations imposed sanctions but ensured that the list of prohibited exports did not include any, such as oil, that might provoke a European war. If the League had imposed oil sanctions, Mussolini said, he would have had to withdraw from Ethiopia within a week. But he faced no such problem, and on the night of May 9, 1936, he announced to an enormous, expectant crowd of about 400,000 people standing shoulder to shoulder around Piazza Venezia in Rome that “in the 14th year of the Fascist era” a great event had been accomplished: Italy had its empire. This moment probably marked the peak of public support for the regime.

Italy had also found a new ally. Intent upon his own imperial ambitions in Austria, Adolf Hitler had actively encouraged Mussolini’s African adventure, and under Hitler’s guidance Germany had been the one powerful country in western Europe that had not turned against Mussolini. The way was now open for the Pact of Steel—a Rome-Berlin Axis and a brutal alliance between Hitler and Mussolini that was to ruin them both. In 1938, following the German example, Mussolini’s government passed anti-Semitic laws in Italy that discriminated against Jews in all sectors of public and private life and prepared the way for the deportation of some 20 percent of Italy’s Jews to German death camps during the war.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini

Role in World War II
While Mussolini understood that peace was essential to Italy’s well-being, that a long war might prove disastrous, and that he must not “march blindly with the Germans,” he was beset by concerns that the Germans “might do good business cheaply” and that by not intervening on their side in World War II he would lose his “part of the booty.” His foreign secretary and son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, recorded that during a long, inconclusive discussion at the Palazzo Venezia, Mussolini at first agreed that Italy must not go to war, “then he said that honour compelled him to march with Germany.”

Mussolini watched the progress of Hitler’s war with bitterness and alarm, becoming more and more bellicose with each fresh German victory, while frequently expressing hope that the Germans would be slowed down or would meet with some reverse that would satisfy his personal envy and give Italy breathing space. When Germany advanced westward, however, and France seemed on the verge of collapse, Mussolini felt he could delay no longer. So, on June 10, 1940, the fateful declaration of war was made.

From the beginning the war went badly for Italy, and Mussolini’s opportunistic hopes for a quick victory soon dissolved. France surrendered before there was an opportunity for even a token Italian victory, and Mussolini left for a meeting with Hitler, sadly aware, as Ciano put it, that his opinion had “only a consultative value.” Indeed, from then on Mussolini was obliged to face the fact that he was the junior partner in the Axis alliance. The Germans kept the details of most of their military plans concealed, presenting their allies with a fait accompli for fear that prior discussion would destroy surprise. And thus the Germans made such moves as the occupation of Romania and the later invasion of the Soviet Union without any advance notice to Mussolini.

It was to “pay back Hitler in his own coin,” as Mussolini openly admitted, that he decided to attack Greece through Albania in 1940 without informing the Germans. The result was an extensive and ignominious defeat, and the Germans were forced unwillingly to extricate him from its consequences. The 1941 campaign to support the German invasion of the Soviet Union also failed disastrously and condemned thousands of ill-equipped Italian troops to a nightmarish winter retreat. Hitler had to come to his ally’s help once again in North Africa. After the Italian surrender in North Africa in 1943, the Germans began to take precautions against a likely Italian collapse. Mussolini had grossly exaggerated the extent of public support for his regime and for the war. When the Western Allies successfully invaded Sicily in July 1943, it was obvious that collapse was imminent.

For some time Italian Fascists and non-Fascists alike had been preparing Mussolini’s downfall. On July 24, at a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council—the supreme constitutional authority of the state, which had not met once since the war began—an overwhelming majority passed a resolution that in effect dismissed Mussolini from office. Disregarding the vote as a matter of little concern and refusing to admit that his minions could harm him, Mussolini appeared at his office the next morning as though nothing had happened. That afternoon, however, he was arrested by royal command on the steps of the Villa Savoia after an audience with the king.

Imprisoned first on the island of Ponza, then on a remoter island off the coast of Sardinia, he was eventually transported to a hotel high on the Gran Sasso d’Italia in the mountains of Abruzzi, from which his rescue by the Germans was deemed impossible. Nevertheless, by crash-landing gliders on the slopes behind the hotel, German commandos on September 12, 1943, effected his escape by air to Munich.

Rather than allow the Germans to occupy and govern Italy entirely in their own interests, Mussolini agreed to Hitler’s suggestion that he establish a new Fascist government in the north and execute those members of the Grand Council, including his son-in-law, Ciano, who had dared to vote against him. But the Repubblica Sociale Italiana thus established at Salò was, as Mussolini himself grimly admitted to visitors, no more than a puppet government at the mercy of the German command. And there, living in dreams and “thinking only of history and how he would appear in it,” as one of his ministers said, Mussolini awaited the inevitable end. Meanwhile, Italian Fascists maintained their alliance with the Germans and participated in deportations, the torture of suspected partisans, and the war against the Allies.

As German defenses in Italy collapsed and the Allies advanced rapidly northward, the Italian Communists of the partisan leadership decided to execute Mussolini. Rejecting the advice of various advisers, including the elder of his two surviving sons—his second son had been killed in the war—Mussolini refused to consider flying out of the country, and he made for the Valtellina, intending perhaps to make a final stand in the mountains; but only a handful of men could be found to follow him. He tried to cross the frontier disguised as a German soldier in a convoy of trucks retreating toward Innsbruck, in Austria. But he was recognized and, together with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, who had insisted on remaining with him to the end, he was shot and killed on April 28, 1945. Their bodies were hung, head downward, in the Piazza Loreto in Milan. Huge, jubilant crowds celebrated the fall of the dictator and the end of the war.

The great mass of the Italian people greeted Mussolini’s death without regret. He had lived beyond his time and had dragged his country into a disastrous war, which it was unwilling and unready to fight. Democracy was restored in the country after 20 years of dictatorship, and a neo-Fascist Party that carried on Mussolini’s ideals won only 2 percent of the vote in the 1948 elections.

Christopher Hibbert

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Clara Petacci

Clara Petacci
(Claretta Petacci) (28 February 1912 – 28 April 1945) was an upper class Roman who became Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's mistress. Her father had been the personal physician to the Pope. She was twenty-nine years younger than Mussolini.

Petacci was with Mussolini to the end. On 27 April 1945, when a convoy of escaping Italian Social Republic members, including Mussolini, was captured by Communist partisans, it is said that Petacci was offered the opportunity to go unmolested, but there is no solid evidence for this. On 28 April, she and Mussolini were taken to Mezzegra where she and the Duce were shot. On the following day, 29 April, Mussolini and Petacci's bodies were taken to the Piazzale Loreto in Milan and hanged upside down in front of an Esso petrol station. The bodies were photographed as a crowd vented their rage upon them.

Clara Petacci


The body of Clara Petacci, 1945



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