13 Facts About Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini
Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

For a brief moment in time, Benito Mussolini was an Italian hero, praised by millions for giving the nation a taste of its lost greatness. But he’s better known as the father of fascism, a brutal dictator, and Hitler’s role model. Here are 13 facts about one of the darkest political figures of the 20th century.

1. MUSSOLINI WAS EXPELLED FROM SCHOOL.

Born in 1883 in Verano di Costa, about 40 miles southeast of Bologna, Benito Mussolini was a difficult child. His father was a blacksmith and a devout Socialist. Prone to insolence and violence, Mussolini was sent by his parents to a strict Catholic boarding school. But the new environment hardly tempered his behavior, and at age 10 he was expelled for stabbing a fellow student with a penknife. Before turning 20 he stabbed a few more peers, including one of his girlfriends.

2. HE WAS INFLUENCED BY LES MIS.

Mussolini was deeply moved by Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables. How he first encountered the novel isn't clear. Some historians say that Mussolini’s father used to read it aloud to the family at home, while other accounts claim that Mussolini heard it read in public by the residents of his hometown in winter gatherings.

3. HE WROTE A BODICE-RIPPING NOVEL.

In 1909, Mussolini penned The Cardinal’s Mistress, a lurid historical fiction set in 17th-century Italy. Originally published as an anti-religious newspaper serial, the book version became wildly popular and was contemporaneously translated into 10 languages. Mussolini himself described it as “a novel for seamstresses and scandal” and “a nasty book.” With its unbridled language and licentious plot, the novel made fun of the Catholic Church.

4. HE FOUNDED A FASCIST POLITICAL PARTY.

Mussolini’s first direct stab at politics was with the Fascist Revolutionary Party, which he founded in 1915. The “Fascist Manifesto,” circulated in 1919, was an early blueprint for a populist movement, calling for full voting rights for men and women, abolition of the Senate (which was dominated by the aristocracy), and massive taxation on the wealthy.

But in 1921 Mussolini rebranded and reorganized the party as the National Fascist Party, this time putting much more emphasis on honoring (and even glamorizing) Italian national identity.

5. NOT SURPRISINGLY, MUSSOLINI WAS INSPIRED BY THE ROMAN EMPIRE.

Nostalgia was central to Mussolini’s fascist movement. To engage the public, Mussolini repurposed many antiquated symbols associated (whether accurately or not) with Rome’s historical glory, like the stretched-arm salute and the perched eagle. Even the word fascist echoes the Roman fasces, a bundle of sticks bound together that were used in ancient Rome to signify authority. But Mussolini was actually using an existing term, fascis, which was popular with Italian radical groups as early as the 1890s.

6. MUSSOLINI TERRORIZED HIS FELLOW COUNTRYMEN.

Though fascism valorized traditional values and national unity, in practice Mussolini and his followers acted more like a homicidal mob. They terrorized northern Italy by targeting Communists and vandalizing newspaper offices and social clubs. Within two years, Mussolini oversaw the murder of nearly 2000 political opponents within Italy.

7. HE FORCED THE KING OF ITALY ASIDE.

Victor Emmanuel III was king of Italy when Mussolini launched his grassroots party. But in October 1922, when Mussolini and his followers marched on Rome, Emmanuel feared that resisting the fascists would only result in more bloodshed and chaos. The king put up no resistance as Mussolini’s mob barged into the area. In fact, he ended up legitimizing the march by appointing Mussolini prime minister, thinking that the appointment would push Mussolini to cooperate with parliament. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Instead, Mussolini leaned on his popularity to establish a dictatorship in 1925.

8. MUSSOLINI ENACTED ANTI-SEMITIC POLICIES WITHOUT WARNING.

Unlike the führer in Nazi Germany, Il Duce didn’t focus too harshly on Jews—up to a point. Until 1938, Italian Jews were seen as part of the nation, and were allowed to join the Fascist Party. “The Fascist government has no intention whatsoever of taking political, economic, or moral measures against Jews,” an official memo from the time reassured the public.

But this changed almost overnight. In July 1938, the government began passing anti-Jewish laws. A few months later Mussolini announced that “foreign Jews” would be deported and those naturalized after January 1919 would lose their citizenship. Exactly what led to the change is unclear; historians debate the extent to which Mussolini himself harbored anti-Semitic beliefs. It’s thought to be likely that he considered expelling Jews an easy way to ingratiate himself to his Nazi allies.

9. HITLER CRIED WHEN HE MET MUSSOLINI.

For Adolf Hitler, Mussolini was a role model. Hitler admired his political skill, his dramatic style, and his talent for using brute nationalism to mobilize the masses. In 1923 Hitler tried and failed to replicate Mussolini’s power grab in Germany; the botched “Beer Hall Putsch” would land Hitler in jail for a time. Once in power, Hitler adopted many of his Italian counterpart’s dictatorial affectations, including the infamous salute.

Mussolini relished Hitler’s adoration. He told his mistress, Claretta Petacci, in 1938 that Hitler “had tears in his eyes” when the two had met. “At heart, Hitler is an old sentimentalist,” Mussolini said, according to Petacci’s journals.

10. HITLER CAME TO MUSSOLINI’S RESCUE.

By the middle of World War II, Hitler’s Germany became the unmistakable leader of the Axis Powers in Europe. Throughout the war, Italy’s influence diminished, and by 1943 Mussolini had become a liability to his Nazi ally. The Italian Grand Council voted to depose Il Duce. To everyone’s surprise, King Emmanuel asserted his power and had Mussolini arrested—after informing him that he was, at that moment, “the most hated man in Italy.”

Hitler came to the rescue. On September 12, 1943, a group of German glider pilots rescued Mussolini from his prison in a mountainside hotel in central Italy. The colonel in charge of the mission told Mussolini that Hitler had sent him and that he was now free. Mussolini reportedly responded, “I knew my friend Adolf wouldn’t desert me.”

11. MUSSOLINI HAD HIS SON-IN-LAW EXECUTED …

At Hitler’s command (and with the help of German forces), Mussolini seized power again in northern Italy. Upon regaining control, he immediately sought revenge on members of his close circle who he believed had betrayed him. One of them was his own son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, the Fascist government’s foreign minister. Ciano’s son later wrote a memoir on this historical moment titled When Grandpa Had Daddy Shot.

12. … AND THEN MUSSOLINI SUFFERED THE SAME FATE.

In the final years of the war, Mussolini was able to keep his power only through German force, which was dwindling as well. He knew his time was running out. “Seven years ago, I was an interesting person. Now, I am little more than a corpse,” he said in a 1945 interview. “I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.” He ended up fleeing with Claretta Petacci and others to the Swiss border, disguised as a member of the Luftwaffe. But he was recognized by Communist partisans, who shot him and Petacci on April 28, 1945 (two days before Hitler’s suicide). His body was brought back to Milan, where it was dragged along the streets and hung upside-down for public display.

13. HIS MOST FAMOUS QUOTE ISN’T REALLY HIS.

As a populist leader, Mussolini loved speaking directly to the people. Thousands would flock to the crowded square to watch the charismatic orator opine about national greatness. But perhaps his most famous aphorism—“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”—isn’t a Mussolini original. According to etymologist Barry Popik, Mussolini used the quote to commemorate WWI’s Battle of the Piave River, where an infantryman wrote on a wall, “Better live one hour like a lion than a hundred years like a sheep.” But even that wasn’t the origin of the saying—as early as 1800, Tipu Sultan of Mysore in modern India is credited with saying that he “would rather live two days like a tiger, than two hundred years like a sheep.”

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash
Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash

Even the most nonsensical idioms in the English language originated somewhere. Some terms, like silver lining and tomfoolery, have innocuous roots, while other sayings date back to the darkest chapters in U.S. history. While these common phrases are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts them in a different light.

1. Tipping Point

This common phrase describes the critical point when a change that had been a possibility becomes inevitable. When it was popularized, according to Merriam-Webster, it was applied to one phenomenon in particular: white flight. In the 1950s, as white people abandoned urban areas for the suburbs in huge numbers, journalists began using the phrase tipping point in relation to the percentage of minority neighbors it took to trigger this reaction in white city residents. Tipping point wasn’t coined in the 1950s (it first appeared in print in the 19th century), but it did enter everyday speech during the decade thanks to this topic.

2. Long Time, No See

The saying long time, no see can be traced back to the 19th century. In a Boston Sunday Globe article from 1894, the words are applied to a Native American speaker. The broken English phrase was also used to evoke white people's stereotypical ideas of Native American speech in William F. Drannan’s 1899 book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West.

It's unlikely actual Native Americans were saying long time, no see during this era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this type of isolating construction would have been unusual for the indigenous languages of North America. Rather, it originated as a way for white writers to mock Native American speech, and that of non-native English speakers from other places like China. By the 1920s, it had become an ordinary part of the American vernacular.

3. Mumbo Jumbo

Before it was synonymous with jargon or other confusing language, the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

4. Sold Down the River

Before the phrase sold down the river meant betrayal, it originated as a literal slave-trading practice. Enslaved people from more northerly regions were sold to cotton plantations in the Deep South via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. For enslaved people, the threat of being “sold down the river” implied separation from family and a life of hard labor. A journal entry from April 1835 mentions a person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

5. No Can Do

Similar to long time, no see, no can do originated as a jab at non-native English speakers. According to the OED, this example was likely directed at Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Today, many people who use the phrase as general slang for "I can’t do that" are unaware of its cruel origins.

6. Indian Giver

Merriam-Webster defines an Indian giver as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back.” One of the first appearances was in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay in the mid 18th century. In a note, it says “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” In the 19th century, the stereotype was transferred from the gift to the giver, the idea of an “equivalent return” was abandoned, and it became used as an insult. An 1838 N.-Y. Mirror article mentions the “distinct species of crimes and virtues” of schoolchildren, elaborating, "I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)" Even as this stereotype about indigenous people faded, the phrase Indian giver has persisted into the 21st century. The word Indian in Indian giver also denotes something false, as it does in the antiquated phrase Indian summer.

7. Cakewalk

In the antebellum South, some enslaved African Americans spent Sundays dressing up and performing dances in the spirit of mocking the white upper classes. The enslavers didn’t know they were the butt of the joke, and even encouraged these performances and rewarded the best dancers with cake, hence the name. Possibly because this was viewed as a leisurely weekend activity, the phrase cakewalk became associated with easy tasks. Cakewalks didn’t end with slavery: For decades, they remained (with cake prizes) a part of African American life, but at the same time white actors in blackface incorporated the act into minstrel shows, turning what began as a satire of white elites into a racist caricature of Black people.