13 Facts About Benito Mussolini

Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
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.”

On This Day in 1953, Jonas Salk Announced His Polio Vaccine

Getty Images
Getty Images

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk went on CBS radio to announce his vaccine for poliomyelitis. He had worked for three years to develop the polio vaccine, attacking a disease that killed 3000 Americans in 1952 alone, along with 58,000 newly reported cases. Polio was a scourge, and had been infecting humans around the world for millennia. Salk's vaccine was the first practical way to fight it, and it worked—polio was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 1979.

Salk's method was to kill various strains of the polio virus, then inject them into a patient. The patient's own immune system would then develop antibodies to the dead virus, preventing future infection by live viruses. Salk's first test subjects were patients who had already had polio ... and then himself and his family. His research was funded by grants, which prompted him to give away the vaccine after it was fully tested.

Clinical trials of Salk's vaccine began in 1954. By 1955 the trials proved it was both safe and effective, and mass vaccinations of American schoolchildren followed. The result was an immediate reduction in new cases. Salk became a celebrity because his vaccine saved so many lives so quickly.

Salk's vaccine required a shot. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin unveiled an oral vaccine using attenuated (weakened but not killed) polio virus. Sabin's vaccine was hard to test in America in the late 1950s, because so many people had been inoculated using the Salk vaccine. (Sabin did much of his testing in the Soviet Union.) Oral polio vaccine, whether with attenuated or dead virus, is still the preferred method of vaccination today. Polio isn't entirely eradicated around the world, though we're very close.

Here's a vintage newsreel from the mid 1950s telling the story:

For more information on Dr. Jonas Salk and his work, click here.

Drunken Thieves Tried Stealing Stones From Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame.
Notre-Dame.
Athanasio Gioumpasis, Getty Images

With Paris, France, joining a long list of locales shutting down due to coronavirus, two thieves decided the time was right to attempt a clumsy heist—stealing stones from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

The crime occurred last Tuesday, March 17, and appeared from the start to be ill-conceived. The two intruders entered the cathedral and were immediately spotted by guards, who phoned police. When authorities found them, the trespassers were apparently drunk and attempting to hide under a tarpaulin with a collection of stones they had taken from the premises. Both men were arrested.

It’s believed the offenders intended to sell the material for a profit. Stones from the property sometimes come up for sale on the black market, though most are fake.

The crime comes as Paris is not only dealing with the coronavirus pandemic but a massive effort to restore Notre-Dame after the cathedral was ravaged by a fire in 2019. That work has come to a halt in the wake of the health crisis, though would-be looters should take note that guards still patrol the property.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER