Mussolini, Benito, 1883-1945

Mussolini’s international importance was already in decline by the outbreak of World War II. His seizure of power in 1924 had inspired HITLER by its demonstration of what a Fascist party, properly led, could achieve, and by his seizure of Ethiopia in 1935 and massive intervention in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he succeeded in making himself seem the equal, if not the superior, of his German dictator on the international stage even after Italy’s real power had begun to wane. But, as he himself knew all too well, Italy was industrially too weak and geographically too exposed to wage aggressive war against the Western Allies, and he carefully avoided involving himself in World War II until both had been brought to the brink of defeat by the blitzkrieg of May, 1940. Thereafter he was cast as Hitler’s junior partner. His desert army was humiliatingly defeated by a minor British force, in December 1940 and the invasion of Greece which he launched from Albania in November came to an even more shameful end. He had to be rescued from the debacle, by then an embarrassment to Hitler himself, in April 1941 and thereafter played no independent role in the war. He lost the greater part of his field army in the Tunisian defeat of 1943, when his expeditionary force in Russia was also almost completely destroyed at Stalingrad. By July, when it was clear that the Allies were preparing an invasion of mainland Italy, his position at home had been fatally weakened and he was deposed at a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on 24 July. Imprisoned on the Gran Sasso in the Abruzzi, he was rescued by a parachute coup de main, led by Otto SKORZENY, on 12 September and taken to the north of Italy, where he attempted to refound a sovereign government at the head of a so-called Italian Social Republic. Germany had by then, however, taken Italy under effective military government and Mussolini wielded little power. In April 1945 he was captured, with his mistress, Clara Petacci, by partisans and executed. Their bodies were exhibited, hung by the heels, in a Milan square. It was a squalid end to a life which, though marred by much miscalculation, great vulgarity and some cruelty, compared in no way with the calculated inhumanity of Hitler’s.

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