After assuming dictatorial powers in Italy, Benito Mussolini remained a popular figure with the Italian people – for a time. The Fascist dictator enacted large public works programs, expanded the military, and created jobs. A popular expression noted that he “made the trains run on time.”
Always, however, Mussolini was pursuing a foreign policy that he believed would restore Italy to the glory days of the Roman Empire. In the process, Il Duce, or the leader, would be lionized as a modern day Caesar. Blinded by ambition and to divert attention from the economic hardship of the Great Depression, Mussolini embarked upon a series of military actions for which Italy’s armed forces were hardly well prepared.
Supporting Francisco Franco
The Italian Army invaded Ethiopia in 1935. During a brutal war, the Italians used aircraft, tanks, machine guns, and poison gas to subdue the Ethiopians, and Il Duce proclaimed the beginning of the 20th century Roman Empire. However, the victory in Ethiopia was more show than substance, and Mussolini’s future military adventures foundered.
In 1936, Mussolini threw military support to the Nationalists of Francisco Franco, who were fighting a civil war with the Republican government of Spain. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany also supported Franco, and Italy received little tangible benefit for its military commitment. Although he had been wary of Hitler at first, Mussolini became enamored with the Nazi leader and obligated his country to the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936, the Tripartite Pact the following year, and the Pact of Steel in 1939. During a five-day campaign in April of that year, his army overran the tiny country of Albania across the Adriatic Sea. That military victory, such as it was, signaled the last Italian battlefield success of any consequence.
In June 1940, Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and France, affirming his devotion to Hitler and ultimately sealing his own fate. In October, Il Duce sent his army across the Albanian frontier into Greece. The Greeks, however, proved to be no pushover, and the German Army eventually intervened to subdue the Greece and its fighting allies of the British Commonwealth.
A Predictable Outcome
When Mussolini’s armies in North Africa took on the British, the result was predictable. By early 1941, the Italian Army had been humiliated in the desert. More than 140,000 Italian soldiers were taken prisoner in just two months from December 1940 to February 1941, during the British offensive codenamed Operation Compass. Once again, Hitler came to Mussolini’s rescue, sending General Erwin Rommel and the soon-to-be legendary Afrika Korps to stabilize the situation.
Events then spiraled completely out of Mussolini’s control. He had obviously become the junior partner in the Axis coalition, and while Hitler’s forces had marched from victory to victory his own ill-equipped and poorly led army was regularly drubbed. Rapidly, Il Duce’s popularity wavered and then collapsed. The Italian people grew tired of the news of endless defeats, lengthy casualty lists, and the hardship of rationing.
His dream of empire shattered, Mussolini effectively lost his war in 1942. By the summer of 1943, he was ousted from office and imprisoned. Only the good graces of Adolf Hitler, whose elite special forces troops rescued him from a mountaintop prison, staved off inevitable retribution. Shot dead by a Communist partisan in April 1945, Benito Mussolini died in shame, his body strung up by its heels in front of a garage in the city of Milan so that his once adoring public might jeer and batter his corpse.