Benito Mussolini rose to power on a wave of populism and well-timed propaganda. He was handed the Prime Ministership by the King of Italy, Umberto Emmeline II, in 1922, and by 1925 he had all but dissolved the democratic constitution.
He named himself “Il Duce” (The Leader) and formed the first Italian Fascist dictatorship. He would maintain control of Italy for the next two decades.
Il Duce ruled with absolute power using his political authority, media savvy, and his loyal, violent Blackshirt followers to silence any opposition.
His main aim was to restore Italy to the glory of the Roman Empire, by expanding the Italian territories into Europe, the Dalmatians and North Africa, which he saw as the birthright of the Italian people.
To this end, he declared his support not only for the Nazi Party at the outbreak of World War 2 but also offered arms and aid to Franco during the Spanish civil war.
World War 2 was a disaster for Mussolini; blinded by his own rhetoric and imperialist ambitions, he led the country into a war in which they were outgunned and ill-prepared.
Initially, Italy declared themselves neutral in the conflict, but as Mussolini became convinced that Germany was on the fast track to victory, he joined the Axis in 1939.
To begin with Italy saw some victories against the Allies but by 1940 the Italian military was in tatters. They were defeated in Africa and the Balkans and, against popular opinion, Mussolini offered troops for the ill-fated attempt to invade Russia.
By 1943, anti-Mussolini sentiment had spread all over the country — there were mass strikes and evacuations, and due to the lack of resources, the war effort was almost non-existent.
It was the Allied invasion of Sicily and the bombing of Rome in July of that year that finally turned the tide of public opinion against Mussolini.
Mussolini was now on the path that would end in his execution. His attempts to rouse support within his own party were ignored, and the Fascist Grand Council voted 19-8 to remove him from power.
Seemingly in denial, Mussolini attempted to reason with the King, who responded by saying “At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.”
Mussolini was then arrested and taken to prison. There were no riots and no calls for his release — the Italian people were sick of war, and they were sick of Il Duce.
In September 1943, the Italian government signed an armistice agreement with the Allies and declared war on Germany.
During the chaos that followed, Mussolini was freed from imprisonment and installed as the leader of the newly formed Italian Social Republic in the North of Italy.
Il Duce did not hide that he was little more than a puppet for the Nazi regime. In conversation with a German journalist he said, “You know, as I do, perhaps better than I, that I’m a prisoner, only a simple pawn in the game… I would like nothing better than to read, read and wait for my destiny to work itself out.”
His destiny caught up with him in April 1945 when he attempted to escape across the Swiss border dressed as an SS officer.
The convoy included German officers, his long-term mistress Clara Petacci, and a handful of loyal followers.
Thanks to the decades of propaganda, where his face was broadcast continuously to the nation, he was recognized by the checkpoint guards.
On April 28th, on the scenic banks of Lake Como, Mussolini was executed by gunshot along with his mistress and the loyal members of his convoy.
Their bodies were taken to Milan where they were dumped in the Piazzale Loreto, a site that in 1944 had seen the executions of fifteen members of the resistance under the orders of the German military.
The corpses were abused and beaten by an angry mob, then hung feet first from the girders of a local petrol station where the crowds continued to throw stones and taunts at the once powerful leader. The corpse was buried in an unmarked grave but was exhumed and hidden by fascist sympathizers.
The government reclaimed the body and kept it in hiding until 1957, when it was re-interned in the family crypt in Predappio. The tomb has now become a pilgrimage site and his date of death is a day of remembrance for those still loyal to his cause.