Benito Mussolini’s self-confessed “thirst for military glory” battled his acute intelligence, psychological acumen, and political shrewdness for control over his military policies. Originally a revolutionary Socialist, he abandoned his party to advocate Italian intervention in World War I. Following the war, in which he served as a rifleman, Mussolini decided his destiny was to rule Italy as a modern Caesar and re-create the Roman Empire. He forged the paramilitary Fascist movement in 1919-1921, using it to march on Rome, become prime minister, and then to seize dictatorial power (1925-1926). By subduing Libya (1922-1932), pacifying Somalia (1923-1927), conquering Ethiopia (1935-1936), helping the Nationalists win the Spanish civil war (1936-1939), and seizing Albania (April 1939), Mussolini made Italy predominant in the Mediterranean-Red Sea region. But his military adventures in 1935-1939 left his armed forces exhausted.
National poverty, resource deficiencies, and scientific-industrial weakness, combined with inflexible commanders, plagued the Italian forces. The king, Victor Emmanuel III, provided monarchist officers with an authority figure to impede Mussolini’s dominance of the armed services. An air power enthusiast, Mussolini did create an innovative, Fascist-minded air force. It performed well over Ethiopia and Spain but lagged technologically after 1935. Mussolini promoted Fascists to leadership positions and sponsored some new army thinking in the 1930s. But bitter interservice rivalry crippled joint planning. Mussolini lacked the understanding and power to solve these problems. Thus, he pursued his imperial dreams with politically, strategically, and doctrinally incoherent forces.
Wishful thinking, megalomania, and Fascist ideology gradually overwhelmed Mussolini’s common sense. He interpreted diplomatic victories over Britain and France during the Ethiopian and Spanish wars (1935-1939) as proof of his military genius. Because of his parents’ and older brother’s short lives, Mussolini expected to die young but considered himself uniquely capable of leading Italy to greatness. Therefore he perceived a fleeting historical opportunity (1935-1945) for spectacular Italian aggrandizement by pitting Fascist-Nazi power against French-British decadence. Mussolini decided to gamble for a Mediterranean-African empire through war with the west. Winning Caesarian glory would gain him the prestige necessary to abolish the monarchy and create a truly totalitarian state.
Mussolini slowly overcame his lieutenants’ anti-German attitudes, and then allied himself with Adolf Hitler in May 1939. Mussolini expected coordinated policies to inhibit German initiatives until Italy’s forces recovered from their recent exertions. Mussolini planned for war in 1943-1945. But Hitler started World War II in September 1939, giving only one week’s warning to the Italians and forcing an enraged, humiliated Mussolini to declare “nonbelligerence.”
Hitler’s May 1940 successes persuaded Mussolini to intervene in a presumably short, parallel war. But Italy’s cautious generals and admirals wasted brief opportunities in the Mediterranean and North Africa during June-October 1940. After Mussolini forced offensives in the fall, he suffered disasters in Greece and North Africa: only German military intervention in early 1941 preserved him from a military coup. Thereafter, Hitler dragged Mussolini in his wake, particularly once the German-Soviet war overwhelmed Axis strategy.
After the Allied victories of November 1942, Mussolini implored Hitler to make peace with Joseph Stalin and concentrate on defeating the British-American forces. Hitler’s refusal and the Sicilian invasion convinced the king and high command to overthrow Mussolini in July 1943. Hitler rescued him, installing Mussolini as puppet dictator of northern Italy in September. Mussolini facilitated significant war production for the Germans and the creation of large, ruthless Fascist counterinsurgency forces. The April 1945 German surrender in Italy forced Mussolini to flee. Insurgents captured and shot him.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.