Mussolini speaks

How Mussolini led Italy to fascism—and why his legacy looms today

Although ultimately disgraced, the Italian dictator's memory still haunts the nation a century after toppling the government and ushering in an age of brutality.

Benito Mussolini makes a speech in Italy. Known for his charisma and persuasive rhetoric, the future fascist dictator rose to power amid growing discontent in the early 20th century.
NPL - DeA Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

In October 1922, a storm was gathering over Italy. Fascism—a political movement that harnessed discontent with a potent brew of nationalism, populism, and violence—would soon engulf the embattled nation and much of the world.

Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian movement, had amassed a strong following and began to call for the government to hand over power.

“We are at the point when either the arrow shoots forth or the tightly drawn bowstring breaks!” he said during a speech at a rally in Naples on October 24 of that year. “Our program is simple. We want to govern Italy.” He told supporters that if the government did not resign, they must march on Rome. Four days later, they did just that—leaving chaos in their wake as Mussolini seized control.

Mussolini’s name is still often invoked in the country as a brutal dictator though some still revere him as a hero. But how did he rise to power and what exactly happened during that fateful march that toppled Italy’s government? Here’s what you need to know.

How Mussolini founded Italian fascism

Fascism galvanized a growing nationalist movement in Europe born in the face of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in which Russian socialists overthrew the Russian Empire. (Learn more about the causes and effects of WWI.)

In Italy, Mussolini led the way to fascism. Born on July 29, 1883, in small-town southern Italy to a blacksmith father and a schoolteacher mother, he grew up on his socialist father’s stories of nationalism and political heroism. Shy and socially awkward, he ran into trouble at an early age due to his intransigence and violence against his classmates. As a young adult, he moved to Switzerland and became an avowed socialist. Eventually, he made his way back to Italy and established himself as a socialist journalist.

When war broke out across Europe in 1914, Italy at first remained neutral. Mussolini wanted Italy to join the war—putting him at odds with the Italian Socialist Party, which expelled him due to his pro-war advocacy. In response, he formed his own political movement, the Fasces of Revolutionary Action, aimed at encouraging entry into the war. (Italy eventually joined the fray in 1915.)

In ancient Rome, the word fasces referred to a weapon consisting of a bundle of wooden rods, sometimes surrounding an ax. Used by Roman authorities to punish wrongdoers, the fasces came to represent state authority. In the 19th century, Italians had begun to use the word for political groups bound by common aims.

Mussolini was increasingly convinced that society should organize itself not along lines of social class or political affiliation, but around a strong national identity. He believed that only a “ruthless and energetic” dictator could make a “clean sweep” of Italy and restore it to its national promise.

Support for fascism grows

Mussolini was not alone: In the wake of the war, many Italians were chagrined by the Treaty of Versailles. They felt the treaty, which carved up the territory of the aggressor nations, disrespected Italy by awarding it far too little land. This “mutilated victory” would shape Italy’s future. (How the Treaty of Versailles ended WWI and started WWII.)

In 1919, Mussolini founded a paramilitary movement he called the Italian Fasces of Combat. A successor to the Fasces of Revolutionary Action, this combat-focused squad aimed to mobilize war-hardened veterans who could return glory to Italy.

Mussolini hoped to translate the nation’s discontent into political success, but the young party suffered a humiliating defeat in that year’s parliamentary election. Mussolini only garnered 2,420 votes compared with the Socialist Party’s 1.8 million, delighting his enemies in Milan who held a fake funeral in his honor.  

Undeterred, Mussolini began courting other groups who were at odds with socialists: industrialists and businessmen who feared strikes and slowdowns, rural landowners who feared losing their land, and members of political parties who feared socialism’s growing popularity.

Mussolini’s powerful new allies helped finance his movement’s paramilitary wing, known as “the Blackshirts.” Though Mussolini professed to stand against oppression and censorship of all kinds, the group quickly became known for its willingness to use violence for political gain.

The Blackshirts terrorized socialists and Mussolini’s personal enemies nationwide. The year 1920 was bloody, with fascists marching through towns, beating and even killing labor leaders, and effectively taking over local authority. But the Italian government, which shared the fascists’ enmity with socialists, did little to stem the violence.

Mussolini’s rise to power

Though in reality Mussolini only controlled a fraction of the militia members, their tough image helped build his reputation as a powerful, authoritative leader capable of backing up his words with violent and decisive action. Known as Il Duce, (the Duke), he exercised a powerful influence over Italians, seducing them with his personal charm and persuasive rhetoric.

In 1921, Mussolini won a seat in parliament and was even invited to join the coalition government by Italy’s Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti—who assumed that Mussolini would bring his Blackshirts to heel once he was given a share of the political power.

But Giolitti had misjudged Mussolini, who instead intended to use his Blackshirts to seize absolute control. In late 1921, Mussolini transformed the group into the National Fascist Party, translating a movement that had numbered about 30,000 in 1920 into a political party 320,000 members strong. Although he had effectively declared war against the state, the Italian government was powerless to dissolve the party and stood by as fascists took over most of northern Italy.

Mussolini saw his opening in summer 1922. Socialists had announced a strike that historian Ararat Gocmen writes was “not in the name of workers’ emancipation but in a desperate cry for the state to bring an end to fascist violence.” Mussolini positioned the strike as proof that the government was weak and incapable of rule. With new supporters who wanted law and order, Mussolini decided it was time to seize power.

The March on Rome

On October 25, 1922, a day after his rally in Naples, Mussolini appointed four party leaders to lead members into the nation’s capital. Poorly trained and outfitted, these men would likely have lost a battle with Italy’s army. But Mussolini intended to intimidate the government into submission.  

Fascist battalions were to congregate outside of Rome. If the prime minister did not give the fascists power—and King Victor Emmanuel III did not subsequently recognize his authority—his waiting men would march into the capital and seize control.

While Mussolini lingered in Milan, his supporters gathered. They left chaos in their wake, taking over government buildings in towns they passed through en route to Rome. Though the party consistently overstated their numbers, historian Katy Hull notes, fewer than 30,000 men joined the march.

Luigi Facta, then the prime minister, attempted to impose martial law. But the king thought Mussolini could usher in stability and refused to sign the order that would have mobilized Italian troops against the fascists.

In protest, Facta and his cabinet resigned the morning of October 28. Armed with a telegram from the king inviting him to form a cabinet, Mussolini boarded a sleeper car and took a leisurely, 14-hour journey from Milan to Rome. On October 30, he became prime minister—and ordered his men to parade before the king’s residence as they left the city.

The fall of Mussolini—and fascism’s legacy

The king, exhausted by the world war and a state of near civil war in Italy, had assumed Mussolini would impose order. But within three years, the strongman would be an outright dictator—and Victor Emmanuel let him do as he pleased.

Over the years, Mussolini increased his own power while chipping away at the population’s civil rights and forming a propagandistic police state. His agenda also went beyond domestic affairs. Mussolini’s imperial ambitions led Italy to occupy the Greek island of Corfu, invade Ethiopia, and ally itself with Nazi Germany, eventually resulting in the murder of 8,500 Italians in the Holocaust.

Mussolini’s ambition would be his downfall. Though he led Italy into World War II as an Axis power aligned with the seemingly unstoppable Adolf Hitler, he presided over the destruction of much of his country. Victor Emmanuel III convinced Mussolini’s closest allies to turn against him and, on July 25, 1943, they finally succeeded in removing him from power and placing him under arrest. (Subscriber exclusive: Hear stories from the last voices of World War II.)

After a dramatic prison break, Mussolini fled to German-occupied Italy, where, under pressure from Hitler, he formed a weak and short-lived puppet state. On April 28, 1945, as an Allied victory neared, Mussolini attempted to flee the country. He was intercepted by communist partisans, who shot him and dumped his body in a public square in Milan.

Soon, a crowd gathered, desecrating the dictator’s corpse and venting years of hatred and loss. His barely recognizable body was eventually deposited in an unmarked grave. Il Duce was dead. But his legacy still haunts Italy today—and the fascist movement he pioneered remains alive both in Italian politics and the international imagination.

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