Study Guide

Benito Mussolini in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

By William L. Shirer

Benito Mussolini

Mussolini—Il Duce—enters Shirer's narrative as a kind of role model for Hitler's youthful political ambitions. As he remarks, Mussolini's success in establishing a fascist dictatorship in Italy gave young Hitler "food for thought" (1.3.52). This was in the days before Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch, and before the fledgling Fuehrer had decided that destroying the Weimar Republic from withinwould be more practical than overthrowing it through armed rebellion.

Even thought he was sympathetic to his fellow Fascist in Germany, Mussolini knew that Italy was not ready for war, and he hoped that Hitler would postpone his invasion of Poland. When it happened it 1939, Mussolini begged off. He finally entered the war in 1940, when he thought it would be short and winnable. Mussolini hoped to establish an empire in the Mediterranean and North Africa while Hitler was busy conquering Europe. But the campaigns were disasters, and Italy had to be bailed out by Germany.

After Hitler's rise to power, Mussolini almost always played second fiddle to Hitler in their joint venture. Aside from a brief span of time in which Mussolini stood in the way of Hitler's plans to seize Austria, the Italian dictator seems to have been all too willing to accept Hitler's flattery and praise, while at the same time watching his Axis ally drag him into a war that he couldn't hope to win. During the many times that the two dictators met, Shirer says that Hitler did all the talking and Mussolini all the listening.

Hitler propped up Mussolini when the Italians were generally opposed to his Fascist regime, and Shirer believes that Hitler had genuine affection for the man.

When the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, Mussolini was at the end of his rope. Rebellious Fascist leaders, as well as the King, were planning to overthrow him, and on July 25, 1943, he was arrested and thrown in jail.

So fell, ignominiously, the modern Roman Caesar, a bellicose-sounding man of the twentieth century who had known how to profit from its confusion and despair, but who underneath the gaudy façade was made largely from sawdust. (5.28.13)

Shirer portrays Mussolini as a ridiculous person. He believes that the Italian people, unlike the Germans, never really embraced Fascism, and saw Mussolini as someone they had to tolerate for the time being. But Mussolini had delusions of grandeur and made a fatal mistake in tying the future of Italy to the fortunes of the Third Reich. No one in Italy came to Mussolini's defense after his arrest.

It was up to Hitler to rescue him in an effort to restore a Fascist government in Italy. The Nazis located Mussolini where he was being held in a hotel high in the Alps, rescued him from the carabinieri guarding him, and flew him to Vienna. Mussolini seemed too tired and discouraged to try to re-establish his Fascist regime. Still, he made an effort to announce a new Italian Social Republic to mollify his old ally.

Hitler convinced Mussolini to give away the Tyrol, Trieste, and Istria to Germany, and to have his son-in-law, the former Foreign Minister not all that sympathetic to Hitler, executed. Mussolini continued to "rule" over Germany's puppet state until the allied invasion of northern Italy, when he tried to flee with his mistress to Switzerland. They were caught by partisans on April 27, 1945, and executed two days later.