Mussolini and The Cult of the Leader

by Dr John Whittam. University of Bristol

new perspective. Volume 3. Number 3. March 1998

Summary: Traditional liberal beliefs and institutions, which had been criticised before 1914, collapsed in Italy and elsewhere after the First World War. Many believed that a New Order was required. There were other possible authoritarian leaders in Italy, including the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, who helped develop the distinctive Fascist style; but, during a time of extreme post-war tension, it was Benito Mussolini who assumed control as Duce. Soon propaganda vaunted him as a new Messiah, but this was a role which he failed to live up to during the Second World War.

'A CENTURY FROM NOW,' wrote an enthusiastic Fascist in 1925, 'history may tell us that after the war a Messiah arose in Italy who began speaking to fifty people and ended up evangelizing a million; that these first disciples then spread through Italy and with their faith, devotion and sacrifice conquered the hearts of the masses.' What is most striking about this passage is the use of religious terminology. He was, of course, referring to Benito Mussolini who had been appointed prime minister three years previously and was in the process of transforming liberal Italy into a dictatorship. Since the early 1920s his followers had hailed him as their Duce, their supreme leader, and increasingly its Latin equivalent Dux was used as the regime began to draw upon the glorious heritage of the Roman Empire for propaganda purposes. Perhaps it was remembered that many emperors were deified, some during their own lifetime! So Mussolini could and did appear before his people as Emperor or as Saviour. Catholic Italians seemed to prefer him as the latter. On the eve of a long anticipated visit to Sicily by the Duce in 1937, one eager citizen explained: 'We await our father, the Messiah. He is coming to visit his flock to instil faith.' After a meeting with Mussolini, a farmer from the area outside Rome declared: 'He seemed to me a Christ come back to earth.' All this may sound outrageously blasphemous but Pope Pius XI himself had called Mussolini a 'man whom Providence has sent us.' He may have unwittingly promoted the cult of Mussolini but he was in fact acknowledging the Fascist leader's key role in the signing of the Lateran Pacts in 1929 which brought about the long-awaited reconciliation between church and state. The Pope and the Duce were both charismatic leaders. Pius was the venerated head of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter's representative for tens of millions of Catholics throughout the world. Mussolini had become more than a political leader. He was a national icon, the representative of Italian greatness. Fascism had become a secular religion.

The purpose of this article is briefly to explore what Emilio Gentile has called 'the sacralisation of politics in Fascist Italy.' Before this is attempted, two questions need to be addressed. Why did so many Europeans call for strong leadership? Their cry was certainly answered in the inter-war period with the emergence not only of Mussolini in Italy but of Hitler in Germany, Lenin and Stalin in Soviet Russia, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Ataturk in Turkey, Pilsudski in Poland, Pavelic in Croatia - perhaps Franklin Roosevelt in the United States and Churchill in Britain could also be added to the list to show that this was a phenomenon not confined to the continent or to undemocratic regimes. Secondly, why did Mussolini emerge as Duce and were there no other contenders for the supreme leadership in Italy?

The Origins of Fascism

In the decades prior to 1914 there was a growing restlessness in European society. Established beliefs and political theories were being challenged and undermined. Liberal ideas, free trade and parliamentary government seemed inadequate in what became called the Age of the Masses. Industrialisation and the growth of cities transformed large areas of Europe. The second Industrial Revolution after the 1880s placed increasing emphasis on electricity, oil, chemicals and the internal combustion engine. New production methods and work patterns were introduced which improved efficiency but often created confusion and bitterness among the workers. Technological developments led to a revolution in transport with the coming of the motor car and the aeroplane. Inventions like the typewriter and the telephone were swiftly adopted by the expanding state bureaucracies, banks and business houses. The radio and the cinema offered new leisure possibilities but could also be used for propaganda purposes and the strengthening of state control. The regimes of Mussolini and the other dictators came to rely heavily on such devices. Everything was changing so rapidly it was hardly surprising that so many people became bewildered and many millions of them were actually on the move, emigrating across the oceans or migrating from countryside to town. Quite literally for some of them, a new sense of direction was required! Socialists were prepared to supply this, to advocate class war and the overthrow of capitalism. Nationalists and imperialists sought a solution in racial theories and Social Darwinism where natural selection and the survival of the fittest became key concepts. Interestingly, Mussolini played each of these cards in turn. He was also intrigued by Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of the Superman, a leader who would solve all the contradictions of modern society. It was, however, the First World War which finally discredited so many traditional beliefs and political structures of the nineteenth century. Rightly or wrongly, there was a sense that the old world had been destroyed and that a New Order would need to be constructed. Before 1914 avant-garde writers and political activists had called for heroism, sacrifice and war to enable Europe to escape from the stifling materialism and conformism of the bourgeois system. Their call was answered and the battlefields of Europe were soon littered with heroic martyrs. The war also intensified the demand for strong leadership, first to defeat the enemy and then to establish the new order. The blood sacrifice of the fallen made this imperative.

Mussolini's Career

Mussolini's early life gives few indications of his leadership qualities. The son of a blacksmith from the Romagna, he was a failure as a schoolteacher and then became an itinerant worker in Switzerland and the Trentino. A republican and an anti-clerical, he began to move in Socialist circles, joined the party and began to reveal exceptional talents as a journalist and orator. He played a leading part in opposition to premier Giovanni Giolitti's Libyan War in 1911 and the following year helped to drive the moderates from the party and was made editor of Avanti, the official Socialist newspaper. By this time he became convinced that he had a mission to fulfil, that he was a providential leader. However, any Socialist route to power was blocked by his expulsion from the party in October 1914 for advocating Italian intervention in the war. With his own newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia he supported the interventionist cause which eventually triumphed in Radiant May 1915. He served in the army and rose to corporal before being invalided out. Appalled by what he saw as the lack of leadership during the war and, more particularly, in the peacemaking at Versailles, he founded his Fascist movement in Milan in March 1919. This small band of ex-combatants, ex-socialists, republicans and syndicalists had a radical programme but was violently opposed to all who supported the Bolshevik Revolution or Marxist Socialism. But once again his route to power was obstructed by the movement's failure in the elections of November 1919. His extreme nationalism was viewed favourably by many but his dubious Socialist past, his republicanism and his anti-clericalism were grave disadvantages.

Alternatives to Mussolini

At this point, therefore, Mussolini seemed an unlikely saviour. Were there any alternative leaders? For royalists and conservative members of the old ruling class there was, of course, King Victor Emmanuel III. He had been on the throne since 1900, but he was a tiny, timid creature and few people rated his leadership qualities very highly. Nevertheless, he remained king until 1946, appointed Mussolini as premier in 1922 and arrested him in July 1943. He was always a possible alternative. For Catholics, there was the Pope, Benedict XV until 1922, Pius XI until 1939 and then Pius XII. The Pope was head of a vast international and national apparatus; after 1929 the Vatican became an independent state but, of course, the Pope still controlled the Italian clergy and was venerated by the majority of Italians. Catholicism was an alternative ideology and the Pope was always an alternative leader and supreme in matters spiritual. Army generals like Diaz, Caviglia and Badoglio might have established a military dictatorship but they would have needed royal approval which was never granted. Mussolini later promoted them to marshal and, however grudgingly, they cooperated with the regime. Like the king and the Pope they were always possible alternatives and Badoglio it was who replaced Mussolini in 1943. Later, the Duce did feel threatened by Fascist leaders such as Roberto Farinacci, Italo Balbo and Dino Grandi but he manipulated them most adroitly, at least until July 1943 when it was Grandi who introduced the motion in the Fascist Grand Council which brought about Mussolini's fall. Apart from Balbo, none of these contenders possessed charismatic personalities. One man did, however, and that was Gabriele D'Annunzio. This famous poet, novelist and war hero was a self-proclaimed Superman. He was the outstanding interventionist in May 1915 and his dramatic exploits during the war won him national and international acclaim. In September 1919 he gathered together his 'legions' and captured the disputed seaport of Fiume. He held it for over a year and it was he who popularised the black shirts, the balcony speeches, the promulgation of ambitious charters and the entire choreography of street parades and ceremonies. He even planned a march on Rome. One historian had rightly described him as the 'First Duce' and Mussolini must have heaved a sigh of relief when he was driven from Fiume in December 1920 and his followers were dispersed. But he remained a threat to Mussolini and in 1921 Fascists like Balbo seriously considered turning to him for leadership.

The Fascists in Power

After D'Annunzio's defeat in Fiume, the Fascist movement began to take the initiative. Weak governments seemed unable to cope with Italy's post-war problems. In particular, they failed to prevent Socialists from occupying factories in the industrial north or left-wing leagues from seizing land in the rural areas. Capitalists and landowners began to fear a Bolshevik revolution in Italy. Fascist leaders in the regions, who became called ras, decided to use their squads to protect factories and farms. They received money, lorries and arms from the industrial and agrarian elites. Socialist, Communist and left-wing Catholic strongholds were devastated. The state prefects, the police and the army watched approvingly and so did church dignitaries. This was, after all, a crusade against the red terror, against Bolshevism and atheism. Mussolini had trouble controlling these ras but he was unwilling to lose the momentum they had generated. Giolitti and the old political ruling class began to take Fascism seriously. In the spring elections of 1921 Fascists were brought into an electoral pact and won thirty-five seats in parliament. Mussolini, now a deputy, converted his movement into a party in November 1921, abandoned his anti-clericalism and by September 1922 had dropped his republicanism. More and more areas were taken over by the Fascist squads and in October 1922 the Duce ordered his March on Rome. The king and the politicians wavered but finally gave way and Mussolini was duly appointed prime minister on 30 October. The threat had worked and it was only after his investiture that the March on Rome took place. As premier and Duce of Fascism, Mussolini was the strongest man in Italy, but it took another four years, including the Matteotti crisis, before he could emerge as the authoritarian dictator of a Fascist regime.

Mussolini as a Secular Messiah

This last section makes no attempt to describe the various ways in which the Duce sought to consolidate his regime. This would have to include the passing of repressive legislation to enhance state power, the reorganisation and subordination of the party, the illusionist trick of corporativism, the economic measures taken, the grandiose foreign and colonial policies pursued. It concentrates on the cult of the Duce and what advantages he hoped to derive by presenting himself as some kind of deity and Fascism as a secular religion. In 1912, when he was still a fervent Socialist, Mussolini wrote: 'We want to believe, we have to believe; mankind needs a credo. Faith moves mountains because it gives us the illusion that mountains do move. This illusion is perhaps the only real thing in life.' The last sentence is amazing. It lends credence to Denis Mack Smith's claims that the Duce believed his own propaganda and mistook illusion for reality. Mussolini's war experiences heightened his awareness of blood and sacrifice, of comradeship and obedience, of a burning faith in the justice of the national cause. These were qualities expected of every member of the Fascist movement after March 1919. As a Socialist, Mussolini had always rejected the materialism which was the basis of Marxism; he also deplored the greedy materialism of Liberalism. Idealism and spirituality had to become the major ingredients of Fascism. In this way, his movement and party could be distinguished from all others. Fascism would become the sole repository of the national religion and as its leader he would be seen as its spiritual as well as its political Duce. As Roger Griffin has explained, the concept of 'rebirth' is crucial in understanding Fascism. Mussolini was prepared to use many of the symbols and rituals of Roman Catholicism - one of his first acts as premier was to restore the crucifix to all schoolrooms - but he determined not to let the cross eclipse the fasces. He saw the Fascist Revolution as more than the political transformation of Italy - he was never particularly concerned with a social revolution - because his basic aim was the creation of the new Fascist Man and Woman. For Fascists, the revolution must mean 'the reconsecration of the cult of the nation and a regeneration of the Italian people!' As Mussolini realised, this was Giuseppe Mazzini's creed. It enabled the Duce to link Fascism with the Risorgimento.

To maintain the distinctiveness of his own secular religion and his position as its cult leader, Mussolini instituted a new calendar with Year 1 beginning with 1922; he established 'holy days' like 23 March, to remind Italians of the advent of Fascism; he included 21 April, the birth of the city of Rome, to emphasise his intention to recreate the greatness of the Roman Empire. Shrines to Fascist martyrs with eternal flames were constructed and each Fascist party headquarters had to have a room set aside as a memorial chapel. In Milan a School of Mystical Fascism was founded in 1930 to propagate the cult of the Duce. In 1932 Mussolini finally agreed to define Fascism and wrote: 'Fascism is a religious conception of life ... which transcends any individual and raises him to the status of an initiated member of a spiritual society.' This same year saw the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Fascist Revolution. The centrepiece was an exhibition building in which various rooms depicted the rise of Fascism as a kind of progressive revelation, leading to the innermost shrine of the Fascist Martyrs. The figure of Mussolini was everywhere and his slogans 'Believe, Obey, Fight' and 'Mussolini is Always Right' were inscribed on the walls - as indeed they were throughout the towns and villages of Italy! Soon, his birthplace in Predappio became a kind of Bethlehem; the party, stripped of most of its political relevance, devoted itself to glorification of the Duce. Newspapers were forbidden to mention any signs of illness and even his birthdays were to be ignored as this would reveal his age. His imperialist war in Ethiopia and his intervention in the Spanish civil war were hailed as glorious crusades on behalf of civilisation and religion, an extension of his achievements in Italy itself. In the process, Mussolini rose above the party; the party could make mistakes but the Duce was infallible. More and more Italians began to voice their disgust for the party while at the same time proclaiming their veneration for the Duce. This, of course, had its advantages for Mussolini. But there was a growing danger that the more people placed their trust in the Duce the more they expected him to solve their problems. This was why so many of them had clamoured for a strong leader in the first place. In his younger days, Mussolini had read books on crowd psychology by authors like Gustave Le Bon. The masterly way in which he had manipulated and depoliticised the masses owed much to these writers. They had also written, however, that if an idolised leader failed to meet their expectations they would tear him down and destroy him. Mussolini's fateful decision to align himself with the neo-paganism of Hitler's Third Reich produced growing disillusionment. A god who fails can expect a terrible retribution. When he fell from power in July 1943 there was almost universal jubilation. When he was executed by partisans in April 1945 his corpse was brought back to Milan where it was hung up and reviled. Secular religions and personality cults rarely last long.

Words and concepts to note

vaunted: boastfully praised.

providential: sent by fate or divine providence.

corporativism: the organisation of the economy into corporations (containing representatives of capital and labour) so as to avoid class confrontation.

Risorgimento: the liberation and unification of Italy in the nineteenth century.

Fasces: bundles of rods, which were symbols of authority in Ancient Rome; the word 'fascism' is thought to derive from this term.

depoliticise: to deprive of political knowledge or education and thus render easier to control.

neo-paganism: a new form of heathenism.


Questions to consider

w In what ways, and for what reasons, was Mussolini depicted as a Messiah in fascist Italy?

w Why were democratic regimes under threat in Europe in the years following the First World War?

w Why did Mussolini, rather than some alternative, become Italy's dictator?

w What were the main reasons for Mussolini's fall from power?


Further Reading: R. Griffin, The Nature of Fascism, London: Routledge, 1994; P. Morgan, Italian Fascism 1919-1945, London: Macmillan, 1995; J. Whittam, Fascist Italy, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995; E. Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996; D. Mack Smith, Mussolini, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982; P. Melograni, 'The Cult of the Duce',  Journal of Contemporary History, vol. II, no. 4, 1976; J. Pollard, The Vatican and Italian Facsism 1929-32, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Mussolini and The Cult of the Leader by John Whittam new perspective 1998

John Whittam is Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol and is the author of The Politics of the Italian Army, Croom Helm, 1977 and Fascist Italy, Manchester University press, 1995. He is working on Generic Fascism for Macmillan.

Home ] Articles - New Perspective ] Topic Guides ] Index Vol. 1-4 ] Internet Sites 1 ]