Benito Mussolini was the recognized leading dictator of Europe when Hitler was a still a local politician leading a group of thugs against the Weimar Republic. Mussolini had solidified his power across all of Italy through murder, blackmail, and slander campaigns against Italy's press, politicians, and leftists.
The “Black Shirts” — Mussolini’s equivalent of the Nazi Sturm Abteilung — numbered in the thousands, and supported him with the operatives he needed for his rise to power. Street battles between leftists and fascists culminated in 1922, when King Victor Emanuel III realized Mussolini had to form a government in order to prevent civil war if a leftist premier took office.
Mussolini's term in office was marked by resurgence of order, enforced by abolishing unions and a free press, and calls for nationalistic expansion into Africa, a military buildup, and a recalling of the glory of the Roman Empire. By 1926 Mussolini had eliminated his enemies' ability to publish or openly criticize the government. He expanded the armed forces and built a large navy.
At first, Mussolini was openly contemptuous of Adolf Hitler. In 1935, Hitler was trying to force Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg to accept unification (Anschluss) with Germany. Mussolini supported Schuschnigg because he was also a fascist. Mussolini called the Stresa Conference to prevent Germany annexing Austria. France, Britain and Italy held together for a short time and prevented Hitler from bringing Austria into the Reich until 1938.
When the Anschluss happened, Hitler was indebted to Mussolini for his agreement to not intervene. A quixotic and complicated relationship began between the two dictators. Hitler's anti-Semitism was not entirely shared by Mussolini, who allowed Jews to hold cabinet positions. Mussolini did not press Italy for deportations of Jews as the Nazis wanted. Mussolini denounced Jews in his speeches.
Because of Germany’s central position in Europe, and the growing war economy, Hitler slowly began to gain the dominant role as dictator of Europe. With quick and easy victories in the reoccupation of the Rhine, Austria, and the Saarland, Mussolini was only too happy to represent Italy at the Munich Conference that broke up Czechoslovakia.
When war broke out in 1939, Mussolini didn't immediately declare war. Only when it became apparent that France would fall in June 1940 did Italy invade. This committed Italy to a war two years ahead of the Commando Supremo’s (Italian General Staff’s) expectations, and her armed forces were not fully ready for the coming battles in the Mediterranean and Russia.
In 1940 and 1941 the Royal Navy under Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, based at Malta, inflicted heavy damage on the Italian naval base at Taranto and in land fighting in Libya. An ill-planned invasion of Greece left the Italian Army stagnated on the Metaxas Line. This resulted in a German invasion of Greece in April 1941 to prevent Mussolini’s mistake from giving England a base of operations on the European mainland. These operations cost the Italians in men and materiel and embarrassed Mussolini. The German soldiers were openly contemptuous of their Italian allies, and they never worked out true cooperation with their armed forces. Italian naval forces could not deliver promised supplies to Rommel in North Africa nor to their soldiers in the Eastern Front.
The Italian Army was marked by deep class divisions. Officers received better food and accommodations, while peasant conscripts received little of either. Italian weapons could compare favorably with their enemies, but usually those weapons were in short supply.
Meanwhile, Germany was planning to invade the Soviet Union and Mussolini committed several divisions to Operation Barbarossa. The horrific losses on the Eastern Front further eroded Mussolini's support with the King and the Italian people.
On July 25, 1943, in the face of the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Fascist Grand Council, including Mussolini's son-in-law, voted to oust him, and he was arrested. SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny rescued Mussolini and the Italian Fascist State was declared by Hitler. Wholesale deportations of Jewish communities began when Germany occupied Italy in 1943. Italian units switched sides and began fighting against the Germans.
Mussolini controlled less and less of Italy as the Allies made bitter progress up the Italian peninsula. Rome fell on June 5, 1944. But with winter cold and mountainous terrain, Italy was well suited for defense.
With so many losses on all fronts, Germany could not adequately supply its Italian stations, and they pulled back into Germany. Mussolini was attempting to fly to exile in Switzerland when he was arrested by partisans near Milan on April 27, 1945. He and his entourage were executed and hung by their feet for public display.