As we continue our voyage through the annals of the worst—or best (depending on how you look at it)—dictators in history, you’ll notice that some made more crazy decisions than others and some just made a few crazy decisions that had major repercussions on history.

Our next dictator is one of the most recognizable despots in world history. With his portly figure, uniform full of medals, and trademark bald head, most people recognize Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as soon as they see him.

From the time that he and his paramilitary army took control of Rome in 1922; until he was brutally executed in 1943, Mussolini ruled Italy with an iron fist.

The Italian strongman was responsible for introducing the political philosophy of modern fascism to Europe and making it “mainstream” and for making an alliance with Nazi Germany that became known as the Axis Powers.

Many people would say that was by far the craziest thing.

There’s no doubt that aligning with Nazi Germany was a crazy thing to do, but that in itself probably wouldn’t have led to Mussolini’s downfall and the destruction of large parts of Italy in the process. No, the craziest thing Mussolini did was thinking he could build a modern version of the Roman Empire.

One of the key tenets of fascism is the idealization of an earlier, “greater” time in a country’s history. For Mussolini, the ideal time in Italy’s history was the Roman Empire. It was during the Roman Empire when Italians ruled over millions of people in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Mussolini thought that the Italian people would be behind his plan and, with German support, there was no stopping it.

But the dictator couldn’t have been more wrong.

After Mussolini’s military campaigns in North Africa and the Balkans failed; resulting in the Germans having to bail him out, he quickly lost influence with Hitler and the other Axis leaders. His own generals began to talk about him behind his back and worse, once he took Hitler’s side, there was no going back.

Mussolini’s crazy decision to build a Neo-Roman Empire not only lost him prestige, it also caused the Germans to relocate troops to North Africa, the Balkans, and eventually Italy, which in the end cost them the war. The crazy decision was certainly good for the allies, but it cost Mussolini his life and left his country in ruins.

Il Duce

To understand Benito Mussolini’s crazy and destructive decision to try to rebuild the Roman Empire, it’s important to understand his outlook on life. Perhaps no world leader embodied fascism more than Mussolini; this includes Hitler since Mussolini was in power before the German dictator.

But he wasn’t a diehard fascist from the start.

Mussolini actually began his political life on the left wing and was active in several socialist groups before World War I. The war, though, split socialists around the world. Although many socialists were generally anti-war, some believed that defeating Germany, monarchism, and imperialism was more important. Mussolini was not one of those socialists.

He was quite vocal about his support for Italy to join World War I on the Allies’ side against Germany and Austria-Hungary, particularly against the latter, where he hoped the Italians would gain back lost land. To Mussolini’s socialist friends, he was sounding more and more like a nationalist and an imperialist, so he was kicked out of the Italian Socialist Party.

It really didn’t matter to Mussolini, though, because he had a war to fight.

Mussolini was severely wounded in battle, which left him with physical and mental scars but earned him the street cred of nationalists across Italy. When Mussolini formed the National Fascist Party, thousands flocked to join and hear the speeches of “Il Duce” (the leader), as he became known.

Things moved so quickly that on October 28, 1922, Mussolini was able to lead a force of 30,000 of the most faithful of his party, and the most violent, known as the “Black Shirts,” on the “March on Rome.” They demanded the government be turned over to them, and it was the next day!

Everything was going well for Il Duce, but like all dictators, he started to believe his own hype.

In the Shadow of Julius Caesar

Mussolini made no secret about his plan to create a new Roman Empire. He gave several speeches about it and made several not-so-veiled threats toward the British and French relating to their North African possessions. Il Duce thought that he’d be able to roll over the smaller countries in North Africa and the Balkans, but he probably should have rethought the crazy idea after 1937.

In 1935, Mussolini invaded the northeast African nation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) over what he said were border violations by that country with Italy’s colonies in the region. Italy was able to beat Abyssinia, but it took two years, cost the lives of more than 10,000 Italian soldiers, and was a public relations disaster for Mussolini, Italy, and fascism in general.

Still, Mussolini went forward with his plans to build the new Roman Empire.

After World War II began, Italy joined Germany in the Axis Powers. As Il Duce watched the Germans take country after country, he decided it was a good time to move. He ordered Italian troops to invade British-held Egypt from Italian Libya in September 1940 and the next month he ordered an invasion of the Balkans from Italy.

Both campaigns were disasters for Italy, and although the Axis Powers were able to take the Balkans, it was only after the Germans, Croatians, and Bulgarians sent a sizable number of troops to the front and at a great human cost.

As for North Africa, command of the Italian forces was handed over to German Field Marshal Irwin Rommel, and although the Italian forces generally acquitted themselves well on the battlefield, they were for the most part underequipped and ill-prepared for a major campaign against the British.

It was a truly crazy decision by Mussolini to try to rebuild the Roman Empire overnight. The failed campaigns also basically sidelined Mussolini politically for the remainder of the war, which was quite a blow to the dictator’s ego. Worse yet for him, but good for the Allies, it marked the beginning of the end of the Axis advance in Europe.

It was a defensive war after that and Italy would be the site of major fighting in 1943 during the Anzio campaign.

When Mussolini was about to be executed on April 28, 1945, by a leftwing partisan firing squad, he probably thought to himself, “Man, that Roman Empire thing was some crazy sh*t!”

Did You Know

  • When the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, support for Mussolini quickly dried up, especially in the south. The Nazis attempted to keep Mussolini in power by setting up a government called the Italian Social Republic based in the city of Salo, but a partisan rebellion brought it down on April 25, 1945.
  • Mussolini’s first wife, Ida, died in 1937 from a brain hemorrhage, although many believe it was caused by Fascist Party officials. All records of the marriage were destroyed and the son they had together was imprisoned in a mental hospital and later murdered.
  • Mussolini stood about 5’6, which isn’t too short, but his tendency to gain weight made him appear portlier.
  • He had five children with his second wife, Rachele. One of Il Duce’s granddaughters, Alessandra Mussolini, has worked as a top model and has held elected office in the Italian and European parliaments.
  • The idea of building a new Roman Empire was so important to Mussolini that he gave the quest a name, spazio vitale, which means “living space” or “vital space.”