Mussolini – the Cult of Personality
Throughout history there have been many leaders who have formed a cult of personality--that is, commanded intense devotion and an almost God-like worship from their followers. Such a following is advantageous especially in times of war, where citizens can easily be rallied to defend their leader and take down the “evil enemy”. Leading up to World War 2, multiple fascist leaders—Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, Francisco Franco--were able to establish a cult of personality. They used their devotees as pawns in the war to further their anti-Semitic and anti-Allied Powers agenda. The founder of fascism and Duce of Italy, Benito Mussolini, was perhaps the most effective at doing this, partly due to the prevailing attitudes during his time and the circumstances that Italy was facing. What was happening in Italy at the time? Traditional liberal beliefs and institutions, which had been criticized before 1914, collapsed in Italy and elsewhere after the First World War. Italians were outraged at the treatment they received from the Allied Powers; though they won the war, Italy lost land and was not given the land they were promised by Britain and France1.There was great demand in Italy for a strong leader that would defeat the nation’s enemy and establish a new order, a demand that Mussolini made Italians believe he could meet. Through effectively crafted propaganda, circulation of larger than life myths that painted him as deistic in nature, and elaborate, captivating speeches, Benito Mussolini was able to establish a wide-reaching cult of personality in the Fascist Italy he created. Mussolini effectively used propaganda to influence Italians and win followers. Much of this propaganda was about him—he was generally portrayed in a macho manner and associated with desirable qualities and prestigious symbols. Mussolini’s youthfulness (he was the youngest Prime Minister in Italian history) was also strongly emphasized in his propaganda. In fascist symbolism, youth constituted a metaphor for action and vitality, emphasizing fascism as a revolutionary ideology and Mussolini as a young, fearless leader, in contrast to the old, tired image of liberal democrats. Mussolini's prestige as a hero pilot in the manner of Charles Lindbergh was especially important, as for fascism the airplane embodied qualities such as dynamism, energy and courage2. Similar to Hitler, Mussolini was depicted in propaganda as loving and caring for children, who in turn loved him. This served to be useful for early indoctrination of children into Mussolini’s personality cult. Mussolini also used his power to ensure that even opponents of Fascism produced pro-Duce propaganda. In July 1923 he issued a decree, which virtually subjected the whole press to his arbitration. Under a very broad formula the prefects were authorized to warn any paper that incited ‘to class hatred or to disobedience of the laws and orders of the authorities’. Two consecutive warnings in a year meant that the paper was closed down. 3 Newspapers were severely restricted on what they could publish—Mussolini would even disallow them to distribute photos where he was not prominent enough or surrounded by too small a crowd. Endless publicity surrounded the Duce, and newspapers were instructed exactly what to report on him. Well-crafted fascist propaganda and the forced publication of it indoctrinated many Italians into Mussolini’s cult of personality.
Myths were circulated around Italy to give the Duce a deistic, immortal aura. It was stated that Mussolini's body had been pierced by shrapnel just like Saint Sebastian had been pierced by arrows; the difference being that Mussolini had survived this ordeal4. He was also compared to Saint Francis of Assisi who had, like Mussolini, "suffered and sacrificed himself for others". Mussolini received strong support from the Catholic Church—the Vatican stated that heavenly powers were aware that Mussolini...
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