Startseite How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century

How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century

From the Samuel Johnson Prize-winning author of Mao's Great Famine, a sweeping and timely study of twentieth-century dictators and the development of the modern cult of personality.

No dictator can rule through fear and violence alone. Naked power can be grabbed and held temporarily, but it never suffices in the long term. In the twentieth century, as new technologies allowed leaders to place their image and voice directly into their citizens' homes, a new phenomenon appeared where dictators exploited the cult of personality to achieve the illusion of popular approval without ever having to resort to elections.

In How to Be a Dictator, Frank Dikötter examines the cults and propaganda surrounding twentieth-century dictators, from Hitler and Stalin to Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung. These men were the founders of modern dictatorships, and they learned from each other and from history to build their regimes and maintain their public images. Their dictatorships, in turn, have influenced leaders in the twenty-first century, including Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Using a breadth of archival research and his characteristic in-depth analysis, Dikötter offers a stunning portrait of dictatorship, a guide to the cult of personality, and a map for exposing the lies dictators tell to build and maintain their regimes.
Bloomsbury Publishing
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1 Mussolini

2 Hitler

3 Stalin

4 Mao Zedong

5 Kim Il-sung

6 Duvalier

7 Ceauşescu

8 Mengistu


Select Bibliography




Note on the Author

Plates Section

‘So that in the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceases only in death. The cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained or that he cannot be content with moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well which he has present without the acquisition of more.’


The Essential Leviathan: A Modernised Edition

‘Is it better to be loved rather than feared, or vice versa? The answer is that one would prefer to be both but, since they don’t go together easily, if you have to choose, it’s much safer to be feared than loved… Men are less worried about letting down someone who has made himself loved than someone who makes himself feared. Love binds when someone recognises he should be grateful to you, but, since men are a sad lot, gratitude is forgotten the moment it’s inconvenient. Fear means fear of punishment, and that’s something people never forget.’


The Prince, a modern translation by Tim Parks

W.M. Thackeray, The Paris Sketch Book, London: Collins’ Clear-Type Press, 1840.


In 1840 the satirical novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, famous for lampooning the high and mighty, published a caricature of Louis XIV. To the ; left stands a clothes horse, displaying the king’s sword, his ermine and fleur-de-lis robe, his wig with tumbling curls of hair, his shoes with their aristocratic heels. In the centre the man himself, a poor Ludovicus in underwear, with spindly legs, a protruding stomach, bald, bare and toothless. But on the left he emerges fully dressed, a proud Ludovicus Rex in full regalia. Thackeray had undressed the King of Kings to show the man, frail and pitiful without the trimmings of power: ‘Thus do barbers and cobblers make the gods that we worship.’1

‘L’État, c’est moi,’ the seventeenth-century king allegedly pronounced: ‘I am the state.’ As Louis saw it, he was answerable to God alone. He was an absolute monarch, who for more than seventy years used his autocratic power to weaken the nobility, centralise the state and expand his country by force of arms. He also projected himself as an infallible Sun King around whom everything revolved. He made sure he was glorified by all, with medals, paintings, busts, statues, obelisks and triumphal arches appearing throughout the realm. Poets, philosophers and official historians celebrated his achievements, acclaiming him as omniscient and omnipotent. He transformed a royal hunting lodge south-west of Paris into the Chateau of Versailles, a monumental, 700-room palace with a sprawling estate where he held court, obliging his noble courtiers to compete for favours.2

Louis XIV was a master of political theatre, but all politicians, to some extent, rely on image. Louis XVI, a descendant of the Sun King, was sent to the guillotine after the 1789 revolution, and the notion of divine right was buried with him. The revolutionaries held that sovereign rights were vested in the people, not in God. In the democracies that gradually emerged over the next two centuries, leaders understood that they had to appeal to voters, who could remove them at the ballot box.

There were, of course, other ways of achieving power, besides elections. One could organise a coup, or rig the system. In 1917 Lenin and the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, proclaiming a new government. Later they referred to their coup as a ‘revolution’ inspired by 1789. A few years later, in 1922, Mussolini marched on Rome, forcing parliament to hand over power. Yet as they and other dictators found out, naked power has an expiry date. Power seized through violence must be maintained by violence, although violence can be a blunt instrument. A dictator must rely on military forces, a secret police, a praetorian guard, spies, informants, interrogators, torturers. But it is best to pretend that coercion is actually consent. A dictator must instil fear in his people, but if he can compel them to acclaim him he will probably survive longer. The paradox of the modern dictator, in short, is that he must create the illusion of popular support.

Throughout the twentieth century hundreds of millions of people cheered their own dictators, even as they were herded down the road to serfdom. Across large swathes of the planet, the face of a dictator appeared on hoardings and buildings, with portraits in every school, office and factory. Ordinary people had to bow to his likeness, pass by his statue, recite his work, praise his name, extol his genius. Modern technologies, from radio and television to the industrial production of posters, badges and busts, made dictators ubiquitous to an extent that would have been unimaginable in the time of Louis XIV. Even in relatively small countries like Haiti, thousands were regularly obliged to hail their leader, marching in front of the presidential palace, dwarfing the festivities organised at Versailles.

In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin, detailing his reign of fear and terror. He gave a name to what he viewed as his erstwhile master’s ‘loathsome adulation’ and ‘mania for greatness’, calling it the ‘cult of the individual’. It was translated as ‘cult of personality’ in English. It may not be a rigorously developed concept proposed by a great social scientist, but most historians find it quite adequate.3

When Louis XIV was still a minor, France was rocked by a series of rebellions, as aristocrats attempted to limit the power of the crown. They failed, but left a deep impression on the young king, who developed a lifelong fear of rebellion. He moved the centre of power from Paris to Versailles, and obliged the nobles to spend time at court, where he could observe them as they were made to win royal favour.

Dictators, likewise, were afraid of their own people, but even more fearful of their entourage at court. They were weak. Had they been strong, they would have been elected by majority. Instead, they decided to take a shortcut, often over the bodies of their opponents. But if they could seize power, others could too, raising the prospect of a stab in the back. There were rivals, often just as ruthless. Mussolini was merely one of several established fascist leaders and had faced a rebellion within the ranks before he marched on Rome in 1922. Stalin paled in comparison to Trotsky. Mao was repeatedly stripped of his positions by more powerful rivals in the 1930s. Kim Il-sung was imposed on an unwilling population by the Soviet Union in 1945, and was surrounded by communist leaders with a far more distinguished pedigree of underground work.

There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals. There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule, to name only a few. But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient. The cult debased allies and rivals alike, forcing them to collaborate through common subordination. Most of all, by compelling them to acclaim him before the others, a dictator turned everyone into a liar. When everyone lied, no one knew who was lying, making it more difficult to find accomplices and organise a coup.

Who built up the cult? There were hagiographers, photographers, playwrights, composers, poets, editors and choreographers. There were powerful ministers of propaganda, and sometimes entire branches of industry. But the ultimate responsibility lay with the dictators themselves. ‘Politics in a dictatorship begins in the personality of the dictator,’ wrote Mao Zedong’s doctor in a classic memoir.4 The eight dictators in this book had widely differing personalities, but every one made all the key decisions that led to his own glorification. Some intervened more often than others. Mussolini, by one account, spent half of his time projecting himself as the omniscient, omnipotent and indispensable ruler of Italy – on top of running half a dozen ministries. Stalin constantly pruned his own cult, cutting back what he thought was excessive praise only to allow it to reappear a few years later when he judged the time was ripe. Ceauşescu compulsively promoted his own person. Hitler, too, attended to every detail of his image in the early years, although later in his career he delegated more than usual when compared with other dictators. All of them used the full resources of the state to promote themselves. They were the state.

Not all historians would give a dictator centre stage. Ian Kershaw famously described Hitler as a ‘non-person’, a mediocre man whose personal characteristics could not explain his popular appeal. The spotlight, he believed, had to be turned on ‘the German people’ and their perception of him.5 But how would one know what people thought of their leader, since freedom of speech is always the first casualty of a dictatorship? Hitler was not elected by a majority, and within a year of coming to power the Nazis threw some 100,000 ordinary people into concentration camps. The Gestapo, the Brown Shirts and the courts alike did not hesitate to lock up those who failed to acclaim their leader properly.

At times expressions of devotion to a dictator appeared so spontaneous that outside observers – as well as later historians – assumed that they were genuine. The Stalin cult, one historian of the Soviet Union tells us, ‘was widely accepted and deeply believed by millions of Soviet people of all classes, ages and occupations, especially in the cities’.6 It is a vague and unsubstantiated statement, no more true or false than its opposite, namely that millions of Soviet people of all backgrounds did not believe in the Stalin cult, especially in the countryside. Even keen supporters found it impossible to read the mind of their leader, to say nothing of probing the thoughts of millions of people regimented by their own regime.

Dictators who lasted possessed many skills. Many excelled at hiding their feelings. Mussolini saw himself as Italy’s finest actor. In an unguarded moment Hitler, too, called himself Europe’s greatest performer. But in a dictatorship many ordinary people also learned how to act. They had to smile on command, parrot the party line, shout the slogans and salute their leader. In short, they were required to create the illusion of consent. Those who failed to play along were fined, imprisoned, occasionally shot.

The point was not so much that few subjects adored their dictators, but that no one knew quite who believed what. The purpose of the cult was not to convince or persuade, but to sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity. People had to self-censor, and in turn they monitored others, denouncing those who failed to appear sufficiently sincere in their professions of devotion to the leader. Underneath the appearance of widespread uniformity, there was a broad spectrum, ranging from those who genuinely idealised their leader – true believers, opportunists, thugs – to those who were indifferent, apathetic or even hostile.

Dictators were popular at home, but also admired by foreigners, including distinguished intellectuals and eminent politicians. Some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century were willing to ignore or even justify tyranny in the name of the greater good, and helped to shore up the credentials of their favourite dictators. They appear only fleetingly in these pages, since they have been the subject of several excellent studies, not least the work of Paul Hollander.7

Since a cult had to appear genuinely popular, welling up from the hearts of the people, it was invariably tinged with superstition and magic. In some countries the religious overtones were so striking that one might be tempted to see it as a peculiar form of secular worship. But in every case this impression was deliberately cultivated from above. Hitler presented himself as a messiah united with the masses in a mystical, quasi-religious bond. François Duvalier went to great lengths to assume the air of a Voodoo priest, encouraging rumours about his otherworldly powers.

In communist regimes in particular there was an added need for some sort of traditional resonance. The reason for this was simple: few people in predominantly rural countries like Russia, China, Korea or Ethiopia understood Marxism-Leninism. Appeals to the leader as some sort of holy figure were more successful than the abstract political philosophy of dialectical materialism that a largely illiterate population in the countryside found hard to comprehend.

Loyalty to one person mattered most in a dictatorship, more so than loyalty to one creed. Ideology, after all, can be divisive. A body of work can be interpreted in different ways, potentially leading to different factions. The greatest enemies of the Bolsheviks were the Mensheviks, and they both swore by Marx. Mussolini spurned ideology and kept fascism deliberately vague. He was not one to be hemmed in by a rigid set of ideas. He prided himself on being intuitive, following his instinct rather than espousing a consistent worldview. Hitler, like Mussolini, had little to offer except himself, beyond an appeal to nationalism and anti-Semitism.

The issue is more complicated in the case of communist regimes, since they were supposed to be Marxist. Yet here too it would have been imprudent for ordinary people and party members alike to spend too much time dwelling on the writings of Karl Marx. One was a Stalinist under Stalin, a Maoist under Mao, a Kimist under Kim.

In the case of Mengistu, commitment to the tenets of socialism, beyond the obligatory red stars and flags, was shallow. Across Ethiopia there were posters of the holy trinity, namely Marx, Engels and Lenin. But it was Lenin, not Marx, who appealed to Mengistu. Marx had offered a vision of equality, but Lenin came up with a tool to seize power: the revolutionary vanguard. Instead of waiting for the workers to gain class consciousness and overthrow capitalism, as Marx had suggested, a group of professional revolutionaries, organised along strict military lines, would lead the revolution and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat to engineer the transition from capitalism to communism from above, ruthlessly eliminating all enemies of progress. For Mengistu the collectivisation of the countryside may have been Marxist, but most of all it was a means to extract more grain from the countryside, allowing him to build up his troops.

Communist dictators transformed Marxism beyond recognition. Marx had proposed that the workers of the world should unite in a proletarian revolution, but Stalin instead advanced the notion of ‘socialism in one country’, holding that the Soviet Union should strengthen itself before exporting revolution abroad. Mao read Marx, but turned him on his head by making peasants rather than workers the spearhead of the revolution. Instead of maintaining that material conditions were the primary force of historical change, Kim Il-sung proposed the exact opposite, claiming that people could achieve true socialism by relying on the spirit of self-reliance. In 1972 the Great Leader’s thought was enshrined in the constitution, as Marxism vanished altogether from North Korea. Yet in all these cases the Leninist concept of the revolutionary vanguard remained virtually unchanged.

More often than not ideology was an act of faith, a test of loyalty. This is not to suggest that dictators lacked any worldview, or a set of beliefs. Mussolini believed in economic self-sufficiency and invoked it like an incantation. Mengistu was fixated on Eritrea as a rebel province and was certain that relentless war was the only solution. But ultimately ideology was what the dictator said it was, and what the dictator decreed could change over time. He personalised power, making his word the law.

Dictators lied to their people, but they also lied to themselves. A few became wrapped up in their own world, convinced of their own genius. Others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourage. All were surrounded by sycophants. They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own, with devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people. A few became unmoored from reality altogether, as with Hitler in his final years, not to mention Ceauşescu. But many prevailed. Stalin and Mao died of natural causes, having made themselves the objects of adoration for many decades. Duvalier managed to pass on power to his son, prolonging his cult by twelve years. And in the case of the most extravagant cult ever seen, the Kim clan in North Korea has now reached generation three.

The list of leaders commonly regarded as modern dictators reaches well beyond a hundred. Some were in power for a few months, others for decades. Among those who could easily have been included in this book are, in no particular order, Franco, Tito, Hoxha, Sukarno, Castro, Mobutu, Bokassa, Gaddafi, Saddam, Assad (father and son), Khomeini and Mugabe.

Most had a cult of personality in one form or another, creating variations on a common theme. A few did not, for instance Pol Pot. For two years after he took power, even his exact identity was in dispute. In Cambodia people deferred to Angkar, or ‘The Organisation’. But as the historian Henri Locard has noted, the decision not to build a cult of personality had disastrous consequences for the Khmer Rouge. Concealment behind an anonymous organisation that nipped in the bud any and all opposition soon backfired. ‘Failing to induce adulation and submissiveness, the Angkar could only generate hatred.’8 Even Big Brother, in George Orwell’s 1984, had a face that stared out at people from every street corner.

Dictators who survived often relied on two instruments of power: the cult and terror. Yet all too often the cult has been treated as a mere aberration, a repellent but marginal phenomenon. This book places the cult of personality where it belongs, at the very heart of tyranny.



Located on the edge of the historic centre, EUR is one of Rome’s most austere districts, criss-crossed by wide, linear avenues and imposing buildings covered in gleaming white travertine marble – the same material used to build the Colosseum. EUR stands for Esposizione Universale Roma, a gigantic world fair designed by Benito Mussolini to mark the twentieth anniversary of the March on Rome in 1942. As its master architect Marcello Piacentini put it, the project would showcase a new, eternal civilisation, a ‘Fascist civilisation’. Although the exposition never took place, interrupted by the Second World War, many of the buildings were completed in the 1950s. One of the most iconic structures of the EUR, built on an elevated podium like an ancient Roman temple, surrounded by majestic umbrella pines, contains the state archives.1

In a majestic reading room with towering columns one can read through the dusty and yellowing correspondence addressed to the Duce. At the height of his glory he received up to 1,500 letters a day. All of these went through a personal secretariat employing some fifty people, who selected several hundred items for his personal attention. By the time Mussolini fell from power in the summer of 1943, the archive contained half a million files.2

On 28 October 1940, celebrated as Day One of the fascist calendar, telegrams came from all corners of the realm. There were odes to ‘His Supreme and Glorious Excellence’, with Salustri Giobbe exalting ‘the supreme genius who has prevailed over all the storms of the world’. The prefect from Trieste, to take another example, sent word that the entire population praised his genius, while the city of Alessandria formally hailed him as the Creator of Greatness.3

Most of all, however, admirers of the Duce wanted signed photographs. They were requested by people from every walk of life, from schoolchildren who wrote to offer Christmas greetings to mothers mourning the deaths of their soldier sons. Mussolini often obliged. When Francesca Corner, a ninety-five-year-old pensioner from Venice, received a reply, she was overcome by the ‘greatest outpouring of emotion’, according to the local prefect who dutifully witnessed and reported the occasion.4

Like most dictators, Mussolini fostered the idea that he was a man of the people, accessible to all. In March 1929, in front of the assembled leadership, he boasted that he had responded to 1,887,112 individual cases brought to his attention by his personal secretariat. ‘Every time that individual citizens, even from the most remote villages, have applied to me, they have received a reply’.5 It was a bold claim, but, as the archives testify, one not entirely without merit. By one account, Mussolini spent more than half of his time curating his own image.6 He was the ultimate master of propaganda, at once actor, stage manager, orator and brilliant self-publicist.

Few could have predicted his rise to power. The young Mussolini tried his luck at journalism for the Italian Socialist Party, but fell out of favour with his comrades for advocating Italy’s entry into the First World War. He was drafted into the army and wounded when a mortar bomb accidentally exploded in 1917.

As elsewhere in Europe, the end of the war brought a period of industrial unrest. After years of slaughter on the battlefield and regimentation on the factory floor, workers began taking part in strikes that paralysed the economy. Inspired by Lenin’s seizure of power in Russia in 1917, entire municipalities became socialist and started flying the red flag, declaring themselves in favour of a dictatorship of the proletariat. These were the Red Years, as Socialist Party membership grew to more than 200,000 by 1920, while the General Confederation of Labour boasted over two million adherents.7

In 1919 Mussolini launched a movement that would become the Fascist Party. Its programme was vaguely libertarian, patriotic and anti-clerical, and was stridently promoted in the pages of Mussolini’s Popolo d’Italia. But fascism failed to win over enough voters in the general elections to secure even a single seat in parliament. Party members left in droves, with fewer than 4,000 committed followers remaining nationwide. Derided by his political opponents, Mussolini bitterly pronounced that ‘fascism has come to a dead end’, openly speculating that he might leave politics altogether for a career in the theatre.8

His loss of nerve was momentary. In September 1919 the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio led 186 mutineers in a raid on Fiume, a city to which Italy had made a claim in the wake of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy a year earlier. Mussolini realised that the power he had failed to obtain through free elections could be seized through brute force. But d’Annunzio also inspired Mussolini in other ways. In Fiume the flamboyant poet pronounced himself Duce, a term derived from the Latin word dux, meaning leader. For fifteen months, until he was dislodged by the army, d’Annunzio held the Istrian port city in thrall, appearing regularly on a balcony to address his followers, who were dressed in black shirts and greeted their leader with a straight-armed salute. There were daily parades, fanfares, distributions of medals and endless sloganeering. As one historian has put it, fascism took from d’Annunzio not so much a political creed as a way of doing politics. Mussolini realised that pomp and pageantry appealed far more to the crowd than incendiary editorials.9

Fascism as an ideology remained vague, but Mussolini now realised the shape it would take: he would be the leader, the one sent by destiny to revive the fortunes of his nation. He started taking flying lessons in 1920, posing as the new man with the vision and drive to carry through a revolution. He was already an accomplished journalist who knew how to use a terse, direct, unadorned style to convey sincerity and resolution; now he practised as an actor, using staccato sentences and sparse but imperious gestures to present himself as an indomitable leader: head tilted back, chin pushed forward, hands on hips.10

In 1921 the government began to court the fascists openly, hoping to use them to weaken opposition parties on the left. The army, too, was sympathetic. Fascist squads, in some cases protected by the local authorities, roamed the streets beating up their opponents and assaulting hundreds of trade union headquarters and socialist party centres. As the country moved towards civil war, Mussolini conjured up a Bolshevik peril, turning fascism into a party devoted to the destruction of socialism. Italy, he wrote, needed a dictator to save it from a communist uprising. In the autumn of 1922, by which time fascist squads had grown powerful enough to control large parts of the country, Mussolini threatened to send some 300,000 armed fascists to the capital, even though in reality fewer than 30,000 blackshirts were ready, most of them so poorly equipped that they were no match for the garrison troops in Rome. But the bluff worked. As fascists began occupying government offices in Milan and elsewhere during the night of 27/28 October, King Victor Emmanuel, mindful of the fate of the Romanovs after 1917, summoned Mussolini to Rome and appointed him prime minister.11

A royal appointment was one thing, a popular image another. Mussolini, still in Milan, wanted to develop the myth of a March on Rome, one in which he entered the capital on horseback, leading his legions across the Rubicon to impose his will on a feeble parliament. But even after he had been asked to form a government, there were only a few thousand fascists in the capital. A counterfeit march was hurriedly organised. Blackshirts made their way to the capital, their first order of business being the destruction of the printing machines of opposition newspapers to make sure that the fascist version of events prevailed. Mussolini arrived by train in the morning of 30 October. His victorious troops were reviewed by the king and sent back home the following day. Seven years later, to celebrate the anniversary of the march on Rome, an equestrian statue was inaugurated in Bologna, standing five metres tall, the Duce peering into the future, holding the reins in one hand, a banner in the other.12

Mussolini was only thirty-nine. He was small in stature, but created an impression of greater height by maintaining a straight back and stiff torso. ‘His face was sallow, his black hair was fast receding from a lofty brow, the mouth was large, his features mobile, the jaw massive and in the centre of his head two large, very black piercing eyes which seemed almost to protrude from his face.’ Most of all, his manner of speech and his theatrical gestures – head leaning halfway back, chin jutting sharply forward, rolling eyes – were calculated to give an impression of power and vitality. In private he could be courteous and perfectly charming. The English journalist George Slocombe, who met him in 1922, observed that his public persona changed dramatically in one-to-one encounters, as his muscles lost their tension, his tense jaw softened and his voice became cordial. Slocombe noted that Mussolini had been on the defensive his entire life. ‘Now that he had assumed the role of aggressor, he could not shake off his instinctive distrust of strangers lightly.’13

His wariness of other people, including his own ministers and party leaders, remained with him to the end of his life. As Ivone Kirkpatrick, a sharp observer posted at the British Embassy put it, ‘He was sensitive to the emergence of any possible rival and he viewed all men with a peasant’s suspicion’.14

There were plenty of rivals to worry about. While he projected an image of iron leadership, fascism was not so much a united movement as a loose amalgamation of local squad leaders. Only a year earlier, Mussolini had faced rebellion within the ranks from some of the most established fascists, including Italo Balbo, Roberto Farinacci and Dino Grandi. They had accused him of being too close to the parliamentarians in Rome. Grandi, a fascist leader in Bologna with a reputation for violence, had tried to bring about Mussolini’s fall. Balbo, a thin young man with dishevelled hair, was an extremely popular figure who would remain a serious rival for decades to come. Mussolini’s response was to form a coalition government that excluded all prominent fascists from office. In his first appearance as prime minister he intimidated the Chamber of Deputies, which was hostile, and flattered the Senate, which was friendly. Most of all, he assured them that he would respect the constitution. Relieved, a majority gave him full powers, a few speakers even begging Mussolini to impose a dictatorship.15

Mussolini appeared briefly on the international scene, travelling to Lausanne and London to be courted by potential allies. At Victoria Station he and his entourage were given a triumphant welcome, having to move through a ‘screaming mass of humanity, blinded by the flashes of the photographers’ cameras’. Still basking in the glory of his March on Rome, he was acclaimed by the press as the Cromwell of Italy, the Italian Napoleon, the new Garibaldi in a black shirt. While his international image would go from strength to strength, it would be sixteen years before he crossed the Italian border again.16

At home, few people had ever seen the Duce. Mussolini was keen to bring the population under his spell, with whirlwind tours around the country, endless unannounced visits to villages, mass meetings with workers and inaugurations of public projects. He soon had his own train and demanded that it slow down when there was a large crowd, always making sure to stand by the window: ‘All of them should be able to see me,’ he explained to his valet, who was tasked with finding out on which side of the tracks the masses were gathered. What was at first a political necessity would over time become an obsession.17

While Mussolini was wary of his rivals, he immediately put one of his most reliable collaborators in charge of the press at the Ministry of the Interior, an institution the Duce ran himself. Cesare Rossi’s task was to promote fascism in the press, using secret funds to finance publications favouring Mussolini and draw independent newspapers into the orbit of the government. Rossi also funded a secret group of fascist militants charged with eliminating enemies of the regime. One of them was Amerigo Dumini, a young adventurer known as ‘the Duce’s hitman’. In June 1924, he and several accomplices kidnapped Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist leader and deputy openly critical of Mussolini, stabbing him repeatedly with a carpenter’s file before burying his body in a ditch outside Rome.18

The murder caused widespread revulsion. Popular opinion turned against Mussolini, who was now more isolated than ever. He made a placatory speech, which in turn alienated his followers, who were under attack by parliament and the press. Fearing that they might turn against him, he finally took the plunge into dictatorship with a violent speech delivered to the Chamber of Deputies on 3 January 1925. Mussolini defiantly announced that efforts to form a parliamentary coalition were futile and that he would now pursue a path of exclusive fascist rule. He alone, he claimed boldly, was responsible for all that had happened. ‘If fascism has been a criminal association, then I am the chief of that criminal association.’ And he alone would put things right – by force through a personal dictatorship if necessary.19

What followed was a campaign of intimidation at every level, as civil liberties were crushed. Within days the police, with the help of the fascist militia, searched hundreds of houses and arrested members of the opposition.

The press was muzzled. Even before Mussolini’s speech of 3 January 1925 a decree in July 1924 had given prefects the power to close down any publication without warning. But the liberal press continued to outsell fascist newspapers by a factor of twelve, churning out four million copies a day. Many were now closed down, their most critical journalists persecuted. Police commissioners were attached to the print shops that were still allowed to operate, ensuring that state propaganda was broadcast to all. Corriere della Sera, one of the most important opposition papers, was turned into a fascist organ. A draconian law on public security in November 1926 spelled out the reasons for immediate seizure by the police, including writings that were ‘damaging to the prestige of the state or its authorities’. A pall of secrecy settled over the country. Telephone lines and the mail were monitored, while blackshirt thugs and undercover police brought the streets under surveillance.20

The pace of the revolution was accelerated by several attempts on Mussolini’s life. On 7 April 1926 Violet Gibson, an Irish aristocrat, fired a gun at the Duce, grazing his nose. Six months later a fifteen-year-old boy took a shot at him during a parade celebrating the March on Rome. He was lynched on the spot by fascists, fuelling suspicion that the affair had been staged for political ends. From November 1925 to December 1926 all civil associations and political parties came under the purview of the state. Freedom of association was suspended, even for small groups of three or four persons. As Mussolini proclaimed, ‘All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing without the state’.21

On Christmas Eve 1925 Mussolini was invested with full executive authority without the intervention of parliament under the new title of Head of Government. In the words of a foreign visitor, he was now ‘like a jailer with all the keys hanging at his belt and revolver in hand, pacing unquestioned up and down Italy, as in the quiet and sullen corridors of a vast prison’.22

Mussolini was also suspicious of the fascists, however. In February 1925 he named Roberto Farinacci secretary of the National Fascist Party, the only legally permitted political organisation in the country. Farinacci set about curbing the power of the fascists and destroying the party machine, opening the way for a system of personal rule dominated by Mussolini. Thousands of the more radical party members were purged. Much as the Duce had refused to appoint fascist leaders to the coalition government in 1922, he now relied on local prefects named directly by the state to police the nation. Mussolini liked to divide and rule, making sure that party officials and the state bureaucracy oversaw each other, leaving the substance of power to himself.23

As some party members were dismissed, others started adulating their leader. Farinacci, for one, assiduously developed the cult of his master. In 1923, during Mussolini’s visit back home to Predappio, local leaders had proposed to mark his birthplace with a bronze plaque. Two years later, as Farinacci unveiled the memorial, he announced that every party member should go on a religious pilgrimage to Predappio and take an ‘oath of loyalty and devotion’ to the Duce.24

Realising that their own survival now depended on the myth of the great dictator, other party leaders joined the chorus, portraying Mussolini as a saviour, a miracle worker who was ‘almost divine’. Their destinies were tied up with the Duce, the only one capable of holding fascism together. Mussolini was the centre around which leaders as diverse as Grandi and Farinacci could collaborate through common subordination.25

Roberto Farinacci, having purged the ranks of the party, was in turn dismissed in 1926, replaced by Augusto Turati, a journalist turned squad leader in the early years of the fascist movement. Turati set about consolidating the cult of the Duce, demanding an oath from party members to ensure their absolute obedience to Mussolini. In 1927 he penned the first catechism, entitled A Revolution and a Leader, in which he explained that while there was a Great Council, the Duce was the ‘one leader, the only leader, from whom all power flows’. There was, as he put it, ‘a spirit, a soul, a light, a reality of conscience in which all brothers can find themselves and recognise themselves: the spirit, the goodness, the passion of Benito Mussolini’. A year later, in a preface to a textbook on the origins and development of fascism, he equated the revolution with Mussolini, and Mussolini with the nation: ‘When the entire nation walks on the road of fascism, its face, its spirit, its faith become one with the Duce.’26

While Mussolini occasionally professed to dislike the cult around his person, he was actually its main architect. He was a master of the art of projecting his own image, carefully studying certain gestures and poses. He rehearsed in Villa Torlonia, a vast, neoclassical villa on a sprawling estate which became his residence in 1925. In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance. Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor. Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him.27

His repertoire changed over time. The famous scowl – imitated by a subservient Farinacci – was abandoned by 1928, while over the years his harsh features softened. His jaw became less rigid. The glaring eyes, so striking in 1922, became more serene. His smile seemed congenial. As George Slocombe noted, ‘Except Stalin, no other European leader displays his air of calm, unruffled assurance, the result of uninterrupted years of supreme authority.’28

Il Popolo d’Italia (‘The People of Italy’) had been Mussolini’s personal newspaper since 1914, and for many years he had exalted himself as a natural leader in its pages. After he handed the editorship over to his brother Arnaldo in 1922 the paper began describing the Duce as a demi-god.29

Cesare Rossi, who had been put in charge of the press in 1922, had to flee the country after Matteotti’s murder, but his office flourished. From 1924 onwards the Press Office made sure that all newspapers were filled with what one critic called ‘nauseous laudation’ of Mussolini. His speeches were widely reproduced. As Italo Balbo, one of the blackshirt leaders, put it, ‘Italy is a newspaper in which Mussolini writes the first page every day’.30

In 1925 the Press Office took over the Istituto Luce, an institution devoted to producing and distributing cinematographic material. Mussolini ran it directly, previewing and editing news reports from his projection room in Villa Torlonia. Within a few years every cinema, from down-at-heel theatres in working-class neighbourhoods to film palaces with gilded furniture and opulent carpets, was compelled by law to show newsreels produced by Luce with Mussolini as their main subject.31

Luce also produced images of the Duce, printed and mounted in albums for his approval. After all the adverse publicity created by the Matteotti affair, photography became crucial in humanising his image. There were photographs of him and his family at Villa Torlonia. The grounds of his villa also served as a backdrop for shots of the Duce in the saddle, riding and jumping his horse over a wooden hurdle in the morning. There were pictures of him racing cars, toying with lion cubs, addressing a crowd, threshing wheat or playing a violin. He appeared as fencer, yachtsman, swimmer and pilot. As the French journalist Henri Béraud observed in 1929: ‘Wherever you look, wherever you go, you will find Mussolini, again Mussolini, always Mussolini.’ He was on portraits, on medals, in etchings and even on bars of soap. His name adorned newspapers, books, walls and fences. ‘Mussolini is omnipresent, he is like a God. He observes you from every angle and you see him in every spot.’32

Mussolini was also humanised through a biography first published in English in 1925. Entitled The Life of Benito Mussolini, it appeared in Italian as Dux the following year. Seventeen editions and eighteen translations would follow. Written by Margherita Sarfatti, his erstwhile mistress, the book mythologised his childhood. The son of a blacksmith, he was born on a Sunday afternoon at two o’clock, as ‘The sun had entered the constellation of Leo eight days before’. A ‘very naughty, troublesome little boy’, he dominated others before he could even walk. He was one of those men ‘who are born to compel admiration and devotion from all around him’, as people came ‘under the sway of his magnetism and the force of his personality’. A description of the wound he sustained in 1917 turned him into an object of almost religious reverence, ‘his flesh pierced with arrows, scarred with wounds and bathed in blood’, yet smiling gently at those around him.33

Although Mussolini edited the text of Dux himself, he preferred the official biography by Giorgio Pini, one so blatantly uncritical that it was only translated in 1939. Pini’s Life of Mussolini was distributed free to schools, where long extracts of Sarfatti were also read in class. Fascist textbooks appeared, specifically tailored to children, all perpetuating the legend of the Duce as a tireless worker devoted to his people. Endorsed by the minister of education in 1927, Vincenzo de Gaetano’s Book for the Young Fascist equated the movement with the person of Mussolini: ‘When one speaks of fascism, one speaks of Him. Fascism is his cause; he has created it, he has infused it with his spirit and given it life.’ Some children learned the story of his life by heart. The opening sentence set the tone: ‘I believe in the Supreme Duce – the creator of the Black Shirts – and in Jesus Christ His Only Protector.’ On the walls of all schools was the slogan ‘From Mussolini to the Children of Italy’; on the cover of their copybooks his portrait.34

Mussolini was always fine-tuning his own image. The nation was told that he never slept, working on behalf of his country into the early hours of the morning, so he left the lights on at night in his office at the Palazzo Venezia, an architectural landmark built by the popes in the fifteenth century. The epicentre of the nation was the Sala del Mappamondo, a huge space measuring some eighteen by fifteen metres. It was sparsely furnished, with the Duce’s desk standing in a far corner, its back turned to the window. Once they were ushered through the door, visitors had to cross the room, intimidated even before they met his eyes.

A small balcony connected to his office, and he used it to address the crowd below. He prepared his speeches meticulously, sometimes committing them to memory, on occasion writing them down, rehearsing while pacing the Sala del Mappamondo. But he could also be spontaneous, changing the script and adjusting his gestures to the mood of the crowd. He spoke with a metallic voice in short, simple sentences, delivered like the blows of a hammer. His memory was legendary, although he used different strategies to maintain his reputation, for instance by planting questions or rehearsing from an encyclopaedia.35

At Villa Torlonia or in the Sala del Mappamondo Mussolini granted audiences to large numbers of admirers. Every day had its quota: ‘Schoolteachers from Australia, distant relatives of English peers, American businessmen, boy scouts from Hungary, poets from the Far East, anybody and everybody who desires to stand in the August Presence is warmly received.’ As Percy Winner, a correspondent with Associated Press, commented rather astutely, nothing could illustrate better Mussolini’s appetite for adulation than the fact that for years he was in contact, seemingly without even a hint of irritation, with a never-ending stream of fawning visitors.36

The visits also had a strategic purpose, namely to consolidate his reputation as an international strongman. Respect abroad silenced his critics at home. He took pains to fool foreign journalists and writers with his charm, an effort amply rewarded by a flow of celebratory articles and books, which the fascist press invariably highlighted. Foreign journalists who were critical received no further invitations.

Awed by the immensity of his office, relieved by the cordial reception and calm poise of a man of such fearsome reputation, many walked away thinking they had met a prophet. A mere smile was often enough to disarm an apprehensive visitor. The French writer René Benjamin, recipient of France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, was so daunted by the encounter that he barely managed to cross the vast distance from the door to Mussolini’s desk, where he was instantly won over by a broad grin. Maurice Bedel, a compatriot who in 1927 had also won the Prix Goncourt, devoted an entire chapter to the Duce’s smile. ‘Does he ever stop,’ he wondered, ‘even for a few brief moments, being a demi-God carried by a violent destiny?’ Others were captivated by his eyes. The poet Ada Negri thought they were ‘magnetic’, but also noticed his hands: ‘He has the most beautiful hands, psychic, like wings when they unfold.’37

Great leaders also came to pay homage. Mohandas Gandhi, who visited twice, pronounced him ‘one of the great statesmen of the time’, while Winston Churchill in 1933 described ‘the Roman genius’ as ‘the greatest law-giver among living men’. From the United States alone, he received William Randolph Hearst, New York Governor Al Smith, banker Thomas W. Lamont, future vice-presidential candidate Colonel Frank Knox and Archbishop of Boston William Cardinal O’Connell. Thomas Edison called him the ‘greatest genius of modern times’ after a short meeting.38

Always suspicious of others, Mussolini not only surrounded himself with mediocre followers but also frequently replaced them. The worst, by most accounts, was Achille Starace, a humourless sycophant who took over from Augusto Turati as party secretary in December 1931. ‘Starace is a cretin,’ one follower objected. ‘I know,’ Mussolini replied, ‘but he is an obedient cretin.’39

Starace was a fanatic, and his first task was to subordinate the party even further to Mussolini’s will. He did so first by eliminating fascist leaders unwilling to toe the line, then by increasing party membership. It more than doubled from 825,000 in 1931 to over two million in 1936. Many new recruits were opportunists rather than ideologues, more interested in a career than in the tenets of fascism. The result of admitting so many ordinary people into the ranks, as one critic pointed out in 1939, was that the party became depoliticised. ‘Fascism has killed anti-fascism and fascism,’ he pointed out. ‘The strength of fascism,’ he continued, ‘lies in the lack of fascists.’ Loyalty to the leader rather than belief in fascism became paramount, and was expected of everyone, within or outside the Fascist Party. Under Starace, while many party members quite possibly were not fascists, few were not Mussolinists.40

This suited Mussolini well. He prided himself that he relied on intuition, instinct and pure willpower rather than on mere intellect, and repeatedly scorned the idea of an ideologically consistent worldview. ‘We do not believe in dogmatic programmes, in rigid schemes that should contain and defy the changing, uncertain and complex reality.’ In his own career he had not hesitated to change course when circumstances required it. He was unable to develop a political philosophy, and in any event unwilling to be hemmed in by any principle, moral, ideological or otherwise. ‘Action, action, action – this summed up his whole creed’, noted one of his biographers.41

Politics became the mass celebration of an individual. ‘Mussolini is Always Right’ was the regime’s motto. Mussolini was not merely sent by providence, but the very incarnation of providence. Blind obedience was now expected of every Italian. The words ‘Believe, Obey, Fight’ were painted in long, black letters on buildings, stencilled on walls, emblazoned across the nation.

A so-called fascist style was encouraged by Starace, affecting every aspect of daily life. A ‘Hail the Duce’ now opened every meeting, while a Roman salute, right arm outstretched, replaced the handshake. The entire population was put into uniform, with even infants posing for photographs in a black shirt. Children wore black uniforms every Saturday – declared ‘Fascist Saturday’ by the Grand Council in 1935 – and reported to local headquarters to practise marching in step, a toy rifle on their shoulders.42

A Ministry of Popular Culture replaced the Press Office, established years earlier by Cesare Rossi. The new organisation was run by the Duce’s son-in-law, a talented young man called Galeazzo Ciano who emulated the German Reich’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Like its German counterpart, it released daily instructions to editors detailing what should be mentioned and what was proscribed. A carrot accompanied the stick, as the secret funds that had fuelled the Press Office ballooned. From 1933 to 1943 more than 410 million lire, the rough equivalent at the time of US$20 million, was spent promoting the regime and its leader in newspapers across the nation. By 1939 even the Duce’s mottos appeared on the masthead of subsidised dailies. ‘Either Precious Friendship or Brutal Hostility’ proclaimed the Cronaca Prealpina, invoking a speech Mussolini had held in Florence in May 1930, while La Voce di Bergamo announced, ‘The Secret of Victory: Obedience’. Some foreign publications accepted subsidies. Le Petit Journal, the fourth most popular newspaper in France, benefited from a covert contribution of 20,000 lire.43

Secret funds were also used to entice artists, scholars and writers to join the movement. By one estimate, the cost of these subsidies rose from 1.5 million lire in 1934 to 162 million in 1942. One beneficiary was Asvero Gravelli, an early follower and author of a hagiography entitled Spiritual Interpretations of Mussolini, published in 1938. ‘God and History are two terms that are identified with Mussolini,’ Gravelli boldly declared, although he resisted the temptation to compare him to Napoleon: ‘Who resembles Mussolini? Nobody. To compare Mussolini to statesmen of other races is to diminish him. Mussolini is the first new Italian.’ The author received 79,500 lire for his efforts.44

Augusto Turati had started developing radio as a propaganda tool in 1926. His voice could be heard regularly over the ether, together with those of other fascist leaders, including Arnaldo Mussolini. The Duce himself went on air for the first time on 4 November 1925, although the transmission was plagued by technical problems. Radio sets remained beyond the reach of most ordinary people in the 1920s, as Italy was still a poor and largely agrarian country. In 1931 there were a mere 176,000 radio subscribers across the nation, most of them in the cities. When teachers lamented that children could not listen to the voice of Mussolini, Starace ensured some 40,000 free radios were installed in elementary schools between 1933 and 1938. The overall number of subscribers, thanks to state subsidies, soared to 800,000 before the onset of the Second World War. Mere numbers, however, did not reflect the reach of the radio, as loudspeakers were installed in town squares, so that by the middle of the 1930s Mussolini’s speeches resounded across the country.45

Mussolini himself developed the gift of omnipresence. When in 1929 he had first entered the Royal Hall, an enormous auditorium where large conferences were held in the Palazzo Venezia, he had tried out the stage, looking around the room like a choreographer before deciding that it was too low. ‘Those at the back of the room will struggle to see me,’ he said, ordering that the platform be elevated, a command delivered on repeated occasions, until his underlings lost count of just how many podiums had been modified to accommodate their master.46

In 1932 a four-lane boulevard was cut through the heart of the city from the Colosseum to the Palazzo Venezia, creating a huge open-air space for his balcony speeches, which attracted ever larger crowds. The very idea that any Italian could travel to Rome to see and hear the Duce became part of his legend. Bortolo Pelanda, a seventy-one-year-old farmer, walked some 500 kilometres from Belluno Veronese to Rome to fulfil his dream of listening to Mussolini. Arturo Rizzi built an entire contraption around two bicycles to take his family of eight from Turin to Rome, or so the newspapers reported.47

After the March on Rome Mussolini had started touring the country, a ritual that became more frequent over time, especially once he announced his policy of ‘Going to the People’ in 1932. Every appearance was meticulously stage-managed. Schools and shops were closed for the day, while fascist youth and party activists recruited from the surrounding region poured into the square from chartered buses. They set the tone, cheering, chanting and applauding on command. Ordinary citizens received a pink card delivered by morning mail ordering them to attend the occasion. Failure to comply could bring a fine or a prison sentence. Police mingled in the crowd to ensure that everyone behaved.48

Most of all, the crowd was made to wait, sometimes for hours on end, from noon to dusk. Even as Mussolini was still far away, thousands of people closely pressed together craned their necks towards the balcony, eagerly expecting him to appear. Often the Duce only spoke after twilight fell. Giant searchlights were switched on to illuminate the balcony, torches appeared in the crowd, bonfires were lit from nearby buildings. In this theatrical atmosphere, two uniformed guards would step forward, taking positions on each side of the balcony as the crowd began applauding. Trumpets were blasted as the local party secretary moved to the front of the balcony, shouting ‘Fascisti! Salute al Duce!’. When the Duce finally stepped into view and smiled, the crowd had been whipped up to fever pitch, releasing the strain of waiting in an eruption of joy.49

Every visit was reported by an enthusiastic press, while important speeches were filmed by the Luce Institute and shown in cinemas around the country. The crowd, already carefully selected, knew precisely how to rise to the occasion, having watched the ritual on the silver screen. Cities competed with each other, trying to offer ever more enthusiastic and festive receptions to curry favour with the regime. In Milan, a favourite city of the Duce, enormous temporary balconies were built for his public speeches, bedecked with papier-mâché eagles.50

The greatest celebration of the regime was probably the Mostra della Rivoluzione, an exhibition opened on 28 October 1932 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome. Some four million visitors streamed through the grounds of the Palazzo delle Esposizione from 1932 to 1934, with reduced entrance fees for members of party organisations. Mussolini was at the heart of the exhibition, arranged chronologically to mark the most dramatic episodes of the fascist revolution. As Dino Alfieri, its curator, explained, the revolution was ‘inextricably linked to the thought and will of Mussolini’. Room T, at the very end of the exhibition, was dedicated to the Duce, with manuscripts and personal belongings carefully displayed under glass, including his handkerchief, still bloodied after Violet Gibson’s attempt on his life in April 1926. An exact reconstruction of his office at the Popolo d’Italia allowed visitors to get closer to their leader.51

Another site of pilgrimage, besides Room T, was the Duce’s birthplace. In 1925 party secretary Roberto Farinacci had trekked to Predappio to swear an oath of loyalty to the leader. Seven years later, on the tenth anniversary of the fascist revolution, Achille Starace turned the small medieval village into a site of national celebration, as an entire new town emerged around the cult of Mussolini. ‘From the most humble man to his sovereign majesty’, people from all backgrounds paid their respects to the leader at Predappio. Day in, day out, thousands of pilgrims arrived by bus in organised tours or alone, sometimes on foot or bicycle, silently shuffling through the family home, bowing their heads in front of the family crypt. His mother Rosa Maltoni was compared to the Virgin Mary and commemorated in the church of Santa Rosa. His father was glorified as a hero of the revolution. Far beyond Predappio, schools, hospitals, bridges and churches were named after Mussolini’s parents.52

Mussolini received not only thousands of letters and visitors, but also gifts from people from every walk of life. As early as November 1927 Augusto Turati had ordered party members to cease sending donations to their leader, but he could do little to stop admirers from outside the ranks. Henrietta Tower, one of the wealthiest women in the United States and a lifelong resident of Rome, bequeathed a villa with an art collection of 3,000 items including ceramics, tapestries, textiles and paintings when she died in 1933. She was far from exceptional, as three castles and seven large estates were gifted to the Duce between 1925 to 1939 (he accepted on behalf of the state). Writers, photographers, painters and sculptors put their talents to work and sent items celebrating the Duce, including pastel portraits and embroidered busts. Some were displayed in Villa Torlonia. From ordinary people came a daily homage in the form of fresh produce, despite the best efforts of the state to persuade them to desist. On 2 August 1934 alone, dozens of kilos of fruit, sweets, biscuits, pasta and tomatoes were earmarked for destruction.53

The large boulevard leading from the Colosseum to the Palazzo Venezia turned Mussolini’s balcony into the symbolic centre of fascist power. But by cutting a straight line through the city’s most prominent excavations, the Via dei Fori Imperiale, flanked by large bronze statues of Roman generals, also connected the Duce directly to ancient Rome.

The emblem of fascism, a bundle of rods called fasces (fasci in Italian) tied around an axe, originated from ancient Rome. It stood not only for strength through unity but also for a resurgence of the lost grandeur of the Roman empire. Like the swastika in Germany, it was carved into buildings, lamps, fountains, doorsteps and even manhole covers. The fascist squads with their ranks and formations were organised on the Roman model. There was the Roman salute, and after 1935 the Roman step. Mussolini even kept a Roman wolf in a cage displayed in the Capitol. Labour Day was no longer celebrated on 1 May but on 21 April, the founding day of Rome. As Mussolini explained, ‘The Roman greeting, songs and formulas, anniversary commemorations and the like are all essential to fan the flames of the enthusiasm that keeps a movement in being. It was just the same in ancient Rome.’54

Mussolini not only stamped his mark on the capital, he set out to build the ‘Rome of Mussolini’, a vast metropolis harking back to the days of imperial glory. ‘Rome must appear as a marvel to the nations of the world,’ he proclaimed in 1926, ‘vast, orderly, powerful, as it was in the times of the Augustan Empire.’ The centuries that had followed Emperor Augustus he considered ‘decadent’. Entire medieval neighbourhoods in the old capital were to be pulled down to make place for modern fascist buildings worthy of a new imperial centre. Mussolini wanted to be remembered as ‘the greatest destroyer’, the one who rebuilt Rome. His threat was never carried out, although fifteen churches and hundreds of structures were flattened in various parts of the city.55

In order to radiate power and prestige Mussolini’s Rome was required to double in size. Some 600 square kilometres of marshes south of the capital were drained, the area turned into agricultural land and handed over to the poor. Roads were built. Littoria, named after the lictors who carried the fasces in Roman times, was inaugurated by the Duce in 1931, followed by other model cities, all boasting a town hall, a church, a post office and Fascist Party headquarters built along streets radiating out from a piazza.

As in the time of Augustus, Rome would reach to the sea. A Roma al Mare, ‘the new resort of imperial Rome’, was planned, linked to the Esposizione Universale Roma, projected to be held in 1942. At the heart of EUR was a neoclassical building standing sixty-eight metres high, clad in white stone, called the Square Colosseum in homage to the older Roman landmark.

But how could the new empire reach beyond the sea? It already, of course, enjoyed the colonial possessions of Libya, Tripoli and Somaliland, but these had been conquered by previous regimes, denounced by Mussolini as weak and corrupt. To be a true emperor, the modern Caesar who founded a new imperial Rome had to expand the empire. There were other reasons. Like Adolf Hitler, who came to power in 1933, Mussolini sought to rival France and Britain, and like his German counterpart he believed that colonial powers alone had access to the necessary raw materials to wage war.

In his search for prestige Mussolini had already presided over a savage war against insurgents in Libya in 1929. In Cyrenaica, the coastal region of their north African colony, the military sowed terror with chemical weapons and mass executions, exterminating close to a quarter of the local population. Some 100,000 Bedouins were expelled, their land given to Italian settlers. The horrors of the war were concealed from the public at home by an obedient press, which hailed Mussolini for bringing Libya into the fold of civilisation after centuries of barbarism.56

Mussolini began preparing for war in 1931, telling his generals to be ready by 1935. The following year, he fired Dino Grandi, taking over the reins of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations in October 1933, the Duce accelerated efforts to rearm his country. He removed Italo Balbo and assumed control first over the Ministry of War, then over the Ministries of Marine and Air. With the exception of the Ministry of Finance, the levers of government were now entirely in his hands. Mussolini had convinced himself that he was a man of destiny, a Napoleon and Caesar rolled into one, a providential leader whose hand would reshape the modern world. He had come to believe the regime’s motto: ‘Mussolini is Always Right’. The sycophants around him encouraged his delusions.57

In order to be ready for war Mussolini sought a self-sufficient economy. Endless campaigns were launched to whip the population into action. There was a Battle for Grain to reduce imports, with photographs of Mussolini at the threshing machine. There was a Battle for Rice, a Battle for Land, a Battle of Births and a War on Flies, all fronted by the Duce.58

Italy already had two colonies in the Horn of Africa. The conquest of Ethiopia would join together the territories of Eritrea and Somalia. Mussolini had visions of a unified Italian East Africa where millions of settlers would extract gold, diamonds, copper, iron, coal and oil, allowing him to build up his empire and dominate the continent. He also wished to wipe out a stain that had left an indelible mark on the country’s reputation. In 1896 Emperor Menelik had inflicted a humiliating military defeat on the Italian army at Adwa. The failure still rankled.

Mussolini did not consult anyone except the king before deciding on war. On 2 October 1935, after a year of border skirmishes with Ethiopia, church bells and sirens summoned the population into the town squares, where they listened to their leader declare war over the loudspeakers. The summons had been carefully prepared by Starace. By one estimate some twenty-seven million people took part in the largest staged event in human history.59

The financial and military preparations for war, however, were woefully inadequate. The strategy pursued by the Duce, who sidelined his generals to assume overall command, was murderous. Mussolini ordered the use of hundreds of tonnes of mustard gas, sprayed on combatants and civilians alike. In a dark harbinger of the horrors to come under Hitler and Stalin, industrial killing was combined with full-on atrocities, as Ethiopians were decapitated or executed in front of open graves. After a failed attempt on the life of General Rodolfo Graziani, the occupying forces retaliated by killing some 20,000 people in a mere three days in the capital Addis Ababa. Babies were crushed, pregnant women disembowelled and entire families shot, burned, bludgeoned or stabbed to death. When one newspaper compared the conqueror Graziani to Hannibal, Mussolini was furious: he alone could be invoked in the same breath as the giants of ancient Rome. Between late 1935 and 1938 at least a quarter of a million people perished in Ethiopia as a result of the war.60

The atrocities were carefully hidden from the public, as the propaganda machine depicted the war as a liberation for Ethiopians, bringing freedom and civilisation to the victims of a feudal caste system. Secret subsidies, once again, helped propagate this vision at home and abroad, with even foreign journalists paid the equivalent of thousands of dollars to visit Addis Ababa and report favourably on their trip.61

The kingdom of Italy was now an empire, the diminutive King Victor Emmanuel III promoted to Emperor. Mussolini was granted the title of Founder of the Empire. As in Roman times, spoils of war were brought back from the newly conquered territories. The huge obelisk of Axum, weighing some 160 tonnes and dating from the fourth century, was carted back to Rome and unveiled near the Circus Maximus on 28 October 1937 to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the March on Rome. Like an emperor, Mussolini was given his own forum. Called Foro Mussolini, it was built to celebrate the conquest of Ethiopia, with mosaic friezes depicting tanks and warplanes. Other markers appeared across the empire. In order to ‘record for future generations the foundation of the empire’, a 150-metre profile of the Duce was sculpted into the rocks of a mountain overlooking the Furlo Gorge in central Italy.62

When Mussolini proclaimed the annexation of Ethiopia from his balcony on 9 May 1936, the crowds went delirious. As one astute observer pointed out, ‘He knew that, possibly for the first time, he was enjoying the unqualified admiration and support of the whole Italian nation.’ It was his last day of glory, as his star would begin to wane.63

Empire may have been popular at home, but it poisoned relationships with France and Great Britain. The League of Nations condemned Italy, further isolating Mussolini and prompting him to seek a rapprochement with Germany. Mussolini had initially viewed Hitler with suspicion, feeling threatened by a rival. When the German chancellor travelled to Venice in June 1934 for a first meeting, the Duce upstaged him, addressing a cheering crowd on the Piazza San Marco in full military regalia. A pale, insecure Hitler, in a baggy yellow coat and patent-leather shoes, had watched from a balcony in a neighbouring palace, mesmerised by a man so adored by his people. ‘He thought that the enthusiasm for Mussolini was genuine,’ noted Alfred Rosenberg, the party’s ideologue. It was Hitler’s first trip abroad, and he realised that he had made a poor impression.64

In September 1937, after widespread international condemnation of the war in Ethiopia, the Duce travelled to Berlin. Now he, in turn, was awed by the Führer, who spared no expense to accord his guest the honours due to an esteemed ally. Close to a million people, brought in by special trains from the provinces, dutifully filled the streets of the capital to cheer Mussolini. Large numbers of undercover police moved among the crowd with dogs lurking in the background. The Duce fell under the spell of his host, ‘manifestly intoxicated by the spectacle of so much power and fascinated by the man who was plainly resolved to wield it’. Mussolini was no longer the vigorous, sprightly figure who had impressed the Führer in Venice. As the First Secretary of the British Embassy in Berlin observed, his features had coarsened. ‘He was fat and bald, and presented the visage of a dissolute Roman emperor of the decadence.’65

Mussolini and his blackshirt revolution had been a source of inspiration for Hitler, but now the master began to emulate the pupil. A few months after he returned from Berlin he joined Germany and Japan in a tripartite pact against communism without even consulting the Grand Council. The pact forced Mussolini to betray Austria, invaded by Hitler in March 1938. Having assured everyone, including the Duce, that not a single Czech would be annexed, Hitler then sent his troops into Czechoslovakia, inflicting a blow on the prestige of Mussolini, who had confidently told his ministers there would be no annexation. ‘Every time Hitler invades a country, he sends me a message,’ he fulminated, fully aware of the hostile reaction of his own people, and bitterly resenting mocking taunts that labelled him the Gauleiter of Italy, a mere subordinate of the Führer.66

Mussolini soon regained his poise, deciding to invade Albania in order to keep up with his ally, whose Reich now stretched all the way south to the Italian border. This, too, he managed to botch, even though Albania was a mere enclave already nominally controlled by Italy. Believing that the secret of Hitler’s success was that he, not his generals, dictated strategy, Mussolini barely bothered to brief the commander of the expeditionary force. Instead of a lightning strike inspired by the Führer, a confused invasion revealed just how ill prepared and poorly equipped his army was.67

As both powers secretly agreed to prepare for a future war in Europe, the alliance with Germany was further expanded into a Pact of Steel, signed in May 1939. Hitler had promised to avoid hostilities for three years to give Mussolini time to prepare for the battles to come. Three months later, Germany invaded Poland. Galeazzo Ciano, now foreign minister, was one of many who realised that Mussolini was dragging his country into the abyss. ‘I must fight to the end. Otherwise it will mean the ruin of the country, the ruin of Fascism, and the ruin of the Duce himself.’68

Mussolini was now in dire straits. He had failed to prepare his country for an all-out war, but had simultaneously thrown in his lot with Hitler. He boasted to his counterpart in Berlin that he had 150 divisions backed by reserves of twelve million soldiers, but in reality only ten divisions with antiquated equipment were ready to fight. A surprisingly indecisive character hiding behind a façade of limitless self-belief and willpower, Mussolini agonised, experiencing bouts of depression, changing his mind, even confessing that he secretly hoped the Germans would be defeated. But in early 1940 he became convinced that Hitler would win. ‘Recently he has felt more and more the fascination of the Führer. His military successes – the only successes that Mussolini really values and desires – are the cause of this,’ observed Ciano in his diary. On 10 June 1940 he declared war on the Allied powers.69

For almost two decades Mussolini had encouraged the idea that he alone could be trusted and could do no wrong. He had used the cult of the leader to debase his competitors, ensuring every potential rival in the Fascist Party was edged out of the limelight. Those who remained were united in their devotion to the Duce, sycophants determined to outdo one another in praising his genius. They lied to him, much as he lied to them. But most of all, Mussolini lied to himself. He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth’ in the words of his biographer Renzo de Felice. He knew that those around him were flatterers who withheld information that could provoke his ire. He trusted no one, having no true friends, no reliable companion to whom he could speak frankly. As the years passed Mussolini isolated himself from others, becoming a virtual prisoner within the walls of the Palazzo Venezia.70

Not content with making all major decisions himself, Mussolini sought to control everything, apparently with no sense of priority. As his valet wrote, his was a dictatorship that extended to ‘fuel engines, borax, bicycle rims, translations from Latin, cameras, mirrors, electric lamps and mineral water’. His hand was everywhere. In the middle of the war he found time to change the colour of the cover for a women’s magazine from purple to brown. In January 1939, as Europe was heading towards war, his son-in-law observed units rehearsing for a parade in front of the Palazzo Venezia. ‘The Duce spends many a half-hour at the window of his office, concealed behind the blue curtains, looking at the movements of the various units. It was his order that the drums and trumpets be used at the same time. It was he who chose the band leader’s baton, and in person he teaches the movements to be made, and he changes the proportions and design of the baton. He is a strong believer that in the armed forces it is the form that determines the substance as well.’71

As a result, Italy was woefully ill prepared for war. The campaign for economic self-sufficiency Mussolini spearheaded was a success on the propaganda front, but caused a decline in steel production even before war began, as the country had to import millions of tonnes of coal annually. The Battle for Grain likewise increased cereal output, but made the country more dependent on imported fertiliser. While Starace had ordered everyone into military attire, there were too few uniforms for the soldiers, many of whom were equipped with antiquated weapons. Starace himself was dismissed, as were countless other scapegoats, including senior officers in the army, to deflect blame from Mussolini. The Duce, among the many positions he held, was air minister, but he did not know how many of his aircraft were obsolete. There was no military budget and no proper planning staff.72

At the height of his glory, in the middle of the 1930s, Mussolini appeared genuinely popular. There were good reasons why foreign travellers – not to mention some historians later on – were impressed by the spell he seemed to have cast on the population. The cult of personality demanded loyalty to the leader rather than faith in a particular political programme. It was deliberately superficial, capable of encompassing the greatest possible number. People were required to appear periodically at the public square and applaud the Duce.73

Many also hailed the leader as a way of criticising the abuses of local fascists. ‘If only the Duce knew’ (‘se lo sapesse il Duce!’) was a well-worn expression. The greater the sense of frustration and anger people felt towards the Fascist Party, the more they portrayed Mussolini as a blameless leader deliberately kept ignorant of the facts or badly advised by his underlings.74

The cult was also tinged with superstition and magic. In a country steeped in religion, people projected onto Mussolini feelings of devotion and worship characteristic of Christian piety. There were holy sites, holy pictures, pilgrimages, even the hope of a healing touch from the leader. His photograph was sometimes used as a talisman, carried around to bring good luck. Most of all, there was faith in a providential figure rather than belief in fascist ideology.75

Above all, people had no choice. As Emilio Lussu, a committed anti-fascist, noted in 1936, the regime demanded expressions of popular consent, and the blackshirts pursued these, bludgeon in hand. When the Duce gave speeches, people turned up on orders from the police and cheered on command, ‘like extras in a cast of thousands, so that papers could publish photographs of public sites full to the brim with exulting people’.76

Little more than the outward appearance of loyalty to the leader was required, and after a few years most people became masters at the game. Mussolini was a superb actor, his subordinates great performers, but the nation at large was a well-rehearsed performance. The penalties for breaking character were harsh. A totalitarian police state had emerged after the Matteotti affair in 1925, and by the mid-1930s it had acquired enormous powers, going to great lengths to put the population under surveillance. The political police, known as PolPol, worked hand in hand with Ovra, or Organisation for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism, referred to in short as piovra, or ‘octopus’, its tentacles reaching far and wide. There were also the regular state police and the local carabinieri, who were part of the army. There were five special militia for the railways, roads, post, telegraph and telephone services, the ports and the forests. The capital had a metropolitan militia, with some 12,000 agents making the rounds in civilian clothes. Envious neighbours, jealous colleagues or even disaffected members of the same family reported on suspicious conversations. Few people would have dared to speak openly in the presence of more than three others. As one observer put it, Italy was a ‘nation of prisoners, condemned to enthusiasm’.77

Despite the full weight of the police state, enthusiasm for the leader waned in 1939. Underground newspapers were growing in circulation, some apparently printed on the presses of the Popolo d’Italia itself. The credibility of the leader came under attack. One fascist follower opined that the regime represented a mere 30,000 people at most. Nobody believed any longer in the parades, asserted one report from Rome, while people were unhappy with empty shelves in the shops caused by the economic sanctions imposed by the League of Nations. The obligatory newsreels shown in cinemas no longer prompted respectful silence, as viewers used the cover of dark to boo or laugh irreverently. The letter M, seen everywhere in honour of Mussolini, stood for misery, people joked.78

Mussolini, fully aware of growing popular disaffection through the secret services, realised that he had to show that his star was still shining brightly with a series of quick successes in war. In June 1940 he was ready to stake his fortune and that of his country by declaring war on France and Great Britain. ‘May God help Italy,’ wrote his son-in-law.79

In the early hours of 28 October 1940, the Italian army crossed the Albanian border to invade Greece. Since Berlin had not informed Mussolini beforehand of their plans to invade Poland, the Netherlands and France, the Duce thought he should surprise Hitler in turn. Mussolini’s own staff were kept in the dark. Rodolfo Graziani, now chief of the army staff, only heard of the invasion through the radio. Instead of conducting a lightning war, Italian troops became bogged down in poor weather and were pushed back into Albania within a few weeks. Britain intervened on Greece’s side, destroying half of Italy’s battle fleet.

‘We will break Greece’s back,’ Mussolini defiantly proclaimed on 18 November, as crowds dutifully cheered outside the Palazzo Venezia. The speech was distributed far and wide by the Ministry of Popular Culture, transmitted over the airwaves in seven languages. But many Italians did not believe their own leader, turning instead to British radio to discover what was happening inside their own country. Over the following three years some 60 million lire were spent on fighting clandestine radio programmes from London, to little avail.80

Mussolini was obliged to appeal to Hitler, who came to his rescue in April 1941. Within weeks, the Germans pushed through the Balkans and reached Athens, the Greek capital. There was a price to pay: military experts, economic advisers and secret agents now swarmed all over Italy, interfering in every aspect of the country’s affairs. The iron dictator seemed no more than a vassal. ‘We were treated, never like partners, but always as slaves,’ Ciano bitterly confided to his diary.81

Wherever the Duce sent his soldiers, they were defeated. A few months after the Tenth Army moved across the Libyan desert to invade Egypt in September 1940, British troops forced them back. In November 1941 the Italians made their last stand in the ancient imperial capital of Gondar, defeated by the Allied powers with the help of irregular Ethiopian troops. On the Eastern Front, where Mussolini had sent an army corps to help in the war against the Soviet Union, the Italians suffered heavy losses. By July 1942, Mussolini was a broken man, wracked by illness, isolated, disillusioned by the waning of his star. A close collaborator found him ‘grey, with sunken cheeks, troubled and tired eyes and his mouth revealing a sense of bitterness’.82

The man who had once been in full sight at all times, in the sky, in the sea, on earth, began disappearing from view, eschewing the public. For six months no new images of Mussolini, once described as ‘the most photographed man on earth’, were published. He also fell silent. On 10 June 1941 he had made a brief appearance to mark the first anniversary of Italy’s entry into the war, but for eighteen long months thereafter he was speechless.83

On 2 December 1942 Mussolini broke his silence, proving that he was still alive. But it was too little, too late. His voice had changed, people whispered. His speech was superficial. He seemed to have lost his grip on reality, confirming the impression that a leader driven by hubris was steering his country to ruin. Instead of whipping up hatred of the enemy, his speech turned people against him.84

From the beginning Mussolini had been forced to compete with the king and the pope for the allegiance of the Italian population. Mussolini’s image may have been everywhere, but it was the king’s head that appeared on stamps and coins. Mussolini was only head of government, while the king was head of state. And much as fascism had tried to emulate religion, it was the pope who commanded the loyalty of the country’s millions of Roman Catholics.

The Allied powers began bombing Italy ten days after Mussolini’s declaration of war in 1940. Almost every city became a target, carried out first by British fliers, then the United States. On 19 July 1943, as Allied planes targeted the capital for the first time, Pope Pius XII was seen visiting the damaged districts in a grubby white cassock, surrounded by devout residents, while Mussolini remained ensconced in his palace.85

For months people had accused Mussolini of having brought ruin and misery to their country. The Duce had betrayed Italy. He was a criminal, a murderer, a bloodthirsty tyrant. Some cursed him under their breath, others openly wished for his demise.86

The king delivered the final blow. As the acrid smell of smoke still hovered over Rome, the Grand Council of Fascists voted against their leader. One day later, on 25 July 1943, Victor Emmanuel placed Mussolini under arrest. Not a single party member rebelled, despite their solemn oath to protect Mussolini to the death. Achille Starace, like other fascist leaders, immediately tried to ingratiate himself with Pietro Badoglio, the first Duke of Addis Ababa and new head of government.87

The historian Emilio Gentile pointed out decades ago that a god who proved to be fallible ‘was destined to be dethroned and desecrated by his faithful with the same passion with which he had been adored’. In parts of Italy, angry crowds invaded the local Fascist Party headquarters on the very day of his arrest, flinging effigies, busts and portraits of the overthrown dictator out of the windows.88

Mussolini had one friend left, however. The humiliating demise of a close ally was a threat to the image of the untouchable and sacred leader, and Hitler organised a daring rescue operation, sending a group of commandoes to free Mussolini and fly him to freedom. A week earlier, on 3 September 1943, Italy had signed an armistice, prompting German troops to take over the country. Now, as war tore the country apart, they installed Mussolini in Salò to head a new regime, the Italian Social Republic. Mussolini’s main achievement was a series of executions of fascist leaders who had voted against him at the last meeting of the Grand Council. His own son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, was tied to a chair and shot in the back.

In a January 1945 interview with Madeleine Mollier, wife of the press attaché at the German Embassy, Mussolini seemed resigned to his fate, describing himself as ‘little more than a corpse’. ‘Yes, madam, I am finished. My star has fallen,’ he continued. ‘I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of the spectators.’ The end came a few months later, when he was captured by anti-fascist partisans. He and several of his followers, including his mistress Clara Petacci, were summarily shot, their bodies piled into a van and taken to Milan. They were hung upside down from a girder. Achille Starace, arrested shortly afterwards, was taken to see the remains of his leader, then executed and strung up next to the man he had acclaimed as a god.89

In the months that followed people sang the fascist hymn with unveiled sarcasm, chiselling away at the symbols of the past dictatorship on buildings and monuments across the country, smashing the statues of their former leader. They blamed only Mussolini, a view made credible, rather paradoxically, by the cult of personality itself. ‘One man, and one man alone,’ Churchill had famously said in December 1940, absolving all fascists of any responsibility.90



‘As I walked with him in the gardens of the Villa Borghese,’ Hitler told his guests at a dinner party on 21 July 1941 while the Luftwaffe was bombing Moscow, ‘I could easily compare his profile with that of the Roman busts, and I realised he was one of the Ceasars.’ The Duce’s March on Rome, he explained, was a turning point in history. ‘The brownshirts would probably not have existed without the blackshirts.’1

Two decades earlier, the Nazi Party, still in its infancy with less than 10,000 members, had been galvanised by the March on Rome, hailing Adolf Hitler as ‘Germany’s Mussolini’ on 3 November 1922. Just as Mussolini presented himself to his people as the Duce, party members now began to refer to Hitler as the Führer, the German word for leader.2

Only three years earlier, when Hitler had given his first political speech at a beer hall in Munich, few could have predicted his rise to power. As a young man he had hoped to become an artist in Vienna, but was twice rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts. He enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle, reading widely and pursuing his passion for opera and architecture.

In 1914, having been deemed unfit for service in the Austro-Hungarian army, he managed to enlist in the Bavarian army instead. He took part in some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War and was temporarily blinded by a British gas shell in October 1918. In hospital, he learned of Germany’s military collapse and was overcome with despair, which turned into hatred overnight. Like many other nationalists, he believed that the army had been stabbed in the back, betrayed by civilian leaders who had overthrown the Hohenzollern dynasty to establish the Weimar Republic and sign an armistice in the November Revolution.

Hitler returned to Munich, where he had lived before the outbreak of war. He found a city draped in red flags, as the socialist premier Kurt Eisner had established a Free State of Bavaria following the abolition of the Wittelsbach monarchy in November 1918. Eisner’s assassination a few months later prompted an uprising among some of the workers, who rushed to proclaim a Bavarian Soviet Republic. It was a short-lived experiment, brutally crushed by government troops and paramilitary volunteers. In the wake of the failed revolution, Hitler was tasked with lecturing soldiers returning from the front against the perils of communism. He thrived, discovering that he had a talent: ‘What I had earlier always assumed to be true without knowing it now happened: I could “speak”.’3

His oratorical skills caught the attention of Anton Drexler, founder of the German Workers’ Party (DAP), a loosely organised group of conservatives who mixed nationalism with anti-capitalism in an effort to appeal to larger segments of the population. Hitler joined the party in September 1919, soon becoming their most influential speaker, as people flocked to listen to him. An early follower remembered being unimpressed by a man who looked like ‘a waiter in a railway-station restaurant’, with heavy boots, a leather waistcoat and an odd little moustache. But once Hitler began speaking, he electrified the audience. ‘In his early years he had a command of voice, phrase and effect which has never been equalled, and on this evening he was at his best.’ He would begin in a quiet, reserved manner, but gradually build up momentum, using simple language that ordinary people could understand. As he warmed to his subject, he began attacking Jews, chastising the Kaiser, thundering against war profiteers, speaking more and more rapidly with dramatic hand gestures, a finger occasionally stabbing the air. He knew how to tailor his message to his listeners, giving voice to their hatred and hope. ‘The audience responded with a final outburst of frenzied cheering and hand-clapping.’ By 1921 Hitler could fill as large a venue as the Circus Krone in Munich with more than 6,000 followers.4

In February 1920 the party was renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP, or Nazi Party). Soon it acquired a heavily indebted newspaper called Völkischer Beobachter, originally published by the Thule Society, a secretive group of occultists who used the swastika as their symbol and believed in the coming of a German messiah to redeem the nation. Dietrich Eckart, the newspaper’s new editor, had pinned his hopes on a journalist called Wolfgang Kapp. In March 1920 Kapp and some 6,000 supporters attempted a putsch against the Weimar Republic in Berlin, but failed after the rank and file of the state administration went on strike. Now Eckhart turned towards Hitler, seeing him as the ‘saviour of the fatherland’. Twenty years his senior, Eckhart became his mentor, helping him build up his image, using the Völkischer Beobachter to portray Hitler as Germany’s next great man.5

In the summer of 1921 the party leadership welcomed the arrival of another ‘popular and powerful speaker’, the leader of a rival organisation called the German Working Association. They proposed a merger. Hitler saw this as a threat to his own position and gambled by tendering his resignation in a fit of anger. Everything hinged on Eckhart, who mediated. Fearful of losing their main attraction, the leadership relented. But Hitler now demanded to be ‘chairman with dictatorial powers’. A few months later Eckhart gushed in the pages of the Völkischer Beobachter that nobody was more selfless, upright and devoted than Hitler, who had intervened in the fate of the party with an ‘iron fist’.6

The moment Hitler captured power within the Nazi Party he established a paramilitary organisation called the SA (an abbreviation of Sturmabteilung, or Assault Division). Ernst Röhm, a loyal follower, made sure they thrashed dissenters who tried to shout Hitler down in public meetings. The SA also roamed the streets of Munich, beating up their enemies and disrupting events organised by the political opposition.

The Nazi Party was now the Führer’s party, and Hitler worked tirelessly at building it up. He designed the garish red flyers used to recruit new members, and he oversaw the parades, flags, pennants, marching bands and music that drew ever larger crowds. Hitler was a meticulous choreographer, attending to every detail. On 17 September 1921 instructions were published to prescribe the exact dimensions and colour scheme of the swastika armband. The brown shirts were introduced after Mussolini marched on Rome.7

Like Mussolini, Hitler also gave careful thought as to how best to present himself to the outside world. When an earlier follower suggested that he should either grow a full moustache or clip it, he was unmoved. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I am setting a fashion. As time goes on people will be pleased to copy it.’ The moustache was as much a trademark as the brown shirt. Hitler, again like Mussolini, was short-sighted, but made sure never to be seen in public wearing his spectacles. Wary of facilitating recognition by the police, Hitler – unlike his Italian counterpart – shunned photographers. As his reputation grew, speculation about his appearance added an aura of mystery. Only in the autumn of 1923 did Hitler consent to having his portrait taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, who would soon become the party’s official photographer. These first images projected sheer determination and fanatical willpower, showing a grim look, raised eyebrows, lips pressed together, arms resolutely folded. The photographs circulated widely in the press and were sold as postcards and portraits.8

As Adolf Hitler turned thirty-four on 20 April 1923 the cult of the leader was launched. A banner on the front page of the party’s mouthpiece hailed him as ‘Germany’s Führer’. Alfred Rosenberg, another earlier ally, celebrated Hitler as the ‘Leader of the German Nation’, writing about how the man in Munich established a ‘mysterious interaction’ between himself and his many followers. Hitler, on the other hand, all too aware that his enemies called him a demagogue, a tyrant, a megalomaniac ‘Majesty Adolf I’, described himself in self-deprecating terms as ‘nothing but a drummer and gatherer’, a mere apostle waiting for the Christ.9

This was all false modesty. As Eckart himself reported, an impatient Hitler could be seen pacing up and down the courtyard shouting, ‘I must enter Berlin like Christ in the Temple of Jerusalem and scourge out the moneylenders.’ Seeking to emulate Mussolini, on 8 November 1923 he staged a coup by storming a beer hall in Munich with the SA, announcing the formation of a new government with General Erich von Ludendorff, head of the German military during the First World War. The army did not join the rebels. The police easily crushed the coup the following day. Hitler was arrested.10

The Beer Hall Putsch had failed. Hitler, behind bars, sank into depression, but soon regained his poise, recognising that martyrdom beckoned. Widespread press coverage established his notoriety at home and abroad. People from all over the country sent presents, and even some of his guards whispered ‘Heil Hitler’ when they entered the small suite of rooms that served as his cell. The judges at his trial were sympathetic, allowing Hitler to use the courtroom as a propaganda platform, his words reported in every newspaper. He appeared before the court not as defendant but as accuser, portraying the Weimar Republic as the real criminals. He assumed sole responsibility for the putsch. ‘I alone bear the responsibility,’ he admitted. ‘If today I stand here as a revolutionary, it is as a revolutionary against the revolution. There is no such thing as high treason against the traitors of 1918.’ Now he scoffed at the idea that he was merely the drummer in a patriotic movement. ‘My aim from the first was a thousand times higher … I wanted to become the destroyer of Marxism.’11

The sentence for high treason was surprisingly short, a mere five years, further reduced to thirteen months, but it was still long enough to allow Hitler to write his political biography. By the time he was released, a few days before Christmas 1924, the bulk of the manuscript entitled Mein Kampf was finished. The volume appeared in the summer of 1925, although not until 1933 would it become a bestseller.

Mein Kampf summarised much of what Hitler had said in his beer-hall speeches. Behind every one of the country’s woes, be it a corrupt parliamentary system or the threat of communism, there lay a Jewish hand. His programme was clear: abrogate the Versailles Treaty, remove the Jews, punish France, build a greater Germany and invade the Soviet Union for ‘living space’ (Lebensraum). But Mein Kampf also contained elements of the Hitler legend. A genius child, a voracious reader, a born orator, an unrecognised artist driven by destiny to change the fate of a people. A man overcome by a passion like no other, one that allowed him to recognise the words that would ‘open the gates to a people’s heart like the blows of a hammer’. A man chosen by heaven as a messenger of its will. As a close follower put it, Hitler was an oracle, a Traumlaller, one who speaks prophetically in his dreams.12

The oracle was silenced. The state of Bavaria banned Hitler from speaking in public as he emerged from prison a free man. The Völkischer Beobachter was proscribed, his party closed down. Most of these restrictions were lifted in February 1925, but as late as 1927 propaganda posters showed the Führer muzzled by bandages with the words ‘Forbidden to Speak’, as Hitler portrayed himself as a persecuted patriot.13

Hitler turned to photography the moment he stepped through the studded iron gate of Landsberg Prison. Heinrich Hoffmann was waiting outside to record the event for posterity, but a prison guard threatened to confiscate his camera. Hitler posed instead in front of the old city gate, standing by the running board of the Daimler-Benz, looking resolutely at the camera, his moustache neatly clipped, hair slicked back. The picture was published around the world.14

Hitler could not be heard, but was now seen throughout the ranks and beyond, as Hoffmann published three picture books between 1924 and 1926. The last volume, entitled Germany’s Awakening in Word and Image, portrayed the leader as a saviour: ‘A man stood up from among the people, spreading the gospel of love for the Fatherland.’ Posters appeared, some of them showing a crowd of listeners waiting expectantly for the saviour to appear.15

On the way back to Munich, Hoffmann asked Hitler what he intended to do next. ‘I shall start again, from the beginning.’ The party was resurrected and given a new location in the Brienner Strasse, soon referred to as the ‘Brown House’. Hitler designed every detail, including the red leather chairs with the crest of the sovereign eagle, copied from ancient Rome, embossed on their backs. On either side of the entrance, two bronze tablets bore the names of those who had lost their lives during the Beer Hall Putsch, now seen as ‘martyrs to the movement’.16

But membership lagged. Not until 1927 did enrolment reach 57,000, the number attained before the putsch. These were the years of political eclipse, as the economy recovered, assisted by a new currency that tamed inflation and a flood of capital from the United States. Government stabilised. Germany was brought back into the international fold as it entered the League of Nations in 1926. Historians, with hindsight, would call these years the ‘Golden Age of Weimar’.

So lukewarm was support for the NSDAP that the ban on speaking was lifted in March 1927. But despite all the theatrics around Hitler’s public appearances, with music blaring, flags unfurled and banners waving, and followers with their hands outstretched to greet the leader, many seats remained empty. His rhetorical skills were intact, but his message no longer held the same appeal. The movement was in the doldrums.17

Yet even as his popular appeal stalled his image as a god-like figure spread among his followers. Joseph Goebbels, an ambitious, intelligent man with a deformed right foot who had only just joined the party, wondered in October 1925, ‘Who is this man? Half commoner, half God! Truly Christ or only John the Baptist?’ He was not alone. Even as attendance was below what had been expected at the first party rally in Nuremberg, held in the summer of 1927, the SA in their brown shirts enthusiastically celebrated their leader, who had choreographed the entire event: ‘faith in the Führer,’ he proclaimed to the assembled masses, ‘and not the weakness of the majority is decisive.’ Within the ranks of the party, the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting became compulsory, symbol of a personal connection with the leader.18

Hitler himself was an astute judge of character. As an early believer recalled, he could size up a person at first glance, almost like an animal picking up a scent, sorting those who had ‘boundless trust and quasi-religious faith’ from those who retained a critical distance. The former were pitted against each other, the latter discarded as soon as they were no longer of use.19

Mein Kampf was mocked by enemies, but treated like the Bible by followers. The book repeatedly asserted that geniuses were not found through general elections. ‘A camel can pass through the eye of a needle sooner than a great man can be discovered by an election.’ His followers saw themselves as apostles who could see even as the minds of unbelievers were blinded. In an open letter to Hitler on the concept of leadership, written in 1928, Goebbels repeated this v