When Britain’s spies backed Mussolini

TO FURTHER their interests at home and abroad, Britain’s government and secret services have always had secret deals with the most brutal dictators and anti-working-class organisations. Britain’s MI5 made Benito Mussolini, later fascist dictator of Italy, an MI5 agent during World War One.

Naomi Byron

It was known that Britain’s secret service gave funds to Mussolini but payment details have just been released. In autumn 1917 Sir Samuel Hoare, working for MI5 in Rome, began paying Mussolini a £100 a week allowance – £6,000 a week in today’s money – to publish pro-war articles in the newspaper he edited in Milan.

Mussolini was an active socialist before world war one, becoming editor of Avanti, the Italian Socialist Party newspaper in 1912. In 1914, shortly after world war one broke out, he broke with the socialist movement to join the “interventionists” campaigning for Italy to join the war.

Financial support quickly came his way. By November 1914 Mussolini launched a new pro-war newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, backed by Italian government funds and later by money from Italian businesses, the French secret service and, in 1917, MI5.

British imperialism, worried about losing the war, had convinced Italy’s government to join on the British and French side [by offering them parts of Austria that Italy had long claimed in a secret treaty]. But after Italy’s army was heavily defeated in the battle of Caporetto (October 1917), followed by the October Revolution in Russia, the British government became desperate.

In Russia workers and peasants overthrew feudalism and capitalism and called for workers and the poor in all belligerent countries to overthrow their own governments and establish a federation of socialist countries across Europe and worldwide.

This attracted enormous support amongst the war-weary masses and helped trigger off mutinies and rebellions across Europe. The biggest one, the German revolution of 1918-19, almost overthrew capitalism.

Terrified that the Italian government would pull out of the war, and also that Italy’s workers and the poor would try to emulate the Russian revolution, MI5 began lavishing huge amounts on Mussolini and his newspaper.

The historian who found the details of the payments in Hoare’s papers defends Hoare, saying that Mussolini becoming a brutal dictator could not have been foreseen. Yet Mussolini told Hoare of his plans to send Italian war veterans to beat up anti-war demonstrators in Milan, an early practice for the development of his “blackshirts” who would physically attack and break up workers’ demonstrations and meetings.

At the height of Mussolini’s dictatorship, Hoare was British Foreign Secretary. Even then Hoare bent over backwards to help him. In 1935 Mussolini launched a brutal invasion of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea). Hoare agreed a pact that year with France to allow most of Abyssinia to become an Italian colony.

When the pact became public a wave of public anger forced Hoare to resign. But Hoare was rewarded for services to British big business and imperialism, becoming Lord Templewood in 1944.

The British government only turned decisively against fascism when Hitler’s expansionism in Eastern Europe began to threaten British imperialism’s interests.

  • Recently MI5 tried to justify its ‘cooperation’ and sharing information with intelligence agencies of violent and dictatorial regimes involving the use of torture. Today, as 90 years ago, MI5 and the British government are prepared to unite with the world’s most brutal governments if it will serve their interests.