I would want to know how I could summarize Mussolini's role in World War 2 in a paragraph or so. By this I don't mean that people start listing out all his military conquests etc. but the role he had in World War 2, how his mind worked (cough brilliantly I've heard) and how he affected it and the aftermath of his rule.
He was basically an expansionist dictator wishing to create his own independent empire around the Mediterranean (a supposed re-edition of the Roman Empire); when France and the UK protested his invasion of Ethiopia he switched sides and entered the Pact of Steel with Hitler.
Once WWII began and it became evident that France was doomed, Italy profited from the power void to continue its expansionist policy of its own, invading the South of France, Egypt and then Greece.
Unfortunately while Italy had a big army and a first class navy, Mussolini had seriously underestimated the needs of modern warfare, specially in the industrial front; Italian troops were always very short in mobile equipment (specially tanks) and airplanes, which made them very vulnerable to better equipped forces and made logistics a nightmare. Mussolini's tendency to underestimate his enemies (his initial attack force in Greece was smaller than the Greek army) did not help.
After the initial defeats in Egypt and Greece he did ask for Hitler support and became a "junior" member of the Axis, subordinated to Germany at almost every level.
As "positive" (for the Axis) outcomes:
- It's intervention led to serious disruption of the navigation in the Mediterranean, forcing many convoys to go around Africa.
- It tied considerable English forces in North Africa1.
- Sent a sizeable force to help the Germans in Russia.
As "negative" results:
There is some debate about if Operation Barbarossa was delayed significantly due to German intervention in Greece to support Italy.
Germany had to lend some support in North Africa, but this was quite limited.
Probably the major problem is that it gave the Allies a "soft" target that was vulnerable to seaborne invasion (the other Axis allies were well deep in Europe). Soft, both in the sense of the military weakness and that, since the promised "Empire" had resulted in the loss of African colonies and subordination to Germany, the support for Mussolini had began to drop dramatically. And even in this case, the Italian front was not a critical one and the Germans spent relatively few resources on it.
1: Although, at this stage of war (the UK in no direct risk of being invaded), one could argue that the diversion of troops was not a major issue (it only helped the Japanese in India).
Mussolini had a false belief that demography had something to do with nation's powers. Seeing declining birth rates in France and Britain having one quarter of his population above 50, Mussolini believed that these empires were doomed to fall. Mussolini saw international relations as a struggle between "virile" nations with high birth rates that were destined to destroy "effete" nations with low birth rates. By this logic he saw alignment with Germany would be far more beneficial compared to Britain or France.
Mussolini ideology was that of an imperial expansion of Italy. Initially skeptic of joining with Germany but as France fell quickly at German attack, Mussolini was convinced that war would be short and Germany would emerge as winner. Italian troops would be sent into battle - indeed, to their deaths - not in the hope of military gains, but entirely so that Mussolini could sit down next to Hitler at the peace table when the fate of a defeated France was being decided. Italian Army was not all enthusiastic about this policy and morale was low among the soldiers. Mussolini, on the other hand, believed - or professed to believe - that the Italian fighting forces were first rate.
Despite the morale being down, Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) remained comparatively depleted and weak at the commencement of the war. Italian tanks were of poor quality and date back to World War I. To add to this disaster, there was equipment shortage. All this inadequacies were hidden from general public and Mussolini projected Italy as a great power along the ranks of Britain and Germany but it wasn't so.
As Italy invaded France, the unprepared Italian forces, which outnumbered the French defenders by nearly 4-1, suffered over 1200 killed or missing in return for only 37 French soldiers killed. They managed to penetrate at most 4000 metres over the French border, before France surrendered to Germany. Feeling humiliated, Mussolini settled for a narrow demilitarised zone in France.
Next Mussolini eyed British controlled Egypt. He aimed to gain control over Suez Canal to dominate the Mediterranean. For invasion, Mussolini called in troops stationed in Libya, there were about 200,000 men. On the other hand, Britain had only 30,000 men including reinforcements from India and New Zealand. Despite having strength in numbers, Italian Army was defeated by British Forces. Main cause for the defeat was Italy old war strategies which they applied in World War II. But they forgot that this was modern warfare.
Next was the Italy invasion of Greece. This was a perfect example of Mussolini's arrogance and opportunism. The initial Italian offensive was quickly contained, and the invasion soon ended in an embarrassing stalemate. Greek were able to launch a counter-offensive that drove the Italians back into Albania.
Mussolini left the detailed planning of his offensives to his generals. However, he kept the supreme decision-making power to himself, and often interfered to overrule a military decision. Part of his policy had always been to ensure that the armed forces did not challenge Fascist rule of Italy, so he appointed his cronies and allies to senior rank and ensured that no independent power-bloc arose within the army that could rival him.
Followed by these failed invasions, Mussolini ambitiously suggested Hitler to help them in Operation Barbarossa. Mussolini thought it might bring back Italy's luster. The heavy losses suffered by the Italians on the Eastern Front, where service was extremely unpopular owing to the widespread view that this was not Italy's fight, did much to damage Mussolini's prestige with the Italian people.
The Allied invasion of Sicily brought the war to the nation's very doorstep. The Italian home front was also in bad shape as the Allied bombings were taking their toll. Factories all over Italy were brought to a virtual standstill due to a lack of raw materials, as well as coal and oil. Additionally, there was a chronic shortage of food. Mussolini's false propaganda was also revealed and the public relied on international papers and radios to get their news.
Within a few days of the Allied landings on Sicily, Mussolini's army was on the brink of collapse. This led Hitler to summon Mussolini, by this time, Mussolini was so shaken from stress that he could no longer stand Hitler's boasting. Shortly after, King Victor Emmanuel III, ordered Mussolini's arrest.
Mussolini was basically someone Hitler bribed to stay on his side. Italy was probably a net burden to the Axis; its main contribution as an ally was as a buffer. Mussolini himself has been survived as grandiose and egocentric, and his rule eventually destroyed Italy. There's your paragraph.
Germany sent at least a quarter of its oil production to Italy just to keep Mussolini afloat. Germany also sent some token forces to Africa to delay the British from taking over the African colonies, even though British blockades made this difficult.
Eventually Mussolini was overthrown and the new government switched sides. After this point he had little impact on the war and was eventually captured and shot by partisans. The aftermath of his rule was that Italy was totally wrecked and defeated.
The only brilliant part is before the war, when he achieved power with his political goalpost shifting and charisma.
Some more reading -
Mussolini I believe was a World War I vet and a strong believer in the "stab in the back" hypothesis when it came to France and Britain and very much an inspiration to Hitler personally. "Fascismo" was an Italian creation although when "translated" in first Austrian and then German it took on a whole new meaning. Italy entered World War 1 and suffered terrible losses...but not under any false pretense. They expected advantages for so siding with the Allies at the expense of Austria. Germany naturally sided with Austria in World War I but was also pre-emptively attacked by the Russians...so the Germans really did have a grudge coming out of World War I unlike Italy. So did Austria of course which wasn't a threat to anyone going into the outbreak of World War I.
So to keep it brief in my view Mussolini was the "idea factory" for a lot of really angry people...angry people who could in fact implement those ideas to truly awesome and terrifying effect.
That included a formal invasion of Italy and making that country a battlefield in World War 2.
Italy did achieve some territorial gains at the expense of Austria due to their involvement in World War 2. That still meant of course that Austria has a grudge against Italy...true even today.
Austria has a kind of "super grudge" against Western Europe even today actually.
Mussolini developed the political model that Hitler Implemented
Direct WWII involvement by Mussolini was less dramatically important than his development of the Fascist methods of gaining and maintaining power. Hitler and the Nazi's patterned the SS and their means of obtaining power on Mussolini's methods.
For example, the blackshirts were a volunteer paramilitary arm of the Italian National Fascist Party (PNF). Blackshirts swore allegiance to follow Mussolini, the leader of the PNF, and they regularly engaged in violence against any and all of Mussolini's domestic political opponents. It is notable that Mussolini founded the PNF, and was its leader.
Starting the Fascist movement was Mussolini's largest impact on WWII. Without these "innovations" it is doubtful that the Nazis would have gained and maintained power in Germany, thus precluding them - and Europe - from a ton of trouble.
One way to characterize Mussolini is as "Hitler's alter ego."
Early on, Hitler admired Mussolini for his (1922) "March on Rome,"which Hitler's abortive 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Later, Hitler referred approvingly in "Mein Kampf" to Italy as a "youthful national state." Italy's 1935 invasion of Abysinnia gained Hitler's further approval, because it foreshadowed what Hitler wanted to do to Germany's neighbors.
But things started to go sour for Italy. It unsuccessfully invaded Greece and British Egypt in 1940, forcing Hitler to bail out Mussolini both times. Finally, the Allies invaded Italy in 1943,( during which Hitler had to send paratroopers to free Mussolini from imprisonment), which presaged the Allied invasion of Germany in 1945.
Hitler and Mussolini died days apart in late April, 1945; Hitler by his own hand, Mussolini at the hands of pro-Allied Italian partisans.
Of course, he was a dictator and aggressor, but Mussolini wasn't evil. As far as I know, Mussolini didn't sent Jews to gas chambers or concentration camps. I can share history from my late grandmother who lived in present day Croatia.
She described encounter with Italian forces in World War 2, who were plundering furniture from her home. When she angrily confronted them asking why they were plundering her house, they excused their action through a translator saying that they believed that house was abandoned and promptly returned the furniture back, with an apology from the commander of the unit. Imagine that sort of argument with Hitler's forces elsewhere or local collaboration unit?