ROME – He must rank as one of the least likely British spies of the 20th century. Benito Mussolini, who declared war on Britain at the start of World War II, was paid $24,000 a month by MI5 during World War I to generate pro-British propaganda.
His outfit of choice may have been a steel helmet and jack boots rather than a dinner jacket and bowtie, but the future dictator had no qualms about being put on the payroll of the British intelligence agency.
He was recruited by MI5 during the First World War, long before he turned Italy into a police state run by black-shirted bullyboys. At that time he was working as a journalist for a left-wing Italian newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia, and the UK wanted an agent of influence.
By 1917, with millions of its men committed to the war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, Italy was wavering in its commitment to the Allies. Britain paid the future Il Duce 100 pounds a week – equal to about $6,000 itoday – to write favorable opinion pieces about Italy remaining in the war.
The secret deal was engineered by Sir Samuel Hoare, an MP and MI5's man in Rome, who ran a staff of 100 British intelligence officers in Italy.
The fact that Mussolini was working for the British has been known to historians for decades – Hoare revealed the arrangement in his memoirs more than 50 years ago.
But only now has the comparatively large sum that the future dictator was paid for turning his hand to pro-British propaganda been revealed.
While it was a lot of money for a struggling 34-year-old journalist, it was small potatoes compared with the 4 million pounds that Britain was spending each day on the war effort, he said.
The revelation has left the small but fanatical rump of modern day Mussolini fans both shaken and stirred. His granddaughter Alessandra Mussolini, a right-wing Italian MP, dismissed the discovery as an attempt to blacken her grandfather’s name.
“Even after 70 years, they still bring all this up again,” she said yesterday. “What a load of rubbish – now my grandfather is a traitor?”
The fact that Mussolini was recruited as an early 007 was not particularly scandalous, said historian Pietro Melograni, from the University of Perugia in Umbria. “At the time we were allies of the English, not enemies,” he said. “With his writing he was able to influence public opinion.”
After the war Mussolini abandoned his Socialist views and tacked sharply right. He created a fascist party in 1919 and just three years later became Italy’s prime minister. By 1925, he had assumed absolute power.