"It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep." Donald Trump recently retweeted a maxim dear to Mussolini, the Italian dictator known as Il Duce, raising quite a few eyebrows. Trump may well be convinced Mussolini was a courageous man. But was the dictator, who had these words inscribed on the Italian lira starting in 1928, truly lionhearted, a man who practiced what he preached?
During the years of the Republic of Salò, Mussolini exhibited a sheep's soul, and not even the details of how he was captured demonstrate any particular heroic behavior: he was arrested as he attempted to escape to Switzerland -- or toward an elusive Ridotto Alpino, the place where the Fascists were supposed to organize their ultimate defense -- dressed as a Nazi soldier and pretending to be drunk. But given those tumultuous times, it's possible to understand his weaknesses. He was a prisoner of Hitler, and even his most faithful underlings were abandoning him.
But Mussolini didn't demonstrate much fiery courage at the dawn of his rise to power either. He arrived in Rome in comfort, aboard a night train that left Milan at 8 p.m. and arrived in the city at 11:30 a.m. on 30 October 1922. His march was led by his quadrumvirs Italo Balbo, Emilio De Bono, Cesare Maria De Vecchi and Michele Bianchi, who kept Il Duce constantly updated about the situation. When it was time to show up and take a public bow, Mussolini got on a train and headed in.
So where did the man get his aura of fearlessness and bold action? A socialist and pacifist, neutralist, then turncoat and supporter of Italy's entrance into the World War 1, in the summer of 1915 Mussolini was sent to the Italian Front, where he remained until February 1917. His War Diary, today available again in a version edited by Mario Isnenghi and published by Il Mulino, was first released in 15 episodes published in Popolo d'Italia, the newspaper Mussolini ran. They were gathered into a single volume in 1923, producing the first self-portrait of Mussolini.
How did the man portray himself? As a soldier among soldiers, with whom he shared cognac and hard times. But first and foremost as a hero, a charismatic leader in an obedient community that prostrated itself to his will. He presented himself precisely as someone ready to live one day as a lion, as a line written on a house near the Piave River that became a motto among Italian soldiers.
More than courage, Mussolini had a good pen and a gift for propaganda. That no one can deny. The motto brought no luck. Neither to the Italian soldiers who suffered through Caporetto, nor for Il Duce himself. Someone would do well to point that out to America's overexcited tycoon.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.