LONDON (Reuters Life!) - He formed part of the Nazi axis that nearly brought Britain to its knees in World War Two, but historical papers have revealed that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was once on the payroll of British intelligence.
During World War One, the then socialist journalist was running popular newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia in Milan and Italy was allied with Britain and France in the fight against Germany.
British secret services desperately needed Mussolini to print pro-war propaganda to keep Italy on board, said Cambridge historian Peter Martland, who uncovered details of weekly payments of 100 pounds by MI5 to Mussolini in 1917.
"British intelligence is subsidizing his newspaper and it's cheap. But it's a part of this broader campaign to get a lid on things to keep Italy in the war," Martland told Reuters.
Martland said payments were authorized by Sir Samuel Hoare, an MP who headed a 100-strong British intelligence team based in Italy covertly working to keep the country on the side of the allies.
Although 100 pounds a week was a lot of money 92 years ago, it was a drop in the ocean compared to what Britain was spending on the war effort.
"It's a lot of money, but this war is costing 4 million pounds a day, nearly 13 million pounds a week, so 100 pounds a week is not even petty cash," said Martland.
Mussolini recruited thugs to beat up poverty-stricken peace protesters, downtrodden by the war, to prevent them from agitating against it -- a precursor to his fascist Blackshirts, Martland believes.
"He's a nasty piece of work and he's using violence on the streets. He's a street fighter and he's mobilizing veterans. One of the definers of fascism is that violence is a legitimate political tool, so this is the beginnings of seeing the Mussolini of the Blackshirts era," said Martland.
While Martland said it was a "shrewd" move for MI5 to recruit Mussolini, he doubts very much whether "Il Duce" actually spent much of his British earnings on the war campaign.
"Part of the money went to subsidize his newspaper, but we know Mussolini and we know he is a womanizer. He thinks he is Mr Super Stud, so it's not unreasonable to speculate that a lot of that money went on his mistresses," he said.
Editing by Steve Addison