Page last updated at 10:16 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 11:16 UK

Mussolini worked for MI5 agents

Benito Mussolini
Mussolini was working as a journalist when paid by the British

Benito Mussolini may be among history's most notorious fascist dictators, but evidence suggests he worked for British secret services during World War I.

Historian Dr Peter Martland says MI5 records show it paid "Il Duce" £100 per week, about £5,000 today,to spread pro-war propaganda via his newspaper.

The Cambridge University academic made the discovery while studying the papers of former agent Sir Samuel Hoare MP.

However, Dr Martland believes Mussolini probably spent the cash on womanising.

"Mussolini was the ace womaniser and of course, he's spent most of it on his women," he suggests.

Dr Martland said the payments were agreed in 1917, after Russia collapsed into the Bolshevik revolution and Italy was "smashed" at the Battle of Caporetto.

It's good value for money - he was what the British needed
Dr Peter Martland

Fearing the war would be lost, Britain sent a team of 100 intelligence officers to Italy to "stiffen the backbone" of its industrial working classes, he said.

"These poor people are suffering in exactly the same way as the British working classes are; hyperinflation, food shortages and a press that is not necessarily pro-war," he said.

Mussolini's socialist publication, Il Popolo d'Italia, carried a key voice because it served the factory workers of Milan whose output was essential for the war effort, Dr Martland said.

The tale came to light as the historian pored over 40,000 documents belonging to Sir Samuel.

A prominent Conservative, Sir Samuel would go on to become foreign secretary almost two decades later and in 1935 signed the pact that would give Mussolini - by then a bloody dictator - control over Abyssinia, the country that is now Ethiopia.

But back in 1917, said Dr Martland, the UK was pouring £4m per day into the war, so the sum paid to Mussolini was "petty cash".

"It works. It's good value for money. At that point he was what the British needed," said Dr Martland.

As for Il Duce's conversion from journalist to brutal fascist - "pure opportunism", the academic concluded.

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