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Man in Black

MUSSOLINI

By R. J. B. Bosworth.

Illustrated. 584 pp. New York:

Oxford University Press. $35.

Americans have tended to think of Benito Mussolini as a cross between a gangster and a buffoon, a ”Sawdust Caesar” who hijacked Italian democracy and led his country to disaster as Hitler’s junior partner. But in recent decades a number of Italian historians have disputed this view. They ask how this clownish figure could have won and held power in a major European country for 20 years or helped to create what was, for better or worse, one of the 20th century’s leading political movements: Fascism.

This historical debate has acquired new urgency now that ”post-Fascists” (as yesterday’s neo-Fascists call themselves today) are an important part of Italy’s center-right government led by Silvio Berlusconi. The post-Fascists have argued that there was a good and a bad Fascism. The good part, in this view, occurred during the early years following Fascism’s rise to power in 1922, when it put an end to partisan political strife and the threat of left-wing revolution, drained the country’s malarial swamps and made the trains run on time. The bad part essentially began in 1937, when Mussolini threw in his lot with Hitler.

R. J. B. Bosworth, a professor of history at the University of Western Australia, announces at the beginning of his ”Mussolini” that he intends to steer something of a middle course, agreeing that Mussolini did not govern merely by coercion but enjoyed widespread support, while retaining the fundamentally negative assessment of his time in power. The result is a fresh, intelligent and judicious re-examination of Mussolini and the Fascist period.

These days it is easy to forget that belief in the superiority of free-market democracy was far from universally shared in the first half of the 20th century. Many, on the left as on the right, regarded it as a highly inefficient, unsatisfactory system, prone to influence peddling, corruption and demagoguery. A pure political vision — whether of a socialist revolution or of national greatness — required either a vanguard of committed revolutionaries or a single leader, acting without the clumsy machinery of representative democracy.

Given this context, it is hardly surprising that Mussolini started out on one end of the spectrum only to finish up on the other. Born in 1883, the son of a Socialist from Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s ”red” region, Mussolini grew into a young firebrand of the party’s radical left wing. He showed a talent for debate, catchy phrasing and newspaper work, sharpening his pen by excoriating the Socialists’ moderate wing and insisting on the need for violent revolution. When the radicals took over the party in 1912, Mussolini became the editor of the party’s national newspaper. As Bosworth notes, he was skillful at the job, quadrupling circulation in just two years.

But the advent of World War I divided Italy’s Socialists, as it did the rest of the country, into those who favored intervention and those who opposed it. Mussolini, although he had criticized capitalist warmongering in the past, suddenly and loudly jumped into the interventionist camp. Forging the ideology that became known as Fascism, he gave voice to the considerable number who tried to combine socialism and nationalism. Bosworth goes to pains to show that this was not entirely new. Nationalists were accustomed to using Marxist rhetoric for their cause, referring to Italy as a ”proletarian nation.” Much of Mussolini’s language — the exultation of war, the yearning for a Duce to lead the masses — echoed that of Filippo Marinetti, the author of ”The Futurist Manifesto” and the soldier-poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, both of whom were early rivals of Mussolini for control of the new Fascist movement.

The war effort, in many ways, became the model for Fascist organization, proving what the nation could do when individual self-interest was put aside for a great cause. Some five million Italians — about as many as voted in the 1913 elections — performed military service in the war, and half a million lost their lives. The high expectations of returning veterans were disappointed by the relatively modest territorial concessions that the Italian government achieved with the Versailles treaty. At the same time, the Socialists, inspired by the example of the Bolsheviks in Russia, threatened revolution and made the colossal blunder of refusing to admit veterans into their ranks. This army of millions became a new, difficult-to-control political force, and various veterans’ associations sprouted up around the country. Many of them used the term ”fascio,” meaning union or association but referring as well to the bundle of rods that was a symbol of authority in ancient Rome. Mussolini, with his undeniable charisma and skill as a public speaker, was able to give these people leadership and a plan of action.

Initially, Fascism’s program retained many socialistic elements: land reform, workers’ rights, resolutions to abolish the monarchy and limit the influence of the Catholic Church. But as Mussolini maneuvered to take power, he gradually dropped these more radical demands in order to win over conservative nationalists, monarchists, army officials and big business. The continual strikes staged by the Socialists and Communists in 1919 and 1920 paved the way for the Fascists. Italy’s terrified establishment stood by quite happily as Mussolini’s henchmen burned down Socialist headquarters, broke up political rallies and killed Socialist leaders.

When Mussolini and his Black Shirts threatened to march on Rome unless they were allowed to run the government, Italy’s power elite simply acquiesced. Italy had always been governed by a small minority, so it was not hard to convince many Italians that servicemen who had risked their lives for the country deserved to govern it more than the flabby old liberals, who had stayed home, or the Socialists, who had betrayed the country and opposed the war.

Bosworth goes on to argue that Mussolini remained in power by abandoning much of the originality of Fascism, leaving most of Italian life remarkably unchanged. Mussolini liked to distinguish himself from his German imitator, Hitler, by pointing out that Italian Fascism respected religion and the family. While this did mean that there was considerably more breathing room in Fascist Italy, it also meant that Il Duce’s claim to have established what he called totalitarian rule was more rhetorical than real.

All in all, Bosworth gives Mussolini rather low marks as a leader, pointing out that the country’s economy grew more slowly under Fascism than before. Wages fell. Agricultural production stalled. Mussolini was assiduous in stamping out political dissent; as a former newspaper editor, he paid particular attention to controlling the press.

Bosworth’s thesis — that Fascism was more the expression of collective social forces than the work of one man — is a helpful way of thinking about the early history of Fascism. It works less well, I think, for the 1930’s, when Mussolini arrogated more and more power to himself and began to turn his attention to foreign affairs. Not much evidence exists to show that there was a great push in Italian society or even in military circles for the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 or for the Fascists’ involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

Mussolini came to believe in his own cult of personality, and insisted on taking over several cabinet positions at the same time. He listened less and less to the advice of others; the Fascist Grand Council, the only deliberative body under Fascism, virtually stopped meeting. Mussolini ordered the invasion of Albania largely out of pique at not being informed in advance about Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Similarly, the disastrous invasion of Greece appears to have been the result of Mussolini’s personal whim.

Bosworth argues that Mussolini entered World War II reluctantly, and at the last possible minute, much as Italy had entered World War I. But the analogy is a very imperfect one: there was substantial public enthusiasm for the first war and almost none for the second. The decision was unquestionably Mussolini’s.

Because the lack of dissent and consultation in the Fascist system allowed Mussolini to follow his personal caprice, the distinction now being made in Italy between a good and a bad Fascism is untenable. With no checks on his power, as Bosworth himself writes, Mussolini ”was a prisoner both of his myth and of the fact that every little matter had to pass his scrutiny.” Ultimately, Mussolini’s story demonstrates the limits of his personal power, but also the extent to which he was able to do great harm. It is a credit to Bosworth’s biography that he fully gives us both of these sides.

– July 21, 2002

Published in The New York Times

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