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Failure of a Fascist

Review: 'Mussolini and the Eclipse of Italian Fascism'

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• April 25, 2021 5:00 am

A century after his March on Rome brought the first Fascist government to power in 1922, Benito Mussolini lives on as a pillar of Western punditry. What would we do without him? On the one hand, the anti-elite ideas in his early political program resemble those of the disgruntled voters in any democracy. On the other hand, he inspired, and allied himself with, Hitler's Germany. Whoever you are, whatever you stand for, you can use Mussolini as an Archimedean fulcrum for comparing anyone who disagrees with you to Hitler.

But according to the historian of modern Italy R.J.B. Bosworth, a good deal of what we think we know about Mussolini's ideological legacy is wrong. Mussolini and the Eclipse of Italian Fascism is a set of reflections on the 1930s, when Mussolini collapsed and Hitler rose. Bosworth focuses especially on two episodes: Mussolini's lurch into imperialist adventures in Libya, Ethiopia, and Spain, and his embrace of race-based policies (particularly anti-Semitic ones) that he had never shown much evidence of caring about.

In 1932, halfway through his two decades in power, Mussolini would not deign to meet with Hitler, though he did send him an autographed picture. By the end of the 1930s, Mussolini had become Hitler's supplicant and sidekick, with a country too strapped to import coffee and an army unprepared for the international conflict into which it would soon be dragged.

Bosworth's book assumes a familiarity with the European political landscape in the wake of World War I. Italy was on the winning side, but didn't feel that way. It had joined Britain and France in mid-war on the promise Italy would acquire territory from German-allied Austria. But after losing half a million dead, Italy had been denied that territory at Versailles on the say-so of its putative ally Woodrow Wilson. This national outrage—the so-called vittoria mutilata—arose just as millions of young men who had been dealing out death in trenches for several years came pouring back into Italian political life.

The Socialists were the best-organized of the new political movements. They shut down factories, took bosses hostage, and urged tenants to claim ownership of their apartments. Mussolini felt he understood what was going on. Working-class, anticlerical, multilingual, he had been the most prominent Socialist journalist in the country, a vocal advocate of violent revolution, until he switched sides to back Italy's entry into the war. Now he began to organize war veterans into so-called Fasci di Combattimento, calling explicitly for violence. Once he did, support for the Socialists collapsed. What had looked like support had actually been fear.

A century later, no one has managed to define fascism in a satisfactory way, although progressives are always trying to work up definitions that will cover (and thereby disqualify) whoever their adversaries happen to be at any given time. Fascism is more situational than ideological. No people would ever wish for it outside a context of violence and dislocation, but that was Italy's context.

To return to Bosworth: Fascist mobs killed 2,000 people between 1919 and 1925, but Socialists and Communists killed hundreds of Fascists. An accomplished statistical troll, Bosworth notes that, even during the most thuggish period of Mussolini's rule, the U.S. homicide rate was about five times as high as Italy's. Several prominent opponents of the regime would be killed, too—most memorably the opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti.

But for a few years Mussolini's government, according to the journalist Luigi Barzini, was more popular in Italy than "anybody had ever been and probably ever will be." Its early backers included radio's inventor Guglielmo Marconi, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, Enzo Ferrari of racecar fame, and several poets of the very highest caliber: D'Annunzio, Marinetti, Ungaretti, not to mention the American Ezra Pound. Winston Churchill's wife Clementine was dazzled by Mussolini: "He always does the hard cruel thing," she remarked approvingly in 1927.

Il Duce inspired reactionary politicians around the world, and not just reactionary ones: FDR's New Dealers studied him. The University of Amsterdam historian Katy Hull has just published The Machine Has a Soul, a rich and resonant account of some of the more prominent American cheerleaders for Mussolini, including the publishing magnate Generoso Pope (father of the founder of the National Enquirer), the Pulitzer-winning New York Times correspondent Anne O'Hare McCormick, and the narcissistic diplomat Richard Washburn Child.

Bosworth sees the naming of Hitler as Germany's chancellor, in early 1933, as the turning point in Mussolini's fortunes. Until then there had been talk of a Fascist International centered on Rome; after that, reactionaries had only one capital—Berlin.

In Bosworth's view, Mussolini sought through African military adventures to restore some of the élan of the regime's early days. He ruthlessly "pacified" Libya and tried to build an empire in Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called. In both cases he used as his pretext the battle against the African slave trade: in Libya against the Sufi warrior-priests known as Senussi, who had sided with the Ottomans against Italy in World War I; in Abyssinia against emperor Haile Selassie. Mussolini's newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, accused the Abyssinians of running a market in virgins and castrated boys.

As a military operation, the invasion was more impressive than Bosworth lets on, but he is right to stress the human cost. He tallies the regime's death toll at about a million. Most of them were in distant African theaters of war. Since Europe itself was soon aflame, these deaths escaped notice—but nowadays in Italy's cities they are a staple of bookstore talks and university conferences.

The problems were harder to hide in Spain, where Mussolini's air and ground intervention was marked by what Bosworth calls "the regime's characteristic combination of gratuitous ‘Fascist' brutality and military incompetence." He also notes that the Italian soldiers were especially resented by the Spaniards. "I can't tell you what they have been doing with women," one of Mussolini's generals revealed on a wiretapped phone call. (He contrasted them with the Germans, whom he found "irreproachable by any standard.")

Unfortunately for the world, this distrust was shared by British diplomats. Italy and Germany were diverging. Bosworth holds that they were not, contrary to the usual view, carrying out a Spanish trial run of their World War II alliance. They were engaged in parallel wars, competing for Spaniards' favor. Distrust was such that Hitler did not inform Mussolini in 1939 that he was about to make a peace pact with Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. And yet, at a time when Italy and Germany were at odds, the United Kingdom, driven by foreign secretary Anthony Eden, treated Italy as the greater menace—even though it was too weak even to enter the war until Hitler had conquered France.

The eclipse of Italy by Germany explains a good deal about the anti-Semitic laws that Mussolini passed in 1938, of which Bosworth gives a fresh and sensible reading. There had been little sign of race-thinking in Mussolini's early days. Many Jews backed him. (A vivid and sympathetic example from literature is the father of the narrator in Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.) The Milanese businessman who in 1919 secured the ballroom where Mussolini launched fascism was Jewish. So was Mussolini's most beloved mistress, the Milanese society matron Margherita Sarfatti.

True, Mussolini was the sort of man who would look for a woman to have sex with if he had half an hour between trains. According to Bosworth, he had, in addition to the six children his two wives bore him, at least nine illegitimate children from eight other women. But Sarfatti was different. She had been his confessor, his adviser, a theorist of politics, and his entrée into Milan's literary and cultural circles—in some ways the best friend he ever had. His laws would drive her into exile. Over 7,000 Italian Jews would be killed in the Holocaust—virtually all of them after the Fascist regime fell in 1943 and Germany invaded Italy's north, reinstalling Mussolini as its puppet.

The turn to racial legislation is an example of what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil." It seems to have been little more than another attempt to revive the "spirit" of a regime that was running out of gas. Fascists who had been among Mussolini's most ardent admirers (Oswald Mosley in Britain, José Antonio Primo de Rivera in Spain) were turning to Germany. The conservative governments of Poland, Hungary, and Romania were taking on anti-Semitic tones. Anti-Semitism came to seem a "best practice," an up-to-date formula—ambitious leaders embraced anti-Semitism with no more thought than conservative politicians of our own time deciding to back gay marriage or "go green."

At every turn, Bosworth shows a keen eye for Mussolini's motivations while almost never sharing them. He is reminiscent of the late Oxford historian A.J.P. Taylor, who wrote of Mussolini's behavior in the crucial 1930s: "Everything about Fascism was a fraud. The social peril from which it saved Italy was a fraud; the revolution by which it seized power was a fraud; the ability and policy of Mussolini were fraudulent." From the moment Hitler arrived on the European scene, Mussolini's power and relevance steadily diminished, until the April day in 1945 when, passing through a village near the Swiss border, he and his mistress were discovered by partisans, arrested, and shot.

Mussolini and the Eclipse of Italian Fascism: From Dictatorship to Populism
by R.J.B. Bosworth
Yale University Press, 352 pp., $32.50

Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor at the Claremont Review of Books and author of The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties.