Italy from Liberalism to Fascism
The Fall and Rise of Modern Italy
Mussolini’s conquest of power in 1922 opened a brutally unhappy period for Italy as well as for the rest of the world. Whether or not he made the tourist railways run on time, whether he hindered or encouraged the growth of communism, these may be debatable points; what is undeniable is that he turned his own country into a shambles. Worse, he ended by dividing Italians against themselves in a fierce civil war which it took the statesmanship and good sense of many years to placate. How was he given the power that enabled him to do this? And why was he allowed to govern Italy for twice as long as any other Italian ruler of modern times?
An earlier generation of historians did not do much to help us answer this kind of question. Gioacchino Volpe and the fascist intellectuals had their own reasons for wanting to depict the revolution of 1922 as quite unconnected with what they described as the disreputable liberalism that had gone before. At the other extreme, Benedetto Croce, when he published his History of Italy, 1871-1915, five years after Mussolini’s rise to power, tried hard to demonstrate that all had been for the best in the very best of liberal worlds, and hence that fascism could be regarded only as a strangely inexplicable interlude in Italian history.
This comfortable attitude must in large part be attributable to a failure in self-examination. The same failure helps to explain why Croce, Giovanni Giolitti, and most other Italian liberals were caught unprepared by the events of 1922. Giolitti, who had been Prime Minister five times between 1892 and 1921, was a remarkable politician, and upon him and his colleagues fell the main task of facing the great problems created by World War I. That he ignored some of the underlying weaknesses in society and politics was to prove important to the future of Italy.
Subsequent writers have done a good deal to fit the events of 1915-25 into a more consequential pattern, but the decade is still riddled with problems and controversies. Several new studies of modern Italian history are therefore the more welcome. Professor Serge Hughes and Mr. Christopher Seton-Watson both write from a central position and have few prejudices which anyone is likely to find offensive. Professor Hughes’s approach has been strongly conditioned by the recent coalition in Italy between Christian Democrats and socialism, and he uses this Center-Left alliance as a point from which to observe Italian history since 1890. He takes the story down to the present day, and it is probably his later chapters which will be found most useful. He is strongest in intellectual history, particularly on the socialist Left; but in general he is content to be impressionistic, and the texture of his book is loose, while his cavalier attitude to dates and factual accuracy (Brindisi placed in Calabria!) makes him an often unreliable guide.
Mr. Seton-Watson, on the other hand, who has almost nothing to say …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.