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The Not So Great Dictator

Mussolini: An Intimate Biography by His Widow

by Rachele Mussolini, as told to Albert Zarca
Morrow, 274 pp., $8.95

Perhaps the ruin of Benito Mussolini was Giuseppe Garibaldi, the legendary hero of the Risorgimento. Like Mussolini, Garibaldi was a rough, self-taught, and credulous man of the people; in his youth he had had utopian and confused revolutionary ideas, but, in the end, he rallied to the king and, perhaps unwittingly, became a prop of the establishment. His ardent patriotism inflamed Italian radical nationalists, with pernicious consequences. His charm was magic, scores of women fell in love with him and men died for him in his presence and smiled. Garibaldi was always or almost always victorious (in reality he fought brilliant guerrilla skirmishes which piety later turned into vast and tidy battles); he was the first to be called Il Duce, a pompous nineteenth-century opera libretto title, by antonomasia (Mussolini had been called Il Duce by his socialist followers before 1914 and took the title with him to the Fascist party).

Garibaldi was also the first to dress his followers in colored shirts. His luck (or his self-knowledge) however spared him from being saddled with the sober responsibilities of government, the tedious administration of provinces, the solution of serious problems, and the making of policy. He was usually in charge of little more than a brigade, for a few months at a time, never the supreme commander of vast armies in conflict among nations. His solid reputation as a magnetic Pied Piper of Italian youth, founder of the left, and a military miracle worker rests on the fact that he retired early to an obscure private life, practically to exile, on the Sardinian island of Caprera. The government of the time saw to it he did not leave this refuge without permission.

What ruined Mussolini, above all, was the idea that Garibaldi’s career seemed to demonstrate to Italians, the idea that, if only the right superman could be found, there always was an easy way out of the most arduous crisis. Garibaldi’s life seemed to prove that Italy could be spared the necessary uphill struggle to improve its lot (and the opinion others had of it) if it trusted its destiny to a demiurge generally resembling him, who would lead the people to glory and prosperity without “blood, sweat, and tears.” (The words are Garibaldi’s. He used them in an 1849 proclamation.) This belief in the national hero, to be sure, is not an Italian delusion alone. Many nations have been its victims (or beneficiaries), some of them several times—France, for instance, three times in little more than a century and a half. Incidentally, to fire men’s imaginations in a sleepy and archaic country such a hero must proclaim outlandish revolutionary ideals, that is, inspire the hope of escaping the present by dreaming of a radiant future, and remind his countrymen of their glorious history, thus giving them the hope to escape the present by finding refuge in a partly imaginary past.

One hundred or so years ago, Italy’s fundamental problem was substantially what it has been since the sack of Rome in 1527, and what it would be in 1922 and 1974. It is the common problem of a glorious, ancient, civilized, but technically backward and feeble people, the problem, at one time or another, of the Greeks, the Chinese, the Spanish, the Turks, the Arabs, to mention a few: how to organize and govern themselves efficiently enough to transform their country rapidly into a modern, powerful, and respected middle-class nation, one that richer, more advanced, and ruthless powers would not dare threaten, exploit, invade, or humiliate easily.

This meant, in nineteenth-century Italy, the unification of the country under one parliamentary government and one law, the improvement of its prehistoric agriculture, the development of some basic industries, the building of railroads, the invention of a spoken language, and the education of a modern elite. Only such a nation would be “respected” (in the Mafia’s use of the word) because it could afford an awe-inspiring fleet, a redoubtable army, a colonial empire, and a forceful foreign policy. The Italian problem today, now that armed might and colonies are out of fashion, is that of acquiring the contemporary status symbols of wealthier and older industrialized powers, the high standard of living and the expensive security arrangements of the welfare state, without wholly accepting the dull and dreary disciplines of industry.

To reach those goals was and is a wearying and almost impossible job for any people whose traditional way of life, to which they are understandably attached, prevented them from joining the Industrial Revolution at the outset. It is costly and tiresome to develop omniscient bureaucracies, vast industries, severe technical schools, and formidable armed forces when one’s heart is not in them. Only Japan really tried it. Others looked for short cuts. Some pretended they had reached their goals by investing all their scarce resources in the appearance of a great power; some were inflamed by fanatic radical movements (it is always a relief for an impotent people to kill a great number of “enemies,” presumably responsible for all the nation’s ills); or, at one time or another, followed a demiurge or the nearest thing to one they could find. (In some countries the historian finds all these tendencies combined in various proportions.)

Such men of destiny are not hard to find. History seems to keep several up its sleeve at all times. If they are not exactly what the crisis really requires, popular imagination manages anyway to make them into the legendary figures it needs, magnifies their talents and successes, and obliterates their failures. The hero’s job is then mainly that of representing the personage he is believed to be. He should be an actor, wear gaudy uniforms, ride horses, deliver stirring speeches, create and disseminate suitable anecdotes, coin slogans, and lead his people in the general direction in which they are traveling anyway. A few of these leaders died without anybody discovering how really inept, vacillating, and dim-witted they were. They are still revered by their countrymen. Their monuments adorn public squares. Others had the misfortune of believing they really were what the people imagined them to be and were destroyed by calamities evoked by their own folly.

This, of course, is the case of Mussolini, and nothing proves once and for all the inadequacy of the man so much as the recently published memoirs by his fiercely loyal and loving, eighty-three-year-old widow Rachele. Rachele is a practically illiterate peasant woman, as intelligent and perceptive as such people often are. She has a good memory and managed to record many revealing intimate anecdotes. In spite of her socialist past (socialist movements among Italian peasants at the end of the last century were little more than jacqueries), she (as well as her husband) had no conception of the modern world, no idea about economics, no respect for the weak or for liberty, and a pessimistic view of human nature. She admires her husband immoderately and still believes everything the Fascist press printed about him a generation or two ago.

Why did Mussolini fail? What made him get into a war he could not win? Rachele offers easy and consoling explanations. The British, the French, and the Americans forced him to enter the war on the wrong side, almost against his will, by their unreasonable obstinacy. He then lost the war because he had been betrayed. To be sure, in the end, when the Allies pulled themselves together and occupied North Africa, everybody, from the brave anti-Fascists to the frightened Fascists, tried to get him out of the way in order to salvare il salvabile. He was, however, stubbornly difficult to move. It took a lot of secret plotting (some of it involving contact with the enemy) to drag him away from power. But he was not betrayed by others. He was only betrayed by himself.

He had none of the qualities of a great leader in times of trouble. He was no Churchill and no de Gaulle. He had the shallow and brilliant mind of a yellow journalist. He took snap decisions, day by day, as the editor who makes up the front page only to startle, scare, or excite his readers. He also had an uncanny talent for publicity. He tirelessly launched campaigns (to kill flies, eat more rice, grow more wheat, produce more children, abolish shaking hands, make people address each other with the “voi,” to mention only a few). This came easy to him as he was fascinated mainly by unimportant details, the cut of a uniform, the title of a dignitary, the design of a stamp, the gestures of the traffic cops under his window, the color of buses and taxis. His main work, it turned out, was receiving visitors, including thousands of more or less illustrious tourists.

He was a good popular speaker for outdoor meetings, capable of stirring the crowd’s simpler emotions. Like most brilliant journalists and rabble rousers, he lacked the capacity to concentrate, to recognize the fact that most problems were complex and boring, and could not be solved overnight or exorcised with a slogan, a speech, a ceremony, or a communiqué. He never took prudent and mature decisions. Rachele admits: “The last speaker he heard usually left the most indelible impression on him.” As a result, his waiting room was always crowded with people trying to see him at the end of the day or one minute before he had to make up his mind.

He was an inefficient dictator, as dictators go. He did not make a fortune, as some Popes and many dictators did. He refused his pay as prime minister and lived on his earnings as the owner of a daily newspaper. Rachele, in her penury, had to sue the Italian state for the regular pension of a prime minister’s widow. He contradicted himself time and again, often took pity on some of the victims of his own tyranny, and sometimes hated to be reminded of the suffering he had brought about to his people. He saved some Jews from his own laws. In fact he despised the very word “dictator,” which, to my recollection, he used only once in a public speech, during the war, not to define himself or any of his colleagues but to brand F.D. Roosevelt with a shameful label. Rachele says that Hitler reproached him, after his liberation, in September, 1943: “Duce, you’re too kindhearted. You’ll never make a dictator.” Besides being occasionally capable of compassion (his wife recalls he supported many of his old socialist comrades who had become his enemies, and defended some of them from his own police), he was easily deceived. His telephone was tapped all the time.

He did not know men. “Men are like apples,” he is quoted by Rachele as saying contemptuously. “I buy them by the box. There may be several good ones and one rotten. I always hope his new duties, the rotten one’s, will give him a chance to make amends and clear his reputation.” He never knew when a man lied to him. When he received a dignitary in his country place, Rocca delle Caminate, during a holiday, Rachele says he occasionally asked her to sit in his study and listen. A shrewd woman, with an instinctive sense for people’s hidden feelings, she crouched on one of the wooden seats which stood under the medieval windows, said nothing but read the visitors’ faces, studied the delivery of their lines, and reached unerring conclusions about character that wholly escaped Benito.

To all these native handicaps one must add the inevitable corrupting influence of power. Men who have a very high opinion of themselves, like famous tenors, some writers, millionaires, or successful politicians, are notoriously easy prey to flatterers, because flattery sounds to them like the sober description of reality. From the beginning, the first few weeks in power, in November, 1922, Mussolini dismissed collaborators who told him an occasional unpleasant truth. He considered them disloyal.

Nineteen years later, in 1941, during his catastrophic attempt to command the Italian army in battle, on the Greek front (he lost the day and destroyed some of his best and irreplaceable divisions), he asked one honest veteran general with many ribbons from World War I: “What do you think of this campaign, general?” The general answered: “The infantry has no shoes; the artillery, when they have ammunition, shell the infantry; our airforce appears seldom, but when it does, it drops bombs both on the infantry and the artillery….” Mussolini cut him short and said: “Such language is surprising in the mouth of an old soldier who I see has fought well. It sounds like sabotage….” (This anecdote is not in Rachele’s memoirs but in a delightful book of memoirs by Gian Carlo Fusco, Le rose del ventennio, Rizzoli, Milan, 1974.)

Dismissing all the collaborators who tried to tell him unpalatable truths, he lived mostly on deceptions and wishful thinking. Rachele says: “At the end the whole truth never reached him. Some people in whom he placed trust were definitely misleading him, assuring him that there were no problems when the contrary was the case. Under normal peace-time conditions, the situation had no serious consequences, but I wondered what these people would do if Italy were beset by crisis or involved in war.” The situation, of course, had the gravest consequences also in times of peace.

From the beginning, Mussolini was surrounded either by astute courtiers who told him anything to please him, or by earnest and honest men who had to behave like astute courtiers in order to survive and get anything done. Most diplomats’ reports and newspaper articles were written merely to comfort him. All unpleasant details were hidden from him. He was always assured the problem, any problem, did not exist, or that, if it still existed, it would be miraculously solved by means of one of his resounding slogans within a matter of days or weeks.

As a result he did not face the centuries-old problems of Italy, the sort of problems that democracies have natural difficulties in solving. He should have worried about illiteracy, poverty, the Mezzogiorno, the inefficiency of the bureaucracy, the archaic agriculture, the asphyctic industries, the rapacity of the upper class. He tried to defeat the Mafia and the Communist party but merely managed to drive them underground. Both emerged infinitely more numerous, richer, and more powerful after his fall. Perhaps the only useful thing he contributed to Italian life (as Napoleon left us the Code Napoleon and beet sugar) is the much respected Enciclopedia Italiana, in many ways the best (and most costly in human suffering and degradation) of all encyclopedias.

Most dictators fail if they live long enough. In Mussolini’s case, Rachele’s book confirms what historians have already discovered: more than anybody else he helped to destroy himself. He was his own foreign minister, tenaciously furthering that aggressive foreign policy which, after all, was what Fascism was all about. He “made Italy respected.” But unlike a good Godfather, he forgot to provide himself with what would be necessary for the day of the showdown. His ministers of war, navy, air force, and industry let him down. These ministers were no other (at one time or another) than Mussolini himself. Who else had hamstrung him with the wrong alliance with a demented Wagnerian fanatic at the wrong moment?

When the war came, at a moment Mussolini could not choose, that very war he had been talking about for twenty years, there were no guns, no food, no fuel, no raw materials, no planes. The army made do mostly with Skoda guns captured from the Austrians in 1918. The navy, lacking radar and carriers, was a collection of sitting ducks. Industry, atrophied and drugged by autarchy, could not provide him with the necessary equipment. The morale of the armed forces was inevitably very low. Some fought well and died “so that Italy might lose as honorably as possible.” Many of these were anti-Fascists or Fascists who had understood where their movement had brought their country.

In his defense it must be admitted that his failure was aided mightily by the Italian people, the Italian elite, and the Garibaldi myth. The liberal governments after the First World War helped, being too feeble to lead Italy on her way to reconstruction. So did the Versailles treaty, which gave nationalists the feeling they had been betrayed by their Allies; Socialists who were able to keep the country on the verge of revolution but had not the men, will, or intelligence necessary to conquer power; Catholics who refused to forget the Risorgimento and join with the Liberals in a supreme effort to save common liberty. The elite (and the king) were the victims of a perennial Italian temptation, that of enrolling pyromaniacs among the firemen. Finally, Garibaldi’s ghost helped, raising the demented hope of finding a man who would carry everyone’s burden. (Pius XI called Mussolini “l’uomo della Provvidenza,” the man sent by Divine Providence.)

Mussolini was deposed on July 24, 1943, by the Grand Council he had created. Like Caesar before him, he had been told about the conspiracy against him, and had been beseeched by his wife not to go. Like Caesar, he went unarmed. “Il Duce himself decided,” Rachele remembers, “to give leave to the Fascist Militia on that day and not to reinforce the guard at Palazzo Venezia.” To be sure, Mussolini was far from being Caesar. He was not as intelligent, as corrupt, as good a politician, writer, warrior, or conqueror. But, like Caesar and other dictators, he knew the day had come when he had to allow his enemies to destroy him.

Two years later, at the end of the war, a few days before he was killed (together with his mistress) he had refused a plane which would have carried him alive to Spain. Rachele says:

Years after the war, [my son] Vittorio told me that he’d worked out a plan that was complete save for one detail—his father’s consent…. Benito listened, not reacting at all until Vittorio had finished. Then…he asked: “You think that’s the right solution? Fine. And have you a plane for all those Fascists outside and the Fascists in the North?”

Rachele adds: “He considered his attitude not heroic but simply logical.”

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