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The Great Pretender

Mussolini’s Roman Empire

by Denis Mack Smith
Viking, 322 pp., $12.95

Benito Mussolini was the last of the romantic revolutionaries, a man born after his time and gone sour. In the nineteenth century he might have been one of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. More likely he would have been at home with Bakunin, hatching ineffective conspiracies with nonexistent conspirators. As it was, Mussolini’s conspiracy succeeded. To his own misfortune and that of Italy, he found himself at the head of a great state. After twenty years of bombast, he brought Italy and himself to ruin.

There was no coherent policy in the Fascism that Mussolini created. His original aim was to acquire power, preferably by violence. In this latter ambition he did not succeed. He was appointed prime minister by the king in constitutional fashion, and the March on Rome was for Mussolini an overnight journey from Milan. Mussolini entered his sleeping car in a Black Shirt and stepped out in top hat and tail coat—a parable of the variations between respectability and revolution that he maintained thereafter. Sometimes he was the champion of international order; sometimes he announced European upheaval.

Mussolini had one considerable gift: he was a forceful genius, and all his genius went into words. Fascism itself was a work of propaganda, not a serious program. Mussolini said as much: Fascism was Action for its own sake, and even Action had only a propagandist intent. Mack Smith remarks that when Mussolini reviewed troops during the war “he liked to run down the line at the double, because he was not interested in inspecting them so much as in their deriving confidence from observing his own physique and martial bearing.” Similarly, when I made a television biography of Mussolini some years ago, I was struck by the violence of his appearances in the contemporary newsreels.

Mussolini was mainly concerned with home affairs in his first years of power. He claimed to have restored order—after the disorders that he had himself inspired. In the claptrap phrase, he made the trains run on time. His one solid achievement was to drain the Pontine marshes, though this too had its propagandist side. Fascism was presented as a new form of society. In reality all that Mussolini did was to stabilize the lira at an overvalued rate. In the face of the Great Depression Mussolini was as much at a loss as everyone else. This was perhaps why he turned to foreign adventures. Mussolini had always enjoyed the conspiratorial side of foreign affairs, such as his gun-running to Hungary and the Austrian Fascists. But in the 1920s he also enjoyed being the pillar of European peace, duly courted by the statesmen who met at Locarno.

Mussolini’s foreign policy in its aggressive years is the central theme of Mack Smith’s book. After an introduction on Mussolini’s somewhat futile colonial plans, the book really starts with the Ethiopian war of 1935-1936 and virtually ends with the defeat of the Italian armies in North Africa at the end of 1940, after which Italy became the helpless satellite of Nazi Germany. It was a sorry record. An empty victory over a backward African state; much boasting of himself as the partner of Hitler in the Axis, a phrase that Mussolini invented; years of militaristic display and then collapse as a Great Power after a single campaign. Few rulers have engineered disaster so quickly or so completely.

Mack Smith tells this story with great verve. He shows the intrigues and confusions behind Mussolini’s assertion of his statecraft. Mussolini was truly the DUCE (always in capital letters). He presided over every committee on production. He usurped the king’s position as supreme commander. With all power in his hands he did nothing. He rarely read the papers submitted to him. He had few contacts with generals in the field. In foreign affairs he studied only the gossip provided for him by secret agents or culled from the intercepts of British diplomatic correspondence. Mussolini was a dictator who did not dictate. He often acknowledged his own powerlessness though he blamed it on others.

The outcome should have been easy to foresee. No power perhaps has entered a war so ill-prepared. The battleships, of which there were many, were designed for their show of speed. Hence their armor was inadequate, and they used their speed only to flee from their British antagonists. Mussolini claimed to have an army of eight millions. In fact Italy mobilized only three millions and had bayonets only for a little over a million. To compensate for this the Italian army had more generals than subalterns, or so it is reported by a malicious observer. The only good guns in the Italian army were those that had been captured from the Austrians at the end of the First World War. The air force was impressive only in its numbers. It was gravely out of date and totally lacking in aerial torpedoes, a weapon which the British used with catastrophic effect.

All this information is impressively marshaled by Mack Smith. His book is admirable as entertainment. It is less satisfactory as a work of history. The technical side is clumsy and makes things difficult for the reader. There are hundreds of references, grouped together in the usual modern way at the end of the book. But they provide little guidance. Each note gives the names of perhaps half a dozen authors. One of these authors may provide original information; the others merely sustain it and add nothing. A conscientious reader who followed up all the references would have to spend half an hour on each note. This is not the way in which history should be presented. The task of the historian is to make things easier for the reader. This book makes them more difficult. It is particularly exasperating to be referred to secondary sources, which only repeat what Mack Smith has said himself. The great array of notes resembles Mussolini. They are there for display, not to perform a service.

On a deeper level, Mack Smith is unfair to Mussolini. He presents Mussolini in isolation, a clown blustering his way through history as a knockabout turn. There is little attempt to set Mussolini within the framework of his time. Statesmen usually succeed when they are in tune with events and fail when the tune changes. So it was with Mussolini. Mussolini seemed to be a great man when events ran his way. Later they turned against him and he seemed to have been a fraud from the beginning.

By concentrating solely on Mussolini, Mack Smith gives the impression that he blew himself up unaided. This was not so. Many European statesmen contributed to the inflation. For a time Mussolini was the most admired public figure in Europe except among socialists, who saw through him from the first. Ramsay MacDonald praised him. Austen Chamberlain spent family holidays with him. Successive French statesmen courted him in a dreary procession. Even Sir Robert Vansittart, who is supposed to have been hard-headed, believed that Hitler could be checked if only Mussolini were enlisted on the anti-Nazi side. The approval of intellectuals was not lacking. British historians praised Mussolini. Bernard Shaw saw in him the Superman made flesh. Sir Oswald Mosley put his followers into Black Shirts. Artists and writers, no doubt scrupulously democratic in their own country, delighted at Mussolini’s leadership of Italy and his cultural achievements. I never went to Italy in Mussolini’s time. Few followed my example.

Mussolini was maybe deluded about the strength of his country. This was a common feature of the age. British and French statesmen in particular continued to behave as though their countries were the Great Powers which had won the First World War. Until 1936 French statesmen continued to believe that they could lay down the law throughout Europe. Even after the German reoccupation of the Rhineland French statesmen, and British ones also, believed that France herself was impregnable. Four years later the French army, reputed to be the greatest in Europe, suffered a defeat even worse than the Italian after a few weeks of fighting. In June 1940 the French army virtually ceased to exist. The Italians kept going for more than two years after their initial defeat in North Africa, and there were always far more Italian than German troops engaged in the North African campaigns—a fact that Mack Smith ignores. Judged by the test of events, great France was even more a pretense than great Italy, and there was no braggart dictator whom the French could blame.

The British were equally confident that a time would come when they could stop Hitler. In their own phrase, he would be hit on the head. Instead they found themselves alone and fighting for survival. Ultimately they were numbered among the victors, but only thanks to their alliance with two truly Great Powers, the United States and Soviet Russia. Mussolini’s boasts that Italy dominated the Mediterranean seem trivial compared to the British assumption that they could hold their own against Japan in the Far East. Victory in the Second World War marked the virtual end of the British Empire, and Churchill’s belief that Great Britain would survive as a Great Power appears in retrospect as fantastic as Mussolini’s belief that Italy would become one.

For that matter Hitler, too, dreamed impossible dreams when he supposed that Germany could contend with Soviet Russia and the United States for the mastery of the world. Hitler recognized this himself and hoped to slip into greatness before the two World Powers realized what he was doing. Once the World Powers entered the war, he knew he was lost. As he said after Stalingrad, “The God of War has gone over to the other side.” The First World War was the last occasion when Europe was the center of the world and when all the Great Powers seemed to be European. After that war Europe’s age was over, and the Second World War only made clear what was happening. Mussolini was no more mistaken than other European statesmen. He merely displayed his mistake more blatantly.

Even if we judge Mussolini purely in European terms, he was not as foolish or incompetent as Mack Smith makes out. Throughout the interwar years the central European problem was the problem of Germany. Germany had been defeated and disarmed. Sooner or later she would shake off the legacy of defeat and become again the most powerful European state. In the days of Locarno European statesmen hoped that this would be achieved in a peaceful fashion, and Mussolini went along with them. As this hope waned, the prospect of checking Germany by war presented itself. Many European statesman acknowledged this, but all hoped that the checking would be done by someone else.

Mussolini was the first of the fall guys. It was obvious by 1935 that in case of a general war against Germany, Italy would have to do most of the fighting. The British would shelter behind the Royal Navy, the French behind the Maginot line. Italy would have to fight her war in the Alps all over again. It is not surprising that Mussolini shrank from this burden. He chickened out. Everyone else tried to do the same. The British and French did their best to hand Eastern Europe over to Hitler—a deal that even Churchill contemplated in May 1940. The Russians backed out of war when the British and French tried to push them into it.

If Mussolini had merely declined the doubtful honor of resisting Hitler, he might well have survived and been praised for doing so. Churchill says so emphatically: “Even when the issue of the war became certain Mussolini would have been welcomed by the Allies.” Franco followed this course. He welcomed Hitler’s victories, cooperated half-heartedly in the Russian campaign, and died peacefully in his bed, still the dictator. Mussolini made only one irredeemable mistake. Like so many others he believed in June 1940 that Hitler had won the war, and he wanted to join the winning side before it was too late. Maybe he should have tried to back out later. Weakness and vanity tied Mussolini to Hitler. Also it was no easy matter to escape, as can be seen by the fate of those countries such as Hungary who tried to do so even late in the war.

Mussolini had never wanted a real war. Thereafter he contemplated his fate with helpless resignation. He even claimed that in June 1940 he had been the only pacifist in Italy, and the claim was not altogether without foundation. Mussolini was a strange mixture of shrewdness and incompetence. If Europe had still been the center of the world, he would have been an important figure. As it was, he become the chief drummer in a continent of pretenders.

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