The Illusionist


by R.J.B. Bosworth
London: Arnold, 584 pp., $16.95 (paper; distributed in the US by Oxford University Press)


From the three great architects of the Italian Risorgimento in the mid-nineteenth century—Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour—to the rule of Mussolini from 1922 to 1943, it would be hard to find a single figure in Italian politics whose biography is in print in English today, this despite the country’s colonial expansion in Libya and then participation in World War I. A fluid parliamentary system of shifting alliances between fragmenting parties largely in thrall to the whims of an interfering and mediocre monarchy meant that those who held power did so only through continual compromise and ad hoc administration. Much the same, minus the monarchy, could be said of Italian leaders since the Second World War, at least until Berlusconi. Biographers find it difficult to have such men emerge from an elusive and very Italian context.

With Mussolini, on the other hand, the literature is extensive. It is the nature of dictatorship that the psychology of a single, usually charismatic individual is superimposed over the destiny of a nation for an extended period of time. And in Mussolini’s case the psychology in question was neither simple nor stable. Indeed, we might say that for every action and declaration of Il Duce, as he liked to be called, there was, as it were, a shadow action or declaration which complicated or contradicted the other. As a result, regardless of the damage he did to Italian democracy and the ruin he brought upon Italy through his alliance with Hitler, historians can continue to argue about what his real intentions were.

Born in 1883 near the provincial town of Forlì, the son of a blacksmith, a man known for his militant socialism and heavy drinking, young Benito soon had a reputation for turbulent behavior. At school he was involved in knife fights and expelled three times. But between these crises there were also long periods of quiet diligence and excellent grades. Benito’s mother was a schoolteacher, much admired for her exemplary piety, and in his late teens it was her vocation that he chose. He taught languages in elementary school and in later years, often at moments of great drama, would withdraw from the fray to do some literary translation, as if a contemplative way of life were still available to him. The works of Socrates and Plato were always on his desk, along with a revolver.

In his early twenties the young Mussolini liked to take a woman by brute force, then become romantically engaged, then move on to another town. His father kept a mistress. Fired from his first school where, unlike his mother, he had been unable to control the children (“some of them were incorrigible and dangerous urchins,” he complained), he wandered poverty-stricken around Switzerland, until involvement with the Socialist Party led to the discovery of a genius for inflammatory journalism. He was expelled from various Swiss towns and finally from the country. Back in Italy, he was fired from other teaching jobs for blasphemy in the classroom, philandering, running up debts, and political agitation. It was as if he were behaving like his father in his mother’s job; but his mother was dead now, killed by meningitis in 1905. He spent brief periods in jail.

All the same, in 1909 Mussolini was given control of the Socialist newspaper in Austrian-held Trento, where he engaged in a fierce battle of words with future Italian leader, the very Catholic Alcide De Gasperi. The Church was a corpse, Mussolini declared. The notions of loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek were pernicious. Violence was the necessary and moral response to capitalist injustice. Once again he was expelled. But in 1912 the Socialist Party decided to make use of his capacity for stirring up controversy and appointed him head of their national newspaper, Avanti!, based in Milan. It was the breakthrough from minor agitator to major player.

The pattern of these early years of Mussolini’s life, then, is one of kicking against all forms of authority while at the same time seeking it for himself, first with schoolchildren and lovers, then in the Socialist Party and its newspapers. Even his marriage in 1910, swiftly followed by the birth of his first child, Edda, involved a breach of authority, if not taboo. Seventeen-year-old Rachele Guidi was the daughter of his father’s longtime mistress. Both Benito’s father and Rachele’s mother were against the marriage. To get his way, Mussolini threatened suicide.1 Indifferent to politics, regularly producing children, and always insisting on the claims of the family, Rachele gradually got a hold on her man and survived a series of mistresses. One of her strategies was to challenge Mussolini to play the macho part he advocated, invariably insisting that he should be harder on opponents than he actually was. Years afterward, observers would remark that Mussolini appeared to be afraid of her. Whether or not that is true, he clearly experienced relationships as power struggles in which one side must eventually take authority, an attitude he rationalized by an acceptance of Darwinian determinism: the strong would prevail over the weak, the young and vigorous over the old and decadent.

The Italian Socialist Party was internationalist: capitalism was an international phenomenon and the workers, it held, must respond with an international revolution. The Socialists thus opposed wars between nation-states as merely furthering the ends of capitalist manufacturers. As editor of the party newspaper, therefore, Mussolini opposed possible Italian intervention at the beginning of the First World War. But his position rapidly shifted and in October 1914, without consulting his colleagues, he published an editorial claiming that Italy could not stand on the sidelines while such great events were going on.

There were various considerations behind this volte-face, not least the calculation that war might create a situation favorable to revolution. But with Mussolini the urge to take action and play a leading part in it was always decisive. In any event, he was again expelled, this time from the Socialist Party, and opened his own newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, telling readers, “From now on we are Italians and nothing but Italians.” The move from international socialism to fascism, or national socialism as a similar phenomenon would elsewhere be called, had begun.

It was characteristic of Mussolini that he always assumed that wars would be short and victorious. “The winner of the war will be whoever wants to win it,” he felt, declaring a faith in the power of spirit over material that would remain with him until the end. Conscripted into the army in 1915, he was wounded by a hand grenade in exercises behind the lines in 1917, and thus back in Milan before the military collapse at Caporetto in October of that year, which led to 300,000 Italians being taken prisoner and brought the Austro-German army very close to capturing the northern Italian plain. Eventual military victory with Allied help did not bring the territorial gains that Britain and France had originally offered to encourage Italy to enter the war. With half a million dead, half a million wounded, a weak government, a weak economy, and a general sense that the country had been cheated, Italy was now fertile ground for political agitation. In particular, the rapidly growing Socialist Party had the example of the Russian Revolution to emulate.

It is in telling the next part of the story, the three years that brought Mussolini to power, that the biographies under review declare their differences most powerfully. What is at stake is our attitude toward democracy and toward the use of violence in domestic politics. In 1919 Italy introduced universal male suffrage with a radical form of proportional representation. The election of that year thus returned a parliament where no single grouping had a majority and where neither the Socialists nor the newly formed Catholic party, the Partito Popolare Italiano, with just over half the seats between them, would work with each other or with the older, now diminished Liberal Party. The minority Liberal government that was eventually installed was faced with a dramatic wave of strikes organized by the Socialists, who were evidently seeking to push the country to revolution.

In this scenario of chronic fragmentation, a recurrent Italian nightmare, Mussolini had formed, in February 1919, the so-called Fasci di Combattimento (Combat Bands). Participants were not obliged to relinquish their membership in other parties. The idea was rather to ignore differences, insisting on solidarity with all its advantages. At its simplest, one might say that Mussolini’s Fascism, as it was soon being called, aimed to create, in peacetime, the embattled, nationalist solidarity he had experienced and whose energy he had felt during the war (a fascio is a bundle of things tied together). Expelled from every organization he had been a member of, he formed one whose ambition was to absorb the whole country into itself.

Despite Mussolini’s persuasive journalism and powerful speeches, the new movement polled only five thousand votes in the 1919 election. Very soon afterward, however, it found a place for itself by exploiting the widespread public resentment of Socialist strikes and orchestrating punitive raids on strikers. While the police stood by, all over northern and central Italy the Fasci di Combattimento set out in their black shirts and black trucks to break strikes, beat up opponents, and burn down Socialist headquarters. There were deaths on both sides.

The English journalist Nicholas Farrell, in his Mussolini: A New Life, is sanguine about all this. Bolshevism was a real threat, he writes, and the Socialists “gave as good as they got.” (He repeats this phrase three times.) Anyway, “the Fascists,” Farrell explains, “opposed the bourgeoisie as much as they opposed the Socialists because both exalted one class at the expense of the other. The Fascists exalted the nation, united not divided.”

This of course was the official line, but it is difficult to square with the fact that in the early days both Mussolini’s newspaper and his movement were funded primarily by land-owning and industrial interests. For the moment, resentment of the bourgeoisie went no further than rhetoric. The Socialist Party was the enemy that, largely because of its internationalism, generated the necessary and nationalist solidarity among Mussolini’s variously assorted followers.

Farrell is also ready to endorse the way Mussolini achieved power. In 1921 new elections saw the Fascists gain thirty-five seats in parliament and take a place in government at the invitation of the Liberals. But in 1922, when the Socialists threatened a general strike and the government followed its normal line of nonintervention, Mussolini undertook his long-threatened March on Rome. Claiming to be more patriotic than the country’s leaders, 30,000 of his followers converged on the city by train: for the good of Italy, Mussolini’s followers said, the government must act or hand over power to those who would. The Fascists could easily have been dispersed, given the army and police presence around the city, and many were in fact blocked from going further. But the King was unwilling to call the marchers’ bluff, perhaps afraid that widespread violence would follow. Instead he invited Mussolini, who had barricaded himself in his office in Milan, to form a government. Mussolini thus took power legally, though only by threatening actions that were illegal.

Presenting his new government to the Chamber of Deputies, Mussolini, at thirty-eight Italy’s youngest prime minister ever, told them:

I could have turned this deaf and grey Chamber into a bivouac for my legions…. I could have barred up parliament and formed a government only of Fascists. I could have, but I have not wanted to, at least not for the moment.

The speech is typical of the two poles of behavior that always created tension in Mussolini’s life and characterized his relationship with the Italian people. On the one hand there is the arrogant claim of the moral right to violent revolution; on the other he looks for approval for not having actually done what he might have. The concluding “at least not for the moment” is both a real threat and an example of the way Mussolini learned to reconcile contradictory sides of his personality by reserving the more drastic manifestations of himself for some unspecified time in the future.

While Farrell often expresses his enthusiasm for the Duce as an admirable example of effective authoritarian rule, the Australian historian R.J.B. Bosworth begins his Mussolini by declaring that he considers Mussolini a complete failure. He points out that the Liberal government’s policy of nonintervention in Socialist strikes had actually undermined and defused left-wing revolution. Bolshevism was on the wane by 1922. Again and again he shows the inconsistencies in Mussolini’s declarations and simultaneously acknowledges that the Fascist leader was not concerned with intellectual consistency but with finding a way to power. In this view, however, and partly as a result of Bosworth’s heavy use of irony, Mussolini can seem merely cynical and opportunist while the more visionary side of his personality appears only as a means to an end, or just ridiculous. One one occasion Bosworth uses the word “rant” to characterize the aggressive rhetoric that Farrell admires.

These contrasting, largely instinctive reactions to Mussolini alert us to an underlying problem with both books. Neither offers a serious psychological study of this unusual mind and, despite excellent handling of the immediate setting, neither considers how that mind may have meshed in dangerous ways with more long-term cultural conditions in Italy.


As early as 1826 the poet Leopardi had suggested that Italy, fragmented as it was, deprived of a confident ruling class by centuries of government from abroad, no more than superstitious in its religious practices, and profoundly cynical in moral matters, was in urgent need of a collective “illusion” that, if it could never give life “real substance or truth,” might at least confer “the appearance of the same, so that we might be able to think of it [life] as important.”

Other figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are in broad agreement. Mazzini and Garibaldi both oscillated between pessimism about the Italians’ lack of national consciousness and idealism about what Italy might become. The patriot Massimo D’Azeglio’s famous comment upon the unification of Italy that “now that we have made Italy we must make the Italians” again posits both a negative vision of the present and a project of national regeneration. Clearly this was fertile territory for a politician who combined a skillful use of rhetoric with a tendency to bully and then to seek approval for having bullied in a positive way. Nobody could have been more contemptuous of the Italian character than Mussolini—“a gesticulating, chatterbox, superficial, carnivalesque people”—and nobody more determined to achieve the “conversion of the Italians” through a powerful collective vision, for which, like Leopardi, Mussolini uses the word “illusion.” “It is faith which moves mountains because it gives the illusion that mountains move. Illusion, is perhaps the only reality in life.”

How, most of us will wonder, can someone believe in and act upon something that he also (unlike the fundamentalist) stands back from and refers to as an illusion? Leopardi considered this the paradox for modern man. It required constant labor and energy, he felt, to sustain an illusion. Fascism, a movement with no real content beyond its nation-building vocation, “constructs day by day,” Mussolini claimed, “the edifice of its will and passion.” Asked to define the phenomenon in a few words, he said it meant that “life must not be taken easily.” He referred to himself as “the national mule” carrying “heavy burdens.” Fascist artwork would portray him as a builder, digging the foundations of Italian civilization, on his own, with a spade. “I am convinced,” Mussolini told a conference of doctors in 1931, “that our way of eating, dressing, working and sleeping, the whole complex of our daily habits, must be reformed.” It was a “fatica grandiosa,” he remarked, using the word that describes the mythic labors of Hercules.

Behind all this, then—the distance between the Italians as they were and the modern, united, industrious, and warlike nation they might become—lies the heroism of the impossible task. “The credo of Fascism is heroism, that of the bourgeoisie egoism.” It is as if, quite unlike Hitler, Mussolini was half aware of being defeated before he started. Undoubtedly, the same underlying contradiction is active today in the phenomenon of Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party. What has to be grasped is the Italian willingness to subscribe to an ambitious project of transformation while simultaneously disbelieving that it can be carried through. “Fascism is nothing but a bluff,” Mussolini’s son Vittorio would tell his adolescent friends. “Daddy hasn’t managed to do anything he wanted to. The Italians…don’t give a damn about the revolution.” All the biographies mention Mussolini’s growing loneliness and melancholy as the futility of his efforts emerged.

One thing that makes an illusion hard to sustain is someone who reminds us of unpleasant facts. Having taken power and used considerable thuggery to win a landslide victory in elections in 1924, Mussolini faced his first serious challenge in Parliament. The Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti accused him of electoral fraud. Shortly afterward, Matteotti was murdered by Fascist hit men. Shaken by the ensuing scandal, making defiant statements on the one hand and awarding a pension to Matteotti’s widow on the other, Mussolini moved rapidly to turn his government into a dictatorship and the country into a one-party state. Tight control was taken of the press and police powers were extended. “Our ferocious totalitarian will,” the Duce declared in 1925, “shall be pursued with a still greater ferocity.” Everything would be “for the state, nothing outside the state, and no one against the state.” So throughout the Twenties the myth of a militaristic, modernizing fascism was consolidated with the introduction of large-scale public works, paramilitary youth movements, after-hours workers’ organizations, and authoritarian architecture, statues, and bas-reliefs that recalled an imperial past. Thousands of Communists were arrested and voices of the opposition silenced.

But the illusion of totalitarian control was the greatest illusion of all. One thing that remained decisively outside state control was Mussolini’s stomach. Shortly after the Matteotti crisis, the Duce coughed blood and was afflicted by crippling stomach pains. An ulcer was diagnosed and he was put on a diet of no meat, no alcohol, and plenty of milk, with which he continued for most of his life. The pains, however, would return with frequency. The biographies under review, while suspecting a psychosomatic element to the problem (an autopsy decades later would reveal no trace of an ulcer), do not seek to establish a pattern between the attacks and the kind of decisions and circumstances Mussolini was facing. It is tempting to suppose that the pains occurred at moments when Mussolini found it most difficult to reconcile the poles of ruthlessness and accommodation between which his behavior tended to oscillate. In any event, for a man who, as part of his project to toughen up his compatriots, liked to have himself photographed playing vigorous sports, to be doubled up with pain and reduced, on occasion, to writhing on the floor was a significant setback.

In general, as Farrell is eager to remind us and Bosworth is obliged to admit, Mussolini enjoyed an excellent foreign press throughout the Twenties. Many—including Churchill and George Bernard Shaw—saw him exactly as he wanted to be seen: a strong leader who had restored public order and modernized his country with a program of public works and a policy of intervention on behalf of workers’ pay and conditions that had spared Italy the class conflict that dogged other nations. Bosworth, however, is interesting when he suggests how little the country was in fact modernized, how few were the members of the old establishment who were replaced, how much of the perceived change, in short, had to do with propaganda. The extent to which Italy still lagged behind would be dramatically revealed in wartime.


Anyone who does not feel the need to wage a bit of war,” Mussolini remarked, “is not in my opinion a complete man. War is the most important thing in a man’s life, like maternity in a woman’s.” The curious use of “a bit” suggests the Duce’s customary ambivalence. One cannot imagine Hitler ever slipping in this qualification. G. Bruce Strang’s On the Fiery March looks in meticulous detail at the dealings between the two men in the years between Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the outbreak of the Second World War. The story is fascinating because Mussolini’s behavior would appear to defy explanation. From 1922 to 1935, despite his menacing rhetoric, he had rarely acted aggressively on the international scene. Then in 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia; in 1936 it intervened decisively on Franco’s side in the Spanish civil war; in 1938 it invaded Albania and in 1939 signed an aggressive military pact with Germany whereby if one signatory launched a war, the other was bound to assist. How far was this the consequence of a long-term plan, how far one of ideology or of opportunism?

In Farrell’s view, France and Britain were largely responsible for Mussolini’s decision to side with Hitler. Italy was right to feel shortchanged by the Treaty of Versailles and, in the Mediterranean, hemmed in by British and French power; and to combat that power it was understandable, says Farrell, that Italy should seek to expand its colony in Libya and open a new one in Ethiopia. At the same time, Italy was a natural ally of Britain and France against German expansionism, since an eventual Anschluss would threaten Italy’s possession of the German-speaking South Tyrol. There was also the fact that on their first meeting Mussolini disliked Hitler, an unpleasant upstart aping his invention, fascism. The British and French thus behaved foolishly in pressing for League of Nations sanctions in opposition to the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 (despite the fact that it is generally acknowledged that some 500,000 Ethiopians were killed, many with poison gas). The opposition of the British and French to Mussolini’s involvement in the Spanish civil war, Farrell argues, showed that they hadn’t understood as profoundly as Mussolini had the dangers of Bolshevism. In need of allies, the Duce had to go to Hitler.

Strang refutes this interpretation. He shows how despite the initial hostility of Mussolini to Hitler, their dealings rapidly took on a tone quite different from that of his negotiations with the British and French as the Duce began to see in the rise of the Reich the possible fulfillment of his Darwinian vision of the vigorous, recently unified, and now fascist nations winning hegemony over the decadent capitalist democracies of Britain and France. The decision for Mussolini was not, Strang shows, between opposing camps, but whether his alliance with Hitler would stop at moral support or arrive at full-scale military conflict.

All the same, precisely because Strang’s approach is limited to a close scrutiny of diplomatic exchanges, he cannot hide his puzzlement at the carelessness with which Mussolini accepted a German draft of the Pact of Steel without insisting on various safeguards that had been previously discussed, in particular an assurance that Germany would not provoke a general war for at least three years. Mussolini accepted the draft without amendment despite the fact that Hitler had shown himself to be a fickle ally in his dealings with Italy over Czechoslovakia. Neither opportunism nor ideology could explain the way the Duce placed himself entirely in Hitler’s hands.

One clue to understanding Mussolini’s behavior is his introduction of the anti-Semitic race laws in 1938. Until that point Mussolini had denied the existence of a Jewish problem in Italy, criticized Hitler’s anti-Semitism, allowed Jews to be members of the Fascist Party, and encouraged his Jewish mistress Margherita Sarfatti to write an adulatory biography of himself. Now Jews were to be excluded from public life and forbidden to marry “Aryan” Italians.

In his partial biography Mussolini: The Last 600 Days of Il Duce,2 Ray Moseley confesses that he is perplexed by the race laws and concludes that they were the merest opportunism, a cheap way for the Duce to ingratiate himself with Hitler. Peter Neville, in his admirably succinct and straightforward Mussolini,3 reaches the same conclusion. But this makes no sense. Hitler put no pressure on Mussolini to follow his Jewish policy and Mussolini had no need to ingratiate himself with Hitler, since Hitler was already urgently seeking an alliance.

Farrell has a different answer. The conquest of empire in Ethiopia had raised the question of racial consciousness. The Italians, Mussolini proclaimed, had to be fit to rule. To do this they must eliminate their sentimental and bourgeois tendencies. Farrell writes: “It was the Jewish psyche or spirit—the epitome of the bourgeois spirit which he scorned as la vita comoda —that he wanted to stamp out, not the Jews.” “Mussolini’s mission…was to transform the Italians into Italians. The Jews became victims of this bigger process.” Quite apart from one’s unease with Farrell’s attempts to apologize for Mussolini, this too makes no sense. If Mussolini wanted to stamp out the bourgeois lifestyle, he could have begun by turning against the rich Italian capitalists of Milan and Turin. He could have altered fiscal policy and limited the availability of consumer goods.

Bosworth comes closest to a convincing explanation of Mussolini’s sudden change of policy toward the Jews. He notes the Duce’s growing envy of Hitler and the Nazi system, whose success intensified his frustration that despite coming to power ten years earlier he himself “had not been an iron-hard engineer of human souls.” Aware, particularly after his visit to Berlin in 1937, of the mobilizing power of racism, Mussolini was now “trying very hard to be wicked.” In this view, the anti-Jewish policy was, indeed, as Farrell would have it, aimed at toughening up the Italians (and perhaps himself), but more out of desperate emulation than owing to any beliefs about the nature of “the Jewish spirit.”

The irony if one accepts this explanation is that Mussolini was indeed only trying to be wicked, for as Bosworth notes, until the German occupation of 1943, although Italian Jews were now “persecuted in ways which they had not imagined when, in considerable majority, they approved Fascism: they were not, however, killed.” Mussolini spoke of setting up concentration camps, but did not do so. Nor did he punish those, including members of his own family, who protected Jews, or even those members of the Italian army and bureaucracy who, after the war had begun, saved Jews from Nazi persecution in Italian-occupied southeastern France and Croatia. So what was going on?

On November 29, 1938, after the race laws were announced, the Jewish publisher and Fascist Party member Angelo Fortunato Formiggini jumped to his death from the cathedral campanile in Modena. In a letter to Mussolini he wrote: “Dear Duce… You have gone mad…deep down you pain me, because you have fallen into a trap placed for you by destiny.”

Let us try to give a prosaic reading of this pertinent observation. Until 1935, in a fascism that, beyond restoring law and order through repression, was largely a matter of image and propaganda, Mussolini had found a strategy that kept the contradictory impulses of his personality in equilibrium: portrayed as heroically implacable, he was popular because, after all, for most ordinary people not much had changed and not much was required of them. The emergence of Nazi Germany, partly through the real opportunities it offered for altering the status quo, but above all through the person of Hitler, upset that equilibrium. Here was a man who really was ruthless and implacable, who really hurried history onward to its cruel Darwinian convulsions.

Returning from Berlin in 1937, greatly impressed by the Nazi parades he had witnessed, Mussolini introduced the goose step to Italy. At the same time he suffered a severe attack of his stomach problems; they would continue to assail him throughout his many attempts to emulate Hitler in 1938 and 1939. He also suffered from chronic indecisiveness and vacillation. Clearly the more accommodating side of his personality was still active. And indeed, however demeaning and humiliating the race laws were, there was no Kristallnacht in Italy. Impelled to transform himself and his compatriots into ruthless empire builders, history’s winners, at some deep level Mussolini could not want, or at least not close to home, or not for sustained periods, the evil that such ruthlessness required.

Once Mussolini had joined the war (at a moment when he was convinced Hitler could not lose), there was one last attempt to emulate the man who had somehow stripped him of his self-respect. Nothing else can explain the strategically, politically, and ideologically absurd invasion of Greece. When that failed, abjectly, Mussolini handed more or less complete control of the war to Hitler in the same way he expected underlings to concede control to him.

We remain with two reflections after reading these books, each fascinating in its own way, each the product of considerable scholarship: first that we would all stand to gain if, from time to time, historians could put aside their reluctance to draw on the disciplines of psychology and anthropology. So many of Bosworth’s intuitions are marvelously perceptive, but he does not bring them together in a coherent argument. We are overwhelmed with information that can only add up in ways the author doesn’t discuss.

Second, that the best response to Farrell’s enthusiasm for dictatorship is that no personality can be guaranteed to remain psychologically stable over the long run. Referring to the difficulties that Italy faced in forming a coalition government in 1922, Farrell, contemptuous of the Italian democracy of the time, speaks of the danger of “Italianesque government by imbroglio.” In fact, few coalitions could have been as muddled, uncertain, and internally divided as the mind of Mussolini in 1939.

  1. 1

    Mussolini and Rachele Guidi did not actually go through a wedding ceremony for some years, but Mussolini insisted that he was married because they had declared themselves married.

  2. 2

    Taylor, 2004.

  3. 3

    Routledge, 2004.