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 …