The career of Benito Mussolini and the Fascist regime that became almost indistinguishable from it seem at last to be emerging from undeserved obscurity. For nearly two decades after his death, Mussolini’s role in contemporary history was blurred, overshadowed by the memory of an inglorious end. The Italian dictator’s gradual eclipse by Hitler, his repudiation in 1943 at the hands of his own people, his unworthy reincarnation as a puppet ruler in the North—the whole sequence epitomized by the final macabre scene of a horribly swollen corpse hanging upside down in a Milan square—all this so reduced Mussolini’s historical dimensions that he remained in our minds as little more than a figure of folly, of farce, of small-scale tyranny, or, at the best, of pathos. We forgot that the Italian Duce had ruled nearly twice as long as Hitler, that his had been the original Fascist system which gave the subsequent European movement its name and character, and that in the decade between Lenin’s death and Hitler’s accession Mussolini had ranked as the most dynamic of European leaders to whom the great of England and America were only too glad to pay their respects. Such is the full record which three recent books by British and American authors have tried to rescue from oblivion.
A large-scale analytical and critical study of Mussolini’s life has long been needed: neither Italian nor foreign historians have seemed up to the job. Only the beginning and end of his career have received detailed treatment. For the early years, there is Gaudens Megaro’s admirable Mussolini in the Making, a task of research carried out under the most difficult circumstances while the Duce was still in power, and for the bitter aftermath, F. W. Deakin’s recent volume, The Brutal Friendship, which reads more like a dossier than a finished book, but is irreproachable from the standpoint of scholarship. In the last half decade there have also appeared two small-scale biographies written for the general public, a perceptive study by Laura Fermi, admittedly “psychological” and selective in treatment, and a more orthodox work by Christopher Hibbert, which is ill-balanced and in several key respects simply uninformed. Beyond these, more specialized studies have illuminated particular aspects of the Duce’s life, the most important in English being Elizabeth Wiskemann’s The Rome-Berlin Axis and Charles Delzell’s Mussolini’s Enemies, which promises to remain the standard work on the opposition within Italy and abroad. The Duce’s career, then, has by no means suffered from neglect. It is rather that no one since the late 1930s has tried to make a full assessment of the Fascist experience; the best analytical works remain those by Herman Finer and Gaetano Salvemini published a quarter century ago. A reviewer must keep competitors such as these in mind when judging the most recent wave of literature of Mussolini.
Roy MacGregor-Hastie’s The Day of the Lion is an infuriating book in so many respects that it is hard to know where to begin criticizing it. Its deficiencies have already been adequately ventilated in the British and Italian press; it remains only for an American reviewer to repeat the warning while alerting readers to some of the book’s less obvious eccentricities. The work of a Labour journalist with long Italian experience—from which he has derived many anecdotes but almost no political judgment—it is far from being the pro-Socialist or left-democratic account that one might expect. It is rather (to quote the author’s own defense) an effort “to explain why it was that Fascism could attract the mass of Italians to its banners…and keep its hold over them for so many years.” If this were all he had done, MacGregor-Hastie would deserve our gratitude. Some corrective to the dominant anti-Fascist tone of current work on the subject has long been needed. Since it is nearly impossible for an intelligent or sensitive historian, whether in Italy or abroad, not to react negatively to most of Mussolini’s doings, the resulting historical literature has a built-in uniformity of attitude. The specialists, anti-Fascist almost to a man, often neglect to mention that the majority of Italians who thought about politics at all did support Mussolini—at least during the central period of his power from the consolidation of the dictatorship in 1926 to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War a decade later. Someone had to remind us of the simple unpalatable truths that we were so likely to forget.
But MacGregor-Hastie has gone much farther. He not merely recalls to our minds that most Italians swallowed for ten years or more the myths and half-myths that Mussolini had fabricated. He dusts off those myths himself and trots them out again as if Finer and Megaro and Salvemini and other historians who took such pains to refute them had never written at all. Thus MacGregor-Hastie disinters the legend laid to rest a generation ago of Italy being on the verge of social collapse when the Fascists took over (the truth was that the Left revolutionary wave had spent itself more than a year earlier and that the violence which continued was almost exclusively the Fascists’ own creation). In similar fashion MacGregor-Hastie accepts at face value the official claim of near-unanimity in popular support; he tells us that “Mussolini’s following among the peasants, from start to finish, was almost 100 per cent”—as though any writer, whether Fascist or anti-Fascist, could ever know what the mass of the Italian peasantry was thinking! It comes as no surprise that he belittles and ridicules the militant opponents of the regime—admittedly few in number—who for twenty years maintained their faith against heartbreaking odds, and that he entirely fails to mention some of the most important of them, while twisting the words of at least one (Piero Gobetti).
This acceptance of official verbiage for fact reaches its height in MacGregor-Hastie’s thoroughly inexpert discussion of economic and social policy. He accepts without comment Mussolini’s notoriously optimistic unemployment statistics; he takes the institutions of the “corporative state” as what they claimed to be, engines for class reconciliation, rather than the screen for business and party dominance that they became in fact. The curious thing is that the best contemporary analyses of these institutions, two books by Louis Rosenstock-Franck, figure in his bibliography, but there is no evidence that he has used them (he has misspelled the author’s name and those of several others, while such fundamental works as Deakin’s and Delzell’s are not even mentioned.) I can only conclude that MacGregor-Hastie did his research in an extremely slipshod fashion.
Sloppiness, indeed, is the outstanding characteristic of his whole book. It would be unprofitable to list all his minor factual misstatements. He offers so many bizarre judgments and anecdotes without any species of documentation that it is impossible to tell in many cases whether they are accurate or not. Still more, there is so little sequence of thought from one paragraph to another that the main drift of the author’s argument remains obscure. Nearly all the discreditable things about Mussolini’s regime eventually come out. Yet the author seems to relish them, to feel that on the whole a ruler of this sort was good for the Italian people. Perhaps the underlying theme in the book is a profound contempt for that people (or for humanity?). This impression is confirmed by the most informative passage in the whole work (p. 247, recommended for those who have time to read nothing else)—a precise account of the Duce’s love-making which in its brisk no-nonsense character reminds one of his great contemporary Lloyd George.
After such pleasures, it is a relief to turn to the little paperback textbook. Mussolini and Italian Fascism, by S. William Halperin. It is everything that MacGregor-Hastie’s book is not—clear, informed, sparing of words It may not offer much that is original, but there is nothing misleading about it, and what it does say it says in a straightforward and capable fashion. Its author is an experienced student of Italian history, and he manages to present in 190 pages of text and well-selected documents all that the general reader needs to know about Mussolini and his regime. Here, I think, we can find a useful lesson. Publishers and advertisers try to persuade the public to pick up history from “popularizers”: what the reader so often gets is hundreds of pages of trivia, chaotically composed and riddled with misstatements. The expert historian—and by this I do not necessarily mean an academic—can offer the same material in shorter (and cheaper) form and even better-written, if one accepts order and clarity as more important criteria of style than an occasional dazzling phrase.
The third of the new books, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick’s Mussolini: A Study in Power, is potentially the most important and is all the more disappointing for nearly living up to its promise. The work of a senior British diplomat, recently deceased, it was intended as a companion volume to Alan Bullock’s life of Hitler. As opposed to MacGregor-Hastie’s intellectual rashness and vulgarity of mind and style, Sir Ivone is evidently a man of discernment and modesty. He brings to this work unusual assets. As someone who has lived in the great world, he knows the realities of power and how to judge men and events through the smoke-screen of public rationalization. He writes clearly and sometimes elegantly. He has done his research with thoroughness and his judgments are both sharp and fair-minded.
The first third of the book could scarcely be improved upon. Here the author presents a careful reconstruction of Mussolini’s adventurous youth, assesses his character and methods of rule, and meticulously reestablishes the exact sequence of events at three key points in his early career as Duce. We learn of the tortuous negotiations which were to end in a legal assumption of power, billed before history as the heroic “March on Rome”; of the outcry following the murder of the Socialist deputy Matteotti which almost toppled the new regime; and of the slow progress to the reconciliation with the Church in 1929 that ranked as Mussolini’s most popular achievement. For this sort of analysis, Sir Ivone can deploy his assets fully. The chapter on the Matteotti crisis is particularly enlightening, since it digests a wealth of new material which has until now been available only in Italian. The one fault I find with the author’s method is his tendency to cite unidentified “informants”—which may be necessary to protect the individuals in question, but is frustrating to the student trying to clear up a disputed point. Fortunately this is not true of Sir Ivone’s conversations with Count Dino Grandi, the last of the great survivors, whose motion before the Grand Council of Fascism in July 1943 precipitated Mussolini’s fall.
The latter part of the book suffers from two related flaws that gradually become apparent as the Second World War approaches. From 1930 on, Sir Ivone concentrates almost exclusively on Mussolini’s foreign and military policy: in particular the Duce’s visits back and forth with Hitler are narrated in exhausting detail. But here the author has very little new to offer: he is tracing ground already gone over in detail by Deakin and Miss Wiskemann and a number of others. As a result a certain staleness sets in; even the style gets flatter, as the focus on Mussolini blurs, and the old saws about appeasement appear in predictable sequence.
Sir Ivone seems at first to stake out a new approach. He almost but not quite rehabilitates the “Stresa Front”—the short-lived Anglo-French-Italian alignment against Hitler, which collapsed at the outbreak of Mussolini’s Ethiopian war. It is characteristic both of Sir Ivone’s fair-mindedness and of his limited range of vision that he tries to give the Duce the benefit of the doubt in the distintegration of the Stresa Front—but he fails to develop this supremely diplomatic might-have-been. He draws back from retracing the untraveled road which throughout the 1930s figured as the ideological preserve of the French Right. He does this for a thoroughly understandable reason: while refraining from the sort of retrospective moral lectures to statesmen that make most accounts of the 1930s so self-righteously depressing, he is too decent a man to subscribe to Realpolitik without reservation. The result once again is confusion and a blurring of focus.
Sir Ivone’s concentration on wars and preparation for them crowds out any detailed analysis of Fascism’s internal evolution. After no more than five perfunctory pages on the consolidation of the dictatorship, he drops the subject almost entirely. We learn virtually nothing of the clandestine opposition or of the contrast between theory and reality in the corporative state; there is not a word about the Palazzo Vidoni agreement of 1925 which seated the bargain between big capital and the regime—a key event for which even Halperin’s spare account finds room; there is very little on how the lives of the Italian people changed as the dictatorship decayed at the top. While Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick has given us the best general work on Mussolini that has appeared to date, he has barely touched on much that is of first importance in the Duce’s career. Not until some further book succeeds in combining character analysis and a sophisticated discussion of foreign policy with a really professional assessment of Fascism’s effect on Italian society and the Italian economy, will we be able to understand Mussolini and the regime he founded in their full complexity.
For from our present-day vantage point, what is most interesting about Mussolini is not his heroic behavior or clownish antics (depending on how one chooses to regard his public postures) nor even his international doings. The Duce’s eruptions on the international scene were seldom of decisive importance; even his supreme moment—when he played the mediator at Munich—came about less from his own initiative than from the fact that his appearance in this capacity saved face for both Hitler and Chamberlain. In retrospect we realize that Mussolini’s countrymen simply did not have the resources or temperament to figure in the leonine role he had marked out for them. The best that the Duce could have hoped for was to keep his bluff from being called. In that case—if, like Franco, he had had the wit to stay out of the Second World War—he might have lined up among the recipients of American economic aid in the post-war era and died peacefully in his bed.
Mussolini’s permanent significance lies rather in having epitomized a system of rule that is now looking more and more like a period piece from the inter-war years. For a full decade after 1945 the alarm kept being spread that Fascism was reviving—in Italy, in Germany, in France, or perhaps in all three together. It never happened: the worst that occurred was some transitory electoral success on the part of “the nostalgic.” And this for a very good reason: the economic and social circumstances from which the Fascist movements had arisen were steadily disappearing. The curious juxtaposition of quasi-feudal and modern-industrial conditions that characterized interwar Germany and Italy was giving way to a social situation resembling that of the United States. After the mid-1950s, prosperity and social mobility together killed what was left of the Fascist attitude. Or, to put it more cynically, Fascism became unnecessary when populations began to behave in a politically apathetic and disciplined fashion under regimes which remained democratic in form. That is the final reason why any study of the Fascist phenomenon should have economics and sociology at its core.
July 9, 1964