Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini; drawing by David Levine

Mussolini’s conquest of power in 1922 opened a brutally unhappy period for Italy as well as for the rest of the world. Whether or not he made the tourist railways run on time, whether he hindered or encouraged the growth of communism, these may be debatable points; what is undeniable is that he turned his own country into a shambles. Worse, he ended by dividing Italians against themselves in a fierce civil war which it took the statesmanship and good sense of many years to placate. How was he given the power that enabled him to do this? And why was he allowed to govern Italy for twice as long as any other Italian ruler of modern times?

An earlier generation of historians did not do much to help us answer this kind of question. Gioacchino Volpe and the fascist intellectuals had their own reasons for wanting to depict the revolution of 1922 as quite unconnected with what they described as the disreputable liberalism that had gone before. At the other extreme, Benedetto Croce, when he published his History of Italy, 1871-1915, five years after Mussolini’s rise to power, tried hard to demonstrate that all had been for the best in the very best of liberal worlds, and hence that fascism could be regarded only as a strangely inexplicable interlude in Italian history.

This comfortable attitude must in large part be attributable to a failure in self-examination. The same failure helps to explain why Croce, Giovanni Giolitti, and most other Italian liberals were caught unprepared by the events of 1922. Giolitti, who had been Prime Minister five times between 1892 and 1921, was a remarkable politician, and upon him and his colleagues fell the main task of facing the great problems created by World War I. That he ignored some of the underlying weaknesses in society and politics was to prove important to the future of Italy.

Subsequent writers have done a good deal to fit the events of 1915-25 into a more consequential pattern, but the decade is still riddled with problems and controversies. Several new studies of modern Italian history are therefore the more welcome. Professor Serge Hughes and Mr. Christopher Seton-Watson both write from a central position and have few prejudices which anyone is likely to find offensive. Professor Hughes’s approach has been strongly conditioned by the recent coalition in Italy between Christian Democrats and socialism, and he uses this Center-Left alliance as a point from which to observe Italian history since 1890. He takes the story down to the present day, and it is probably his later chapters which will be found most useful. He is strongest in intellectual history, particularly on the socialist Left; but in general he is content to be impressionistic, and the texture of his book is loose, while his cavalier attitude to dates and factual accuracy (Brindisi placed in Calabria!) makes him an often unreliable guide.

Mr. Seton-Watson, on the other hand, who has almost nothing to say on the history of ideas and has only a brief epilogue on the years after 1925, has written a thorough and even meticulous political history with plentiful footnotes and a useful bibliography. Except for a brief study of Anglo-Italian relations in the 1890s, he disclaims having done any original research on unpublished material, and his object has not been to throw new light on individual episodes: what he has done, however, is almost as important, for not even in Italian does there exist a comparable survey which covers the years 1870-1925 in such detail. By excluding other factors he has obtained a high concentration on parliamentary and particularly on diplomatic events. Within these self-imposed limitations he writes good narrative history, unsensational, even-keeled, and fair.

But, although excellent in detailed exposition, Mr. Seton-Watson is not so effective in using narrative to support his general conclusions. Often general remarks and judgments seem to be tacked on reluctantly as if to please those who have no stomach for the real stuff. “The makers of Italy had built well,” is his concluding sentence: and this despite the fact that the climax of his volume is 1925, the darkest moment in Italy’s modern history, when she became an avowedly police state. He praises “the foundations laid by Cavour, consolidated by Depretis, strengthened and broadened by Giolitti”—until one wonders how on earth Mussolini found himself virtually without opposition in 1922.

Nevertheless, the relevant facts are sufficiently recorded here to show something rather different, namely that the liberal politicians, lacking any consistent interpretation of liberal theory and practice, ended by almost competing against one another in their desire to invite Mussolini into power. Most of them were ready to collaborate with a man who bragged openly of having beaten the stinking corpse of liberty into a pulp. The founding fathers may have built well up to a point, but not well enough to ride out a really serious storm. The built-in checks and balances simply failed to work when the test came.


The parliamentary paralysis of 1922 was in fact nothing new, nor was the liking among many liberals for authoritarianism. Mr. Seton-Watson, however, while admitting this, underplays the fact. One or two minor inaccuracies, unimportant in themselves, also help to blur or mask some of the inherently weak points in the parliamentary system which Depretis and Giolitti created. He says that Giolitti in the eighteenth Italian legislature annulled more elections than any Prime Minister before him; which is not true. He says that Crispi’s long period of government without parliament in the 1890s was unprecedented; which is also incorrect. In both cases there were precedents for these lapses from the norm.

Since this book has only forty pages on the period before 1870, it does not spend much time analyzing the foundations laid by Camille Cavour when Italy became a united nation in 1861. While it agrees that Cavour was the principal architect of Italian parliamentary traditions, it nevertheless misreads some of the elements of the system as it was first practiced. For example, when approving mention is made of Cavour’s delirious statements on his deathbed against governing southern Italy by martial law, this is to use a dubious fact to cover an undeniable and unmentioned truth, namely that in practice Cavour applied martial law in the south with vigor. When it is said that Rattazzi, under pressure from the King, resigned from the cabinet, this also gives a completely false impression, for the truth was that Cavour simply dismissed Rattazzi on what amounted to orders from France: Cavour stood no nonsense nor any opposition from members of his cabinet, though he was ready to take much more direction from a foreign power than his admirers were ready to admit.

These may be small points, but it is not without historical importance that they were ignored by earlier Italian historiography. The reason why they were ignored (even to the point of fabricating documents) was that they might be taken as an insult to the great founding father. It was not appreciated that they could as well be taken as showing his great skill and spregiudicatezza as a politician; or indeed that they might even demonstrate his ability as an undoctrinaire, effective liberal.

Partly as a result of this deliberate attempt to deceive posterity, a later generation of politicians failed to recognize some weak elements in the great parliamentary tradition, and so allowed Mussolini to steal on them unaware. But there is less excuse to perpetuate this failure of knowledge today. To repeat now, as Mr. Seton-Watson does, that patriotism and liberalism had been “barely distinguishable” in the period 1815-1870 is to repeat something which is not only a cliché, but a cliché which is demonstrably false. The fact that this lack of awareness was also once politically dangerous need no longer concern us so much.

BOTH AUTHORS make the interesting and useful point that “legal” and “real” Italy were still wide apart in 1900—the legal Italy of government and parliament being set against the real Italy of ordinary citizens. So far apart were they that some southern peasants existed for whom L’Italia, or La Talia, was thought to be, and went on being thought to be, the name of the King’s wife. When the Pope repeatedly excommunicated the leaders of Italy and forbade private citizens to vote in parliamentary elections, that merely made official what already seemed to be an almost unbridgeable gap between the people and the government, for most citizens had no vote anyway and were therefore the object of very little parliamentary solicitude.

The Church was part of “real” Italy, as one can observe from the extraordinary change which came about in the composition of parliament as soon as universal suffrage allowed the religious feelings of ordinary citizens to have political expression. That Church and State were unreconciled, and that so many of the peasants were permanently disaffected are two fundamental facts of Italian history after 1870. The very size of the gap between ordinary citizens and a narrow ruling class was one more reason why liberal Italy capitulated in 1922. Both authors agree on one thing about that year. They think that a Catholic-socialist alliance might have saved liberal Italy. Yet such an alliance was barely conceivable, and neither Catholics nor socialists would have had much interest in defending a liberal system which had proved itself so intolerant and unaccommodating.

On the subject of relations with the Church, Mr. Seton-Watson is fair to Cavour and his successors, but less so to the other side. He generously uses the word “ambiguity” rather than “deception” about the way in which Italy, after formally guaranteeing the frontiers of the Papal States in order to persuade the French to withdraw their garrison from Rome, in 1870 invaded what was left of papal territory as soon as the French had left. He praises the “liberal vision” of the Church held by conservative Italian politicians, and states that it was the Pope who was in no mood for compromise; but one could argue that it was the secular politicians who refused to discuss any compromise which would leave them with less than the full substance of victory. It is not sufficiently stressed that this liberal vision included not only ending the temporal power of the Pope, but confiscating vast amounts of Church property, forcibly dissolving the monasteries, and expelling Catholic deputies from parliament. Such anti-clericalism may or may not have been a necessary and desirable consequence of the patriotic movement in Italy, but quite apart from its merits one must also note its result, for it effectively drove successive Popes into an exaggerated antiliberalism which was to burden the Church and the world until today. The divorce between “real” and “legal” Italy thus helped to undermine the parliamentary system. Only with this in mind can one fully understand the divisions between Catholics and non-Catholics at a critical moment in 1922, and the favor shown by a later Pope toward Mussolini as the “man sent by providence.”


Professor Hughes has some good comments on Church-State relationships, for his concern is not just with legal Italy but with society as a whole. Though he is unnecessarily disparaging about what he calls pure scholarship, his interests are wide, and many will find his book the more readable of the two. But it is far the less weighty. Mr. Seton-Watson’s preoccupation is almost entirely with legal Italy, with government and the power groups aspiring to political authority. He has not a word about Marconi or Gaetano Mosca; nothing on Lombroso, Puccini, or Montessori; very little indeed on the Marxism of Professor Labriola or the idealist philosophy of Croce; and Francesco De Sanctis, though he was a cabinet minister as well as a great educationalist, appears only in a footnote. These omissions are noted here not in criticism, but to stress the point that this book is political history, tough and uncompromising, and the insights it gives into modern Italy are to that extent limited.

ALTHOUGH ONE CANNOT OBJECT to the themes chosen, there is nevertheless some room to doubt whether Mr. Seton-Watson has the field of vision properly in focus. Economic and social history are deliberately left out except in so far as they are needed to provide “the minimum framework within which political events become intelligible.” But how far is that? The author gives one clue to a possible answer when he notes that the inability to understand economic affairs was one factor in forcing Italian statesmen into disastrous political situations which they could not control; and in the same way it is arguable in this case that the politics would make much better sense if backed by a fuller discussion on society and the economy.

The victory of the Left in 1876 and the political turbulence of the 1890s are for this reason left insufficiently clear. So is the defeat of Caporetto and general collapse of morale in 1917, to say nothing of the attitude of public opinion toward Mussolini. Who the southern latifondisti were who apparently had so much influence, and whether they were the same as the southern middle class who “monopolized political power,” are the kind of questions left in the air. A straightforward error of fact, for instance when it is said that only in Piedmont had a silk industry taken root, makes it possible to misunderstand the “southern problem” and to underestimate the political weight of Lombard industrialists. In matters of culture too, to be able to assert that after 1900 “French culture dominated educated Italians,” or to consider Croce only as a politician and not also as the “lay Pope” of Italy, is to miss some influences which were bound to affect politics as well as other aspects of life.

Something of the balance of Italy from Liberalism to Fascism is shown by the fact that it includes a dozen pages on Albania but only half a sentence on Sardinia. Foreign policy is the field in which it will be mainly found valuable, and the published diplomatic documents of Italy, France, Britain, and Germany have been used with professional skill and industry. Diplomatic history makes a very exacting kind of research, and when treated on such a scale one can understand how this volume took twenty-five years in the writing.

The Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy would not be everyone’s choice, but it is a fascinating subject for those with the patience to follow the sometimes Byzantine subtleties of one foreign minister after another as they dealt with constantly changing problems. It is fairly clear from the story as told here that all three members of the alliance regarded it as merely a scrap of paper, designed as much to diddle their allies as to terrify any common enemy. One interesting question is how far diplomatic decisions were reached by calculation, or by drift. Another is how far, if at all, such decisions influenced the general course of events. How far successive diplomats ever meant what they said—or even realized the implications of their decisions—these are further questions which will engage the mind of a reader. General conclusions are rarely stated by Mr. Seton-Watson, and when stated are not always plausible. For instance, when he says that “the aim of the ablest Italian statesmen has been to reduce the causes of tension,” one wonders if foreign policy has been correctly understood: certainly this assertion would exclude not only Crispi and Mussolini but also Cavour, and the narrative demonstrates convincingly that no other practitioner in this field could hold a candle to that supreme master, with his mixture of imagination and ruthlessness, deceit and idealism. The same facts show with equal conclusiveness that foreign policy after 1870 was one of the graver weaknesses of one Italian administration after another.

Successive politicians thus went on encouraging a crippling expenditure on armaments which at one point made Italy the third naval power in the world; but during the course of a hundred years these grandiose battleships proved completely useless to this essentially poor country except as a source of emotional satisfaction and as a minor, unquantifiable deterrent. It is also instructive to observe the clever way in which Cavour managed to negotiate simultaneously with both sides to a conflict, and then compare it with the clumsy manner in which the same thing was done by Salandra in 1914-15. Mr. Seton-Watson has an excellent passage on the way in which Italy in 1919 sent two representatives to the Versailles conference who disagreed so basically with each other on foreign policy that Italy “lost the peace.” That Sonnino and Orlando could perpetuate confusion by remaining in the same cabinet is one example of how Cavour’s successors, misled by the general historical tradition, went on trying to imitate what they mistakenly thought was his kind of coalition government, and in the process brought their own country to its knees. Italy at this decisive moment in 1919 had no foreign policy—and perhaps not only in 1919.

THE TREATMENT of parliamentary politics is equally detailed in Mr. Seton-Watson’s book, but here he is less sure in his touch, and an excessive reliance on the journalistic and sometimes inaccurate Cilibrizzi was a mistake. Detailed episodes are faithfully recorded but the general impression is often left confused. For example, on the very important and still slightly controversial question of what was Giolittismo, he says at one moment that Giolitti’s political technique was to use a minimum of electoral pressure, while at another point he says that opponents were hounded out of their seats. We are also told of the personal bargains which were the basis of his power, and then of his refusal ever to stoop to corridor intrigues of any kind. We are informed that Giolitti was cold, distant, and inscrutable, and then of the human touch at which he was unrivaled. We are also told, improbably, that when he allied with fascism on an anti-socialist program in 1921, his real object was to force the socialists into collaborating with him. In 1921 Giolitti ordered the prefects to curb fascist violence, but he is also said at the same time to have disapproved of repressive action; yet the socialists are called unfair for accusing him of allowing fascist violence to continue.

These confusions may be more apparent than real, but they are nonetheless a serious barrier to comprehension, and they give the impression of having derived from an insufficient command of the evidence. The breakdown of Giolitti’s system of parliamentary politics when confronted by fascism, though narrated in great detail, therefore lacks clarity. A good deal is said on the fatal blindness of the Socialists in continuing to split up into small groups which were ineffective against fascism, but there is little criticism of the liberals who did the very same thing. Come to that, there is not enough to explain on what points of policy (and why) Giolitti, Nitti, Orlando, Salandra, Sonnino, Amendola, Albertini, and the rest of these liberals disagreed with one another; and yet this is an essential point. Some of the decisive political battles were not between them and non-liberals, but between different factions of the same “liberal party” which claimed to descend from Cavour. To explain these differences, however, might have involved going too far away from straight political narrative than the space available in this volume would have allowed.

This Issue

October 24, 1968