The Not So Great Dictator

Mussolini: An Intimate Biography by His Widow

by Rachele Mussolini, as told to Albert Zarca
Morrow, 274 pp., $8.95

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini; drawing by David Levine

Perhaps the ruin of Benito Mussolini was Giuseppe Garibaldi, the legendary hero of the Risorgimento. Like Mussolini, Garibaldi was a rough, self-taught, and credulous man of the people; in his youth he had had utopian and confused revolutionary ideas, but, in the end, he rallied to the king and, perhaps unwittingly, became a prop of the establishment. His ardent patriotism inflamed Italian radical nationalists, with pernicious consequences. His charm was magic, scores of women fell in love with him and men died for him in his presence and smiled. Garibaldi was always or almost always victorious (in reality he fought brilliant guerrilla skirmishes which piety later turned into vast and tidy battles); he was the first to be called Il Duce, a pompous nineteenth-century opera libretto title, by antonomasia (Mussolini had been called Il Duce by his socialist followers before 1914 and took the title with him to the Fascist party).

Garibaldi was also the first to dress his followers in colored shirts. His luck (or his self-knowledge) however spared him from being saddled with the sober responsibilities of government, the tedious administration of provinces, the solution of serious problems, and the making of policy. He was usually in charge of little more than a brigade, for a few months at a time, never the supreme commander of vast armies in conflict among nations. His solid reputation as a magnetic Pied Piper of Italian youth, founder of the left, and a military miracle worker rests on the fact that he retired early to an obscure private life, practically to exile, on the Sardinian island of Caprera. The government of the time saw to it he did not leave this refuge without permission.

What ruined Mussolini, above all, was the idea that Garibaldi’s career seemed to demonstrate to Italians, the idea that, if only the right superman could be found, there always was an easy way out of the most arduous crisis. Garibaldi’s life seemed to prove that Italy could be spared the necessary uphill struggle to improve its lot (and the opinion others had of it) if it trusted its destiny to a demiurge generally resembling him, who would lead the people to glory and prosperity without “blood, sweat, and tears.” (The words are Garibaldi’s. He used them in an 1849 proclamation.) This belief in the national hero, to be sure, is not an Italian delusion alone. Many nations have been its victims (or beneficiaries), some of them several times—France, for instance, three times in little more than a century and a half. Incidentally, to fire men’s imaginations in a sleepy and archaic country such a hero must proclaim outlandish revolutionary ideals, that is, inspire the hope of escaping the present by dreaming of a radiant future, and remind his countrymen of their glorious history, thus giving them the hope to escape the present by finding refuge in a partly imaginary…

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