The Great Pretender

Mussolini's Roman Empire

by Denis Mack Smith
Viking, 322 pp., $12.95

Benito Mussolini was the last of the romantic revolutionaries, a man born after his time and gone sour. In the nineteenth century he might have been one of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. More likely he would have been at home with Bakunin, hatching ineffective conspiracies with nonexistent conspirators. As it was, Mussolini’s conspiracy succeeded. To his own misfortune and that of Italy, he found himself at the head of a great state. After twenty years of bombast, he brought Italy and himself to ruin.

There was no coherent policy in the Fascism that Mussolini created. His original aim was to acquire power, preferably by violence. In this latter ambition he did not succeed. He was appointed prime minister by the king in constitutional fashion, and the March on Rome was for Mussolini an overnight journey from Milan. Mussolini entered his sleeping car in a Black Shirt and stepped out in top hat and tail coat—a parable of the variations between respectability and revolution that he maintained thereafter. Sometimes he was the champion of international order; sometimes he announced European upheaval.

Mussolini had one considerable gift: he was a forceful genius, and all his genius went into words. Fascism itself was a work of propaganda, not a serious program. Mussolini said as much: Fascism was Action for its own sake, and even Action had only a propagandist intent. Mack Smith remarks that when Mussolini reviewed troops during the war “he liked to run down the line at the double, because he was not interested in inspecting them so much as in their deriving confidence from observing his own physique and martial bearing.” Similarly, when I made a television biography of Mussolini some years ago, I was struck by the violence of his appearances in the contemporary newsreels.

Mussolini was mainly concerned with home affairs in his first years of power. He claimed to have restored order—after the disorders that he had himself inspired. In the claptrap phrase, he made the trains run on time. His one solid achievement was to drain the Pontine marshes, though this too had its propagandist side. Fascism was presented as a new form of society. In reality all that Mussolini did was to stabilize the lira at an overvalued rate. In the face of the Great Depression Mussolini was as much at a loss as everyone else. This was perhaps why he turned to foreign adventures. Mussolini had always enjoyed the conspiratorial side of foreign affairs, such as his gun-running to Hungary and the Austrian Fascists. But in the 1920s he also enjoyed being the pillar of European peace, duly courted by the statesmen who met at Locarno.

Mussolini’s foreign policy in its aggressive years is the central theme of Mack Smith’s book. After an introduction on Mussolini’s somewhat futile colonial plans, the book really starts with the Ethiopian war of 1935-1936 and virtually ends with the defeat of the Italian armies in North Africa at the end of 1940, after which Italy became the helpless…

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