In a quarter of the city which was inhabited only by mechanics and Jews, the marriage of an innkeeper and a washerwoman produced the future deliverer of Rome. From such parents Nicholas Rienzi Gabrini could inherit neither dignity nor fortune; and the gift of a liberal education, which they so painfully bestowed, was the cause of his glory and untimely end. The study of history and eloquence, the writings of Cicero, Seneca, Livy, Caesar, and Valerius Maximus elevated above his equals and contemporaries the genius of the young plebeian. He perused with indefatigable diligence the manuscripts and marbles of antiquity, loved to dispense his knowledge in familiar language and was often provoked to exclaim, “Where are now these Romans—their virtue, their justice, their power? Why was I not born in those happy times?”
In the death, as in the life of Rienzi, the hero and the coward were strangely mingled.
—Gibbon on Cola di Rienzi
Echoes resound now and then in the history of every nation; but for Italy’s they roll forth in unbroken succession. Thus: “In a small house outside the village of Predappio, the marriage of an innkeeper and a schoolmistress produced the future conqueror of Rome.”
Denis Mack Smith’s style seldom reaches for the key of ironic majesty even when the object of its engagement has been some ghost he admires; and in Mussolini’s case this preference for the downright tone is fortified by the disdain that any man of his sovereign common sense is bound to feel after emerging from the middens of florid and counterfeit paper through which he has burrowed to extricate his trophy.
All the same, no contrast in manner of presentation can quite obscure the common import of Gibbon’s material and Mack Smith’s. Gibbon reminds us that Petrarch assigned to Rienzi “the name and sacred character of a poet.” When Pirandello saluted the conquest of Ethiopia, he said of Mussolini: “The Author of this great feat is also a Poet who knows his trade.” Even those of us who are sure that Rienzi deserves better from history—the shade of Mussolini has a dog’s chance of finding its Wagner—can only be confounded when we contemplate a culture so perdurable that 582 years go by and one grand master employs the very metaphor for his triumphant duce that an even grander master summoned up for his fallen tribune.
Mack Smith’s Mussolini is a portrait in every way admirable; but if it does not manage to be as wonderful as his awesome industry ought to have made it, we can only blame that falling short on its deafness to the echoes. After a while there arises the suspicion that he has almost willfully stuffed his ears. An unclouded appreciation of reality is not often among the rewards of a great love; and Mack Smith has a love for Italy that can only be called great, and that I would be the last man alive to think misplaced. To him Italy is a lifelong mistress, which means that he cannot conceive her affair with Mussolini except as one of those freakish escapades that a restored lover can only dispose of by rendering the severest justice to her seducer and the uttermost mercy to herself.
We need to go to other quarters to discover how many untarnished vessels of the national culture intermittently overflowed with enthusiasm for fascism. Mack Smith identifies Arturo Toscanini as an early fascist, a lapse excused by its brevity. And yet, if Toscanini was the first genuine ornament of the Fascist Party permanently to recoil from it, he had nonetheless been one of the twenty candidates the party offered in the National Assembly elections of 1919, by which time it had already made clear on the streets of Milan that thuggery was a political expression that suited its preferences infinitely more than parliamentary rhetoric ever could.
Mack Smith passes over this evidence of how much Toscanini was able to swallow before final revulsion, and avoids mentioning Benedetto Croce until it can be noticed that he “utterly repudiated the movement in 1925.” Utter repudiation is a flatter description than Croce’s ambiguities entirely deserve: as Pirandello donated his Nobel Prize medal, Croce served up his own Senatorial medal to be smelted into some weapon for the Ethiopian war, a war which makes our own intrusions into Vietnam seem almost high-minded.
Shortly before his death in 1923, the revered economist Vilfredo Pareto adjured the freshly anointed Premier Mussolini to be “merciless.” The scientist Marconi, the composers Mascagni and Respighi, and even the young Enrico Fermi all felt honored to be members of the Fascist Academy.1 To overlook Mussolini’s ability to addle heads as august and subtle as these is to under-value his not implausible claim to have been the most creative and consequential figure in mankind’s political development since 1920.2
Our century has come up with too few improvements in the way it manages to govern, but it has marvelously advanced, while coarsening, the techniques for controlling the governed; and Mussolini is to this dreadful science what the Wright Brothers were to aviation and Colonel Tom Parker to rock-and-roll.
Any day’s passage through Rockefeller Center suffices to convince us that Mussolini’s aesthetic taste is our century’s dominant one. He does not deserve to be saddled with all the blame; the style of public building has been so dominantly totalitarian for so long that it could well be argued that Borromini was the last purely antifascist architect. Mussolini clearly read the case as such, since, Mack Smith tells us, the Rome he envisioned as his monument would have razed “all the ‘filthy picturesque’ houses of ‘the centuries of decadence’ (which in his book included the baroque and the Counter-Reformation) so that the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Capitol, and the Tomb of Augustus would stand alone in imperial majesty.”
Figures or anyway figurines cast from his mold are all over the landscape. Qadhafi is, of course, almost a replica, but that was to be expected; the posturings of their overlords are dangerous contagions for colonial children; and Qadhafi’s bearing probably owes as much to his mother’s awe at some sight of Italo Balbo, Libya’s last Italian governor general, as a Ghanaian justice’s wig does to the Old Bailey. Still, when Mack Smith notes the fallen Mussolini’s prediction that fascism would “still prove to have been the dominant ideology of the century” he is citing the one promise springing from the Duce’s vainglory that was not a delusion.
We cannot truly appreciate the pervasive realization of this prophecy unless we remember that “fascism” is a word whose connotations can embrace both left and right. The sheaf and the axe served as emblems of the Sicilian proletarian and peasant strikes thirteen years before Mussolini adopted them. They are simply recalls to past national glory, in this instance the Roman Republic; and their name has no more tangible meaning than OVRA, the title Mussolini selected for his secret police on the solid presumption that this parade of initials which stood for nothing whatsoever had just the ring needed to sound the proper note of omniscience and threat.
Mack Smith has no trouble convincing us that, beyond the bastone, the phantasm of the all-seeing leader, and a windy bellicosity, there was no such thing as a fascist philosophy. By the standard of its own professions we cannot even describe it as an operative system. The “corporate state” was never more than an expensive myth; it served only as a feeding ground of otherwise unemployable fascists and, says Mack Smith, “its functions were not clear except that it cost a lot of money and sometimes acted to clog the wheels of industry.” In 1940, when Mussolini succeeded in hurling Italy into the war he conceived as its prime purpose for existence, its infantrymen were worse-equipped, worse-led, and smaller in numbers than the armies that took the field in 1915.
But then we do Mussolini’s genius an injustice if we subject what were only slogans to the tests applicable to hypotheses; as political scientist, he never extended his teaching range beyond the means for taking and holding power. “I put my finger on the pulse of the masses,” he once wrote, “and suddenly discovered…that a public opinion was waiting for me, and I just had to make it recognize me through my newspaper.” It is useless to judge a thinker by the ideas he grasps from the vagrant air; Mussolini’s was one of those talents that prove themselves not by the quality of the catch but by the instinct that dares to grasp.
That supreme Italian bourgeois, Pietro Nenni, used to retail an anecdote that he likely invented—because Mack Smith is both the most tireless and the most scrupulous of scholars, which means that he could not have missed and would not have omitted it if it deserved belief.
Nenni and Mussolini had been close socialist comrades in the Romagna until the First World War divided them; and Nenni was even said to have been Edda Ciano’s godfather; and he might well have been if both he and her father had not been febrilely anticlerical and if, for that matter, Mussolini and his Donna Rachele had been married at the time. In any case the vestiges of ancient companionship remained assertive enough to induce Mussolini, when he got around to arresting Nenni, to consign him to the island of Ponza, the pleasantest of his holding pens. After his unfrocking in 1943, his successors transported Mussolini to Ponza; and he arrived just when Nenni was preparing to depart as beneficiary of a general amnesty for antifascists.
As Nenni told the tale, he was on his way to embark for freedom when he met the beached Mussolini marching toward internment. Nenni was disinclined to social converse; and the overture fell to Mussolini.
“Ah, Pietro,” Nenni used to say he said, “you go. I come. Who cares, so long as it serves socialism?”
So fascism will forever endure if only, as Huey Long acutely noticed, in the name of antifascism. Now and again, Mack Smith informs us, there “were moments when it was hoped that Stalin might be moving towards corporativism and ‘state capitalism’ and possibly might be becoming something akin to a fascist.” In 1937, the fascist censors cleared for publication a study by R. Butoni, whose title was Russia: Trionfo del Fascismo.
Mussolini held, in Mack Smith’s summary, that “the masses…did not want discussion or debate; they preferred to be commanded, and he admitted that his attitude here was the same as Stalin’s.”
Contempt for the governed is, of course, among the fundaments of fascism’s set of values; that much if no more of Mussolini’s assessment was shared by that great refiner of systems for manipulating a free electorate, our own Richard Nixon. The first reference to a “silent majority” came, if not from Mussolini’s own lips, at least from those of his incense bearers.3
In his guess that he and Stalin might be approaching cousinhood if not twinhood, Mussolini was nearer the mark than the run of his contemporaries; but then he had the advantage of a common experience, since both were revolutionaries who had in quick time accomplished the journey from enthusiasm to imposture. As a general rule, any revolution calling itself socialist and revering a leader who seems to sleep in his uniform is an expression of the fascist spirit. Tito and Mussolini both commissioned themselves marshals, which is all we need to know to understand that Tito’s workers’ councils doubtless inhabited the same realms of the imagination as Mussolini’s corporations did.
Castro is singular for having held absolute power for twenty years and avoided becoming a much worse man in the process. But however more conscious of Garibaldi as model and inspiration Castro may be, those pictures of him cutting sugar cane evoke the bare-chested Mussolini plunged into the battle for wheat. Communism and fascism are not theories of government, but ways to police.
And yet, club, spy, and detention camp aside, how does such awfulness not just hold its sway but even command a measure of admiration in the society it abuses? There had to be a side of Mussolini that Italy found appealing; and, if Mack Smith’s distaste debars him from wondering what that might have been, his material offers rich ground for credible surmise.
Although Mack Smith disdains Italian Fascism’s boast of direct descent from Mazzini and Garibaldi, that assertion is not unpersuasive once we set aside the lofty character of those progenitors of Mussolini’s fancy. We are, after all, dealing with a country of nationalists with no reason for assurance that they lived anywhere that they could yet confidently identify as a nation. Even those of us who look at the statues in the Villa Borghese and rejoice to have found a land where Toscanini will always be Pope must sympathize with those Italians who felt that the Risorgimento had to be something of a cheat once it had been concluded with the ascension of a crude and upstart Piedmontese dynasty with little more entitlement to veneration than dukes of Tuscany or even kings of the Two Sicilies.
And, since they knew themselves swindled, Italians understandably gave way to the illusion that merely to swell the country meant to overcome the multitude of doubts about its reality. In his decrepitude, Mack Smith reminds us, Mazzini cried out for “a patriotic war to secure Italy’s ‘natural frontiers’ of language and race.” Croce and Pirandello also thought that they did not yet have a nation and imagined that real estate would give them one; and so they cheered on colonial wars while far less refined citizens of other countries had sickened of them long before.
The other Italian disease for which Mussolini arrived as an infection pretending to be a serum was the same itch to be modern that curses the third world. That would explain his temporary affinity for the Futurists, who, in their discontent at being stranded in a society that in some sectors had but recently entered the age of steam, sought to leap, without intervening pauses, directly into the age of the diesel.4
Mussolini the plebeian could not have become Mussolini the god if he had not made his assault upon an Italy equally dosed with reverence for La Patria and contempt for the country. For the ravages of this contradiction, we need only look at Giovanni Giolitti. He had been five times premier of Italy and, at eighty-two, did not abandon hopes of a return until Mussolini had been in power for a year. By then the parliamentary system was in process of destruction and Giolitti knew that Mussolini had ordered his telephone tapped. And this old liberal’s only comment was that in fascism the Italians at last got the government they deserved.
Hypochondria was the prescribed response for every wise man who examined the health of the state, and its pervasive symptom was an outsized alarm whenever there was the feeblest stirring from below. Such fears were fascism’s capital. Its chaos was barely noticed because it was mistaken for the order that had saved and still protected Italy from Bolshevik chaos. Mack Smith has little trouble disposing of that misconception; and no one moderately familiar with postwar Italian communism will be surprised that it was easy work for him.
Italy’s greatest anarchist could never have been as admired as he became if he had not been a Malatesta da Rimini. The communists themselves are so acutely aware of Italy’s class wall that their leadership succession seems almost a reflection of continual struggle for social acceptability. Their general secretaries have all come from Sardinia: first Gramsci, like Machiavelli, the son of a small bourgeois impoverished because accused of embezzlement; then Togliatti, the lawyer scion of a more secure middle-class family; and now Berlinguer, a count.5
Mussolini must then be assigned his place among the dominant majority of statesmen who get their chance not because they fit the needs of their time but because they are particularly suitable repositories of its misapprehensions.
If Mack Smith’s portrait seems in some vague way finally unsatisfactory, we can only blame, even while admiring, the defect of a standard for human virtue that inhibits intimate engagement with a character so rascally. Not many personages enter history unless their contemporaries to some degree suspend disbelief; and no chronicle can be as rich as it ought to be without a pinch of that credulity. Whenever a biographer sets out to deal with a protagonist who disgusts him, he is off on a heroic but unpromising adventure. We will be continually too conscious of the ten-foot pole.
But if Mack Smith’s scorn debars him from a vivid enough evocation of Mussolini, it is most serviceable in explaining his peculiar force. To deny him pretty much every other talent is to isolate and thus highlight his singular genius, which was that “he was probably the best popular journalist of the day.”
He found his way after trying and failing on several others. He began as a teacher; and the end of each school year was the signal for him to begin scouring for a classroom in some other town because his appointment had not been renewed. The causes of offense were invariably the same: his private life was raffish and his teaching style was tyrannical. In due course, his students would have their vengeance; he had first started threateningly gazing upon his Donna Rachele when she was his seven-year-old pupil; and she repaid him by bullying him throughout the last twenty-five years of their marriage.
He cast off the discouragements of these rude academies for the vocation of fulltime socialist functionary; and, given his subsequent history, we are less surprised to be told that he was languid in matters of organization than we are to learn that he was in no way charismatic as a street agitator. He was like Grant in Galena when he got his liberating chance as a subeditor of Popolo, a forum for Italian irredentist discontents in the still-Austrian provinces of Trentino.
“Though it lasted only a month,” Mack Smith says, “his experience of working on a daily paper was excellent training. He remembered how it taught him many tricks of the trade, including how to invent a news story and how to write a whole article about some non-event without arousing disbelief. Few other lessons of his life were to be more useful.”
He had at a stroke happened upon the debased principles of a certain kind of journalism that served as his philosophy of government for the rest of his career:
…he had discovered that readers liked extreme views and rarely bothered much about inconsistency. If he appeared successively…as socialist and then conservative, as monarchist and then republican, this was less out of muddle-headedness than out of a search for striking headlines and a wish to become all things to all men….
The technique that he recommended was to be always “electric” and “explosive.” He took pride in being able to write on either side of any subject and in adopting a simple but always forceful line; there was no point in rehearsing all the arguments on an issue, because the object was to sweep readers off their feet, not to provide them with the material for a continuing debate….
One of the valuable lessons he had learnt as a journalist was that the public was easily deceived and an editor could change his views without most readers worrying or even noticing.
I should suppose that only those of us who have reveled in the guilty pleasure of employment on an especially outrageous newspaper can know the full mixture of amusement and horror at the thought of a government controlled by a mentality like its publisher’s. The catechismic style of Stalin’s speeches reminds us of what can happen when a former theological student is let loose upon those he considers the enemies of light and truth; and Mussolini’s administrative practices underline the results of allowing a truly inspired, which is to say lunatic, editor his head.
By 1930, Mack Smith reports, half Italy’s cabinet ministers and half the members of the Grand Council of Fascism were journalists.
Twenty other newspapermen had become senior diplomats and sixty-eight were in parliament. Mussolini commented that they were among the best in each field of public life. In the early years, he once told an assembly of newsmen that they perhaps carried a marshal’s baton in their knapsack, and the reference was apt because they were the nearest equivalent to Napoleon’s marshals.
In democratic societies journalism is often a branch of government; but in Mussolini’s, government was a branch of journalism. Mack Smith seems rather to skimp the connection between Fascism’s catastrophe and this curious reversal of the normal arrangements of nature and reason. He has the excuse of having done that office most handsomely in Mussolini’s Roman Empire (Viking, 1976). We can fully respect the honor of any chef who refuses to reheat an old meal’s leftovers for mixture in another one; but his latest dish might well be more nourishing if he had.
In Mussolini’s Roman Empire, Mack Smith defined the Fascist objective as in essence “to create belief and enthusiasm rather than to make people actually do anything.” Such, of course, is the appointed function of newspapers in wartime.
…at the same time as he needed the reputation of being a great war leader and organiser of victory, [Mussolini] also by instinct saw the usefulness of creating the impression that he could win easily and without great disturbance to the ordinary life of the nation…. Fascism continued to think it a matter for boasting that so little was demanded from Italians and that there was no general mobilisation. To put this differently, resources were considered to be less usefully spent in war production than in fuelling the great propaganda industry that was trying to convince ordinary citizens that all was well. The monthly supplement of Mussolini’s personal paper, the Popolo d’Italia weighed over [three pounds] in May 1940, and its issue of November 1942… was still over [two pounds] despite all the talk about paper shortages.
[His] was an essentially unserious world, where prestige, propaganda, and public statements were all that counted; and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was the central message and the real soft core at the heart of Italian fascism.6
Graham Greene once remarked that Haiti is a tragedy with banana peels. The same incongruity of the fatal and the farcical runs all through Italian Fascism’s history. Dreadful as he was, there is a certain element of the engaging in any Ubermensch who threw away his collection of bowler hats after noticing “that in American comedy films (for which he had a passion…) they were no longer worn except by his favourite stars, Laurel and Hardy.”
The uses of permitting oneself an occasional withering smile are richly demonstrated by Mussolini Unleashed. MacGregor Knox’s researches are hardly less formidable than Smith’s and his narrative posture has the greater lissomeness for being able now and then to unbend and amuse us. Mussolini Unleashed is limited to the year and a half between September 1939, when the Second World War began, and March 1941, when the succession of his disasters in Greece and North Africa had reduced Mussolini’s destiny to helpless dependence upon Hitler’s. The descent from clouds of grandeur to the hard rock of surrender needed only the ten months after June 1940, when Italy entered the war. That short span occupies most of Knox’s compass, and quite suffices to illuminate the true character of a concept of statehood whose fair test and final proof could, Mussolini often said, come only in battle.
Knox’s chronicle of these months makes plain how useless it is to study Italian Fascism as though it ever possessed the elements that any scheme of social management must have before we can call it a system. Its founder was not an architect but an avatar. “A hearty manner in dealing with his generals,” Knox says, “masked a secret inferiority complex that inhibited him from much questioning of their technical advice.”
This unaccustomed diffidence becomes stranger still when we remember that here was an ex-corporal whose chores had ended after he was wounded by a grenade thrower that blew up during a training exercise. That should have been enough to teach him that, whether its business were planning, procurement, or combat management, Italy’s command staff was barely second to any declared enemy’s as menace to the limbs of its soldiers.
But then Mussolini’s genius was the journalist’s, and it was no less deep for a narrowness walled against the lessons of anyone’s intimate experience, even his own. He had begun with the quite bad enough experience of thinking like an editorial writer and he ended with the worse one of thinking like a publisher. Whenever Knox deals out one of those cocksure banalities Mussolini dropped like beer cans on his road to ruin, the mind automatically clicks back, “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” Henry Luce probably talked like that; Beaverbrook certainly did. Triumph at making hordes of people swallow nonsense is reserved for men who have voraciously swallowed it themselves.
It is the identifying mark of minds like these that their self-assurance and timidities are quite misplaced. The Mussolini who instructed philosophers, attuned musicians, and corrected novelists was the minister of defense who dared not argue with generals. He was so pretentious as to announce himself the master of all the arts that are mysteries, and at the same time too abject to contradict career soldiers whose craft happens to be one so free of mystery that it can only botch matters when it over-looks some rule of common sense.
The world would indeed be a happier place if we could speak of unrequited gullibility as often as we must of unrequited love. His generals gulled Mussolini everywhere this side of catastrophe, and he gulled them into that.
The true progenitor of his style as leader may have been Napoleon III, who executed a not unsimilar ascent from carbonero to emperor. He was still Louis Bonaparte when Tocqueville described him as one of those men who mistake their good luck for genius; and that happens to be an enormous, although transient, asset, because it is infectious. Luck is a kind of talent; when anyone comes to power cutting as mangy a figure as Hitler’s or as ridiculous a one as Mussolini’s, his bearing is all the more apt to overcome the observer because it looks so inappropriate: he could not have come to this great stage if the gods had not appointed him.
Thus, in Knox’s words, Victor Emmanuel III “harbored an almost pathetic belief in Mussolini’s luck (‘lo stellone‘) that had held through so many difficult moments since 1922.” Even Pietro Badoglio, chief of general staff—the most prudent because most timid of Italian commanders—could not help surrendering his cautions to his faith in Mussolini’s star. When he announced the decision for war in May 1940, Badoglio soothed his alarmed subordinates “by saying that, even though preparations were abysmally defective, Mussolini could be relied upon to make the right decision at a moment when only a minimal effort was required for victory.”7
Every now and then, in the course of great events, the elements of tradition and innovation ally themselves and each one’s weakness supplements the other and together they achieve the perfect debacle. Fascist Italy was such a fulfilled conjunction of professional soldiers who put all their trust in politics and a politician who put all his trust in war.
In its sedate way, Knox’s treatment of Italy’s high command affords an abundant ration of sport. There is General Ubaldo Soddu, undersecretary of war, who was accustomed to say, “…when you have a fine plate of pasta guaranteed for life, and a little music, you don’t need anything more.” The transmutation of the soldier’s creed into this comic aria armed Soddu against every reversal in life. He was not just an artist of survival but its preceptor and so persuasive in that role that he first induced Victor Emmanuel III to yield to Mussolini his own constitutional prerogatives as commander in chief with the argument that the king’s abstention from responsibility would leave his prestige intact if things went badly; and then he convinced Mussolini to admit Marshal Badoglio to a share of this new power with the argument that he could blame Badoglio if things went badly.
An intriguer with such refinement of address generally earns the misfortune of getting his opportunity for glory; and Soddu rose to theater commander in the war with the Greeks and there restored his serenity amid bouts of panic with the collapse of this salient or that by composing soundtrack music for films.
There was General Pietro Maletti, “the old wolf of the desert,” who was spearhead of Italy’s only offensive against the British in Egypt, and, having forgotten to take along his Arab guides, contrived to get his brigade lost while it was still in Italian territory. There was the chief of staff of the “Wolves of Tuscany” who “accidentally sent back to Berat a truck containing the only available topographical maps,” and thus assured the destruction of untrained and freshly landed troops assigned to relieve the pressure of the Greek advance with a counterattack across ground their officers had never seen.
Most of all there was Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, viceroy of Ethiopia, army chief of staff, and last and most lamentably director of the war in North Africa. Any opera that ends by casting its protagonist into the fires of hell is opera seria rather than buffa; still, Fascism’s libretto is more Da Ponte than Boito. And, if Soddu is its Don Basilio, Graziani was its Bartolo. His gifts as buffoon were almost entirely verbal, since his nature was too immobile to execute the pratfalls that a really rounded clown brings to his performances.
Graziani was instead one of those rare masters of the absurd who get their effects from single-minded concentration on one device. He never spoke except to pronounce. A solemn ponderosity established his comedic character as those crossed eyes did Ben Turpin’s; and Knox has only to disinter some utterance of his to raise the echo: “Tutta Sevilla conosce Bartolo.”
When the general staffs convened for the last time before they went to war, he played the “rough soldier” and dismissed the trepidations of his colleagues with the blithe declaration, “When the cannon sounds everything will fall into place automatically.” Then he was off to North Africa where 37,000 British Commonwealth troops were all that stood between his 167,000-man force and the conquest of Cairo. No one else alive better knew how unfit the army was, since he had been the chief of staff primarily responsible for its decrepitude; and he trembled with every intimation that cannons might sound.
This indisposition for battle finally aroused Mussolini to insist on action; and Graziani could comply only after washing his hands in his diary: “It is against the most elementary logic [and] prudence…. For whatever evil may occur, I, before God and my soldiers, am not responsible.”
In this high martial spirit, Graziani essayed an uneasy advance to Sidi el Barrani, a negligible sandpit that the British abandoned with no more regret than it deserved. There he rested with the relief of having for a while slaked Mussolini’s thirst for “the sudden striking deeds in every communique,” for which, his police chief advised him, the Italian public was impatient. A month later Mussolini again disturbed Graziani’s peace by summoning him to Rome and ordering that he forthwith proceed with the invasion of Egypt.
Graziani cunningly exuded a confidence in the enterprise he in no way felt, and said that it required only consultation with his staff to become absolute assurance. Having thus effected his escape back to Libya, he then informed Rome that the state of his command made it impractical to resume the offensive immediately. This demonstration of the agility that was easier for him in engagements with his commander in chief than in confrontations with the enemy won Graziani back his ease; and he was found languidly paltering with the plans he prayed he would never have to execute when the British assault broke upon him three months later.
This crisis found Mario Berti, Graziani’s most important subordinate, in Rome visiting his mother and being treated for piles. In two days, his Tenth Army had been obliterated. Graziani’s reaction was to turn the cannons of his rage on Rome:
I consider it my duty, rather than sacrificing my useless person on the spot, to go to Tripoli [and] if I succeed in getting there, to keep flying on that citadel at least the banner of Italy…. Let this be said as my last will and testament, and in order that everyone assume in the light of history the responsibility for what today is occurring here.
He then beset Mussolini himself with a telegram that was a litany of reproaches, the most heartfelt of them: “You did not give me the recognition due me upon my return from Ethiopia.”
We cannot render entire justice to Mussolini’s capacities as conductor of his nation’s destiny until Mack Smith brings us to July 25, 1943, the morning after the Grand Council of Fascism had withdrawn its support and Mussolini arrived at the Palazzo Venezia with “an emergency plan to resolve the situation” by appointing Marshal Rodolfo Graziani as general chief of staff.
But, like so many others who have advanced themselves by tireless exercise of the hectoring tone, he was prone to being cowed by anyone else equipped to sound it. His daughter, the Countess Ciano, has indeed offered the surmise that: “My father launched himself into political life so as to have an excuse to be absent from home a good deal of the time and thus be spared my mother’s jealous scenes, to which he preferred the beatings of the police and his adversaries.” 8
But it was rather more critical to Mussolini’s final fate that his conditioning as a journalist left him helplessly susceptible to the imbecilities of Giulio Douhet and everyone else who peddled the doctrine that war’s objectives are achievable at a blow. When his armies were floundering in Greece, his remedy was to suggest that 500-plane bomber raids against Athens and Salonika “[could] produce enemy political collapse.” When his air chief of staff intruded upon this vision with practical objections, Mussolini replied, “You forget that I am conducting a lightning war like the Germans in Poland.”
That is the authentic voice of the gallows bird. Even so we cannot quite dismiss him as the mere shoddy adventurer that is most of what he was to Denis Mack Smith. Mussolini Unleashed offers good cause to credit him with larger and even more horrid proportions; it is Knox’s argument that beneath the charlatanry and beyond the lunges to the improvised, Mussolini had conceived for Italy a grand design for whose purposes these devices ought to be regarded not as aberrational but as essential. He had to have his war, Knox contends, because he knew no other avenue to the realization of his aspirations both for the Italians and himself. The risks did not really bother him, because he was too bedazzled by the promise that victory would bring fruits otherwise beyond his grasp: “Externally Italy would rule a vast empire; internally he would remake ‘the Italians’ into a cruel and domineering master race under his own unchallenged control.”
This savage ideal was not entirely out of key with the spirit of his country’s culture. Gramsci once took note of the “very harsh character” of the class struggle in Italy and commented that “cruelty and absence of sympathy are two characteristics peculiar to the Italian people.”
As brutality of action identifies the despair of the deprived, brutality of thought identifies the despair of the comfortable. And yet this is a brutality of thought whose expression sounds more often than not as though it had been arrived at across the flat plane of the intellect rather than risen from the viscera. The iron will such people elevate somehow comes off as an abstraction; we feel ourselves in the unpleasant company of a mind whose logic has led it to decide that sloth and gluttony so pervade its surroundings that they can only be expelled by savage doses of official violence. And then we take pause and are cautioned by the recollection that when he was a civil servant Machiavelli was careful to avoid the extremes he leaped at as a philosopher.
We cannot, of course, deny that there were aspects of Mussolini’s temperament more suited to the armed robber than to the statesman; Arnaldo Mussolini once commented that deep down in his brother’s character there was a deplorable streak of delinquency. He was all the same enough of an Italian intellectual frequently to succumb to the illusion that to have pronounced the word was to have done the deed.
If Italian Fascism failed to match the Nazis in ultimate criminal excess, we can be grateful for a saving grace of indiscipline in the Italian nature, which shows itself on the one hand capable of the brutality that originates in impulse and on the other unable to completely consummate the brutality prescribed by what has been a process of reason, however deplorable.
In their Vichy France and the Jews,9 Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton provide a remarkable and surprising account of the resistance the French and Germans met from Mussolini’s soldiers whenever they attempted measures against the Jews in the eight departments of France allotted to the Italian occupation. The Italian zone became so crowded a sanctuary that by 1943 its Jewish population had tripled. In one instance Italian troops forced Vichy to free 500 Jews it had gathered for deportation to Germany. By 1943, Nice had “become a Jewish political and cultural center.” This tolerance and indeed benevolence from representatives of a regime officially committed to anti-Semitism cannot be assigned to the bribable disposition of some of them. The Germans finally persuaded Mussolini to dispatch a southern police chief to extirpate this infamy; but, far from removing these obstacles to the will Vichy shared with Berlin, this Fascist official reinforced them and went so far as to inflict upon Vichy the humiliation of a reproving contrast between the Italian search for “a humane solution” with the severities of the French and Germans.
Italians could accept Mussolini’s image of “a cruel and domineering master race” as a theoretical conception of how great nations conduct their affairs; but some disabling kindness of nature seems all too often to have asserted itself and reduced to inanition one or another effort to translate declared policy into reality.
Mussolini looked out at the world and it looked back at him as though he were an absolute ruler; but he was galled by the limitations of his writ. He had always to accommodate to powers smaller than but still independent of his—the Vatican, the king, the industrialists, and even the armed services. All of them—even the Vatican with its Italianate Sacred College—shared his dream of a great empire; but since they were far from adventurous, they quaked at any risks its accomplishment required.
He labored then under the necessity of circumspection in leading them to the slaughter. His generals and admirals were more inclined to admire the cunning of the jackal than to emulate the recklessness of the lion; and their faith in him was usefully strengthened when they learned that, after Germany, France, and Great Britain had been at was for six months, he had told the Grand Council of Fascism that his fondest hope was that the “lions tear each other to pieces until they leave their tails on the ground—and we, possibly, can go and scoop them up.”
Such a précis of their own military philosophy was all the insurance they needed before following wherever he beckoned. The king could have stopped him; the generals could at least have slowed him down; but his command triumphed over them with the skill that made them think that his was a mind running on the same track as theirs. He could not have wrecked them if he had not so adroitly bemused them with the prospect of the safest of voyages.
But then the first rule for successfully telling a lie is to tell it to oneself first; and Mussolini may have half believed that he was the cautious pilot of a policy that guaranteed every gain without the smallest pain. Yet this view of himself as some Cavour was as abstract as the vision of themselves as cruel and domineering which so polluted the waters where the Italian intellectuals swam as to infect even Pareto and Pirandello.
For Mussolini did not want ease and safety; he wanted a war of blood, iron, and sacrifice from which the Italians would emerge hardened to granite and accountable to no master except himself. He got it all, blood, iron, and incredible sacrifice; and when he was done, he had not hardened the Italians but so softened them that, say about him what you will, he can still be thanked for the comfort of the knowledge that it will be a long while before they again take up the duty of affirming themselves a great nation. It is distressing to notice that nobody seems to have devised a pleasanter method than his for teaching that valuable lesson.
I regret that I must decline any attempt to engage Professor Anthony John Joes’s Mussolini. There is no way to deal with a scholar who persists in bowing down before a legend nearly two generations after the events that exposed it as a myth. This is work fit for an intelligence like John Hinckley’s while, fortunately, being too bland to inflame his fantasies further. Professor Joes teaches at St. Joseph’s University of Philadelphia, an institution whose basketball teams have given me so much pleasure that I would rather cherish what goes on in its gymnasium than think about what seems to be going on in one of its classrooms.
October 7, 1982
For these examples of the susceptibility of intelligences so far above the norm, I have needed to resort to Alastair Hamilton’s The Appeal of Fascism (Macmillan, 1971). They suggest Mussolini’s powers for bemusement more forcibly than Smith cares to concede and far more tellingly than the tributes of Shaw, Gandhi, Trotsky, and De Gaulle, because how can tourists know? ↩
The bizarreries of Anthony James Joes’s –Mussolini conclude with this assessment, which may be an indication that the myopic sometimes bump into truths that the clear-eyed refuse to see. Joes sees in Mussolini the inspiration for the governments of a sizable segment of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and, in an oddity extreme even for him, seems to regard the resemblance as a compliment to his hero. ↩
Contempt for the led deserves to be thought of as more a philosophical concept than a moral defect in those who hold it. Nixon lacked the fascist temperament, the essential test for authenticity in these matters; and it may have been our salvation that his kinship with Mussolini’s outlook was only an intellectual and thus a feckless one. There is, to be sure, a further resemblance: both collapsed in final crisis largely because each one’s will had been eroded by a succession of escapes from emergencies that were usually the result of their own follies. ↩
Futurism, in its revolt against a culture that had lain but half awake through Impressionism and Postimpressionism, could bring itself up to date only by jumping, like Soviet Constructivism, all the way to Cubism, whose poor country relative each became. Still it is hard to avoid a deplorable affection for the Futurists. Of course Marinetti contemplated the countenance of Mussolini and there discovered: “Massive, rock-like head, but the ultradynamic eyes dart with the speed of automobiles racing on the Lombard plains.” His nonsense had its elements of divinity all the same: he had been a soldier in the First World War and there had learned everything he needed to know about the consequences for anyone who obeys the commands of an Italian officer of field grade. Nonetheless, at sixty-one, he volunteered for what could only be the inescapable doom of service on the Russian front in the winter of 1942. Mussolini quite naturally abandoned Futurism once he consolidated his power; revolutions are a passage from the fraternity of the avant-garde to the narcissism of the monumental. ↩
There is a story that when he had to imprison the anarchist Malatesta, Mussolini hastened to the cell with the promise that he would do his utmost to make it certain “that Your Highness will be comfortable.” I remember only one audience with Togliatti; its none-too-comfortable progress was interrupted by the introduction of a Sicilian fisherman who had earned the honor by winning a Party competition in soliciting subscriptions for the Palermo version of Paese Sera, its daily newspaper. Togliatti addressed his visitor as “compagno” and the response was invariably “Dottore Togliatti.” ↩
Mussolini’s Roman Empire, pp. 239, 247, 252. ↩
Mack Smith, Mussolini’s Roman Empire, p. 208. ↩
Edda Mussolini Ciano, My Truth (Morrow, 1977), p. 50. ↩
Basic Books, 1981. ↩