When Benito Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935, Italians were filled with jingoist pride. The dictator triumphantly announced the conquest of the promised sub-Saharan kingdom. ‘He’s like a god,’ marvelled one Fascist. ‘Like a god?’ returned another. ‘He is a god.’ Mussolini was part demagogue, part buffoon; on occasion he wore a tasselled fez and thrust out his chin pugnaciously for the world’s cameras. His cult of imperial Rome considered the handshake fey and unhygienic, so the stiff-armed salute was introduced. As the regime strengthened, the high priests of Fascism hailed Mussolini as ‘divine Caesar’, and called for an embargo on all foreign locutions and non-Latin terms. Thus Italians could no longer take a ferry-boat but had to travel instead by pontone, just as Julius Caesar had done (when he invented mobile bridges).
Behind the classical bombast, however, Italian Fascism relied on bludgeons and intimidation. In this marvellous book, R. J. B. Bosworth does not exonerate the Duce from charges of murder and pro-Nazism. Mussolini’s 23-year dictatorship, he says, was ‘as meretricious as it was vile’. The Fascist party took its name from the martial Roman symbol of authority — an axe bound in rods, or fasces — and used violence to overthrow parliamentary democracy. Early Fascists revered the Italian poet-aviator Gabriel D’Annunzio, whose followers were dubbed ‘legionaries’ to recall ancient Roman greatness. Mussolini delighted in D’Annunzio’s violent contempt for liberalism and was impressed by his balcony ranting and, above all, priapic exploits. (On 12 May 1929, we read in D’Annunzio’s diaries, the poet was straddled by a woman who continued her gyrations so long that he feared for his testicles.)
These days, it is fashionable to claim Mussolini as a fundamentally decent fellow led astray by Hitler. A recent biography of the Duce by the English journalist Nicholas Farrell spoke of an unfairly maligned leader whose ‘charisma’, ‘prestige’ and sheer Machiavellian adroitness were ‘phenomenal’. Bosworth’s immensely detailed book is intended as a riposte to this sort of pious apology. Whether Mussolini revisionism is the song and dance of a minority or something more widespread and foolish, is hard to say. In Italy there have long been signs of a Fascist revival. Mussolini’s birthplace of Predappio (where Farrell has chosen to live) is awash with Fascist trinkets, pseudo-Roman gewgaws and other blackshirt memorabilia. Italian newspapers, moreover, have begun to speak of the Fascist past as romantic adventure and not the catastrophe it manifestly was.
A distinguished historian, Professor Bosworth provides a lively portrait in Mussolini’s Italy of the lives of ordinary Italians under Fascism. Hairdressers, mattress-makers, teachers, musicians: how did these ‘little people’ adapt to the cult of ducismo? The all-pervasive corruption and incompetence of Fascist bureaucracy meant that many Italians could get away with breaking the laws. If these laws were pernicious (for example, Mussolini’s 1938 racial legislation against Italian Jews), disobedience could become a virtue. During Hitler’s occupation of northern Italy many anti-Fascists acted with a contempt for the rules that was perhaps uniquely Italian.
In mesmeric detail, Bosworth puts Mussolini squarely behind the worst atrocities of post-Risorgimento Italy. With the collusion of their Nazi occupiers, Mussolini’s gangs helped to deport more than 6,800 Italian Jews to Auschwitz and other Third Reich camps. The Duce made no attempt to justify this outrage; Hitler, at least, was lethally committed to his ideology. An opportunist, Mussolini had forbidden his daughter to marry a Jew, yet his mistress Margherita Sarfatti was Jewish. Sarfatti moreover was one of the masterminds behind the Duce’s pompous celebration of ancient Rome. The eagle motifs and suckling she-wolves that you see on Fascist architecture in Italy today are partly her legacy.
It is true that Mussolini greeted Hitler’s rise to power warily. A racial dogma that glorified blond northerners conflicted somewhat with the Fascist cult of romanità. Bosworth has marshalled evidence to suggests that Mussolini did not approve of Hitler’s biological anti-Semitism. Neverthe- less, a latent tension had always existed between Fascism and Italy’s Jews. Zionists, in particular, were seen as a self-regarding, supranational sect inimical to the sturdy blackshirt bond of race and nation. The Duce’s wavering attitude towards Hitler’s anti-Semitism was to be the downfall of Italy’s Jews. No matter how brutal the persecutions became after the German occupation in 1943, Italian Jews clung to a last hope of reprieve: Mussolini had vacillated so many times, surely he would not go so far as the Nazis had? When the deportations finally began, it was too late for Italy’s Jews to leave; Mussolini had hitched his carnival chariot to the F