Weidenfeld and Nicolson is about to publish a big biography of Mussolini by my friend Nicholas Farrell, which contains the following passage: 'Just as none of the victorious powers went to war with Germany to save the Jews neither did Mussolini go to war with them to exterminate the Jews. Indeed, once the Holocaust was under way he and his fascists refused to deport Jews to the Nazi death camps thus saving thousands of Jewish lives – far more than Oskar Schindler.'
Mussolini saved more Jews than Schindler! For once, the word 'controversial', so often used to describe any old bit of routine leftism, is justified. That Mussolini saved Jews has long been known, especially to non-left-wing Italians, though that includes few Italian intellectuals. But not known widely; it is not something which Anglo-Saxons emphasise about Mussolini. Was not Mussolini Hitler's ally? How could he have saved Jews?
A few years ago the Guardian journalist Paul Webster discussed it in his book on Pétain and the Jews – Pétain's Crime – to compare Pétain's attitude to the Jews unfavourably with Mussolini's. But the passage in Mr Webster's book aroused no wider interest in Britain, his subject being Pétain rather than Mussolini.
A few academics writing in English have mentioned the matter, but in a rather cool way. By using the startling comparison with Schindler, Mr Farrell is the first writer in English to give it the weight that it deserves – to dramatise it. This could be because he is a journalist rather than an academic. Some historians, like Tacitus, Gibbon, Macaulay and A.J.P. Taylor have had an eye for a story; but not the average academic historian. Unless, in many cases, it is an old left-wing story that has been told over and over again. Potential readers should be wary of academics reviewing Mr Farrell's book.