Sham and Bluster

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Reviewed by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sunday, April 9, 2006

MUSSOLINI'S ITALY

Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945

By R.J.B. Bosworth

Penguin Press. 692 pp. $35

In the middle of the 19th century, two national causes above all others excited the enthusiasm of European liberals: the unification of Italy and the unification of Germany. As if to illustrate the saying about the grief brought by answered prayers, these unions duly came to pass -- the one as a joke, the other a nightmare.

But maybe we should be careful about smiling too indulgently at Italy under the fascist regime run by Benito Mussolini from 1922 to 1943. Of course that despotism, even though it liked to call itself "totalitarian," was mild compared to its contemporaries in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany -- perhaps in part because of an Italian tendency not to take politics too seriously and a certain indifference to politicians, democratic or despotic. We should not exaggerate the Italians' lovable "national character" or simply think of them as a brava gente ("nice people"), R.J.B. Bosworth suggests, since plenty of meanness and brutality was brought out by il facscimo . But he acknowledges that it never turned as nasty as other versions elsewhere, and his book helps explain why this was so.

An Australian scholar and one of the outstanding historians of modern Italy, Bosworth is the author of a 2002 biography of Mussolini that was rightly acclaimed as perhaps the best yet written. As a companion to that life of the man who ruled the country, he has now written an absorbing book about the country Mussolini ruled. Bosworth begins with the political and intellectual roots of fascism, such as they were. Although fascism, with its glorification of the state and the leader, is meant to be right-wing, it had obvious features in common with supposedly left-wing forms of totalitarianism: Hitler called himself a National Socialist, and Mussolini indeed began as a socialist of the hard left. The new movement took its name from fascio , the Italian word for a group of people, and many organizations used the term before Mussolini came to power; the fasces was the ominous bundle of rods and axes representing the retributive authority of the Roman magistrates. (And the symbol resonated far beyond Italy: You can still see the fasces carved on official buildings in the United States.)

As in Russia, the crisis of war provided an opportunity for the rapid destruction of lawful government. Despite Italy's ostensible position as one of the winners of World War I, victory gave little sturdiness to Italian democracy, and the country's parliamentary government collapsed at the first sharp push from Mussolini in 1922. Much like Germans in 1933, Italians flooded to join what had now become the Partito Nazionale Fascista.

And yet Italian fascism was always more rhetoric than reality. It was no accident that Mussolini was a journalist, who had once commented volubly on international affairs and remained ever-ready "with an opinion on anything." (His collected works are published in 44 volumes -- imagine even dipping into them, let alone reading them through.) Italy was a backward country when Mussolini took power. One of the many fascinating details in which Bosworth's book abounds tells us that, in World War I, only one per thousand draftees in the German army was illiterate -- itself an astonishing fact -- as against 68 per thousand in the French army and 330 per thousand in the Italian one. And for all the sham and bluster, Italy remained backward under fascism. Even by 1940, there were only a million radios in Italy and half a million telephones, for a population of some 44 million.

A book of this kind relies on statistical and impressionistic descripition, and Bosworth's deep knowledge of Italy, based on wide archival and primary study, is continually illuminating. On the one hand, he gives numerous short biographical sketches of people drawn to fascism, many (though not all) of them worthless, marginal men for whom the party offered a career. On the other, he paints a broad canvas of ordinary Italian life in the 1920s and '30s and shows how it was affected -- or not -- by the regime.

Unlike too many neglectful historians, Bosworth pays due attention to the subject of sports, which played an important role in fascism. Italy was more successful on the sporting field than the battlefield, winning soccer's World Cup in 1934 and 1938 (something not likely to be repeated this summer) -- although when the Italian heavyweight Primo Carnera met Joe Louis in New York in June 1935, the result sent a thrill through Harlem rather than Rome. Still, Bosworth has his own blind spots here: Although I take my hat off to a professor who has published a learned paper on "Golf and Italian Fascism," he should surely have mentioned the great Italian cyclists of the age, including Ottavio Bottecchia, winner of the Tour de France in 1924 and 1925, an anti-fascist whose mysterious death just before the 1927 Tour was widely believed to be political murder.

A lighter touch would have been welcome elsewhere. There is no point in complaining any more about the political correction of academic history, but Bosworth's attempts to pay his dues are sometimes risible. We learn that the remote village of Oschiri was "a place of gender and political contest," which proves to mean the astounding fact that simple peasant women followed the lead of their priest. And Bosworth solemnly tells us "that most enlisted men preferred a masculine interpretation of the gender order." You don't say, professore .

What now seems to us the most unlikely part of the story is the part played by many Jews in the fascist regime, at least until Mussolini began his contemptible groveling to Germany in the late 1930s. But then the small, prosperous Jewish community was more integrated in Italy than in any other European country, producing before 1914 prime ministers, senators and generals. Mussolini insisted early on that fascism was not anti-Semitic, and even toward the dismal end of his life, he had no enthusiasm for the murderous terror visited on the European Jews.

Much of the story told in this book is not as grim as the fate of the Italian Jews. "The lighter side of fascism" sounds a subject for P.J. O'Rourke, but one has to admit that there is comic relief to be found here -- and not just from the anti-regime jokes that hearteningly persisted throughout. Even the story of Italian imperialism in Africa, though replete with shocking cruelty, was part opera buffa , as shown by the life of Italo Balbo, a fascist leader who began as a saber-rattling patriot and ended -- in more senses than one -- as governor of Libya. This had been Italy's first African acquisition, in 1912, fully 10 years before Mussolini came to power, and Italian rule was a farce throughout. Fascism boasted of how its empire would enrich the patria , but the Italians managed to rule Libya for decades without ever noticing that it contained a vast oil field. Then in 1940, Mussolini cynically and opportunistically declared war on France and England and began his doom. Shortly afterward, Balbo became one of his country's first victims of the war when his plane was shot down -- by an Italian anti-aircraft battery whose gunnery was better than its aircraft recognition. Sometimes you do have to see the funny side of things.

In the end, the failures of Mussolini's regime were an indirect credit to the Italian people, and maybe brava gente isn't so wrong after all. While Hitler succeeded all too well in making many Germans into a nation of conquerors and killers, the Italians quite ignored Mussolini's attempt to do the same thing to them. Indeed, maybe Hitler should have the last word: The "decadent Italians" had never had their hearts in fascism, and they lacked the hardness necessary for conquest, the Führer fumed, since "the excessive warmth of family relations there overwhelms all the rest." Has a greater compliment ever been paid to any people? ·

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Strange Death of Tory England" and "The Controversy of Zion."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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