Mussolini’s Italy by R.J.B. Bosworth

I had set aside Mussolini’s Italy for the better part of a year after writing about the first third of it, and then I picked it up again just a few weeks ago. Zeitgeist, I suppose.

One thing that the book really brought home to me is just how poor Italy was in the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve read Christ Stopped at Eboli, so I had some inkling, but Bosworth marshals statistics and anecdotes to bring the point home. Italy simply did not have the material capacity to play the great-power role that its rulers, whether Mussolini or his predecessors, strove for. Illiteracy was pervasive, and extended even into the families of future leaders. When war returned to Europe, Italy’s soldiers went off with inadequate materials in nearly every way; Italy’s functional air force was about a tenth of its strength on paper. (I would have enjoyed reading a history of post-war Italy by Bosworth, one detailing how prosperity came to a much larger portion of Italy in the years that began with Allied occupation. He has retired from university teaching, though he still writes, but his recent books have been on less contemporary periods and tighter geographies than the whole of Italy.)

The Fascist revolution was never anywhere near as complete as the rulers liked to claim. Even the Bolsheviks had to retain a certain number of holdovers from Tsarist times, but the Fascists were quick to accommodate with existing power structures, and they never really had the discipline or the numbers to reach deeply into Italy’s regions and engage in root and branch change. That they had no particular idea of where they wanted to go certainly played a role as well. Mussolini’s charisma was a sufficient principle for seizing power, but as the Fascist years wore on, it became an increasingly thin one for organizing public life. Not that his hagiographers didn’t try, of course.

Fascism meant many different things to different people. Factions within the party tried to define it to their own advantage; ideologues pushed in various directions; existing organizations tried to use the regime’s rhetoric to push their particular agendas or to gain material advantage. One common Fascist image was a beehive, with everyone knowing their place and all working together in harmony. Naturally, a beekeepers’ association then argued that their importance to the nation meant that they deserved special subsidies and promotions.

One thing it did not mean was a fairer shake for the little guy, despite some talk of a “social” revolution. Rightist demagogues always find it easier to accommodate people who already have significant power and money; Mussolini was no exception. Revolutionary fervor was distinctly circumscribed. “Mussolini fudged and compromised with the still largely monarchist and traditionalist army leadership, rather as he treated the institution of the monarchy itself. Reform was delayed or abandoned.” (p. 230)

Although the book was published in 2005, Bosworth leaves no doubt about his views on television celebrities entering politics:

Charisma of the sort Mussolini was meant to incarnate has a connection with the history of those celebrities who nowadays fill our television screens and newspapers and, especially in the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi or in those places where actors of stage or screen have become political actors too, threaten to bewitch our minds and trash our democracies. Celebrities, beneath the glitter, are often people of no account. Only their dazzle matters. (pp. 354–55)

That comes as part of a discussion of how Mussolini ruled on a day-to-day basis: by issuing aggressive pronouncements, leaving his underlings “to interpret just what the ringing words ‘really’ meant.” (p. 354) Personal rule and lack of process combined to throw the doors wide open to incompetence and corruption.

Bosworth does note the Lateran Pacts as an example of Fascist achievement, and one that engaged Mussolini’s personal attention over a longer period of time than his usual snap decisions. “[The Pacts] marked the formal end of the cold war between Church and State that had rumbled on since the Risorgimento.” (p. 231) With Vatican claims to secular rulership extinguished, the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian state found their way toward accommodation.

Although the Fascist regime had been the first of the interwar dictatorships to claim the mantle of “totalitarian,” and to argue that was a positive good, in practice it proved to be far less than total, even in an area such as policing that drew Mussolini’s particular attention.

But, for all their cruelty, the secret police of Fascist Italy were not agents of the revolution and so were radically different in their effect on Italian society from the SS’s effect on Germany. … If the SS state embodied Nazi evil at its worst, the Fascist police offer a countering case, a more ‘normal’ specimen of the bleakness of dictatorial rule, if also a deeply troubling one, especially since, after 1945, reform was visited slowly on this part of national Italian life. Himmler believed in the weirdest Nazi mysteries; Bocchini believed in nothing except a satisfying coitus and a succulent lobster. Nazi policing sought to be a killing machine, whirring inexorably on following scientific principles to cleanse the world for a racial utopia. Fascist policing sought to foster human weakness in order to allow a tranquil life for those in charge and because, in the policemen’s minds, the old Adam outlived any rhetoric about revolution and modernity… (p. 362)

And while Mussolini was the senior of the two dictators, Hitler of course proved the more powerful.

When did Italy cease being Mussolini’s? Bosworth does not ask this question directly, but it hangs over the later chapters of the book. As early as the Pact of Steel, that tied Italy to the German war machine? In July 1943, days after Allied landings in Sicily, when fellow Fascists deposed him as head of government? In early September of that same year, when his successor announced an armistice with the Allies and the German army moved in to continue the fight? Or much later, because 23 years of dictatorship left its traces throughout Italian life?

As Bosworth writes in his conclusion,

In the longue durée, the absences, the cynicism, the corruption and the incompetence outweighed the rest in building a legacy for those Italians who survived into the new Republic after 1946. Despite the boasted revolution, the fact was that every one of the great slogans of Fascism had turned out to be false. Mussolini, anything but the greatest statesman of the twentieth century, had not proved himself to be always right. His people had not marched straight ahead. The plough had not been the guarantor of the nation’s economic future or the sword the weapon of modern choice, and in any event battle mostly brought death and dishonour, not gain. The world was not destined to belong to the Fascists. Life was scarcely sustained merely book and rifle. Given the enduring power of the structures of life, it was absurd and impossible to contemplate living one day as a lion. … It was an appalling record but one that was as meretricious as it was vile. (pp. 571–72)

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  1. I think I gave you this book after reading it myself, but you obviously read it more closely than I did. I feel like I got more out of your review than I did out of reading the book.

    A good book that covers postwar Italy, up to and including the rise of Berlusconi, is *The Pursuit of Italy* by David Gilmour.

  2. Yes, this is definitely one of the books that you sent onward to me here. I am finally getting to the Einstein biography as well; Hamilton may have nudged me in the direction of biography for a while.

    Thank you for the kudos, and for the recommendation!

  3. Italy’s functional air force was about a tenth of its strength on paper

    This is interesting. Building them is a material, i.e. capital-intensive question; keeping them flying is a human, i.e. labour-intensive one. If you can’t keep them operational, that’s a comment on the ability of the state to mobilise skilled workers, or to create them by recruiting people as apprentice Halton brats. And, by extension, on the depth to which Fascism was able to convince the working class to entrust their sons into this new trade.

    One of the strengths of the independent air force model is that it helped to create precisely this human infrastructure. The RAF literally started out by setting up an apprentice school (Halton) and an advanced engineering school (Cosford) at the same time it created its war college (Cranwell) – Trenchard, for all his bomber obsession, realised that the institution would have to grow its own craftsmen as much it would need to train pilots, create a staff college elite, and write a body of doctrine if it wanted to retain its identity and be effective.

    Between the first-line squadron maintainers and engineering wings, the deeper support in Maintenance Command, and the reachback to civilian industry, the serviceability rates maintained in 1940 bore him out in spades. And of course one way to read the high postwar was precisely that the US mobilisation was a massive reskilling of America’s outsiders.

  1. […] In our world, the Regency turned out to be a dress rehearsal, in several senses of the phrase, for Italian Fascism. D’Annunzio proclaimed himself Duce; he and his legionnaires set up a corporatist microstate. […]

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