RJB Bosworth’s Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship 1915-1945 is an intermittently interesting but deeply, deeply flawed social history of – well just what it says, life under Mussolini’s dictatorship.
At its best, the book gives fascinating little glimpses into the poverty and backwardness of the country Mussolini ruled. Four years after the March on Rome, the headquarters of the Italian secret police contained only one working phone line. Even by 1940, there were only half a million telephones in the whole country. There were just 1 million radios – a shortfall that deeply irritated Mussolini, because it meant almost nobody could hear his speeches.
It was the Italian fascists who coined the term “totalitarian,” but their state never approached this perverse ideal. Bosworth nicely says that Mussolini’s Italy combined the theory of a strong state with the practice of a weak one. Bosworth argues strongly that most Italians experienced fascist rule only very remotely. Although the Fascist party at its peak enlisted almost half the population of the country in one organization or another, including youth groups, Bosworth argues that Italians experienced nothing like the revolution from above that the Nazis and Communists imposed on their society. Life for most went on its accustomed way. Power was exercised through the bureaucracy inherited from the monarchy, not through anything like the SS or NKVD. In most of Italy, the local landlord maintained his ancient authority undisturbed by party bosses – unless that is, he or his son-in-law was the local party boss.
Of all the Fascist state’s weaknesses, the most notorious was its weakness at war. Italy was the only one of the major combatants of World War II not to increase its miltary production between war’s beginning and end. The Italian economy horribly malfunctioned and everybody knew it. Italy’s war production did not rise at all between 1940 and 1943. By that latter year, the US was producing as many warplanes in a week as Italy produced all year.
It is a paradox of psychology that a man who found it as difficult to make up his mind as Mussolini should have wanted to become a dictator in the first place. Nor, by the grim standards of the 20th century, did he begin as an especially bloodthirsty one.
The end of the First World War had triggered a wave of industrial strikes and rural property seizures that badly frightened Italy’s propery owners. They feared that their country was heading the way of Hungary, where the local communist party had seized power in 1919. Gangs of discharged soldiers were hired by local landowners to hit back violently. Mussolini organized these gangs into a national organization that more or less took its orders from him. By acquiring the power to turn violence on or off, he made himself a national powerbroker.
Mussolini’s Fascists were responsible for the deaths of some 3,000 before he was finally called to power to restore the order he himself had helped to disrupt. He was named prime minister of Italy in 1922 and governed in a more or less constitutional manner until 1924. That year, Mussolini almost certainly ordered the murder of an opposition member of parliament, Giacomo Matteotti – apparently because Matteotti had obtained documents detailing the corrupt business dealings of the fascist elite. The Matteotti murder nearly toppled Mussolini – instead, Mussolini survived; Italian constitutionalism did not.
Yet even after the Matteotti killing, Mussolini generally preferred to have his enemies beaten or sent into internal exile rather than murdered. As late as 1935, his record looks rather more like that of a mild middle European authoritarian like Hungary’s Admiral Horthy or Greece’s Ionnis Metaxas than like that of a real killer like Francisco Franco – never mind the mega-monsters, Hitler and Stalin. The popular Anglo-American image of Mussolini as a man more absurd than vicious has a lot of truth to it.
Mussolini’s governance was fundamentally reactionary. Despite boasts of making the trains run on time, Mussolini’s passed laws protecting small shopkeepers from big retailers (some of them remain on the books hobbling commerce to this day). One wartime German economic commission estimated that the Italian economy was operating at 25% of economic capacity even during World War II. Half a million Italians migrated north to work in German factories during the war – even the wartime Italian economy could not find use for them.
Mussolini did not share Hitler’s obsessive anti-semitism. Indeed he seemed repelled by it. Italy had had two prime ministers of Jewish ancestry before 1914, and the Fascist party attracted a good many Jewish supporters. Indeed Mussolini’s first mistress and – you might say – founding investor was a Jewish heiress. Although the regime put more and more antisemitic laws on the books as it drew closer to Nazi Germany, Italy’s Jewish community lived in physical security until the collapse of Fascist rule in 1943 and subsequent German occupation of the northern half of the country. Even so, 80% of Italy’s pre-1939 Jewish population survived the war. Mussolini was not a religious man, but he reached a satisfactory understanding with the Catholic church.
Mussolini’s great vice, though, was his rhetorical ferocity – a ferocity that could only be redeemed from absurdity by launching actual wars. In 1935 he embarked on the conquest of Ethiopia, a war that left who knows how many tens of thousands of Ethiopians dead, dismembered, and starving. Wars in the Balkans and Greece came next, plus the bankrolling of the vicious Croatian Ustasha – and then of course the calamity of his entry into World War II.
Bosworth has interesting things to say about the Italian war experience: bad enough from 1940 to 1943; horrific after that. The German occupation triggered a vicious terroristic civil war between anti-Fascist partisans (mostly communist) and Fascist die-hards. Thousands of Italian civilians died in the crossfire between advancing Allies and retreating Germans. The war ended in 1945 with the communist party, the Catholic church, and the Mafia as the country’s only functioning organizations.
All this as I said is interesting and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, this good material accounts for only perhaps 300 of the 700 pages of Bosworth’s massive tome. The rest is academic dark matter, heavy useless junk through which the reader must grope in search of something worthwhile.
Our friends at the New Criterion have over the years done an excellent job detailing how political correctness and politicization have filled the academy with utterly unqualified hucksters, ignoramuses and petty tyrants. Bosworth’s book raises the question though whether the worst harm done by current academic fashion may not be the harm done to the minds of professors who might otherwise have been first-rate.
I dont complain so much about the incessant insertion of his own extraneous opinions on contemporary politics. If he doesnt like Silvio Berlusconi, that is his business. (Although it does rather call into question an author’s judgment when he compares the Nazi air attack on Guernica to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo.)
No, the two great evils of this book are politics writ small, academic politics: the mind-wearying invocations of the race-sex-class orthodoxies of the modern academy – the pages of text wasted in toadying citations of the work of feminist colleagues to whom the author wishes to suck up – and the no-detail-too-boring approach that defines modern “social” history.
Good for Bosworth that he has read apparently every memoir ever written by an expatriate Italian villager. He should remember though that I’m paying $30 for his book so that I don’t have to. But Bosworth writes on the theory that 40 bits of trivia add up to one telling detail. They don’t.
At one point, Bosworth reports an incident in which a peddler tells a group of villagers some inaccurate information on the progress of the war. He seizes on this as evidence that despite the Fascist state, Italians retained “their own ways of knowing.” This is one of the currently fashionable preoccupations of social history: that public ignorance represents – not ignorance – but an inspiring refusal on the part of the downtrodden to allow race/sex/class hierarchies control their minds.
Half the book is the work of a gifted historian; the other, of an ingratiating academic politician.
If Bosworth had courteously packaged the bad half into its own distinct chapters, then the book could be recommended to general readers with the advice to skip over pages thus and such through this and that. As it is, you must trudge through the whole massive tome, like an archaeologist looking for important artefacts in the midden dump of an ancient village.