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The twilight of Italian fascism
By John W. Nelson
"No one," Mussolini claimed, "friendly or hostile, could understand the modern world without taking fascism into account." Inclined as we are to dismiss the grandiose boasts of demagogues and tyrants, a moment's reflection will reveal the essential truth behind that statement, albeit one far less grand than Mussolini had in mind. The Fascist Party he founded in 1921 lasted little more than two decades. Its ideological underpinnings -- an inchoate and ill-defined mix of militarism, hyper-nationalism, anti-intellectualism, and collectivism -- failed to permanently transform the Italian people much less the entire world. The so-called "third way" between communism and capitalism was a model for modernity only in so far as it pre-figured other brutal and authoritarian regimes to come; from National Socialism in Germany to fascism's latest incarnation in the Middle East, the modern world is still contending with the consequences of this pernicious ideology (though certainly not the only one to stain the twentieth century).
Given its historical legacy, it's understandable why the phenomenon of fascism continues to fascinate and why the conditions that permitted the movement to take root in its country of origin remain of particular interest. Footage of crowds under the sway of a Svengali-like leader made for good propaganda, but Mussolini had more in his favor than an ability to manipulate the masses (a skill he also shared with the Führer, who, like the well-read Duce, had more than a passing familiarity with Gustave Le Bon's influential treatise on the psychology of crowds).
In fact, the early history of the Fascist regime in Italy was marked by a number of popular accomplishments ranging from public works like land reclamation (most notably the draining of the Pontine Marshes near Rome) to the 1929 Lateran Pacts with the Catholic Church which reconciled previously intractable differences between the papacy and the government that had existed since Italian unification in 1870. Not only had Mussolini earned the praise of his countrymen, but the man who had "given back God to Italy and Italy to God" enjoyed the praise of both Roosevelt and Churchill as well, the latter even going so far as to refer to him as "the greatest living legislator."
Any hopes that the democratic powers had for the Duce were soon dashed however. The invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the intervention in the Spanish Civil War a year later left little doubt about Italy's imperialist agenda and -- even more portentous -- Italy's courting of Nazi Germany. Even though a formal military alliance with Germany would not be in place until 1939, the disgraceful Racial Laws of 1938 targeting Italy's Jews signaled that the rapprochement with the Third Reich was complete. For Mussolini it also signaled the beginning of the end, for his rash bid to raise the nation's fortunes was truly a Faustian bargain (and a poor one at that) that precipitated both the decline of Italy and his own downfall in 1943.
In July of that year, just two weeks after Allied forces landed in Sicily and mere days after 1,000 died in the bombardment of Rome, Mussolini was deposed by the Fascist Grand Council by a vote of nineteen to seven. By his own admission, he had become the most hated man in Italy. As Ray Moseley chronicles in Mussolini: The Last 600 Days of Il Duce, the next and final two years would be a series of increasing humiliations at the hands of Germans and Italians alike.
Moseley's account begins on the Gran Sasso, the highest peak in the Abruzzi mountain chain southeast of Rome. It was here that Mussolini had been incarcerated following his removal from office. Anxious to prevent a possible rescue attempt by the Germans, the new government had been shuffling the Duce around Italy, finally settling on a ski resort in this remote and rather inaccessible location. It didn't take long for the Germans to learn of his whereabouts however, and in a daring glider raid on September 12 Mussolini was spirited out of his makeshift prison without a shot being fired. Two weeks later, in an act that would symbolize his future role in an Italy increasingly under German control, Mussolini flew back to his homeland in a fighter plane borrowed from the Luftwaffe.
The lengths to which Hitler went to secure his rescue instilled in Mussolini a renewed sense of importance, but his initial enthusiasm was soon tempered by the realization that he was the figurehead of a puppet government -- a fact that escaped no one's attention. His new fascist regime in northern Italy (well within reach of the Reich) called itself the Salò Republic; the average Italian -- more at the mercy of Brownshirts than Blackshirts now -- knew it as "Pinocchio's Republic." Nowhere was Mussolini's political irrelevance more in evidence than in the deportation of the Jewish population of Rome to the Nazi death camps two months into his return. As Moseley maintains, "the decision by the Germans neither to advise nor consult him in this matter was the most visible sign yet that his voice counted for nothing."
Even Mussolini's longed-for revenge against the traitors who had voted to oust him was guided by the hand of Hitler, who insisted that the leaders be put to death, including the Duce's son-in-law and former foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano (the subject of Moseley's last monograph). If concern for Ciano and his daughter caused Mussolini to waver, his need to maintain Hitler's approval strengthened his resolve. Yet, shortly after learning of his execution, Mussolini confessed to his wife, "From that morning I have begun to die."
Indeed, the vivid picture Moseley paints of Mussolini in his final years is that of a frail and broken man exhausted by past events, frustrated by ones no longer in his control, and resigned to those that awaited him. In an interview in 1945, not long before he was captured and executed by Italian partisans, he stated flatly, "Seven years ago I was an interesting person. Now I am a corpse." He continued:
The pained awareness of a life run its course should not occasion compassion here. Even so, Moseley is careful that his is not a sympathetic portrait by any stretch of the imagination. That the Duce was relegated to a position of inconsequence in a phantom government was but a discordant coda to a political career characterized by unchecked ambition, vanity, and violence. Whatever Mussolini's early accomplishments, Moseley never lets the reader lose sight of the poisonous consequences of his rule:
For an expression of the hatred and resentment that many Italians bore toward Mussolini, one need only look to the infamous event that took place in Piazzale Loreto in Milan on April 29, 1945. After Mussolini's executioners had dragged his dead body into the town square (as well as that of his mistress and sixteen other Fascists), there erupted what Moseley describes as an "orgy of violence that still shames those who took part:"
Moseley's record of the grim events of these years is rich in detail, although it could benefit from a little more attention to what all writers know to be the most difficult of arts -- that of leaving out (or, at the very least, banishing to footnotes). As a work of history, The Last 600 Days of Il Duce demonstrates a superb command of the source material and illuminates a period that receives scant coverage in a number of biographies of Mussolini available in English. The general reader, however, may be put off by chapters in which continuity is challenged by passages that read like a compendium of people, places, and dates (though the chronology and list of dramatis personae in the work will be a useful aid).
In light of the endless flow of new books on Hitler and the Third Reich, the all too infrequent study of Mussolini is eagerly anticipated, particularly one such as Moseley's which aims to counter the historical revisionism that has been gaining ground in Italy in recent years: as Germany walks its own revisionist tightrope by privileging that nation's victimization over its complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich, Italy is witnessing a disturbing trend to rehabilitate the Duce himself -- a trend made more worrisome by the fact that it has escaped the fringes. When an Italian Prime Minister (even one famous for his verbal gaffes) can insist that "Mussolini never killed anyone" or that Mussolini sent his opponents "on vacation" in internal exile, the need for a counterbalance to this lack of historical sensibility and moral seriousness remains as urgent as ever.
At the close of his life, a still proud Mussolini made the following prediction to one of his last interviewers: "After the defeat I will be covered furiously in spit but then they will come to clean me with veneration." Let us hope that the Duce is always half right.
John W. Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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