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Why Mussolini Still Matters

MUSSOLINI, By R.J.B. Bosworth, Oxford University Press / Arnold: 584 pp., $35

June 30, 2002|ROBERT MALLETT | Robert Mallett is the author of "The Italian Navy and Fascist Expansionism, 1935-1940" and the editor of "International Fascism, 1919-1945."

A quasi-Chaplinesque image of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini has prevailed since his violent death in April 1945. Postwar biographers of the Italian Duce delivered a succession of body blows to the man's reputation so severe that his transmogrification from brutal fascist to a "sawdust Caesar" now dominates many popular perceptions of him. Fascist Italy's mediocre--at best--military performance in World War II, a performance so glaringly out of sync with the dictator's imperial pretensions, fueled such interpretations of his life. Thus Mussolini became a buffoon and clown, a second-rate sanguinario not in the same league as Hitler and Stalin.

Aside from the fact that such notions of the man and his regime are at best simplistic, this ridicule has invariably generated considerable resentment within Italy. Certainly a challenge to prevailing ideas about Mussolini and fascism was not long in emerging and came, inevitably, from the right of the Italian political spectrum.

While not openly pro-fascist, the work of such prominent scholars as the late Renzo De Felice were certainly far less critical than that of many of their non-Italian counterparts. The De Felice clique erased or played down the less palatable aspects of the fascist era in Italy (domestic repression, colonial brutality, international delinquency and aggressive militarism) and attempted to argue that Mussolini had been no more than a benign autocrat diligently defending Italy from the Bolshevik and even Germanic hordes. In political terms De Felice's approach has found a ready resonance in the Italy of today, where both the governing coalition's Alleanza Nazionale component and groups such as the neo-fascist Forza Nuova look to Mussolini as a sort of ideological messiah and insist that De Felice's multivolume biography is an honest and accurate analysis of his life and politics.

Needless to say the two viewpoints are fiercely and mutually hostile to each other, and will remain so. Anyone, like Australian social historian R.J.B. Bosworth, who treads on this political minefield is a brave individual indeed. Not only do authors who tackle the question of interpreting Mussolini's ideological outlook face a tricky and controversial intellectual quagmire, but they do so at a time when the politics of the extreme right are again in vogue in continental Europe.

Bosworth's new assessment of Mussolini emerges at a moment when the belief that social exclusion, this time around founded on the crass idea that immigrants and "asylum seekers" should be forcibly repatriated, has again gained alarming levels of support in mainstream European societies such as France, Holland and, yes, Italy. This makes it critically important to expose the fallacy of such notions, based, effectively, on "purifying" society, last time around.

Bosworth's overall approach is to chart a middle way between De Felicean apologia and the derision of orthodox Anglo-American academic scholarship. For Bosworth, Italy under il Duce was, and remained, "the least of the Great Powers" and, by implication, Mussolini constituted the lesser evil in a century besmirched by Nazi and Stalinist atrocities. As he argues, Mussolini was "cruel (but not the cruelest)," racist but in an "erratic" and "unscientific" way. Revealing his own background as a social historian of Italy, Bosworth refutes "intentionalist" scholars who argue that Mussolini led from the front. As far as Bosworth's work is concerned, "to a considerable degree Mussolini did not even dictate" but, on the contrary, had been swept along by "destiny."

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