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Review: Mussolini’s Italy: Life under the Fascist Dictatorship 1915-1945 by R.J.B. Bosworth

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 by R.J.B. Bosworth 

This book was Fascist Italy not of the newsreels of frenzied Roman crowds cheering bombastic speeches by Mussolini but how fascism’s imperial grandiosity were an ill-fitting facade for an Italy that underneath remained substantially an impoverished, traditionalist, parochial society of peasant squabbles and regional jealousies. Bosworth, one of the world’s top experts on the period takes a granular look at Italy under Fascism and the reader comes away amazed at how Mussolini fooled the great powers into taking his regime seriously for as long as they did.

At 692 pages, including 88 pages of endnotes, Mussolini’s Italy lays out in exhaustive detail how ordinary Italians carried on as best they could under the dictatorship, with the traditional reliance on corruption and the influence of kin and “men of respect” to undermine and ameliorate “totalitarian” rule. Repeatedly the regime sanctions dissidents (usually politically naive -or simply drunken – tradesmen or villagers) to “confino”, internal exile to faraway unpleasant regions only to have the intervention of some Fascist bigwig result in a swift amnesty.The brutality of the regime’s informal sanctions – the beatings, castor oil, kidnappings and murders – carried out by roving Fascist squadrists or at the orders of a local Fascist Ras (boss) like Cremona’s thuggish Roberto Farinacci, were by contrast, real enough.

Outside of the violent hooliganism of blackshirt squadrism there at times seems little to have held Fascism together as a political movement without Mussolini’s tin cult of personality, there was seldom agreement among fascists about such fundamental political issues as the role of the state vs. the party, capitalism vs. autarky, the sanctity of private property, the need for unions, whether Fascism should be antisemitic or the role of the Catholic Church in Italian life? An incoherence that left Mussolini, who was never much of a stickler for consistency, as supreme arbiter. A role he kept secure by arbitrarily moving his preening, intriguing, womanizing and feuding cabal of uniformed henchmen and party apparatchiks from job to job all the way into his bitter gotterdammerung of the Salo Republic, where Mussolini was reduced to being the puppet gauleiter of Lombardy and eventually patheitic victim of popular revenge.

Bosworth does a scholarly take-down of the original Fascist regime, demonstrating the deep propensity for cultural continuity in any society in the long term, even in one under the heavy hand of self-proclaimed revolutionaries and Roman tyrants.

4 Responses to “Review: Mussolini’s Italy: Life under the Fascist Dictatorship 1915-1945 by R.J.B. Bosworth”

  1. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    “puppet gauleiter of Lombardy”


    Mark, that is a historical body slam delivered with the highest degree of art I can imagine. Well done.

  2. zen Says:

    My thanks, Lynn!
    Robert Conquest has said that “Hitler treated Mussolini with remarkable kindness” and on the surface that is true; Hitler never lost his awe of Mussolini in his “March on Rome” moment and the dynamic early years of the Fascist regime when Italy vied with Lenin’s Russia as the “wave of the future” in the eyes of many western intellectuals and politicians who should have had more sense about either. I am not so sure though. Mussolini was a broken old man before he was overthrown by his own henchmen ( a fate he could have avoided easily by arresting them. Stalin would have had everyone shot before they even knew that they were attending a meeting) and I think he would have liked best an escape to a quiet retirement in Switzerland or Fascist Spain with a few mistresses. Instead, Hitler was propping him up in Salo like a cornerman hustling a punch-drunk boxer back into a ring to be mauled by a real fighter.

  3. Lexington Green Says:

    Hitler never lost his respect for “the Duce” — which is one of many strange things about him.   

  4. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Mussolini was for Hitler what Lenin was for Stalin: Mussolini was too important to be left to Mussolini. He may even have been for Hitler what Joseph Stalin was for Ioseb dze Jugashvili. When that most Chekist of helicopter parents learned son Vasili had invoked the THE NAME to escape punishment for his princeling indiscretions, Stalin went Iron Felix on Vasily. Faced with the reality of the perennial muzhik fantasy of what would happen if the Little Father only knew, Vasily defended himself:

    “‘But I’m a STALIN too,’ retorted Vasily. ‘No, you’re not,’ said Stalin. ‘You’re not STALIN and I’m not STALIN. STALIN is SOVIET POWER. STALIN is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you, not even me!’”

    For Hitler, Mussolini alive or Mussolini dead were equally useful as long as he wasn’t Mussolini, human. The man Mussolini wasn’t a visionary totalitarian dictator but he played one in the newspapers and the portraits. Il Duce wasn’t Benito Mussolini. Il Duce was Fascist Power. Il Duce couldn’t be caged like a critter. If fallible man Benito Mussolini had allowed himself be caged, he must be freed for Il Duce’s sake. If, Elvis-like, the man Mussolini had died in winter 1945 with his face in the toilet after a long chemical night of the soul, Hitler would have propped embalmed Il Duce up in a train switching station with precision German animatronics to give him a timeliness in death he never reached in life. Il Duce è morto. Viva il Duce.


    Perhaps if a passing meat hook ever gave Mussolini a brief presentiment of real destiny (opera bouffe-ing toward Milan to be hung), he silently rued being born with a square jaw that photographed well when jutted boldly into the future. If he’d been born with an ingrown chin like George Lucas, he never would have ended up main prop for a bad fascist Euro-Disneyland. In politics, an ingrown chin always spells S-C-H-I-C-K-L-G-R-U-B-E-R.

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