Brothers in Arm

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Review of 'Fascism's European Empire', Davide Rodogno, Cambridge University Press £60

On the Italian right there is a constant refrain that the inter-war Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini was not genocidal or anti-Semitic, and therefore does not stand comparison with Hitler's Third Reich or Stalin's Russia.

The great strength of Davide Rodogno's Fascism's European Empire, a study of the territories occupied by Mussolini during the Second World War, is that it stresses not how different Italian Fascism was to Nazism but how similar they were.

Just as it is hard to imagine Hitler's regime not at war, the same holds for Mussolini's. In Libya it waged a ferocious war, complete with poison gas and concentration camps, to subject the colony. Italy's massive intervention on Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War reinforced its alliance with Nazi Germany and paved its entry into the Second World War on Hitler's side.

For both Hitler and Mussolini war was the means of creating a racially pure state of fascist warriors. In Mussolini's case that would enable him to rid himself of the monarchy and the church.

Anti-Semitism was not central to Mussolini's movement but it was virulently anti-Slav and wanted to create an ethnically pure Italian nation which would dominate the Balkans, the Mediterranean and East Africa.

The turn towards anti-Semitism and the anti-Jewish laws of the late 1930s were not made under pressure from Germany. They were an adjustment in the regime's outlook.

Italy's military and economic weakness meant Mussolini had to sit out the start of the war, only jumping in when Hitler seemed assured of victory with the fall of France in June 1940.

The one Italian success of the war was its occupation of Albania. Mussolini's invasion of Greece in November 1940 turned into a disaster. Eventually in April 1941 Hitler came to the rescue, invading and occupying Yugoslavia and Greece. Italy thereby acquired its empire controlling territory in both.

Increasingly Mussolini's priorities became keeping up a facade of Italian power and trying to maintain control of these territories.

The Italian army was not so entangled with the fascist regime as the Wehrmacht was in Germany. But its commanders shared Mussolini's dream of empire and of the superiority of the Italian "race". They and the fascist chiefs brought in to rule these territories needed no orders to begin civilian reprisals against resistance attacks, to expel whole populations and to intern civilians en masse.

Despite myths that arose, there was no official policy of saving Jews fleeing the Nazi death camps. Mussolini's men handed thousands of Jews over to certain death.

But it is true that Italian commanders saw dealing with the resistance as more of a priority. Individuals officers did make efforts to save Jews but this was the exception. The main reason, as Rodogno points out, that the Italians did not accede to German or Croat requests to hand over Jews in their detention was that they were trying to uphold Italian authority and resented being treated as a second class power.

Davide Rodogno's study shows that Italian Fascism and German Nazism were brothers in arms. Today's far right National Alliance grew from the organisation created by those fascists who fought for Mussolini and Hitler until the bitter end, by which time the reality of a genocidal, racial war was apparent to all.