Decrying the Duce's Defenders

Issue section: 

Review of 'Mussolini', Martin Clark, Pearson £14.99

There is a sustained campaign to rescue the reputation of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. When the Duce was shot by Resistance fighters and his corpse hung in a Milan square (where earlier executed partisans had been put on display), few would have expected Mussolini to have his defenders six decades on - at least not beyond a small fringe of fascist diehards.

Instead we have seen a growing campaign aimed against the reputation of the Resistance, cheered on by Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. It began in academic circles with a massive, multi-volume biography by ex-leftist Renzo De Felice.

De Felice claimed Italian fascism could not be compared to German Nazism - that it was less murderous, it represented a modernising force and it won a broad consensus of support among the Italian people (at least before Mussolini entered into an unfortunate alliance with Hitler). De Felice effectively whitewashed the crimes of Italian fascism, but went further in claiming that there was no moral difference between the Resistance and 'lads' (ragazzi) who fought for Mussolini and Hitler from 1943 to 1945. Berlusconi and his coalition allies, the 'post-fascist' National Alliance, have taken up this apologia.

Against this background there has been a plethora of English language biographies of Mussolini published, representing a battlefield of contrasting views. So far the most outstanding - and the best antidote to De Felice - has been RJB Bosworth's.

Martin Clark provides a good description of Mussolini's career with a concise summary at the close of each chapter. It rather dismisses the wave of terror aimed at rural trade unionism which gave birth to Italian fascism as a 'student prank'. Clark could also have spelt out the murderous colonial war waged by fascism in Ethiopia and used that to show that, though anti-Semitism came late to the regime, racist extremism was not something alien to Italian fascism.

And anti-Semitism was not alien to Mussolini, despite having a Jewish lover and the presence of many Jews in his fascist movement. He wanted to create a 'pure', warlike Italian nation and believed in the pseudo-science of eugenics. Once Italy began constructing an empire in Africa, racism pervaded the regime, with anti-Semitism coming to the fore. Those Jews sent to die in Auschwitz and other camps were dispatched using Italian laws, Italian procedures and, all too often, Italian security forces.

Mussolini was a butcher. The fact that he did not have the means or opportunity to engage in mass murder on the scale of his fascist brother in arms should not excuse him.

The book does question how successful fascism was in creating a 'consensus' of support for itself, and at the end Clark turns to the arguments about Mussolini's legacy. But I was left wishing for more. This may sound like an academic debate but as I was writing this review, news emerged that the head of the National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, was being welcomed to Buckingham Palace by the queen. This is a man who still defends Mussolini while trying to deny his fascist lineage. The crimes of Mussolini need to be spelt out loud and clear in what is becoming a war of biographies of the Italian dictator.