Mussolini in Peace and War

Martin Gilbert

  • Mussolini by Denis Mack Smith
    Weidenfeld, 429 pp, £12.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 297 78005 0
  • Mussolini Unleashed 1939-41 by MacGregor Knox
    Cambridge, 384 pp, £22.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 521 23917 6

These two books make an intriguing tandem, the one a broad perspective of the whole span of Mussolini’s life, the other a detailed study of less than three years. The wider canvas is a delight to read, and through it Denis Mack Smith will find an even wider readership for the formidable knowledge he has already shown in his more specialist writings.

As a biography, his new book achieves an impressive balance in the difficult presentation of Mussolini’s childhood, early years, struggle, power and overthrow. The story of Mussolini’s early years is particularly instructive: his own recollections of his family’s poverty (‘black bread and soup their staple meal’) contrasts with Mack Smith’s comment that there were plenty of books in the house, land from which the family made their own wine, and domestic help. The boys, he notes, were able to remain at school until they were 18, something ‘that must have been quite exceptional in such a neighbourhood’.

This biography makes clear how a streak of brutality was a characteristic which emerged early in Mussolini’s boyhood: at the age of ten he had wounded a boy with a knife and was expelled from his boarding-school. Mack Smith notes that the facts about the stabbing were played down or altogether suppressed by later Fascist historians. Hardly had he taken his place at a new school than Mussolini was sent home for ten days for again stabbing a fellow pupil. At the age of 18 he stabbed a girlfriend. Physical violence, Mack Smith comments, ‘was instinctively his method of getting what he wanted’.

Going to Switzerland at the age of 18, possibly in order to avoid paying his rent, possibly to avoid a jealous husband or even to evade military service, Mussolini entered street politics, as an advocate of industrial unrest among Italian immigrant workers. He was twice arrested. One of his first revolutionary friends was a Russian Marxist. His own socialism was of a Marxist mould. In July 1903 he was expelled from Switzerland and handed over to the Italian police. But he fled back to Switzerland again, this time definitely to avoid conscription. Back in Switzerland, he encouraged Italian soldiers to desert – an offence, Mack Smith wrily remarks, ‘for which later, as dictator, he had people shot’. Out of work in Switzerland, he was helped ‘by some of the Socialist companions whom he later bitterly persecuted’.

As the tale unfolds, Mack Smith shows the full extent of Mussolini’s Socialist years: the journalistic work and further arrests in the Austrian province of Trentino, the brief thought of emigrating to the United States to settle there and become a journalist, denunciation of democracy in Italy as a system catering only for ‘men on the make’ such as professors who saw politics as a path for academic promotion, and vitriolic attacks on the Catholic Church (culminating in a novel in which the villain was a lecherous cardinal). Mack Smith comments, in one of his many enjoyable and wise asides: ‘he obviously understood popular taste and knew how to cater for it.’

Most fascinating of all, in the light of Mussolini’s later cruel imperialism, was his condemnation of the Italian war in Libya as ‘a crime against humanity and an act of international brigandage’. Having encouraged the citizens of the Italian town of Forli to sabotage the war effort, he was sent to prison for five months. His Socialism may not have had any deep philosophical base, but neither was it always merely theoretical. Yet when a million Italians took to the streets in ‘Red Week’ in June 1914, and Mussolini himself saw revolution awaiting only some dramatic event such as the death of a hundred demonstrators at the hands of the police, he did not take to the streets but remained at his editor’s desk and, as Mack Smith notes, ‘failed to give his readers an unequivocal lead’. Then, with the outbreak of the war which he, like all Socialists, had for so long condemned as a capitalist conspiracy, he suddenly announced his support for it, launched his own pro-war (but still Socialist) newspaper, and took French and even British money to finance it.

Mack Smith is excellent both on the evolution of Mussolini’s Fascism, and on the motives and character of the man, whose changes of policy, and contradictory actions, need his expert hand to explain them. The ease with which this biography reads conceals many years of study and analysis. I know of no other biography of Mussolini, or indeed of any other dictator, unless it be Lord Kinross’s Ataturk, which enters so completely, and so successfully, into the realities and contradictions of leadership. Even the early Fascist programmes, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, were later to be discarded: the end of the monarchy (in all Mussolini’s years of power, the King remained on his throne), confiscation of ecclesiastical property, an independent judiciary, and large-scale decentralisation of government. Thus the hated Fascism of later years, the inspiration of other totalitarian systems, began its course on very different lines, and denounced the prime minister of the day (Nitti) for his opposition to war in l9l4.Mack Smith has much to say about the establishment and evolution of Italian Fascism. Mussolini’s much publicised march on Rome never took place as an aggressive, or even as a decisive act. Indeed, the King, having been informed ‘privately, inaccurately, almost certainly with intent to deceive’, that the Army would not defend Rome against the planned march from Milan, invited Mussolini to be prime minister. Mussolini agreed. His private army only reached Rome 24 hours after he had accepted the royal request to form a government. At one point he thought of stopping his train outside Rome and entering the city on horseback. In the event, he made the whole journey by sleeping-car, and arrived at Rome station as his blackshirts pillaged the houses of political opponents and forced the editor of one liberal paper to drink the ‘fascist medicine’, castor oil.

Mussolini’s rule was nasty, brutish and long: yet compared with Hitler, he was very much the mini-dictator. Even when he and Hitler were in tandem, tens of thousands of Jews found safe havens in the regions under Mussolini’s rule, both in Italy itself and on the Dalmatian coast. No Italian Jews were deported to the ominous ‘unknown destination’ (Auschwitz) while Mussolini ruled Italy. Although Mack Smith does not mention it, it was only in October 1943, after Mussolini’s overthrow, that the new German authorities in Rome embarked on the deportation of more than eight thousand Jews to the gas chambers.

The worst crimes of Mussolini’s own rule were committed during the African and Abyssinian wars, and during the intervention in Spain – all three before the outbreak of the Second World War. Here the bombast was transferred into brutality, as Mack Smith’s accounts make clear. ‘There is no doubt,’ he writes, ‘that his own personal orders were responsible in the summer of 1937 for Italian submarines torpedoing neutral ships which were suspected of carrying supplies for the Spanish republicans.’

Mack Smith devotes less that fifty of his 320 pages of text to Mussolini and the Second World War. This balance is, I believe, entirely correct in the scheme of the whole biography, and brings an eloquent book to a dramatic end. A part of those same war years are studied in considerable detail by an American professor, MacGregor Knox, whose 290-page book Mussolini Unleashed, 1939-1941, is copiously documented, informative, and an important addition to current knowledge of the inner workings of Italian wartime diplomacy.

Professor Knox has made considerable use of primarily unpublished archival material in Rome, Washington and London, through which he illuminates the process whereby Italy came, belatedly, into the war, and her prosecution of it against Greece and Yugoslavia, to Hitler’s eventual discomfiture. ‘Every second Italian,’ Hitler told his adjutant in 1940, ‘is either a traitor or a spy.’ With Mussolini’s overthrow three years later, Italy’s two decades of Fascism came to an ignominious end, and Italy was restored to its truly ‘Roman’ place in Europe, a place which Mussolini had wished to see secured by noise, violence and conquest.