Sunday, 21 February 2016
Mussolini, by Nicholas Farrell
I once met a lady from Turn in northern Italy. She was fairly right-wing and was a supporter of Berlusconi. She was also very talkative, one of her favorite subjects being how much she despised southern Italians. Making conversation, I mentioned that I had recently read a book on the Gran Sasso raid, when German paratroopers freed Mussolini from captivity. She replied by expressing admiration for Mussolini and that his one big mistake had been to go to war on the side of Hitler. At the time, this comment came as I surprise to me. I had thought that expressing admiration for Mussolini would be anathema as it would be for a German to express admiration for Hitler. It seems that there is still a feeling of admiration among many Italians for Mussolini, even though the Left has ensured that this cannot be done in public without controversy.
In this revisionist biography, Nicholas Farrell offers us a new perspective on the life of Mussolini, attempting to show why the great dictator inspired such feelings of passion and admiration in so many. This is by no means a whitewash, but it attempts to portray Il Duce in as positive a light as possible. Nicholas Farrell himself is certainly not a Neo-Fascist; his politics are Centre-Right.
Farrell introduces us to Mussolini as son of a blacksmith and a poor school teacher. His humble childhood seems to have been remarkably violent by modern standards. His father was a deeply committed socialist activist who was arrested several times for his activities and Mussolini quickly adopted the same socialist stance. He also followed his mother into a somewhat turbulent career as a schoolteacher, before going into journalism, writing for various radical newspapers. This led to his embarking on a public political career.
The First World War was a turning point in Mussolini's political thinking. He was troubled by Italy's stance of neutrality at the start of the war and the failure of Italy's socialists to fully commit themselves to supporting the war against Germany and Austria. He came to value nationalism over socialism and to believe that national interests should take precedence over narrower class interests. This led to his break with the Socialist movement as his involvement with the ex-army squads who were calling themselves Fascists. Mussolini came to become the leader of this new nationalistic movement. The legendary March on Rome brought Fascism into power, with the King Victor Emmanuel appointing Mussolini as prime minister. Farrell spends some time analyzing the rationale behind this decision. Italy's subsequent development into a Fascist led dictatorship was, in Farrell's opinion, to a large extent the result of a weak and disorientated opposition rather than Mussolini's deliberate design.
In one of many criticisms of the Italian Left in the book, Farrell accuses the Left of distorting history by ignoring the large extent to which Italy embraced Mussolini and Fascism. As the Left regards Fascism as the embodiment of evil and is unwilling to regard the Italian people as evil, it must either view Fascism as forced on Italians or else view Italians as having been brainwashed. However, neither of these fits the picture. The uncomfortable truth for the Left is that Italy welcomed the Fascist regime. Not only was Mussolini loved in Italy, Farrell offers evidence that he was widely admired across Europe and in America too. Fascism was seen by many as an effective movement in opposition to Communism and as a way of finding a middle way between capitalism and socialism. Prior to Mosley's British Union of Fascits, Winston Churchill, who was himself an admirer of Mussolini, was seen by some as having potential to lead a British Fascist Movement. At this time nobody associated Fascism with the ideological excesses of Hitler's National Socialists (except for Hitler who saw Mussolini as a role model and inspiration).
Fascism was by no means sweetness and light. Plenty of political opponents of Fascism were locked up and some were executed. However, Mussolini did not unleash on the Italian people a reign of terror. Our author points out that the pre-war victims of Fascism were small in number compared to those of Nazi Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union or Franco's Spain. Arguably, Mussolini's Italy was a lot less brutal than the average US-backed South American junta in the 1970s and probably less brutal than every regime in the Middle East today. Farrell is certainly critical of Mussolini's economic policy, arguing that in the long run, it was unsustainable.
In terms of foreign policy, Fascist Italy's policy had been to check the advance of Nazi Germany, in particular, to prevent unification of Germany with Austria. Farrell details the failure of Mussolini to engage France and Britain in forming a united front against the Germany. Italy's relations with other nations shifted with the war in Ethiopia. Farrell offers an interesting perspective on Italy's invasion of Abyssian, arguing that the Ethiopian empire was a wretched and brutal slave state that did not deserve any sympathy. He argues that Britain and France had two sensible choices, either to accommodate Mussolini's Abyssinian ambitions or else to impose fuel sanctions and to block Italy's access to the Suez canal and thus force him to desist. Instead, they chose to impose weak sanctions that allowed Italy to continue with her invasion while destroying relations with France and Britain. Italy was effectively pushed into the arms of Germany. Our author argues that Britain should have tried to appease Mussolini who was the lesser menace in order to stop Hitler, who was the greater menace. Instead British politicians chose to appease Hitler while opposing Mussolini. Hitler deeply admired Mussolini and welcomed alliance with Italy. Mussolini had only contempt for Hitler, but reluctantly made friends because alliance with France and Britain had ceased to be an option.
Catholic conservatives will be pleased with Farrell's comments on the Spanish Civil War. He shows the Republican side to be a gang of Communist thugs who are not deserving of the sentimental adoration they still receive today. I have heard from some sources that Mussolini persuaded Hitler to get involved in the Spanish Civil War, but Farrell says that both men independently sided to get involved for similar reasons.
The introduction of anti-Semitic laws in Italy, was not in Farrell's view, a result of alliance with Germany. Previously many Jews in Italy had strongly supported Fascism. There were many Jews in the National Fascist Party. He asserts that Mussolini was himself in no way anti-Semitic. He argues that the laws were an expression of Mussolini's ideological struggle against things he perceived as bourgeois. In the Duce's mind, Jewishness was a cultural form of un-Italian bourgeois culture. I am not sure I find this altogether convincing, as it does not explain why the laws applied to Jews who had converted to Catholicism. Our author provides evidence that during the Second World War, Mussolini was appalled by the Nazi's genocidal actions towards the Jews. He argues that Mussolini and the Fascist regime actually saved the lives of many more Jews than they are given credit for. Catholics will be especially interested in Farrell's defence of Pope Pius XI. Pius XI has been criticized for failing to speak out against the Holocaust, but our author argues that such a move would have done nothing and ignores the pope's behind the scenes actions in saving Jewish lives.
As the Italian lady I mentioned said, it was the war that proved to be Mussolini's Waterloo. For all that Il Duce had tried to militarize the country, Italy was simply unready for war. Farrell argues that the start of the Second World War proved a terrible psychological dilemma for Mussolini. He had detested the initial neutral stance of Italy during the First World War, yet he now found himself trying to take that same stance in the new conflict. In the end, his heart overruled his head and he entered the war. Yet Farrell points out that staying out would have had it's risks, as a victorious Germany would not have looked kindly on an Italy that chose to stay neutral. Coming to the details of Italy's war actions, he argues that the Italian invasion of Greece was the greatest tactical mistake of Mussolini.
Hitler's focus during the war was the eastern front against the Soviet Union. Despite Mussolini's pleas, the sphere of conflict in the Mediterranean did not interest Hitler and Italy was left to be the Third Reich's southern frontier guard. Mussolini came under increasing pressure from his subordinates to pull out of the war and to seek peace with the Allies. Our author says that Mussolini well understood how poorly the country was faring, but was aware that if he made peace with the Allies, he would be faced with a German invasion. Mussolini did not want the fate of Poland or France to fall on Italy. As a result of his hesitancy, Mussolini was removed by the king, backed by a conspiracy of senior government figures. Farrell is scathing about the conspirators, particularly Badoglio, the Fascist general who replaced Mussolini as prime minister. The overthrow of Mussolini was a disaster in our author's opinion, as it resulted in Italy being invaded from two sides and plunged into a brutal civil war.
Mussolini was freed from incarceration by the Germans and given the opportunity to administer a puppet regime in northern Italy. Farrell says he was reluctant to accept this, but knew that Italy would be treated far worse if he refused. The Italian Social Republic provided Mussolini with the brief opportunity to go back to first principles of his socialist roots. However, by this time he had little power and the Germans were calling the shots in the Salo Republic.
Again, Farrell attacks the mythology of the Italian Left. He argues that the partisans did not liberate Italy; they merely assisted the allies. He portrays the partisans as pretty nasty bunch, dominated by a Communist leadership and no less brutal than the Fascists who collaborated with the Germans. The brutality of the partisans was demonstrated when they shot the captured Mussolini and his mistress without trial. Our author is disgusted by the decision to shoot Clara Petacci, a woman who had committed no crime whatsoever.
This is a very detailed biography which sheds a fascinating light on one of the chief 'villains' of the Twentieth Century. The picture I get is of a man who was aggressive, vain and selfish, but not a man who was cruel or hateful. There are things to be admired about Mussolini. The depth of his vision for Italy, his fervent patriotism and his understanding of the materialistic vacuity of socialism. He was at heart a republican and yet he was able to maintain an effective working relationship with the king until his dismissal and arrest. He was anti-clerical, yet he was able to make his peace with the Catholic Church and his legacy lives on in the independence of the Vatican State, his lasting achievement.