Business with a blackshirt

MUSSOLINI by Jasper Ridley Constable pounds 25 MUSSOLINI AND THE BRITIS H by Richard Lamb, John Murray pounds 25

Mussolini is inevitably compared to Hitler and emerges well from the comparison. Just how well depends on the historian's own politics. On the whole, in these two studies of the fascist leader and his times, Jasper Ridley's judgement is sterner, while Richard Lamb's self-styled "revisionist" account of Italo-British relations tries to argue that, had Britain been more "generous" over the question of Italian conquests in Abyssinia, Mussolini might have stayed out of the war or even have joined the Allies. He also claims that Mussolini has "been given little credit" for allowing the press to publish a warning of Nazi plans for mass deportations of Italian Jews in 1944, so giving some of them the opportunity to go into hiding.

The trouble with this last plea on the Duce's behalf is that, though there may be plenty of evidence to support the view that he did not share Hitler's pathological anti-semitism, he presided over a regime that had started - on his initiative - to bring in anti-semitic legislation as early as 1938, when he could easily have resisted German pressure to do so. Some leading members of the Fascist Grand Council, including Italo Balbo, opposed the laws; Mussolini enacted them. Why did he change tack? Lamb suggests that during his first 13 years in power, he was under the beneficial influence of his Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, but that when her sexual attraction waned he switched his attentions to the "stupid, pro-Nazi" Clara Petacci, with "incalculable, tragic consequences".

This is intriguing, though improbable. It runs counter to Mussolini's expressed contempt for the female intellect and his view that women "exert no influence over strong men". Lamb himself seems rapidly to lose confidence in the idea: Sarfatti hardly appears outside his introductory chapter, Petacci not at all. The last is surprising, because even biographies which have no particular point to make about her role in Mussolini's life include the loyal Claretta in the death scene: Lamb mentions the 14 Fascist ministers who were executed at the same time as their leader, but not poor, "stupid" Petacci. Once this bedroom theory of history has been discarded, his book settles into a painstaking account of the diplomatic negotiations between the European powers, with plentiful quotation from the relevant papers. It will be useful to anyone making a close study of the topic.

Despite its "revisionist" claims, it gives us a Mussolini who is little different from Ridley's, and essentially an unprincipled opportunist. Though anyone is entitled to speculate on what might have happened if this or that situation had been handled differently, it is clear that Mussolini brought Italy into the war in 1940, not in a fit of pique at British refusal to grant de jure recognition to his African conquests, but because he was sure, after Dunkirk, that he was joining the winning side. Italian fascism was based on Mussolini's own simple definition of it in the Enciclopedia italiana: "The Fascist state is an urge to power and domination." All the rest (including international alliances and economic theories that veered from a belief in laissez-faire capitalism to wholesale conversion to the corporate state) depended on whether or not the Duce felt there might be some advantage in it; or, simply, on his mood at the time.

Many people found his arrogance and undisguised pursuit of self-interest rather endearing. Certainly, as both books show, a number of British politicians felt he was one Italian they could "do business with", and quite often their wives (Clementine Churchill, Lady Sybil Graham and Austen Chamberlain's widow) were taken with the masterful Duce, whose bombastic public image was so charmingly softened in private.

Diplomatic negotiations were sometimes complicated by amateur admirers who felt that small concessions might pay big dividends. In truth, of course, this was a market in which Mussolini wanted the highest price in return for the smallest favours. Yet the British establishment persisted in the idea that "strong" (ie dictatorial) regimes abroad were easier to deal with than democracies. Many admired the Duce for controlling what they thought of as an undisciplined race, and saw him as an ally in what Churchill called the "struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism". Mussolini was always keen to encourage the view, expressed in the Times, that fascism was just "a healthy reaction" to the Red menace.

The great merit of Ridley's very readable biography is that it puts the dictator's life in the context of his times, succinctly filling in the wider background and the development of his regime. This is an effort to understand Mussolini, without trying to shift any blame. The balance is particularly evident in the account of fascism in Italy itself, where Ridley admits the relative mildness of the regime (for example, in the degree of freedom it allowed to academics and even the press), and shows how Mussolini cleverly managed to distance himself from the excesses of the blackshirt thugs, while using them to intimidate his opponents. This is why the death of the Socialist deputy Giacomo Mateotti in 1924 represented such a crisis for fascism: though only one murder among many, it came close to implicating the leader.

Even so, for those who did not openly oppose it, Mussolini's was fascism with a human face - and it proved dangerously attractive to some, outside Italy, who felt frustrated by the "inefficiency" of democratic government. "Liberty was lost, but Italy was saved," was Churchill's verdict in 1937: "saved", that is, from the threat of Communism. But, however much some politicians in Britain may have admired a regime that abolished political opposition, trade unions and democratic freedoms, the British political system impeded their attempts to compromise with it. This was not, as Lamb suggests, a matter of generosity or otherwise, but one of principle: something inherent in the democracies, and that fascism signally lacked.

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'