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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.