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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'