Fascist Voices, By Christopher Duggan: Book review

The banality of evil, spoken in its own voice

In 1918, the preposterous Futurist leader Marinetti encouraged nascent fascists to relish "a love of violence and the beautiful heroic gesture". It is no coincidence that when Giuseppe Bottai, an ardent supporter of Mussolini, participated in Italy's grotesquely one-sided war against Ethiopia in 1935, he described the fighting in a letter to his wife as "beautiful… mobile, agile, sensitive, protean".

This original, revealing and disturbing book provides a grassroots view of fascist Italy through diaries, letters and reports from organisations like OVRA, the secret police named with Mussolini's typical weirdness after the word for octopus (piovra).

Duggan notes how few of these sources "reveal any sense of serious antagonism". Similarly, most newspaper editors offered "near spontaneous support" as did eminent figures such as G M Trevelyan (the British historian described Mussolini as "a man of genius") and the playwright Pirandello, who not only joined the fascist party but also sent his Nobel medal to support the Ethiopian campaign. He was not alone. Upwards of half the married couples in Italian cities contributed gold rings.

Mussolini was seen as a father figure despite being a secret bigamist (he had both the partner and son of that liaison incarcerated in mental hospitals). Photos of Il Duce had a particular potency, but a "signed and dedicated" snap did not protect the Jewish fascist Ettore Ovazza in 1943 when he was shot by the SS with his wife and 15-year-old daughter.

As Italy slid towards war, Mussolini became increasingly obsessed with his mistress Claretta Petacci, "admitting that he fantasised about her from the moment he woke up". In awe of Hitler's ruthlessness, Mussolini whipped up belligerence in his own bizarre way. Attacking the British, he claimed, "People who carry an umbrella cannot… love that supreme, inexorable violence which is the chief motor force of world history."

When his and Claretta's bodies were dangling from a Milan garage in 1945, journalist Antal Mazzotti recorded his repugnance at "that foul beast of a crowd that in the past would have rushed to any piazza in Italy to scream deliriously for Mussolini."