In 1919, Benito Mussolini assembled a political ragbag of followers in Milan and launched the movement that was to become, two years later, the National Fascist Party. As the cult of ducismo strengthened in the 1920s, the high priests of Fascism began to hail their leader as "divine Caesar". At the end of Mussolini's 23-year dictatorship, however, Italy had become the battered pauper of southern Europe.
It is fashionable these days to claim Mussolini as a fundamentally decent fellow led astray by an opportunist alliance with Hitler. Whether this revisionism is the song and dance of a minority, or something more widespread and foolish, is hard to say. A recent biography by Nicholas Farrell spoke of an unfairly maligned leader whose "charisma" and sheer Machiavellian adroitness were "phenomenal".
This book by the historian Donald Sassoon leaves one in no doubt that Italian Fascism was as meretricious as it was vile. The key question is why Mussolini obtained office in the first place. In Sassoon's analysis, Mussolini was one of the first modern leaders to achieve power in "exceptional circumstances". Italy after the First World War was convulsed by political violence. Discontent ran high as demobbed soldiers roamed the streets in search of work, and shop-floor grievances multiplied. Mussolini exploited fears of communism and offered a dream of a second Roman Empire.
The period 1919-1920 saw unprecedented social strife in Turin, Milan and Bologna; the middle classes watched in horror as life seemed to tumble into chaos amid strikes and occupations. A firm hand was needed. At first, it looked as if the poet-aviator Gabriele D'Annunzio might take over. His followers were dubbed "legionaries" to recall ancient Roman greatness, and displayed a violent contempt for parliamentary liberalism. In September 1919, they seized the Adriatic port of Fiume in the newly formed kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and reclaimed it as Italian territory.
For a little more than a year, Fiume functioned as an independent, quasi-Fascist republic. Fiume, says Sassoon, was a turning point for the 20th century. Mussolini learnt from D'Annunzio how intimidation could help to consolidate power. Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism provides a useful corrective to apologetic accounts of Mussolini, and the darkness that was blackshirt rule in Italy.
Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage
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