Political Notes: The true nature of Mussolini and Fascism

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DEPENDING UPON whom one believes, Italy's notorious Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was either a blustering buffoon or benign autocrat. Such popular conceptions or misconceptions have dominated both academic and popular opinion in the post-war era, during which Il Duce has remained an enduring and fascinating figure.

In Italy itself the official state historians of Mussolini and his regime perennially sought to blot out the more distasteful aspects of both the man and his Fascist movement. The chief architect of this revisionist school of thought, the late Renzo De Felice, dominated Italian academic life until his death in 1966. De Felice sought to "explain" the Fascist phenomenon in his multi-volume biography of Mussolini, and created a storm when he argued that both man and regime enjoyed a widespread popular consensus within Italy. However, in justifying Fascism, De Felice denied that Il Duce had ever plotted to wage aggressive War against Great Britain and France, and even argued that Fascist diplomacy had never truly been pro- Nazi. Italy, he insisted, went to war in June 1940 not because the regime wanted it to, but because the leaders of Britain and France refused to arrive at an accommodation with Mussolini.

Yet, since De Felice's demise, Italy's state archives have begun to reveal the realities underpinning Fascism. I have found abundant evidence that Mussolini actively pursued an alliance with Hitler's Germany, and prepared Italy for a "parallel" war of expansion alongside the Third Reich against Britain and France.

Some may find such notions of cold-blooded and calculated warmongering on the part of the Italian dictator difficult to believe. The most popular view of the dictator was that he was "not all that bad really" - especially when compared to his German counterpart - or that he "made the trains on time", or that he was, according to the British historian Denis Mack Smith, merely a blustering opportunist. But such notions are, if anything, the legacy of poorly conceived, or in the case of De Felice, of deliberately misconceived ideas. At the same time both conceptions have one thing in common: they are dangerous.

As Europe is once more faced with the rise of right-wing extremism, and Italians in particular are asked to believe that Gianfranco Fini and his Alleanza Nazionale are not really pro-Fascist, it has become more important than ever to make public the true nature of Mussolini and Fascism. Fini, let us not forget, was a one-time member of the neo-Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (the MSI), and once described Mussolini as one of the great European statesmen of this century. Fini has also attempted to differentiate the Mussolini regime between its period of alleged popular consensus prior to 1938, an era marked by considerable domestic achievement, and II Duce's erroneous decision to ally Italy with Germany after that date.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of Munich, critically important documentary revelations currently emerging from Italian archival sources throw new light on the dictator's roles at the conference. It will be interesting to see how Fini and his Alleanza Nazionale, not to mention the surviving followers of Renzo De Felice, explain Mussolini's decision to plan for an aggressive, expansionist and ideologically motivated war alongside Hitler's Germany, even as he talked of peace with European politicians. Is it too much to hope that both camps, faced with such reality, might face up to truth and pursue more responsible and humane ideas?

Robert Mallett is author of `The Italian Navy and Fascist Expansionism: 1935-40', Frank Cass (pounds 37.50/pounds 18.50)