Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Book Review - Mussolini's Italy by R.J.B. Bosworth

Mussolini's Italy : life under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 by R.J.B. Bosworth

New York : The Penguin Press, 2006                                         ISBN 1594200785

It's no surprise that such an interesting and thought-inspiring book about Italian Fascism has been written by Richard Bosworth, who wrote an acclaimed biography of the Duce several years before he wrote this work. What is a little more surprising (to me anyway), is that Richard Bosworth is a history academic from Perth, Western Australia.

Be that as it may, the book under review is a fascinating and enlightening approach to the history of Fascist Italy. It is not a book for someone clueless about that period in that country - I thought I knew a fair bit about the subject, but still found myself occasionally referring to other texts while I was reading this book. That is because this is not a standard narrative history, but one historian's view of events as they related to the "average person" who was living through these events. Bosworth has skillfully used records from the Italian secret police archives to flesh out the social and political issues of the day.

The problem Fascism had throughout it's time in Italy was two-fold....they weren't sure what they stood for, and they failed to impose themselves into the strong and ancient fabric of Italian society.

Those of us who live in the "ancient" democracies, such as the USA, Britain and Australia, can have a tendency to forget that democracy in other places can have shallow roots. Italy was one of those places - as a country Italy was barely 50 years old at the beginning of the First World War. The Italian society and polity were not prepared for the slaughter that came to them at battles such as Caporetto, and the Liberal government's decision to enter the war for essentially shallow reasons of territorial greed left them bereft in the nation's eyes when the gains did not come. The war had instilled in those who served a sense that the Italian state could be much more than it currently was, if only the current system disappeared.

And so began the early post-war years, when ex-servicemen joined together in fasces, which varied from what were basically armed gangs to groups of people who wished to change the direction of politics. This idea that the original Fascists were a mixture of thugs and pseudo-intellectuals is in Bosworth's eyes more-or-less accurate, and the birth of Fascism as knowing what it was against, but not necessarily what it was for, led to the path of demagoguery and corruption.

Mussolini emerged as the Duce, but as dictators go, he seemed to have a fair sense that he was not fully in control of things in Italy. He was right. Many of the Fascist fellow-travellers started to fill their own pockets, and those of their connections, once power was in their grasp. The concept of raccomandazione - or seeking favour with those in power via your connexions or through sycophancy - was in Italy as old as the Roman Empire, and, despite early attempts by the Fascists to eradicate it, became firmly entrenched in Fascist life.

The one thing that the populace might have hoped to gain from Fascism was a better standard of living. The shambolic nature of the system meant that even this did not happen - the poor remained poor (and got poorer), the rich came to their accommodations with the regime (as the regime did with them), and life went on pretty much as usual; although there were more parades, and you could shop someone to the secret police at any time (although raccomandazione used well could get a sentence reduced or even quashed).

The problem of what Fascism stood for gnawed at the regime as well - the corporatist nature of Fascism as we understand it now developed slowly in Italy - the "socialist" word was used south as well as north of the Alps - although the anti Bolshevik nature of the movement existed from the beginning. The one thing Fascism needed was to be seen to be continually moving forward - owing to its corruption and lack of ability that couldn't happen on the Peninsula, so the regime started to push its colonial and war-like nature. All the colonial adventures gave the regime in reality was the approbation of the World, more corruption, and additional drains on the already extended national exchequer. In the minds of those that mattered, unfortunately, it made them think they were stronger than they in fact were - which led to the disastrous decision to enter the Second World War.

The under-prepared and ill-equipped Italian armed forces became easy prey for the Allies (including Greece), and the War showed the shallow roots that Fascism had propagated in Italian society. Led by Nazi Germany (once they had committed to the Axis, Italy had little say in overall strategy), Italy declared war on the United States: given the strong connexions between Italy and that country, the (rather poorly planned) propaganda now lost all reality to the people, who had their own sources of information from overseas.

The inevitable collapse of Mussolini in 1943 had all the hallmarks of Fascism's ultimate effect on Italy - a populace who didn't want war, a ruling elite looking for a way out without disturbing their lives, and a Duce who was tired and cynical. In some senses it was a velvet revolution as no one was "liquidated", and Mussolini headed off to an internal exile.

This didn't suit the Germans at all, so they flew in and whisked Mussolini away to become the puppet ruler of the bit of Italy the allies didn't control. His heart wasn't in it, and this led to the Salo Republic being much more viciously Fascist, in the German sense, than the earlier regime ever was.

What Bosworth shows well is the eternal cynicism of the Italian populace. With a history of well over a thousand years of dealing with more-or-less dictatorial regimes, they were past masters at doing enough to get by and keep out of trouble, of working the system to their advantage, and hopping off the bandwagon when the time was ripe. This book in many ways is a history of the Italian people as much as it is of Fascism, showing as it does the regional differences, the divided loyalties and the networks that flowed strongly under the surface.

And my recommendation of this book is as an insight into Italy than specifically as a history of Fascism - although as an insight into how the ideology began, continued and stuttered, and how the roots of its eventual failure were embedded in its beginnings, there is much here of interest.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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