Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Book Review - Benito Mussolini by Christopher Hibbert

Benito Mussolini : the rise and fall of Il Duce by Christopher Hibbert

Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965

Although in the Twenty-First Century Mussolini has faded from view somewhat, he was for a time a significant actor on the World stage, as well as being the founder of the Fascist ideology that found its dreadful apotheosis in Hitler's Germany. Mussolini sought to change Italy, to turn it into a corporatised, twentieth-century state, into an empire, and into a military power. He failed on all three counts. And yet there are those groups of Italians - apart from the greedy and corrupt hangers-on of the regime - for whom Mussolini's rule improved their lives, and for whom, until the onset of war, he was a hero.

Mussolini started out as a socialist, and to the end that was his claim; that he was always for the worker. He was also for the State, and if the Fascist Party that he founded had one policy, it was that the State trumped all, and that the individual, industry, government and even the Church were subordinate to it. Mussolini saw himself as the embodiment of the State, and as he gained power, he lost touch more and more with what was going on in the country.

Christopher Hibbert, a professional historian and writer who is probably better-known for his books about English history, served in Italy during the War. Benito Mussolini is a well-written, serviceable account of Il Duce's life, although it centres too much on the War years and Mussolini's relationship with Hitler to be classed as a definitive biography. In fact there is very little discussion of politics or economics in this book at all. While we get an insight into the character of Mussolini, the reader will finish this book with little idea of how the Fascists were run, how Italy was financed, or how opposition to Mussolini grew.

Hibbert has drawn for us a Mussolini who was vain and insecure, who was out-of-touch most of the time, and who for much of the time was more concerned with his legacy than with governing. Unfortunately for Il Duce, the people he had around him were ineffectual, greedy or corrupt (or all three) and so a period of rule that began with some promise (Fascist Italy was lauded by many international politicians including Churchill) ended in shambolic disarray.

It was Mussolini's vanity and pride and his desire for glory, which led him to the disastrous decision to invade Greece, over the objections of his advisers. It is in descriptions of these decisions where Hibbert's lack of an economic or political viewpoint lets his biography down. Italy just could not afford to be a major military power. In fact during the War she relied on Germany for the raw material and industrial equipment with which to fight.

Hibbert's book is most effective in demonstrating Mussolini's ineffectiveness, especially after Germany came to his aid in Greece. Hibbert describes Mussolini alternating between fury and resignation as his power to act became more and more circumscribed. His description of Mussolini's last few weeks contains some good and dramatic writing. It's worth noting here the Hibbert wrote this book in 1960, and he was one of the first English-language writers to map out the final months of Mussolini's life, and so perhaps it is natural that he focuses more on this matter than he perhaps should.

I'm not sure if I recommend this book - I have yet to read the award-winning biography by Bosworth, which is probably the go-to book in English on Mussolini's life as I write. However, Benito Mussolini is a good read and interesting in it's own way.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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