One of the major problems facing a historian today is that there are so many historical subjects that cannot be approached with the kind of questioning attitude that is so essential to the proper study of history. These topics are not exactly off-limits but any historian who ventures into these areas is compelled to stick to the marked paths. Any tendency to leave those marked paths is likely to provoke the kind of Two Minute Hate that ends careers.
In his 2003 work Mussolini: A New Life Nicholas Farrell has ignored the marked paths altogether and has boldly gone in search of the truth. He has in fact committed the ultimate mortal sin – he has written a sympathetic biography of a fascist dictator. In doing so he has shone a light into areas that today’s political establishment would prefer to leave in darkness.
Mussolini is one of the major historical figures of the 20th century and his career certainly deserves to be re-examined.
Mussolini started out as a socialist. To his dying day he still regarded himself as a socialist. While Mussolini’s fascism borrowed elements of both left-wing and right-wing thought it remained a species of socialism, albeit an heretical variety.
Fascism as developed by Mussolini was a response to what he saw as a critical failure of socialism. The First World War convinced Mussolini that internationalism was a dead end. It was clear that nationalism struck an emotional chord in the vast majority of the population, in a way that class solidarity did not. Internationalism may have been intellectual satisfactory but it was emotionally completely unsatisfactory. And Mussolini always valued instinct and emotion more highly than reason. In that respect Mussolini was in touch with ordinary people in a way that most socialist theorists were not. It was clear to him that a socialism based on class struggle was futile. If ordinary people valued patriotism more highly than class solidarity then clinging to the concept of the class struggle was swimming against the tide. Mussolini was a pragmatist – if theory did not correspond with reality then the theory was simply wrong and useless. He set out to create a socialism that would unite the nation rather than dividing it along class lines.
Mussolini also came to the conclusion that representative democracy was another dead end. The Italian experience had demonstrated conclusively that representative democracy produced chaos, divisiveness, corruption, inefficiency and instability. A form of authoritarianism was needed. He believed that government needed the consent of the governed, but not in the form of representative democracy. In 1924 he called an election. The Fascists won an overwhelming majority of the popular vote. This was important not only in giving his regime legitimacy but also because it demonstrated that he had the support of the people.
Fascist policy under Mussolini remained pragmatic. He disliked capitalism but he was prepared to tolerate it, as long as it was productive capitalism that served the nation. The Italian Fascists’ economic policies were flexible and generally successful.
He was no atheist but he grew up with a dislike of the Catholic Church. This did not stop him from making an historic agreement with the Church. This was not cynicism or opportunism. This was realism. He was determined to prevent the Church from interfering directly in politics but as long as the Church was prepared to accept Fascism he would accept the existence of the Church. Better to have the Church as an ally (even if a not very enthusiastic ally) rather than an enemy.
Mussolini’s one big mistake was his alliance with Hitler. As Farrell is at pains to point out that very last thing Mussolini wanted was an alliance with Hitler (whom he regarded as a dangerous madman). Mussolini wanted an alliance with Britain and France. When they (with incredible foolishness and hypocrisy) rejected such an alliance he felt he had no choice other than to choose alliance with Germany. The only other alternative would have been complete isolation for Italy and in the late 1930s such isolation would have been fatal (and in any event would probably have resulted in invasion and conquest by Germany).
Farrell also points out that the Italian Fascists in general and Mussolini in particular were responsible for saving many many thousands of Jews from the death camps. To the Italian Fascists Nazi anti-semitism was incomprehensible (Jews were among the most enthusiastic supporters of Fascism in Italy) and the death camps were viewed by the Fascists with unconcealed horror and revulsion.
Italian Fascism was certainly authoritarian but on the whole not particularly repressive. While Hitler and Stalin presided over regimes that murdered millions of people the victims of Fascism were numbered in hundreds, at most. Given the chaos that threatened to engulf Italy in the early 20s, the same chaos that threatened other European countries like Germany and Spain, the restraint shown by Mussolini was remarkable. Without Mussolini it is highly likely that Italy would have succumbed to Bolshevism and its inevitable horrors. The decision of the king to appoint Mussolini prime minister in 1922 is not only understandable – it was entirely sensible and reasonable.
Farrell does not gloss over the various flaws in Mussolini’s character but he finds more to admire than condemn. Had the British and French not forced him into Hitler’s arms with disastrous consequences all around his Fascist state might well have endured for decades and had Italian Fascism not become inextricably (and incorrectly) associated with National Socialism (an ideology Mussolini despised) the judgment of history on Mussolini might well have been rather favourable.
A fascinating and provocative book. Highly recommended.