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Fascism and Italy

Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy
Christopher Duggan
Boydell Press        524pp      £25

Excavating Modernity: The Roman Past in Fascist Italy
Joshua Arthurs
Cornell University Press   220pp   £27.95

These two books are different in so many ways. Arthurs’ is a slim monograph, owing an evident debt in style and content to a recent PhD. Duggan’s is an elegantly written study that is the work of a historian at the height of his powers. Arthurs unveils in the Fascist use of romanità, ‘a revolutionary project for modernity, a coherent language with which to articulate aspirations for the contemporary world’. Duggan dismisses Fascism’s ‘ideological eclecticism and uncertainty’ and is derisive of the movement’s everyday divisions, confusion and corruption. He focuses instead on the emotional impact of the cult of the Duce, analysing the process whereby ‘the image of Mussolini could float free of the insalubrious landscape below him’ and take deep charge of many Italian minds. Arthurs, in other words, writes an account of the Italian dictatorship from above, with careful review of words and place associated with classical Rome as recounted in Fascist journals and newspapers. Duggan, even if on occasion providing a general narrative of the regime that is not always new, works most effectively from below, with his argument and prose enlivened by his skilful choice from the unpublished diary entries of 200 and more Italians who were part of the Mussolini generation. Each urges a serious reckoning with Fascism; Duggan rather grandiloquently maintains that the dictatorship’s ‘consequences in terms of human suffering and death were … incalculable’. For Arthurs the lasting reason for historical interest is the Fascist deployment of ideas and philosophy, while for Duggan it is the use of the emotional that matters most. 

Reading the two books together is thus to be recommended to any who want to catch up with rival understandings of Mussolini’s regime (and the practice of history). Yet, in most ways, Duggan’s book is preferable. It is more fun. It has greater span. It reaches into the souls of ordinary Italians and is far better at representing life under this and other dictatorships. Its image of the Duce is appropriately influenced by the diaries of Mussolini’s last lover, Clara Petacci, thousands of obsessive pages that have become available in recent years. They reveal a mindset that it is tempting to sum up as ‘nasty, brutish and of short attention span’. In Duggan’s portrait the Mussolini of the late 1930s and the Second World War was more preoccupied with coitus than with clever ideas. Yet somehow his magic functioned almost to the end, despite the many military calamities. 

Actually, Duggan points out in an important epilogue, it lasted beyond his death and, by implication, helps to explain Italy’s many contemporary problems. The Duce’s cult and the ‘pernicious disjuncture between words and reality’ during the regime prompted a general ‘conformism, emotionality and flight from responsibility’ among Italians. It was worsened by the Church’s fellow-travelling or worse with the dictatorship and by its discouragement after 1945 of ‘any systematic reckoning of the past’. This legacy resurfaced in the Berlusconi years. The businessman prime minister was scarcely a Fascist but his own cult was what best defined him and, as with Mussolini, it adroitly blended the leader’s alleged ordinariness and exceptionalism, while, Duggan notices, Berlusconi’s ‘language has been studded with religious terms and symbolism’. Here, indeed, was an unfortunate but lasting ‘force of destiny’ for Italy, to re-use the title of Duggan’s fine general history of Italy, published by Penguin in 2007.

By comparison, Arthurs’ preoccupations are small beer, although they are not without interest. It may be a little disconcerting to be told that the ‘regime built neoclassical monuments in white marble and excavated ancient ruins across the peninsula’, when The Monument, then and now, set beside the Capitol, was that to Victor Emmanuel II, opened in 1911 and planned since the 1880s by Fascism’s liberal predecessors. Similarly, the Catholic Church scarcely abandoned its placement of a Rome near the heart of its message, for all its uneasy cohabitation with Mussolini. Despite an initial chapter pondering the matter, Arthurs could have been more wide-ranging in pursuing the continuity of Italian ideas about Rome. Nonetheless he does well to expose the efforts of Fascist ‘historians, classicists, archaeologists and other cultural producers’ in myth building and is right to emphasise that ‘the idea of Rome was not born in the mind of Benito Mussolini’.  He is similarly acute in emphasising the play of ‘factions and agendas’ in the academic community, battles that ensured that ‘romanità was neither static nor univocal, but rather subject to a process of elaboration and contestation’. In this regard it is tempting after a reading of the two books to wonder about the place of agendas and factions in their own imagining and to ponder why the British account of Mussolini is inclined to see a banality of evil and the North American a more elevated case of applied modernism.

Richard Bosworh's latest book is Whispering City: Modern Rome and its Histories (Yale University Press, 2011)

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