Mussolini casts a long shadow. R J.B. Bosworth describes how Italians of both the left and the right have used memories of his long dictatorship to underpin their own versions of history and politics.
Benito Mussolini became prime minister of Italy in October 1922 after leading the March on Rome, a paramilitary Fascist coup against liberal Italy’s parliamentary institutions. In January 1925, he openly announced his dictatorship and became known as the Duce, or leader. From here on he boasted that Fascism was both a revolution and a regime, destined to remake Italians and to rule them for the foreseeable future. In fact, Mussolini fell in July 1943, after the Allied invasion of Sicily, a political casualty of Italy’s disastrous performance in the Second World War. But the story had a vicious coda when, in September 1943, the Germans occupied northern Italy and restored Mussolini there as a sort of puppet dictator of the radical fascist Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI, or Italian Social Republic). For the next twenty months, while Italy was fought over by the Allied and Nazi-Fascist armies, Italians engaged in a form of civil war. Of Italy’s 450,000 war deaths, about half occurred in this period.
In all, Mussolini’s twenty-year-long Fascist dictatorship was responsible for about a million premature deaths. Some 3,000 Italians died in the political disturbances occasioned by Fascism’s rise. Further casualties resulted from the regime’s malign domestic policies which, Party rhetoric notwithstanding, favoured the rich over the poor, urban dwellers over the peasantry and men over women. But the major killing fields of the regime were in its empire and in the various wars it aggressively waged. While ‘restoring order’ in Libya, the regime allowed 50,000 to die in camps and generally did nothing to halt the appalling decline of the Libyan population, which had fallen from some 1.2 million on Italy’s invasion in 1911 to 800,000 by the mid-1930s. Italian historians have never bothered to tally the death toll produced by the invasion and subsequent annexation of Ethiopia from 1935-41, but Ethiopians estimate that between 300,000 and 600,000 perished.
Fascist Italy intervened on the side of Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when Mussolini ordered his soldiers to kill any co-nationals they found fighting on the Republican side. According to the official figures, almost 4,000 Italians fell in Spain and more than 10,000 were wounded, and historians can only guess at the numbers the Fascists killed or maimed. The regime seized Albania on Good Friday 1939 and eventually, after an embarrassing (at least for the Duce) nine-month delay, entered the Second World War in support of Germany on June 10th, 1940.
Even after Mussolini’s death at the hands of Italian partisans, and the collapse of the RSI in April 1945, Italian casualties continued. During the following summer, between 8,000 and 12,000 ex-Fascists, mostly in northern Italy, were eliminated by a vengeful left (sometimes political definitions hid crasser personal motivations). In the South, ‘liberated’ in 1943, social killings linked to the revived Mafia resumed with a will, most dramatically in the massacre of peasant Communists, unionists and their backers at Portella delle Ginestre in Sicily on May 1st, 1947.
Yet the bloody shambles of Fascism left little imprint in many postwar accounts. The cliché that Italians are brava gente (nice people) – however conditioned in the Anglo-Saxon world by a semi-racist assumption that Italians are also ‘naturally’ corrupt and incompetent – survives and flourishes. Louis de Bernières, in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, one of the publishing triumphs of the 1990s, colourfully continued this line. In Italy itself, critical thoughts about past politics were quickly overwhelmed after 1945 by the Cold War and by the ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s and 1960s when Italy’s production and living standards rapidly caught up with those of the countries to its west and north. In a few short years, the wretchedness of the lives of many Italians between the wars became a distant memory, as foreign as the surviving echoes of Fascism’s aggressive combination of nationalism and imperialism, and its habit of invading others. In the new world of La dolce vita (‘the sweet life’, the ironical title of Federico Fellini’s film of 1960), the dictatorship had apparently been relegated to being a period piece.
Forty years later, the Italy that follows prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and believes – with no hint of irony – that he embodies sweetness, wealth and pleasure is happy to disregard the blackness in the history of Fascism, preferring to market it as just another saleable past. By the 1980s, forces near the proto-Berlusconian, moderate socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi were already retailing a ‘fascinating Fascism’. Mussolini, they recalled, had governed Italy when the first mod cons became available, when charming fashions and locally made films had their allure and when propaganda was either funny or full of an élan that could now seem attractive. As an advertising campaign for Venice’s elegant Excelsior Hotel put it in 1980, ‘with us, the client is always right’ (ha sempre ragione). This slogan, accompanied by an image of a striding and sexy young Mussolini, implicitly resuscitated the regime’s claim: ‘Mussolini is always right’ (Mussolini ha sempre ragione).
The hope that value can be added to the Fascist past by some form of contemporary ‘sellebration’ lingers. It is unlikely to disappear from an Italy that proceeds down the universal path to globalization. Yet the history of the Fascist years is too serious a matter to be completely taken over by advertising agencies and marketing people. Rather, a case can be made that much of post-1945 Italian politics and culture was conducted in the shadow of Fascism. In Italy, like so many other countries, securing a meaning for ‘the long Second World War’ (in this case the track from 1922-45) has stimulated bitter and continuing conflict, a sort of ‘history war’.
Following the Axis defeat in 1945, Italy held an idiosyncratic position in world politics. Although its first major postwar prime minister, the Christian Democrat Alcide De Gasperi, head of eight successive governments from 1946-53, was one of the founders of what became united Europe, Italy can be viewed as a border country of the ‘West’, the liberal capitalist equivalent of Yugoslavia in the Soviet bloc. If the Christian Democrat party (DC) monopolized the prime ministership until the 1980s, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the largest such grouping in the West, constituted the chief opposition. In 1976 the PCI led by Enrico Berlinguer won more than one-third of the votes in a national election held under a multiparty system; before the ballot, opinion polls had predicted that the PCI and its smaller leftist allies might exceed 50 per cent of the vote (in the event, they achieved over 48 per cent). During this so-called ‘crisis of the Italian crisis’, it was conceivable that the PCI might eventually rule in Rome, as it already did in many regional administrations, notably in Italy’s prosperous and better governed North.
The PCI campaigned under the slogan venuto da lontano (literally, ‘come from afar’). This was a party, voters were told, with a long and individual history. Italian Communists, in other words, had indeed come from afar: they were not bad Stalinist Bolsheviks but good Gramscian anti-Fascists (the historian, philosopher and sometime PCI leader Antonio Gramsci had died in 1937 after a decade of brutal Fascist imprisonment). The PCI laid claim to a special history in always ‘resisting’ the dictatorship, and especially during the cruel conflict with the RSI’s radical Nazi-Fascists in 1943-45. The slogan asserted that the PCI remained alert to the peril of a revived Fascism and stood ready to block those elements in society anxious to impose a more authoritarian form of government on Italians than that provided by the Christian Democrats.
There were quite a few Marxist and Gramscian historians willing to endorse this particular usable past. Yet the most telling framing of the subject was achieved in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, 1900 (in Italian Novecento or ‘the twentieth century’), released into Italian cinemas immediately after the 1976 elections. 1900 can still be viewed for its cinematic magic and because it puts on the screen every truism of a PCI or pro-PCI reckoning with the past. Donald Sutherland plays the archetypal Fascist, ‘Attila’. His name alone identifies him as a barbarian, a Hun, no different from a Nazi, but to hammer home the point to 1970s audiences, Attila indulges in bad sex, fellatio, rape, murder; the native socialist peasants, Gramscian PCI voters in the making, by contrast enjoy loving sex in which women are as pleasured as are the men – 1900 has strains of vulgar Freudianism and vulgar feminism to go with its vulgar Marxism. Attila, a hireling of the capitalist landowners, is a returned soldier with petit bourgeois tastes and ambitions. As time passes, a dark and cruel winter of Fascism settles bloodily over the socialist peasants until they bravely liberate themselves in the spring of 1945.
The film is not over, however. Its last segment displays the return of ordinary government, the disarming of the people and the resumption of class struggle, in which Robert De Niro plays the bourgeois, Gerard Depardieu the peasant activist. In 1900’s last moments the two are shown wrestling beside the railway track that has featured in earlier scenes (it is where the ‘locomotive of history’ runs). Marx’s ‘old mole of revolution’ sniffs the wind and De Niro lies on the track, perhaps to be cut to pieces by an approaching train, festooned with the red flags of revolution. Before that event, however, the screen blackens.
The imagined death of capitalism was soon given macabre representation in reality. Over the last years, the Red Brigades, a terrorist movement calling itself the ‘New Resistance’, had become more and more active. Its Brigadists believed that their task was to break up the allegedly unholy alliance being projected between the Communists and the Christian Democrats and simultaneously to strip the benign-seeming mask from present Republican politics so unveiling the lurking Fascist beast beneath. On March 16th, 1978, some of these terrorists kidnapped Aldo Moro, an archetypal Christian Democrat fixer. Eight weeks later, on May 9th, themselves grown fond of murder, the band killed Moro, symbolically leaving his body halfway between the Rome headquarters of the PCI and the DC. It was an act that can now be seen as marking the end of hope for the PCI to be seriously legitimized as a party of government through the aptly named ‘historic compromise’. It also signalled the termination of the (vulgar) Marxist reading of the surviving relevance of the history of Fascism to Italians.
Among professional historians, as distinct from film-makers, research into the dictatorship had been growing in extent and quality since the opening of its archives in the 1960s. The leading figure in the field was Renzo De Felice, author of a monumental political biography of Mussolini, published in seven volumes between 1965 and 1997. De Felice grew in fame and international celebrity over these years, despite his inability to speak English. Especially among those forces coalescing into neo-conservatism, De Felice was portrayed as a brave ‘revisionist’, a faithful worker in the archives whose scrupulous labours permitted the dishing of the Communists, their fellow-travellers and the liquidation of that past reflected in 1900. For De Felice, Fascism was different from Nazism. It bore no special responsibility for Auschwitz; it stumbled into war in 1940 rather than willing it. The morality of its politicians was little, if at all, worse than those in the democratic Republic after 1946. Mussolini may have compromised with the Pope, the King and the army officer corps but, according to De Felice, Fascism always retained a revolutionary side. It had as much right to claim a revolutionary purpose as did the Marxists.
This theme of an Italian road to a genuine totalitarianism would prove the most durable of the De Felice theses, especially after it was picked up by Emilio Gentile, in his turn to be, like De Felice, professor at Rome University. For Gentile, Fascism must be understood on its own terms and through its own writings; Fascists must be granted their own historical space. This work coincided with a widespread turn towards a form of cultural history based on anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s employment of ‘thick description’ to discern ‘webs of significance’ in life and discourse, so these historians were swimming with a favourable historiographical tide. According to British historian Roger Griffin, those approving this line have achieved a ‘new consensus’ over the meaning of Fascism. Mussolini, they say, headed a new civil religion, which bound its adepts to its novel comprehension of the social and international order by deploying myths of comradeship, blood ties and political activism. Fascism, these historians assure us, was for real.
Yet, despite the reiteration of such conclusions in many monographs, dissent survives. In 2000, Italian historian Salvatore Lupo cast doubt over how literally ideas were translated into practice under Mussolini’s dictatorship. I and other English-language historians have made similar points, while Paul Corner, an English-born historian who teaches at the University of Siena, has brilliantly exposed the violence and corruption of Fascism and underlined the way its tyrannies intruded into Italians’ ordinary lives. The interpretation of Mussolini’s Italy remains engaged in a healthy argument without end.
Any general assessment of the achievement of the world’s states in reviewing dark moments of their national past would expose areas of reticence and failure. In my native Australia, for example, disputes over how to read the European displacing of Aboriginals remain unresolved. The cruelties of the Spanish Civil War and of the imperial Japanese penetration of Asia are other sectors of the ‘long Second World War’ to prompt lively continuing historical debate. Similarly, the Italian exploration of the Fascist killing fields remains incomplete. Brava gente no doubt on occasion, the Italian people, even if not Mussolini’s ‘willing executioners’, did applaud victory in Ethiopia and hoped, in June 1940, that triumph would be theirs in the Second World War. They did second the secret police by informing on their neighbours and sought to twist the meaning of Fascist dictatorship to the advantage of themselves and their families. They were not unlike those citizens of Stalin’s USSR whom Sheila Fitzpatrick has depicted (Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, 1999) as learning never to love their neighbours as themselves, never to trust their state and society.
Italians survived Fascist fundamentalist ideas and endured their complex application. Yet a generation of dictatorship darkened the cynicism of many and enhanced their belief that there is little point in repining over the crimes and follies of their nation’s history between the wars.