Roman descent

Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy, by Christopher Duggan, Bodley Head, RRP£25, 528 pages

Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Rome, 1940

For all his demagoguery, Mussolini was widely admired in prewar Britain. Newspapers (notably Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail) carried flattering photographs of the dictator; Mussolini was on good terms with King George V, moreover, who in 1923 publicly congratulated him on his “wise leadership”. Parts of the British establishment initially saw a potential ally in Mussolini and a bulwark against Hitler’s Germany. The “virile” alternative of Fascism in the 1920s appealed to many Britons disgruntled by an age of leftist poets, flappers and perceived Judeo-Bolshevik threats.

Before the days of Hitler, it was a rare British writer who defended Jewish culture. Caricatures of ugly moneylenders had marked 19th-century British fiction – even Thackeray, that most likeable of Victorian novelists, disparaged a Rothschild banker as a “greasy-faced compound of donkey and pig”. Subsequently, many British writers and thinkers advocated racial rejuvenation through genetic engineering. The young Aldous Huxley dreamt of a samurai class of technocrats who would apply panaceas to Britain’s interwar social malaise. Like HG Wells, he was in favour of genetic engineering programmes and, in 1930, called for the compulsory sterilisation of the mentally ill.

Mussolini had greeted Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 with suspicion. A racial dogma that glorified blond northern Europeans conflicted somewhat with the Fascist cult of romanità (the spirit of ancient Rome). Nevertheless a latent tension had always existed between Fascism and Italian Jewry. Zionists, in particular, were seen by Mussolini as a self-regarding, supranational sect inimical to the sturdy Blackshirt bond of race and nation. “These revolting Jews,” he told his mistress Claretta Petacci in September 1938, “they need to be destroyed, all of them.”

Christopher Duggan’s Fascist Voices, his excellent new history of Italian Fascism, argues that Nazi Germany had never demanded an anti-Semitic campaign as the price of friendship with Italy. On the contrary, Mussolini resented the imputation that his anti-Jewish legislations of 1938 (the so-called Manifesto of Race) were imposed on him from without. His anti-Semitism dated back to the 1920s, he told Petacci, long before Hitler rose to prominence. During the German occupation of northern Italy, with Hitler’s collusion, Mussolini helped to deport more than 6,800 Italian Jews to Auschwitz and other camps within the Greater Reich. He made no attempt to justify the enormity.

Duggan, a professor of Italian history whose previous books include a study of the Fascist regime’s attempt to eradicate the Sicilian Mafia, is well placed to analyse the cult of ducismo. Fascist Voices narrates the rise and fall of Fascism through the diaries, letters and reminiscences of ordinary Italians during the 1930s and 1940s. Housewives, hotel managers, schoolchildren and army conscripts are among the many “little people” who provide eyewitness accounts of the regime.

To his legion admirers, Mussolini exuded a manful potency and near-­animal allure. In the course of his more than two decades in power, the leader had relations with literally hundreds of women; undeniably, sex was at the centre of the myth of Mussolini and his image as a man of power. “My great lord and beautiful Duce,” a Bologna housewife writes to him. “I have done nothing but trouble you.” (She sent him a total of 848 letters.)

Petacci, the daughter of an eminent physician, similarly saw a “sublime” magnetism in her hero. She first met Mussolini in 1932; before long, a torrid sexual relationship developed between them in the dictator’s headquarters at Palazzo Venezia in Rome. Though Petacci was engaged to another man (and Mussolini himself was married with five children), she felt exhilarated by the affair. Her diaries, published in Italy in 2009 as Mussolini segreto (“Secret Mussolini”), are amply quoted by Duggan. In spite of her saccharine pillow talk (“Your masculine face, aggressive like a lion ... seemed to be radiating sparks of force”), Petacci had much to say about Mussolini’s inner life, personality and politics.

Like millions of other Italians, she viewed Mussolini as a semi-divine “Caesar” figure, whose balcony ranting radiated a pontiff-like authority. According to Duggan, Fascist racial supremacism did not spring merely from a Vatican-influenced dislike of the Jews but from the persecution of African subjects in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) where, after defeat to Italy, laws were introduced segregating whites from blacks. From this it was a short step to advocating racial supremacy at home in Italy.

In Duggan’s lucid analysis, Fascism was a “political religion” that sought to invigorate and toughen the Italian people. Sport in particular was a vital focus of Mussolini’s propaganda state. Mountaineering, like skiing, became a measure of physical daring – ardimento – and the manful Fascist spirit. Italian films of the period were thus full of bare-chested, lantern-jawed sportsmen (rarely women) flying down the snow slopes or laughing heartily après ski.

These days it is fashionable to claim Mussolini as a fundamentally good fellow led astray by Hitler. Understandably most Italians wish to view themselves as brava gente – decent people – so they prefer to blame Hitler for Mussolini’s murderous anti-Semitism. Mussolini’s birthplace of Predappio is currently awash with Fascist trinkets, pseudo-Roman gewgaws and other Blackshirt memorabilia. Whether Mussolini revisionism is the song and dance of a minority or something more widespread and dangerous is hard to say.

Fascist Voices concludes with a selection of messages left by neo-Fascist pilgrims to Predappio over the years. “You are still living for us, in all our hearts,” wrote a 14-year-old schoolgirl in 2006. Mussolini speaks to his admirers from beyond the grave.

Ian Thomson’s biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage

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