Review: Mussolini by R. J. B. Bosworth, London, Arnold 2002, Pp. 584
R. J. B. Bosworth’s Mussolini is an entertaining biography of the late dictator that covers just about everything concerning both the Duce and Fascist Italy. Bosworth’s writing style is alluring, drawing the reader into complex topics such as the evolution of Mussolini’s Socialist ideology and its eventual transformation into the new ideology called Fascism and Corporatism and its application in the Fascist state. The book also covers more sensationalist topics, such as the Duce’s love life, without resorting to tabloid like copy. R. J. B. Bosworth’s Mussolini is a good starting point for aspiring specialists and an excellent standard reference for historians and students whose primary focus is not the Duce’s Italy.
Bosworth begins with what would be the last chapter, Mussolini as the nominal head of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (1943–45) from the execution of his son in-law Ciano (despite the pleadings of his daughter), to his own capture, murder and subsequent display along with his mistress at a Milan gas station. Bosworth’s innovative opening chapter sets up the rest of the book where he tries to explain why the Duce met his ultimate fate. After the first chapter, the book is essentially chronological, taking us from the young Mussolini to his “first fall” as dictator to his resurrection as head of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana. The last chapter, The Ghost of Benito Mussolini 1945–2001, explains the people’s display of disgust with the tyranny, war and the great politics associated with Mussolini, and their befitting demonstration of this disgust on the corpse of the Duce himself.
In his conclusion, Bosworth sums up that Mussolini was a man who, although a tyrant, was not so vicious that “history should regulate him to the bottom most circle of Dantesque hell.” Benito Mussolini, despite his aspirations to exercise power, was no more than an “ambitious intellectual from the provinces, who believed that his will mattered and who thought, as did others, that he was a Duce and could lead a state like Italy towards a special sort of Modernization.” Bosworth concludes that despite the propagandist’s assertion that the dictator was always right, in matters that concerned the human condition, Mussolini was, with little exception, wrong.
In calling Mussolini ‘wrong’ yet stating that the Duce was not so vicious as to deserve the worst fate, Bosworth seems to walk the line between the antifascist historians such as Gaeta Salvemini and the revisionist school like that of Renzo DeFelice. The antifascist historians tend to view Mussolini’s doctrine as ‘irrational’ and absurd, and the Duce himself as ‘foolish,’ and clown-like. They label him a petit-bourgeois, an opportunist, a power-corrupted demagogue, and a reactionary in disguise,’ while the revisionists seek to reevaluate Fascism and the Fascist era, depicting a more positive and somewhat heroic Duce. The revisionists also illuminate the brutality of the antifascist resistance. In writing revisionist history, DeFelice immersed himself in documents in order to demonstrate that he was exhaustive and objective. Bosworth concurs with DeFelice’s portrayal of the conservative ‘collaborators,’ the King, the army, big business, the ruling bureaucracy and the church, and the development of the autonomous dictatorial apparatus. While he also agrees with DeFelice’s evaluation of the conservatives’ limiting effects on Mussolini’s power, he disputes DeFelice’s attempt to portray Fascism as radically different from Nazism. DeFelice emphasizes that Italian Fascism was neither a conquering ideology nor was it uncompromising like Nazism. Alternately, Bosworth points to the obvious similarities between the two ideologies and the undeniable link between Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s. Bosworth disputes revisionist claims that Mussolini brought about a Fascist revolution and transformed Italy. Bosworth instead asserts that the Duce left Italy largely unchanged.
Mussolini is portrayed in Bosworth’s book as a weak dictator in the 1930s who was swept up in the course of events and was unsure about Italy’s entry into the war in 1940. He entered the war only as Nazi Germany’s army swept through France with lightning speed. Bosworth shows that Mussolini was an intelligent politician, who would adopt conservative or radical positions depending on the situation though he was committed to neither. The Duce was never a buoyant modernizer or an ideologue driven by expansion abroad and revolutionary transformation at home. He supports his assertion by pointing to Mussolini’s shifting alliances after 1914. Instead, Bosworth’s Duce is a typical product of Italian history, someone who abandoned his radicalism for the comforts and rewards of compromise with the conservative order. Mussolini’s foreign policy also reflected traditional Italian colonialism. Yet for the most part, Bosworth’s line between the antiFascists and the revisionists shows both Mussolini’s flaws and mistakes, as well as his triumphs: the Duce did make peace with the church, create the Italian welfare state and make the trains run on time. He reminds revisionist historians that much of what the antiFascist historians have claimed is still relevant. But unlike the awkward figure that the antiFascists portray, Bosworth’s Mussolini is quite human, both a proud, charismatic statesman and a weak leader who was often wrong.
Bosworth discusses Fascism’s preference for autarchy in terms of modern day economics and argues that its policies must be written off as “fundamentally mistaken economics”. In a time of globalization, Bosworth continues, Italian Fascism’s petty nationalism, which never secured it a position as one of the world’s great powers, seems antiquated and irrelevant. He contends that the great enemy of the Fascist view of state was not, as Mussolini had once had thought, the Russian form of socialism, but American capitalism. In fact, as the Axis world was crumbling, Mussolini pleaded with Hitler to make peace with the Soviets. Bosworth tells us of the multinational corporations and their modern day hegemony: “Globalized companies now possess a hegemony so sure and unchallenged, and a propaganda, often boldly marketed as ‘information,’ so pervasive as to make any Fascist rhetoric about their building of an omnipresent stato totalitario seem quaint indeed.” By doing this, Bosworth seems to tell us that their is nothing to fear from the rise of neo-Fascists; they will never come close to supplanting the power of multinational corporations. Is he warning us of the advent of a new form of totalitarianism?
Mussolini is a comprehensive volume that explores the complexities of the Duce and Fascist Italy. It will aptly serve historians as a new scholarship that challenges both the revisionist and antifascist historiography, while also pointing to the relevance of both schools. Bosworth’s work is extensive; his comprehensive footnotes and impressive bibliography are testament to his thoroughness. Despite Bosworth’s new scholarship, the debate over whether Mussolini was a villain, a weak leader, or a great statesman who brought change to Italy will no doubt continue.
Bosworth, R. J. B Mussolini London: Arnold 2002.
Sarti, Roland, Reviewed work: “Mussolini il Rivoluzionario, 1883–1920,” by Renzo DeFelice, Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 72, No 3 (Apr. 1967).
Tannenbaum, Edward R., Reviewed Work: Mussolini il fascista. Volume II, L’Organizzazione dello Stato Fascista, 1925–1929 by Renzo DeFelice, Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 75, №2 (Dec., 1969).