Fascist Italy speaks
Fascist Voices: an Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy, Christopher Duggan, Vintage, London, 2013, 501pp, pb, £10.99
Leslie Jones listens to some “ordinary” Italians
It is possible to identify two distinct but not necessarily incompatible perspectives on Italian fascism. Some historians have drawn attention to Mussolini’s genuine popularity (as opposed to that of the movement that he led) and to the quasi religious elements of fascist ideology and liturgy. These are the salient themes of Christopher Duggan’s admirable new book Fascist Voices: an Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy. But other, more orthodox commentators have emphasised the coercive and repressive aspects of Italian fascism, depicting the latter as a brutal dictatorship imposed on the masses[i]. Thus, Richard Evans, in an otherwise favourable review, claims that Duggan undermines his own argument because he documents the extraordinary degree of surveillance of dissenters in fascist Italy[ii]. The idea that fascism enjoyed mass support is evidently anathema to the left. The upshot is that studies of fascism, whether of the Italian or German variety, are “ideologically inflected” i.e. skewed, in Duggan’s judgement (page 426). Professor Evan’s The Third Reich in Power, volume two of a trilogy, arguably provides a telling example.
By the early 1930’s, the cult of Mussolini, the allegedly omniscient and beneficent Duce, had become “a central pillar of the regime” (page 217). Paradoxically, the ideological opacity of fascism[iii] and the manifest corruption of many party officials encouraged veneration of the leader. “If only Mussolini knew” was a prevalent refrain. At the Segreteria Particolare del Duce, fifty civil servants dealt with the approximately 1500 letters addressed to Mussolini that arrived each day. Following the failed attempt on his life by an anarchist in June 1932, the number of letters and telegrams arriving at the Segreteria Particolare reached a crescendo. By 1943, an archive lodged in the Segreteria and consisting of 565,000 files and millions of filing cards testified to the dictator’s popular appeal.
And today, the Mussolini memorial in the crypt of the family’s mausoleum at Predappio, where the Duce’s body was deposited, attracts numerous sympathisers. As the eulogistic comments left in the registers in front of the tomb by the “pilgrims” indicate, many ordinary Italians view Mussolini as an incorruptible and patriotic figure, the heaven-sent man who restored order and discipline to a country threatened by anarchy and communism[iv].
Professor Duggan’s use of contemporaneous letters and diaries, the fascist voices of his title, is particularly noteworthy and effective. Many of these sources indicate that fascism and Catholicism were widely viewed as complementary. Faith for both sets of believers was the supreme virtue. Giuseppe Armellino, an officer who served on the Eastern front in 1942 and 1943, wrote in his diary of his “love of the fatherland, and faith in God and in the Most Holy Madonna of Pompeii”. Other soldiers, in similar vein, viewed the war in the East as a crusade against atheism and materialism. Whereas in 1939 the Catholic Church had condemned the war in Europe, it supported the campaign in Russia.
Alberto Caracciolo, a student at the University of Padua, later recalled that many of his fellow students had regarded fascism as “a true religion”. As such, it was relatively impervious to reason, possessing what Duggan calls “a compelling quality that made it extremely difficult…to find a moral key that would permit an exit” (page 201). In October 1923, war veteran Carlo Ciseri had commented in his diary that Mussolini was “a superior being sent by God to restore peace to us, and perhaps also the honours and glories of ancient Rome”. Like millions of other Italians, he revelled in the conquest of Ethiopia by “fascist and proletarian Italy” and the proclamation of the Empire in 1936. And despite Italy’s subsequent humiliating defeat and the fall of the regime in 1943, Ciseri, for one, never harboured second thoughts about fascism. Other diehard acolytes considered the deposed dictator a selfless, Christ-like figure, cruelly betrayed by his fellow countrymen.
Matthew Stibbe notes that historians have been “reluctant to recognise the sheer popularity of the Nazi dictatorship”[v]. Ditto that of Mussolini.
Leslie Jones, January 2014
Leslie Jones is the Deputy Editor of Quarterly Review
[i] In fact, Duggan sees the rise of Italian fascism from 1919 to 1922 as in part a reaction to industrial unrest and peasant land seizures. He acknowledges that the fascist movement was strongly supported by industrialists, landowners and other conservative elements, notably the Catholic hierarchy
[ii] Richard J Evans, ‘Kisses for the Duce’, London Review of Books, vol 35, no 3, 7 February 2013, pp 6-8
[iii] For example, in 1938 Mussolini introduced anti-Jewish laws, prompting the departure from Italy of his former mistress Margherita Sarfatti, who was Jewish. Yet he had hitherto debunked the notion of pure races.
[iv] Duggan, for one, plays down the alleged threat of communism in Italy in the aftermath of the Great War
[v] Matthew Stibbe, ‘The Fatal Attraction of National Socialism’, GHI Bulletin, Nov 2013, Volume XXV, No 2, pp 132-137 at p 132