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Mussolini: Book Review

At the peak of his power

There are still more than a few Italians who believe that Mussolini is deeply misunderstood and was a person whose peacetime achievements were ultimately compromised by his fateful admiration for Hitler and his envy of the military might of Germany in the late 1930s. It is easy to forget today how admired the pre-war Mussolini was by many politicians in democratic countries like Great Britain and the US. President Franklin Roosevelt was open about his admiration for Il Duce and his chief New Deal economic advisor Rexford Tugwell said of Italian fascism; “It’s the cleanest, neatest most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen. It makes me envious.”

Today’s apologists for Mussolini, with the exception of Berlusconi perhaps and the fringe CasaPound movement, are mostly to be found among poorer Italians who, not unreasonably, resent their lack of progress in recent decades. The most vociferous pro-Mussolini group is the Lazio ultras, the ‘Irriducibili’, who for the last 35 years have routinely practiced the fascist salute at Lazio football matches and have been open and proud about their neo-fascist views. The ex-Lazio footballer Paolo di Canio, equally famous and controversial in England as in Italy, has a tattoo DVX (the latin form of Duce) on his arm that got him briefly suspended from Sky Italia, though I see that he is now back on television here, wearing slightly longer shirt sleeves these days to avoid further controversy.

We were once treated to a very animated pro-fascist diatribe against the current Italian and European Union governance of Italy by a Rome taxi driver, probably a Lazio ultra I’m guessing, to the significant discomfort of my Italian wife and in-laws. I found it interesting because however wrong he might have been about the cure for Italy’s many woes, the taxi driver certainly gave a very articulate diagnosis of Italy’s continuing malaise.

It is also worth noting that Mussolini’s grave in his home town of Predappio in Romagna regularly drew over 100,000 visitors a year before its closure for restoration of the crypt in 2017. Many of these people arrived by the bus load wearing black shirts in homage to Il Duce and after the site’s re-opening in May 2021 even more visitors are expected, though there is an ongoing debate as to whether the grave should be visitable at all.

For people who don’t enjoy reading about wars and fascism, this is not really one of those books. The actual war only takes up about 50 pages and then only as it relates to Mussolini’s personal actions and almost half of the book concerns itself with the remarkable events that took place after Mussolini’s arrest in late July 1943.

And it really was a remarkable twenty-one months between his strangely peaceful removal from office and his inevitable fate. It’s entirely possible that if Mussolini had followed Spain’s Franco in keeping Italy neutral in 1940, Mussolini might have continued on in power just as Franco did and in fact there are certain similarities today between the divided opinions in both countries of these two fascist leaders.

Christopher Hibbert’s 335 page book was written in 1961 and was the first full-length biography of Mussolini that was written in English and he was able to take advantage of the great mass of documentation that was made available in the sixteen years after the end of the war.

Hibbert himself was a participant in the war as a London Irish Rifles infantry officer with the 8th Army during the Italian campaign, being awarded the Military Cross during the attack on the German fortification on the River Senio during the winter of 1944-45. He was wounded twice while fighting with the partigiani during the battle for the Lagoon of Comacchio north of Ravenna in Romagna in April 1945. As the war was ending he then moved on to become personal assistant to General Alan Duff at allied force HQ in Italy. During this period he acquired fluency in the Italian language which came to serve him well in his research for this book and for the many others he would subsequently write about important figures from Italian history.

The Corno Grande (Gran Sasso) in Abruzzo above the Campo Imperatore, the scene of a daring rescue mission carried out in September 1943

The author’s own words in his Preface explain best his approach to the book:

Ever since I came home from Italy after the war I have felt the need of an impartial book which answered at least some of the questions which had puzzled me. I wondered how much Mussolini resembled the monstrous buffoon of war-time propaganda and how much the demi-god of Fascist doctrine; I wondered how it was that some Italians could shoot at his corpse as it swayed upside down in Piazzale Loreto in Milan and yet others, who were, so it seemed to me, just like them, could weep in the streets when told that he was dead.

It was with these questions in mind that I went back to Italy in 1960 to read books and papers about Mussolini and the Fascist dictatorship which are not available in London and to talk to people who knew him”.

The last comment by Hibbert is what gives this book so much authenticity because he was able to get information from first-hand sources, something that is no longer possible with the passage of time and as some of his sources chose to remain nameless one can assume that they had important and insightful information to share with the author.

A very grisly end in Piazzale Loreto

Another fascinating aspect of this book and the history of the 1930s more generally, as I re-read sections of this book for the purpose of this review, are the parallels with events today in Ukraine and the European Union and United Nations response to Russia’s aggression.

One striking and disappointing example of history repeating itself was the resolution passed by the League of Nations (50 to 1) in October 1935 to apply sanctions against Italy for its Abyssinian invasion. As Hibbert writes: “Once sanctions had been decided upon Pierre Laval, the clever and cynical French Foreign Minister, encouraged Britain’s efforts to ensure the list of prohibited exports would not include any, such as oil, that might provoke a European war”. Plus ça change ……as the saying goes, because if the European Union cannot sanction energy imports today in the face of such naked Russian brutality in Ukraine, then what really is the point of having a European Union and how is the EU any better than the failed League of Nations when it comes to dealing with warmongering dictators?

In addition to this Mussolini book review I have reviewed other Christopher Hibbert books on Italian subjects and I am an unabashed fan of his engaging literary style as well as his authenticity and fidelity to historical accuracy. Not being a professional historian was very much to his advantage because it allowed him to narrate key events without any particular bias, with his only goal being to make history enjoyable to the average reader. I have made this point in other reviews of his works but I have not mentioned before the amusing anecdote as to how he acquired his first name because he was actually christened Arthur Raymond Hibbert.

He joined the London Irish Rifles in 1943 and on the parade ground on his first day in uniform his regimental sergeant major caught sight of the 19-year-old Hibbert, who looked even younger than his years. The sergeant major barked at him: ”What have we got here? Christopher fucking Robin?" The name Christopher stuck.


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