Life Under the
By R. J. B. Bosworth.
692 pp. $35
Somewhere among the family memorabilia there should be a 1939 photograph of me on a visit to Italy with my parents. I’m posing with members of the Italian Fascist youth movement outside Rome’s Termini Station, watching a parade to welcome an arriving foreign dignitary (it could have been Hitler). Behind the group is a row of tanks, but even in the picture it’s obvious that they are wooden replicas, no more menacing than carnival floats. From the distant station entrance, however, they would have looked impressively like the real thing.
As R. J. B. Bosworth makes plain in his massively researched study, this was Italian Fascism, a regime that slips and slides. Like the elusive image of a distant hill town shimmering in the heat of the Italian sun, it presents itself as a blend of characteristics—rhetoric, make-believe, feverish bursts of action, and violence. The challenge for the historian is to identify the fault lines between reality and the version that party ideologues said was reality, labeling it “the Italian truth,” which had to be accepted by every good citizen.
Bosworth, who has also written a prize-winning biography of Benito Mussolini, has produced what amounts to a collective biography of the Italians, spanning the 30-odd years of Fascist power. His finely detailed account (there are 88 pages of chapter notes) interweaves the experiences of ordinary Italians, foreigners living in Italy, Fascist party bosses, Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, and, of course, Il Duce himself.
Ultimately, the book is about national self-delusion, culminating in the biggest delusion of all, one that led Italy disastrously into a world war for which it was neither militarily nor mentally prepared. (To illustrate its unprepared state, Bosworth points out that to go to war, Italy needed 150,000 tons of copper, but the nation produced only 1,000 annually.) In civil war–weary Spain, Francisco Franco, a much less charismatic and arguably nastier brand of Fascist, had a good excuse to resist German pressure to join the Axis, and he used it, ending up the darling of the United States. Mussolini’s legacy, on the other hand, was a devastated country facing a long, painful road to recovery.
Fascist Italy was an empire of words. Yet one of its failures, as Bosworth points out, is that its rhetoric was ambivalent, and the regime never succeeded in clearly defining itself. Other failures were legion: “The [work] absences, the cynicism, the corruption, and the incompetence outweighed the rest in building a legacy for those Italians who survived into the new Republic in 1946. Every one of the great slogans of Fascism turned out to be false.”
And yet in contemporary Italy, the neo-Fascist group now known as the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), supposedly reconstructed along democratic lines, was politically respectable enough to occupy the right flank of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-of-center coalition. It attained this respectability without ever having explicitly rejected Mussolini’s misdeeds. Il Duce’s granddaughter is a parliamentarian. Is all forgiven? No—just swept under the carpet. Hence, Bosworth. The nation that turns its back on its past has its history written by foreigners.