Mussolini, by Denis Mack Smith (Weidenfeld, £12.95), pp429.
THE CATALOGUE of extenuating circumstances which biographers have invented for their subject is practically endless. Hardly a dictator has not been an affectionate family man, no mass murderer would be so disgusting as not to lavish attention on his pet spaniel, every international swindler is a frustrated social worker.
But Mussolini is Mr Mack Smith's victim. The image of the Duce, built up by his press stooges, was of a virile, quickwitted man with a prodigious memory: a sportsman, an intellectual and a family man. His true character was that of a petit bourgeois, uneasy amongst intelligent or wealthy society, (his distrust of landowners a rare consistent thread in a kaleidoscope melee of shifting prejudices). The appearance of devotion to duty was, more accurately, the fear which all dictators have of delegating responsibility and so allowing challenges to their own authority. Mussolini's slender grasp of government business deteriorated with his health, so that, when he was rescued by Skorzeny and installed as nominal head of the 'Republic of Salo', he was intellectually (and sometimes physically) moribund. Strutting and striking poses were his forte: claims for his own achievements were the more preposterous because the industrialisation of Italy and changes in social relationships which might have occurred after 1918 were stifled by a haphazard bureaucracy in which there was no international confidence (either from the left or the right).
Mack Smith's previous work on Italian history has given him an unrivalled ascendancy amongst English-speaking historians. This study not only draws together strands of his previous scholarship but also offers a distinct revision of De Felice's standard biography. Mack Smith's Mussolini is a more irrational man, and the supine Italian liberals who helped him to power in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles are more effectively castigated. Their cooperation with Mussolini, even after the murder of Matteotti, in dismembering the power and functions of the constitution was a result of their hatred of each other — all regarded Mussolini as a possible ally. Mussolini's undefined but violent language stressed words like 'battle', 'conflict', and 'struggle' and it illustrates his inability to orate other than as a propagandist or a sloganeer.
As Mack Smith puts it "He successively launched what he called a battle for the lira, a battle for wheat, a battle for births, a battle over the southern problem, and battles against sparrows, mice and houseflies". Even the famous trains which ran on time and which the British middle class so admired, (from a safe distance), turn out often not to have run at all Like most demagogues Mussolini left unchanged many of his country's enduring problems, and it obviously satisfied Mr Mack Smith that foreign dignitaries who were supposed to honour and fear the bronzed fascist sportsman (who called boxing 'an exquisitely fascist means of expression'), actually regarded him as a malevolent buffoon.
In Mussolini's whole character there is almost no attractive feature, and his life was enmeshed in a web of braggadocio and lies. His own assessments of character were imperceptive — Hitler was 'a gramaphone with just seven tunes'. Hitler's reaction to Mussolini's claim in 1939 that he had over 150 divisions and reserves of 12 million soldiers was rather more piercing.
All this is grist to the mill of an author who wants to show that his subject had no consistent beliefs and aims. But fascism is not an ideology which is qualitatively comparable to socialism, liberalism, or most other '-isms'. Searching for a grand plan is clearly pointless, but so it is unwise to dismiss a political regime too readily because of the character of its leader. Mussolini survived for twenty years. Is it possible that such a man could remain in power for so long without unscrupulous abuse of power which was, in his eyes, its own political justification?