Page 11, 18th July 2003

18th July 2003
Page 11
Page 11, 18th July 2003 — Still a nasty piece of work

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Organisations: League of Nations, army
Locations: London


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Still a nasty piece of work

Mussolini's revisionist biographer is wrong, says John Jolliffe. The man was a monster

Mussolini: A New Life by Nicholas Farrell, Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25

The author of this new life has been living at Prcdappio in the Romagna for the last five years. It is the birthplace of Mussolini, and on his birthday, nearly 10,000 of his admirers gather there for an annual Mass in his memory.

The effect of this on the author is obvious. He has Italianised himself in a way that is certainly helpful for his understanding of Italian points of view and general attitudes and reactions to events; but fatal when it blinds him to facts and distorts his vision. In spite of the annual Mass, it is absurd to say that Mussolini was profoundly religious, when he had no hesitation in habitually breaking any of the Ten Commandments that appeared to stand in his way. And to pretend that he was a serious and shrewd political thinker and strategist is equally ridiculous when he was one of the most extreme and capricious opportunists of his time.

His rise to power had much more to do with sheer force of his personality, important above all to Italians, than with the merits of his policies, which deteriorated catastrophically after his exploits in Abyssinia, and the imposition of futile sanctions by the League of Nations, the chief result of which was that American exports of oil to Ttaly increased threefold.

But it should not be forgotten that many of the provisions of the secret Treaty of London, on the basis of which Italy joined the allies in 1915 and declared war on Austria, were later betrayed. owing to the refusal of President Wilson to implement them.

grievance, and it was.natural for her to put her trust in what was obviously a strong man, and indeed to idolise him; so strong that after the murder of Dolfuss in 1934 Mussolini actually threatened Hitler (whom he despised, and referred to as a clown and a dwarf) by sending four divisions of the army to the Brenner Pass, and causing the Anschluss to be postponed. No wonder the Italians, and others too, were impressed. The following year there was a serious suggestion (made in Hungary) that Mussolini should be given the Nobel Peace Prize. Mussolini, who by then was much more interested in war than in peace. was not in favour.

He remains the classic example of a leader who deteriorated disastrously after having sonic initial good ideas, which won him at first the admiration of both Bernard Shaw and Churchill (both, incidentally, very uneven judges of character).

As regards his pre-war relations with Britain, it is true that Eden, who had to deal with him, was often excessively governed by questions of personality. lie took a great and understandable dislike to Mussolini, not least because of his unpleasant manners and general crudity. But Eden overreacted to the extent of apparently regarding Mussolini as a greater threat to the peace of Europe than Hitler, a serious misjudgment by any standards. After 1936 it was downhill all the way. Farrell defends Mussolini's bungled invasion of Greece in 1940 (a country with which he had no quarrel) on the grounds that he "needed an enemy to defeat on his own so that he could go to the peace table armed with a victory".

The invasion was a hopeless failure, and when the Germans invaded Greece themselves, far more innocent Greek civilians were mercilessly killed than would have been the case otherwise.

sum up, for someone as erratic and opportunistic as Mussolini to make himself at once dictator, prime minister, commander-in-chief and minister in charge of all three military departments was a guarantee for disaster. Revisionism is all very well, but in spite of his positive achievements before 1935, which earned the fatal adulation of the great majority. nothing that Farrell says can alter history's verdict that Mussolini was ultimately a foolish monster. But this hook contains masses of interesting detail, as well as Weidenfeld's usual bumper crop of misprints.

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