Mussolini by Jasper Ridley, Constable, £25
JASPER RIDLEY'S book is a comprehensive history of Benito Mussoloni, the man who conceived the extreme right-wing doctrine of fascism and ruled Italy between 1922 and 1943. The work takes the reader from Mussolini's fervently socialist upbringing through his sojourn as an anarchist tramp in Switzerland to his rejection of socialist internationalism in favour of nationalist absolutism and his involvement of Italy on the losing side in the second World War. Along the way Ridley also paints a vivid picture of the political turmoil which racked Europe in the early years of this century, when members of opposing factions fought one another in the streets of European cities.
Some startling nuggets of information are also thrown up during the course of the book. One of these is the assertion that the phrase "international Bolshevik Jew" a figure whose alleged existence underpinned Nazi anti-semitism was coined not by Hitler but by Winston Churchill. Another is the revelation that Toscanini was a leading Fascist until he fell out with Mussolini in 1931.
However, two flaws undermine the cogency of Mussolini as a piece of academic endeavour. Firstly, there are two glaring omissions in Ridley's otherwise meticulous chronicling of events. Italy's signing of a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union a major policy U-turn for Mussolini
is only mentioned in passing after the fact. Also, the entry of the United States into the Second World War the deciding factor in the defeat of the Axis powers and therefore in the ultimate downfall of Mussolini is not referred to explicitly.
The second flaw is more pervasive. Central to Ridley's approach is his belief that Mussolini was not the strutting buffoon that popular imagination has often held him to be. This is undoubtedly the case, as a buffoon would not have been able to remain dictator of Italy for 21 years. But Ridley's defence of Mussolini's image goes much further than this.
He takes great pains to shift the blame for a number of unsavoury incidents away from Mussolini himself. These include the violent acts perpetrated by Fascist party members on their opponents, culminating in the murder of socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. Then there was the incarceration of Mussolini's mistress Ida Dalser and illegitimate son Benito Albino in a mental hospital in 1926 to prevent any scandal leaking out
about 11 Duce and the illegal bombing by the Italian air force of Red Cross hospital in Ethiopia in 1935.
Ridley offers no satisfactory evidence for his view that Mussolini was not personally to blame for incidents such as these. The reader is expected to accept that Mussolini was "probably" unaware of these actions, which his lieu
tenants "probably" performed without telling him, as he would "probably" have disapproved. This ignorance of actions carried out in the name of his own regime seems very unlikely in the light of Mussolini's grasp of realpolitik, which Ridley praises continuously elsewhere in the text.
This pro-Mussolini approach is also reflected in some of the language Ridley uses. Throughout the text, Socialists and Communists are routinely referred to by the pejorative label of "Reds". Meanwhile Ridley's idiosyncratic use of the term "Anglo-American armies" has uncomfortable echoes of Mussolini's own phrase "Anglo-American plutocrats".
Mussolini is a well-written and absorbing book in which the rightward shift in Mussolini's political thinking is an effective metaphor for the rise of fascist totalitarianism in Europe. However, the inescapable impression that the the author has a sneaking admiration for Mussolini the inventor of fascism and even for some of his political achievements leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.