Mussolini's Italy

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In the preface to the massive work Mussolini’s Italy, R. J. B. Bosworth explains that he began writing it after publishing his well-received biography of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. A favorable reviewer had remarked that a biography necessarily left many questions unanswered, since this form of history focuses on the life of a single individual and cannot account for the complex setting surrounding that individual. With the encouragement of his publisher, Bosworth decided that he would write about the lives of Italians during Mussolini’s dictatorship. In doing this, he would consider the nature and development of Italian Fascism and explore what Fascism meant for the day-to-day experiences of Italian people. He would look beyond the theories and myths of Fascism, at the corruptions and power struggles of Fascist government.

He begins with Italy before Fascism, in the era of Liberal prime minister Giovanni Giolitti in the years just prior to World War I. Many of the themes and trends that are often seen as characteristics of Fascist Italy were already present in prewar times. Nationalism and the model of an idealized ancient Rome were prominent motifs of public life. Even imperialism, a central Fascist enterprise, thrived in Liberal Italy, resulting in the 1911 invasion of the Turkish-dominated regions of North Africa that would become the Italian colony of Libya. The Italian state was both weak and corrupt, and these were traits that, as Bosworth shows, continued beneath the Fascist myths of strength and unity. It was riven by great regional and class differences. Many of its people were poverty-stricken peasants, especially in the south, and its industrial areas suffered from frequent strikes and social violence. Socialist, nationalist, and political Catholic parties vied with the Liberal party for control.

Liberal Italy, in Bosworth’s presentation, was ill-prepared for its entry into World War I in 1915. Unlike most other European countries, the Italian leaders debated not only whether to enter the war but also on which side. They entered on the side of Great Britain, France, Russia, and, later, the United States in the hope of territorial gains, mainly to be taken from Austria-Hungary. This was to play a great part in the development of Fascism. The war encouraged the growth of militarism among those who would later become the leaders of the Fascist movement and the closest followers of Mussolini. Mussolini moved from socialism to a form of militaristic corporatism under the influence of the war. Liberal Italy’s poor preparation led to heavy losses of soldiers, particularly at the Battle of Caporetto in the fall of 1917. Caporetto took on a special meaning for the Italians, and for the Fascists in particular, because it meant that the existing order was inadequate to respond to the crises faced by the nation. After the war, the failure of Italy to gain all of the territories promised to it led to a bitter sense of resentment. When, in 1919, the poet and nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio seized the port of Fiume from the Austro-Hungarian lands that were becoming Yugoslavia, he was acting out the part of a radical leader that would later be played by Mussolini.

During and after the war, Bosworth explains, the words “fascist” and “fascism” were becoming increasingly common. Under Mussolini’s dictatorship, the origin of these words was traced back to the Latin word fasces, the bundle of sticks tied around an axe carried before a Roman consul as a symbol of the consul’s authority to pass judgment. This has since become the commonly accepted root of the term. However, according to Bosworth, a fascio, a word meaning something like a union or an association, was already fairly common in prewar Italy. In postwar Italy, fasci proliferated as people galvanized by the experience of the war joined together. The classical derivation of the word was another attempt by those in Mussolini’s party to establish an unbroken connection leading back to the ancient Roman past. The fasci were political, but they also had many of the characteristics of gangs growing up in the regions of Italy. Many of those who would become Mussolini’s henchmen first emerged as leaders of these often violent, ganglike political groups. Among others, Bosworth describes the careers of later prominent Fascists Roberto Farinacci, Italo Balbo, and Dino Grandi.


(The entire section is 1810 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2006): 50.

Contemporary Review 288 (Summer, 2006): 268-269.

The Economist 377 (October 8, 2005): 92.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 24 (December 15, 2005): 1305-1306.

Library Journal 131, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 133-134.

The New York Times 155 (March 3, 2006): E38.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 46 (November 21, 2005): 36.

The Spectator 299 (October 22, 2005): 56.

The Wilson Quarterly 30, no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 111-112.