Mussolini's Roman Empire

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Denis Mack Smith, a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford, England, has established himself as a leading authority on Italian history, primarily on the basis of several of his books that deal with leading figures in the Risorgimento. His latest book, Mussolini’s Roman Empire, concentrates, as the title suggests, on Fascist foreign policy. The theme of this book is how Benito Mussolini, as the Fascist dictator of Italy, deliberately steered his political movement into imperialism and a series of wars which eventuated in the prostration of his country. In writing this volume, Mack Smith begins with the assumption that the nature of Mussolini’s career is better revealed by the political and military defeats for which Fascism was responsible than by how the movement began. Since the history of Italian Fascism is virtually synonymous with the rise and fall of Mussolini, the author pays particular attention to the character and personality of II Duce throughout the book. Chronologically, the book covers three general periods, including the consolidation of Mussolini’s dictatorship, 1922-1933; the establishment of the short-lived Fascist Empire and the alliance with Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator, 1933-1940; and Mussolini’s participation in World War II, 1940-1943. In view of the yawning gap which existed in Fascist Italy between pretense and reality, Mack Smith places considerable emphasis throughout his study on the effectiveness and dangers of propaganda.

The architect of Fascist propaganda and ultimately its most tragic victim was of course Mussolini himself. Mack Smith depicts Mussolini as a violent, arrogant, and insensitive individual, for whom the possession of power was the highest virtue. Like other dictators in history, he could not tolerate having his authority or prescience called into question. This was not in keeping with what Mack Smith refers to as the “fascist style.” On the contrary, II Duce loved to convey the impression that he did not need expert advice on any subject, whether it was the type of equipment possessed by his army or some decision in foreign policy. Significantly, he regarded a successful foreign policy as the best way of strengthening his position at home. Mussolini’s foreign policy, however, was mainly based on his bombastic and intimidating statements and the threat, if not the actual use, of his military forces. His genius as a propagandist in the conduct of his foreign policy served him well at least through the Munich crisis of 1938.

Thereafter, reality steadily caught up with Mussolini, whether he wanted to admit it or not. German power in Europe was clearly in the ascendancy, and Hitler generally avoided taking Mussolini into his confidence about Nazi plans for conquest. By this time, then, Italy had become the junior partner of the Berlin-Rome Axis. Mack Smith’s description of Mussolini is particularly good in showing his agonized indecisiveness over the question of whether to participate in the war which Germany started in September, 1939. He had informed Hitler just a week before the Nazi invasion of Poland that Italy was ready to fight only if Germany would supply the munitions. This was Mussolini’s way of saying that he would not be able to honor his alliance with Hitler, as formally concluded in the Pact of Steel just a few months before. Mussolini was anxious, Mack Smith notes, to conceal the fact that the Italian army was in worse condition than before World War I. Its limited resources had been dissipated in the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-1936, and thereafter by Italy’s military intervention on behalf of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Mussolini also feared that if he maintained a status of neutrality, Germany might invade Italy, but that if he did not, the British might launch an attack against him. It was typical of Mussolini that, to save face and to avoid what to him was the odious term “neutrality,” he coined the concept “non-belligerence.” This expression gave him but passing comfort, for he did not consider Italy’s nonparticipation in the war as being consistent with the “fascist style.”

Yet it was only with considerable anxiety that he decided to enter the war, in June, 1940, by invading France at the moment when her troops were retreating before the advancing German columns in the north. He was still afraid to fight because his army was not yet ready, but, politically, he was afraid to stay out of the war any longer lest Italy be relegated to the status of a second-class power. Mack Smith points out that in the short French campaign Mussolini’s propaganda machine was far more powerful than his war machine; thus, the Fascist press proclaimed to all who would listen that Italian intervention against France had been responsible for her surrender. As the war progressed, Mussolini’s power of decision making, such as it was, continued to decline. His planning for the invasion of Greece in the fall of 1940 proved so inept that German troops had to...

(The entire section is 2038 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXV, November 6, 1976, p. 306.

Christian Century. XCIII, September 29, 1976, p. 820.

Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, July 8, 1976, p. 23.

History: Reviews of New Books. V, October, 1976, p. 18.

New Yorker. LII, July 12, 1976, p. 106.

Newsweek. XCII, September 24, 1976, p. 411.