The bloodthirsty Fascist dictator is still fondly remembered – especially in the south

I have just been reading Nicholas Farrell’s Mussolini, A New Life, a book which I have been meaning to catch up with for a very long time. There is a to my mind very fair review of it in the Guardian by the excellent Tobias Jones, which you can read here. 

Farrell aims to rescue Il Duce from those who have sought to demonise him, but to a large extent he is kicking at an open door. I lived in Italy for eight years and one of my hobbies was to get older people to talk about their experiences during il Ventennio Fascista (the twenty year period of fascist rule). None of the people I talked to were lunatics, all had witnessed the regime at first hand, and all were remarkably kind in their judgement of il Duce. One dear old lady I knew used to live on the Via Nomentana and every morning when Mussolini left the Villa Torlonia to go to his office at Palazzo Venezia, she would give him a loyal wave, which he dutifully returned. She loved the Duce. At the sight of the degradation of modern Rome, she would say what so many Italians of her generations said: “Quando c’era Lui….” The sentence was always left unfinished, but the sense was clear: when he was about, things were different.

An elderly priest put it succinctly: “Quando c’era Lui, Roma era un monastero.” Literally, when he was here, Rome was a monastery. Monasteries, I assume, are the acme of order to Italians. And that is how they thought of Mussolini – a regime of order, “un regime d’ordine”. When you consider just how disorderly modern Italy can be, especially below that invisible line that separates North from South, nostalgia for the Duce is understandable.

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But this nostalgia is not to be found in the north of Italy. After the overthrow of Fascism in July 1943, the north was left in the hands of the Germans, and Mussolini presided over a puppet regime at their behest. This period was a dark one, though there are several contemporary Italian politicians who see the period of La Repubblicca di Salò  as something of a political golden age. These are the people of la corrente sociale as it is known – authoritarians who nevertheless favour extensive workers’ rights. Their current leader is Francesco Storace. 

But the truth of the matter is that Italy’s neo-fascists have never attracted much support. One of the points that Farrell makes is that Mussolini was always much more popular than his party, and this seems fair enough. Apologists also claim that Mussolini ruined everything by entering the War on Hitler’s side, and that this was a mistake. Farrell, surprisingly, makes use of an argument that I often used to hear: Mussolini had to enter as an ally of the Germans, as otherwise Italy would have been invaded by the Germans. But there is no evidence for this at all; and there is plenty of evidence that Mussolini was bloodthirsty and vainglorious. The War was not Mussolini’s mistake, it was the natural projection of his policy from the start. He was bellicose even in 1915, and the loss of life seems not to have bothered him. But the Italians are very forgiving people: they have a soft spot for the Duce still, and the man has received a more kindly judgement than he deserves.

Farrell’s book is worth reading, and contains two interesting insights. The first is into the character he calls “Mrs Mussolini”, and whom Italians refer to as Donna Rachele, “Lady Rachel”. In Farrell’s account this much respected figure appears as a towering comic creation, who bullies the great dictator mercilessly when he is at home. Then there is what Farrell has to say about Mussolini’s religion: he started life as a rabid anti-clerical, though never anti-religious as such; he only married in Church late in the day; the elder children were baptised several years after their birth; and yet, it seems that in the twilight of his life, Mussolini was reconciled to the Church. These are just some of the many contradictions that makes il Duce’s life so fascinating.

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