Coming to Terms with Fascism in Italy: Mussolini Casts a Long Shadow. R J.B. Bosworth Describes How Italians of Both the Left and the Right Have Used Memories of His Long Dictatorship to Underpin Their Own Versions of History and Politics

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BENITO MUSSOLINI became prime minister of Italy in October 1922 after leading the March on Rome, a paramilitary Fascist coup against liberal Italy's parliamentary institutions. In January 1925, he openly announced his dictatorship and became known as the Duce, or leader. From here on he boasted that Fascism was both a revolution and a regime, destined to remake Italians and to rule them for the foreseeable future. In fact, Mussolini fell in July 1943, after the Allied invasion of Sicily, a political casualty of Italy's disastrous performance in the Second World War. But the story had a vicious coda when, in September 1943, the Germans occupied northern Italy and restored Mussolini there as a sort of puppet dictator of the radical fascist Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI, or Italian Social Republic). For the next twenty months, while Italy was fought over by the Allied and Nazi-Fascist armies, Italians engaged in a form of civil war. Of Italy's 450,000 war deaths, about half occurred in this period.

In all, Mussolini's twenty-year-long Fascist dictatorship was responsible for about a million premature deaths. Some 3,000 Italians died in the political disturbances occasioned by Fascism's rise. Further casualties resulted from the regime's malign domestic policies which, Party rhetoric notwithstanding, favoured the rich over the poor, urban dwellers over the peasantry and men over women. But the major killing fields of the regime were in its empire and in the various wars it aggressively waged. While 'restoring order' in Libya, the regime allowed 50,000 to die in camps and generally did nothing to halt the appalling decline of the Libyan population, which had fallen from some 1.2 million on Italy's invasion in 1911 to 800,000 by the mid-1930s. Italian historians have never bothered to tally the death toll produced by the invasion and subsequent annexation of Ethiopia from 1935-41, but Ethiopians estimate that between 300,000 and 600,000 perished.

Fascist Italy intervened on the side of Franco's Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when Mussolini ordered his soldiers to kill any co-nationals they found fighting on the Republican side. According to the official figures, almost 4,000 Italians fell in Spain and more than 10,000 were wounded, and historians can only guess at the numbers the Fascists killed or maimed. The regime seized Albania on Good Friday 1939 and eventually, after an embarrassing (at least for the Duce) nine-month delay, entered the Second World War in support of Germany on June 10th, 1940.

Even after Mussolini's death at the hands of Italian partisans, and the collapse of the RSI in April 1945, Italian casualties continued. During the following summer, between 8,000 and 12,000 ex-Fascists, mostly in northern Italy, were eliminated by a vengeful left (sometimes political definitions hid crasser personal motivations). In the South, 'liberated' in 1943, social killings linked to the revived Mafia resumed with a will, most dramatically in the massacre of peasant Communists, unionists and their backers at Portella delle Ginestre in Sicily on May 1st, 1947.

Yet the bloody shambles of Fascism left little imprint in many postwar accounts. The cliche that Italians are brava gente (nice people)--however conditioned in the Anglo-Saxon world by a semi-racist assumption that Italians are also 'naturally' corrupt and incompetent--survives and flourishes. Louis de Bernieres, in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, one of the publishing triumphs of the 1990s, colourfully continued this line. In Italy itself, critical thoughts about past politics were quickly overwhelmed after 1945 by the Cold War and by the 'economic miracle' of the 1950s and 1960s when Italy's production and living standards rapidly caught up with those of the countries to its west and north. In a few short years, the wretchedness of the lives of many Italians between the wars became a distant memory, as foreign as the surviving echoes of Fascism's aggressive combination of nationalism and imperialism, and its habit of invading others. …