Magazine article The Spectator

Fiddler, Statesman, but No Buffoon

Magazine article The Spectator

Fiddler, Statesman, but No Buffoon

Article excerpt

MUSSOLINI by Jasper Ridley Constable, L25, pp. 430

Though Italy is awash with them, there have been few biographies of Mussolini in English - some half a dozen since the war. This is no doubt because Mussolini, unlike Hitler, turned out to be no threat to the Allies when the shouting stopped and the fighting began and because Mussolini was not responsible for the Holocaust. Those in charge of Allied wartime propaganda were quickly able to dismiss him as a grotesque buffoon, and this cartoon image of him is by and large the one that has stuck ever since - in the eyes of us the victors at least. He does not even merit by this version of history the privilege of being evil, though in Italy it is a very different story.

But Mussolini was anything but a grotesque buffoon. No one gets power while still in his thirties and holds it for 23 years by being that. Until his disastrous declaration of war on Britain and France in June 1940 and swift military humiliation, Mussolini was a major player on the world stage - something no Italian politician had been since the days of the Roman Empire. He invented fascism and a case can be made for saying that fascism, rather than democracy, saved Europe from communism. This in itself is enough to explode the myth of Mussolini as buffoon, quite apart from the fact that until he started losing battles he was popular with many Italians, unless you conclude that the Italians themselves were a nation of buffoons for backing him.

He had many admirers abroad as well. These included not only Hitler but also for a long time Churchill and Roosevelt. He may not have been a democrat but he hated communism as much as did the democrats; it was their common enemy. It is this which explains, for example, why Churchill famously described Mussolini as late as 1933 as `the Roman genius' and `the greatest lawgiver among living men'. Churchill did not say it because he was a closet fascist, but because he, like many, believed that democracy could not work in countries like Italy and thought fascism preferable to communism.

Jasper Ridley's Mussolini is the first biography - by my reckoning - in English since Denis Mack Smith's in 1981. Mack Smith's is the seminal work on the buffoon thesis. It has immense appeal for an English audience, though it greatly upsets Italian historians. Ridley's book sets out to counter it, as the words on the jacket indicate:

Mussolini was not the ridiculous buffoon that he is often depicted but a very able politician who knew how to ride two horses at the same time, and while inculcating into the Italians the glories of war, co-operated peacefully with foreign governments. He won the esteem of many statesmen and writers and fascinated their wives.

But Ridley - an accomplished biographer of such varied characters as Tito and Palmerston -- never really tackles the issue of buffoonery head on. He does, however, deftly guide us through the key events of Mussolini's political career, basing what he writes largely on secondary sources: his departure from the Socialist Party in 1914 (he edited the party's newspaper Avanti!) over its refusal to support Italian entry into what it saw as a bourgeois war, his founding of the Fascist party and dramatic seizure of power by means of the march on Rome in 1922, the 1935 Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the severe damage that did to Anglo-Italian relations (we had been good friends until then), his subsequent slide into the brutal friendship with Hitler, and so to the second world war, defeat, and execution in April 1945 with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, by partisans as they attempted to flee to Switzerland. …

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