Contrary to the expectations created by its title, this is not a book about Mussolini. As Philip Morgan explains in his introduction, its real subject is the "history of Italy and Italians during the war years", a history in which Mussolini is intentionally kept in the background but in which his fall on July 25, 1943 is the pivotal event.
The Italian war, Morgan tells us, began in June 1940 when Mussolini invaded an already defeated France and then launched campaigns in Greece and North Africa, as well as sending troops to fight alongside the Germans in Russia.
When the tide turned after Axis defeats at El Alamein and Stalingrad, and when the Allies subsequently invaded Sicily, key figures within the Fascist regime, with the connivance of the King, sought to extricate Italy from this deadly alliance by overthrowing its main architect and suing for peace with the Allies.
Within months an armistice was signed, the Italian army collapsed and the country was effectively divided in two. The south fell under Allied jurisdiction in collaboration with a fugitive King and his Government, while the centre and the north came under German control and were incorporated into the Republic of Salò, with a tired Mussolini as its nominal leader. There followed a slow and painful movement northwards, as Italy was "liberated" by its former enemies from the occupation of its former ally. There was also a "war within the war" being fought between those Italians who remained faithful to the Axis and Mussolini and those Italians who, whatever their political allegiances, made it their priority to regain some control over their future by taking up arms against Nazi Fascism, mostly as partisans.
Both these wars were fought in the midst of a population stunned by the transformation of their home into a battlefield and who found themselves inhabiting a "grey area between collaboration and resistance". This, then, is the subject of this book, a departure (as he himself implies) from Morgan's two previous works, Italian Fascism, 1919-1945 and Fascism in Europe, 1919-1945 , in that it focuses on the first-hand accounts of ordinary people and attempts to tell the story from the "ground level of Italians' wartime existence". This Morgan does with some narrative flair, offering a nuanced and sympathetic view of the challenges placed on people's loyalties and their capacity to react, while avoiding the temptation to judge those who chose the losing side more harshly.
There are times, however, when nuanced judgment gives way to rather complacent personal reflections that have no documented basis and that would have benefited from more stringent editing. Also, Morgan's reconstruction of the people's war is sustained by the quoting of a few individual memories that have been selected with no apparent criteria and that were actually part of a much wider selection in the secondary sources he has used, with an effect that is impressionistic and ultimately unsatisfying.
As an introduction for the general reader, or for undergraduates with a short-term interest, this study works well; but readers with a more professional interest may feel frustrated by the lack of any real engagement with sources that they may prefer to consult directly. They may also find themselves wishing, like this reviewer, that more time had been spent on analysing the divided memories of this war and the legacy of these divisions in contemporary Italy. Both points are are presented as the interpretative framework of the book, but somehow fail to animate our reading of it.
The Fall of Mussolini
Author - Philip Morgan
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 263
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9780192802477