Winston Churchill broadcast to the Italian people on the evening of December 23 1940 "that he is a great man I do not deny, but that after 18 years of unbridled power he has led your country to the horrid verge of ruin can be denied by none". If that was so, it was no mean feat for one man. The subsequent humiliations suffered by the Duce, from the poor showing against a defeated France in the spring of 1940, the need for German rescue in Greece and North Africa, to the final fall and resurrection as a German puppet, left Mussolini's reputation in tatters. In the Anglo-Saxon world, at least, the combination of wartime defeat and a record of the most absurd prewar posturing produced the widely accepted view of Mussolini as a buffoon. But the crimes alleged by Churchill were not the work of a clown. A buffoon could not have gained power in Italy by legal means, held on to it for more than 20 years and, during that time, turned Italy into an aggressive player on the great power stage.
The Duce's career, the more so given the daunting mountains of documentation it left behind, lends itself to many interpretations. The definitive Anglo-Saxon case for the prosecution was made Denis Mack Smith in his Mussolini of 1981. The case for the defence has been made often in Italy, notably by a close collaborator, the Fascist journalist and minister, Giorgio Pini, in a four-volume work written with Duilio Susmel, Mussolini: L'uomo e l'opera published in the mid-1950s. The Pini-Susmel collaboration was eventually overshadowed by the definitive, if somewhat ambiguous, pro-Mussolini study by Renzo de Felice. From its first volume in 1965 until the posthumous publication of its unfinished eighth volume earlier this year, this monumental - and often rambling - work veered from an initially critical to an altogether favourable stance.
Defenders of Mussolini point to the admiration that he provoked among contemporary sages and statesmen in Italy and elsewhere. Richard Lamb states the positive view clearly: "Had it not been for the Abyssinian war and his alliance with Hitler, many Italians would regard Mussolini's rule as a golden period in their history." In its most subtle form, in the lengthy tracts of De Felice's work devoted to Mussolini's foreign and military policy and in the book by his disciple Rosaria Quartararo, Roma tra Londra e Berlino, published in Rome in 1980, this version is underpinned by the assertion that the Duce was virtually forced into his rash adventures by an uncaring and irresponsible British foreign policy.
Although he does not list Quartararo in his bibliography, Lamb's fascinating, readable but ultimately flawed book uses British sources to support her views of Mussolini's foreign policy. In his preface, Lamb states his position boldly: "As a lover of Italy I was appalled at the way in which British policy threw Mussolini into Hitler's arms." Both Lamb and Jasper Ridley are aware that a love of Italy does not require a love of the Duce, but nor does it guarantee a good book about him. Having long admired Ridley's biographies, it distresses me to say that this one is a profound disappointment. Certainly, it covers the basic ground and does so in a lively style. Ridley is particularly good on Mussolini's 19th-century heritage, but on Mussolini the Fascist there is nothing here that could not have been found in books published in English 25 years ago. With the exception of De Felice, the most important modern scholarship on the subject, together with recently published primary material, is ignored.
To name but a few of the omissions, the indispensable works of Emilio Gentile, Roberto Vivarelli, Giorgio Rochat and MacGregor Knox do not figure in the bibliography any more than - astonishingly - does the recent major study of the Duce's influential mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, by Philip V. Cannistraro and Brian R. Sullivan. There is no sign that crucial primary sources have been consulted, such as the eight-volume appendices to Mussolini's works, diaries by key observers such as Giuseppe Bottai, Alberto Pirelli, Ugo Ojetti, Yvon de Begnac or Baron Aloisi, or important memoirs by Fulvio Suvich, Antonio Bonino, Count Dino Grandi and Raffaele Guariglia. The consequence is, at best, a much blander text than could reasonably have been expected and, at worst, serious error as in the inaccurate account of how Mussolini came to intervene in the Spanish civil war.
Accordingly, although not without its own omissions, Lamb's provocative account of the Duce's foreign policy is far more interesting. Lamb is critical of Mussolini's irresponsibility and inconsistency but much more critical of British diplomats. His first sentence proclaims that this is not a biography of Mussolini, although considerable material about his life is marshalled. In fact, by introducing the biographical element, he has perhaps inadvertently indicated a middle way between the two opposing views of Mussolini as criminal buffoon and as misunderstood visionary. In the 44 volumes of his writings and speeches and the 33 relevant volumes of Italian foreign ministry documents, not to mention the thousands of personal papers available, there is a wealth of contradictory statement that will sustain either view. Lamb's depiction of Mussolini's anxious quest for British friendship can be made consistent with his war against Britain only by portraying him as the wronged party. But the premise that nothing interested and absorbed Mussolini more than foreign policy permits the location of a line in his pronouncements on the subject that is totally consistent with his behaviour. Put crudely, his central concern was to smash the Anglo-French hegemony of international relations. To do so meant toadying to the British until he was strong enough to defeat the French. Only then could he turn on the British. In this view, the pro-British rhetoric was no more than expediency, his many warlike declarations nearer the truth of his intentions, intentions finally revealed in Abyssinia, Spain, Albania, Greece and North Africa.
Lamb rightly points out that Mussolini "aligned Italian foreign policy with Britain's until the Abyssinian war in 1935". This was, of course, the traditional Italian response to British strength in the Mediterranean. But, behind that caution, the traditional policy inherited by Mussolini from the Italian nationalists aimed at hegemony of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and much of the old Habsburg empire. Mussolini added his own bloody gloss to the foreign policy goals of the Nationalists. He described his alignment with Britain as "verbal pacifism", in 1929 telling his under-secretary of war, General Pietro Gazzera, "we shall bleat with the sheep and howl with the wolves". This was nothing new. Mussolini had harboured aggressive ambitions from his earliest flirtations with nationalism. When campaigning in favour of Italian intervention in the first world war, he had declared on December 17 1914: "It is necessary to act, to be on the move, to fight and, if necessary, to die. Neutrals have never dominated events. They have always suffered their consequences. It is blood which turns the clanging wheels of history."
The pacific rhetoric quoted by Quartararo and now by Lamb derived from the view of many Italian diplomats that, at best, Italy could aim at a role of being the "peso determinante" or decisive weight in international relations. Since Italy was a middle-rank power whose foreign policy was more determined by the opportunities and dangers thrown up by changing circumstances, she could not follow a set and clear line of national interest. The senior official in the ministry of foreign affairs after 1926, Raffaele Guariglia, eloquently wrote that Italy's policy was "for intrinsic and obvious reasons, historically obliged to stand first here, then there and to pursue the fulfilment of her own aims by cutting the cloth necessary for her own cloak from the cloth of her various adversaries, and, until her own mantle is ready, to take shelter on rainy days under the ample and capacious cloak of England". It was put even more starkly on August 31 1930 in a memorandum to Mussolini from the then foreign minister, Dino Grandi. He talked in terms of manoeuvring for position in order for Italy to be the arbiter of a future German-French war. Italy should be "with everyone and against everyone. We must arm ourselves and stand apart ever more in order to sell ourselves at a high price in the hours of the great future crisis". He declared that diplomacy "is simply the art of deceiving one's enemies and making preparations, abroad and among one's enemies, the best conditions for making war against them". The long-term aim remained, however, to set Italy free from its Mediterranean prison. In his secret war memorandum to the king, Ciano and the chiefs of staff, Mussolini wrote on March 31 1940: "Italy will not truly be an independent nation as long as it has Corsica, Bizerte and Malta as the bars of its Mediterranean prison and Gibraltar and Suez as the walls of the same prison."
Thus, the critical light that Lamb casts on British policy-makers dramatically underestimates the ambitions, cynicism and duplicity of Mussolini and his officials. The British could certainly be accused of a patronising self-confidence that blinded them to the fact that the Duce harboured the ambition of bringing down their empire. Lamb is similarly short-sighted. He quotes Neville Chamberlain's letter of July 1937 assuring Mussolini that "this Government is actuated only by the most friendly feelings towards Italy" and commenting that "to my great regret I have never had the opportunity of meeting Your Excellency. But I have often heard my brother, Sir Austen, talk of you, and always with the highest regard. He used to say that you were 'a good man to do business with'." This was a response to a virtuoso performance by Grandi, now ambassador in London, who had read out to Chamberlain passages of an invented letter in which the Duce supposedly showed his desire for a rapprochement with the British. Lamb cites Grandi's duplicity in support of his thesis when it is, arguably at least, evidence of this very duplicity. In any case, Grandi, by his own admission and the careful exegesis of his writings by MacGregor Knox, had no compunction about inventing or altering documents.
Lamb is harsh in his judgements of British politicians. He blames them for acquiescing in the admission of Abyssinia into the League of Nations - "a disaster for Europe". He is damning about Anthony Eden, whom he sees as pushing an unwilling Mussolini into Hitler's arms. Eden is portrayed as just one of the British politicians who, by slighting or ignoring Mussolini, missed numerous chances to keep him out of the war. But it is far from clear that, even if the British had set out unequivocally to woo Mussolini, Hitler would in any way have been deterred from his objectives. Lamb is right that Mussolini was fairly cool towards Hitler, especially in 1934 when he was cultivating Dollfuss. The sending of troops to the frontier after the murder of Dollfuss on July 25 1934 thwarted a first effort at Anschluss but it hardly "indicated to the world that Italy held the balance of power in Europe". Lamb is right to emphasise the Duce's efforts at the Stresa conference on April 11 1935 to restrain Hitler, although even then his concerns were entirely to do with Austria and what he saw as competition from Germany in central Europe. The Stresa front restrained Hitler, keeping him out of the Rhineland and Austria, but only very briefly. It was broken by the rape of Abyssinia and the reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1936 soon altered the balance of power.
Given his long-term aim of bringing down both the French and the British, Mussolini wanted an alliance with Germany, especially after the invasion of Ethiopia and particularly in the course of the Spanish civil war. The benign view of Mussolini requires ignoring evidence of his ruthlessness in Ethiopia and also in Spain. Lamb sees the stumbling block to cordial Italo-British relations as British reluctance to recognise the conquest of Abyssinia but that ignores the impact of his use of submarines against British ships supplying the Spanish Republic. On March 11 1938, Hitler was able to seize Austria with Mussolini's complicity. On May 2 1938, Hitler visited Rome and Mussolini did not protest when he confided in him his intention to move against Czechoslovakia. In the autumn, Mussolini's assistance to Hitler at Munich, parading the Fuhrer's terms as a peace compromise, did immeasurable good to the Third Reich and damage to the western powers. Mussolini showed his own military weakness - or his dislike of Britain, or both - when, on March 14 1939, Hitler broke the Munich agreement and occupied Prague. Chamberlain asked the Duce to intervene but he did nothing. Instead, he gave vent to his own aggressive ambitions by occupying Albania. In May 1939, the Duce clinched the Pact of Steel with Hitler. Thereafter, as Lamb shows, he "oscillated between greed and fear". He may have been worried about his military weakness but he had told Franco of his forthcoming declaration of war in a letter of April 8. Indeed, he had told his cabinet on January 23 1940: "No one could imagine that we could stay completely out of it. We cannot become a second division team." British policy had nothing to do with that stance.
Paul Preston is professor of international history, London School of Economics.
Author - Jasper Ridley
ISBN - 0 09 476370 4
Publisher - Constable
Price - £25.00
Pages - 430