A popular saying in Italy reflects the manner in which Italians of a certain generation chose to remember their lives during Benito Mussolini's dictatorship: "I wasn't there, and if I was, I was sleeping." This tendency to remove oneself from association with the Fascist dictatorship, whether out of moral unease or the need for political survival, translated after the Second World War into a collective unwillingness among Italians to account for the dictatorship and its multiple crimes. With no Nuremberg trials (despite participation in the Axis and the Holocaust), no process of decolonisation (Italy lost its empire in the course of its Second World War defeat) and Cold War anxieties about Italy's large post-war Communist Party leading the Allies to favour leniency in the interests of stability, Italians were able to absorb themselves in the process of reconstruction, allowing many to avoid reflecting on the past.
More than half a century later, we know much about Fascism's institutions, major actors, policies and cultures, and in the past decade have come to know more about its violence, too, both at home and in the colonies. Many of these studies were top-down in their approach, and have reconstructed for us the networks of party and state agencies that sought to regiment Italians' lives and control their everyday choices and movements. What we still lacked were the histories of those everyday experiences as told from the perspective of ordinary Italians, and it is here that Christopher Duggan's book intervenes.
Duggan uses a deftly sketched narrative of those policies and institutions as background and context for individual points of view. Through this approach, Fascist Voices takes up the challenge of understanding why the Duce and his regime appealed to so many Italians. The author's thoughtful tone and sensitive handling of his sources, which include diaries, police informers' reports and letters sent to Mussolini, enhance the book, and his clear prose makes it eminently readable. Such sources had been often dismissed by historians as unreliable - false flatteries or denunciations in view of gaining something from the regime - and the author is clear about their limitations. In the early 1930s Italian literacy was still low, and so the pool of those with the time and ability to write letters was still restricted.
Duggan has done an admirable job of making sure women of all ages figure in his chorus of Fascist voices, and also acknowledges the contradictory nature of those voices. "It is perfectly possible to imagine somebody finding it quite natural to be scathing about an aspect of the regime in a conversation with friends over a glass of wine or grappa, and yet on another occasion, in the privacy of the home, to feel inspired to write a letter of glowing and heartfelt praise to the Duce," he writes.
What do his sources tell him? Over 13 chapters that go from Mussolini's creation of the Fascist movement after the First World War to Italy's liberation by the Allies in spring 1945, we learn that the cult of the Duce was not merely the product of propaganda but a deeply felt attachment to a man; that the Fascist Party, in contrast, was often unpopular; and that the mass acclaim that greeted the occupation of Ethiopia in 1936 and the creation of the Italian Empire declined not because of the racial laws or Nazi alliance but because of the impoverishments and losses brought on in the course of Italy's participation in the war.
Throughout, Duggan offers us lively portraits of squadrists, schoolteachers, anti-Fascists (not just the famous philosopher Benedetto Croce but ordinary Italians who risked being sent to lunatic asylums to remove them from society) and children, including a young girl who wondered why sunny Italy needed to go to Africa to have "a place in the sun". This "intimate history" offers a fresh look at Fascist Italy, and the bonds that tied Italians to Mussolini but that could not easily be spoken of after 1945.
Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini's Italy
By Christopher Duggan
The Bodley Head, 528pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781847921031 and 9781409028956 (e-book)
Published 1 November 2012