Strutting into infamy

Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany - Albert Speer - The Italian Navy in World War II - Fascist Italy - Italian Fascism 1919-45 - Italy and the Wider World 1860-1960 - Mussolini's Soldiers - Fascism
February 9, 1996

Just when the collapse of communism seemed indirectly to have stemmed the flood of books on fascism, along came Gianfranco Fini and his neofascist Alleanza Nazionale to revive interest. Fascism lies at the heart of our century: it grew out of the first world war and was the restless force which destroyed the fragile interwar peace and provoked the second world war.

For many years, it was the sheer scale of human suffering provoked by fascism which impelled scholars to engage with its history. Half a century after the war, a historiography of fascism fuelled by moral indignation is giving way to a less partisan approach whose conclusions are often every bit as, if not more damning. In Italy a polemical reconsideration of fascism has proceeded thanks to the efforts of the biographer of Mussolini, Renzo de Felice. He has portrayed Italian fascism as a positive movement of the ascendent petty bourgeoisie and presented Mussolini as no irresponsible warmonger but as a statesman pursuing traditional Italian foreign policy goals and falling foul of British incapacity to make reasonable concessions in the Mediterranean.

There is no echo of these polemics in Roger Eatwell's workmanlike history of fascism. Indeed, he makes great play of the need for objectivity to understand fascism's wide appeal. He is right but academic studies for the past 30 years have been doing this. While hardly justifying the dustjacket's claims for this as a definitive book, he does present a useful interpretation of the relationship between fascist leaders and traditional establishments - both Fascists and Nazis created a popular movement not big enough to gain overall parliamentary majorities but big enough to attract the attention of conservatives who knew that they could not guarantee sufficient popular support to counteract the challenge of the left. The forging of their alliance required cynicism and opportunism on both sides with Hitler and Mussolini playing down their radical revolutionary dimensions to gain elite approval. In their first years in power, pragmatism was the order of the day.

Eatwell is interested in, but less interesting on, ideas. His explanations of why Britain and France did not produce major fascist movements are taken from intellectual history - British traditions of constitutionally limited government and individual rights and the French republican belief in liberty, equality and fraternity. He has nothing to say about the social imperialism that provided a social safety valve or about the fact that Britain and France were on the winning side in the first world war. Eatwell is right to say that the original ideas of fascism did not necessarily lead to brutal dictatorship and genocidal practice any more than Marxism inevitably led to Stalinist terror. However, that suggests the irrelevance of ideas in fascism rather than the reverse. Eatwell nonetheless traces - and does it well - the roots of fascism both in, and against the rationalism and liberalism of the Enlightenment. The rise of fascism in Italy is described in a competent narrative synthesis. Withal, this is a judicious survey but often has the feel of a rather old-fashioned textbook.

It is in fact impossible to discuss fascism meaningfully without accepting foreign adventurism, territorial expansionism and military aggression as central to its identity. The similarities between the Italian and German dictatorships, culminating in their linked defeats in the second world war, point to the primacy of foreign and military issues within fascism. In both countries, fascism emerged out of, and was destroyed in, foreign policy disasters. Before 1914, albeit with stark differences of emphasis, they both had rigid, authoritarian (if apparently democratic) systems uneasily presiding over highly unstable societies. Both sets of ruling classes had tried to divert attention from domestic problems with the artificially generated spectre of foreign enemies (Germany) or the mirage of imperial enterprises (Italy). In both countries, the ruling classes were happy enough to see the spurious national unity conferred by the outbreak of war neutralise left-wing opposition to the establishment. They did not foresee the economic costs and social dislocation which would both intensify working-class militancy and, because of labour shortages, increase the strength of the organised working class.

It is not necessary to be a devotee of Trotsky's theory of fascism to accept the link between fascism's two contributions to the resolution of capitalism's post-first world war crisis: initially the domestic repression of a newly militant labour and subsequently the external crushing of rivals.

Such explanations of fascism do not mean that it was the servile repressive instrument of capitalism. It was able to play that role because of its autonomous character as an organisation capable of mass mobilisation. John Whittam argues in lively prose that Mussolini's success derived from an instinctive awareness born of his own socialist background of how to find political advantage in the rise of the masses. As he puts it, the great achievement of Mussolini was the simultaneous mobilisation and depoliticisation of Italian society. That is, of course, not incompatible with the Marxist view that fascism objectively defended the interests of beleaguered capitalism. It is typical of Whittam's useful, fair-minded and informative textbook that it can present an acceptable version of the arguments of De Felice, to whom he refers as "the Italian maestro". He has less to say about foreign policy on which he is seduced by his maestro's ideas on continuity between liberal and fascist Italy.

Altogether less deferential towards De Felice is the marvellously stimulating and often humorous essay by the Australian historian Richard Bosworth. It is widely accepted that the international ambitions of Wilhelmine Germany prefigured those of national socialism in terms of continuities before 1914 and after 1933 in the interrelation of external aggression and domestic economic structures. Bosworth shows that a similar story could be told for the nationalist ambitions of prewar Italian nationalists and Mussolini's fascism. However, the conclusion to be derived from his work is not therefore that Mussolini must be seen as a traditional Italian statesman but rather that attention needs to be devoted to the expansionism of his predecessors. The victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Fascists in Italy set up the two poles within which both the domestic politics of each country and the international relations of interwar Europe would develop. The forces which in Germany had pursued policies of world domination before 1914, and in Italy had harboured imperialist ambitions, remained powerful and determined not to be overwhelmed by communism.

There is little room for De Felicean revisionism in Philip Morgan's impressive synthesis. Tightly written, it packs an enormous amount of information into its 200-odd pages. Unlike Whittam, who focuses on the Duce himself, Morgan is more interested in both the Fascist party and the context in which it functioned. His account of the links between domestic and foreign policy in Italian fascism is exemplary. Mussolini declared as early as 1925 that the Fascist party must impose "the discipline of a state of war on the nation". He believed that the supreme national goal was an expansionism which would be permitted by a new state capable of totalitarian control of resources. The single party and the corporative state - the depoliticisation of the masses - would prepare Italy for war by repairing the class divisions intensified by the burden of the first world war and the subsequent "mutilated peace". In the 1920s, economic and military weakness limited Italy's ability to break free of international dependence. However, once the great depression broke Italian dependence on an international system dominated by Anglo-American capital, the logic of aggression was inexorable - the conquest of Ethiopia, undeclared war against the Spanish Republic, membership of the Axis and the catastrophe of the second world war. Like Bosworth, Morgan gives short shrift to the De Felicean idea that a peace-loving Mussolini really sought equidistance between Germany and Britain.

Also at some distance from De Felice is Alexander J. de Grand, whose earlier book Italian Fascism (1982) is a minor classic. His short volume in the Historical Connections series deals crisply with the parallel origins and early development of fascism and nazism. De Grand also engages interestingly with the difficulties faced in the consolidation of both regimes but provides only the most exiguous discussion of their foreign and military dimensions. Neither the Ethiopian war nor the Spanish civil war is mentioned yet both were crucial to Mussolini's determination to forge a "fascistised" nation in a war of external aggression, the so-called svolta totalitaria (totalitarian turn). The depression undermined the carefully worked out compromises of the 1920s and permitted this radicalisation. The Duce wanted to break the Anglo-French hegemony in the Mediterranean, turn it into an Italian lake then achieve great power status in the oceans beyond. Between October 1935 and May 1936, his troops conquered Ethiopia, with the acquiescence of the League of Nations. There was little internal logic - other than ideology - to an external aggression which was a major drain on Italy's already stretched economy. Even less advantageous was Italian intervention in Spanish civil war. A senseless determination not to let Franco lose gradually led Mussolini into committing ever greater resources to Spain, the social and economic costs of which began the process of the decline of the Duce's popularity. Aware that the destruction of Anglo-French power required the assistance of Germany, he clinched the Rome-Berlin Axis in October 1936, and thus began the process of his own destruction which would be completed by the second world war.

Recent research in Italy on the economic and military costs to Italy of the Spanish civil war make it clear that later military effectiveness was fatally diminished. As Bosworth bluntly puts it: "In its performance at the front, Fascist Italy, in its weakness and confusion regularly confirmed both allies and enemies in their long-standing beliefs about the unsuitability of Italians for military life."

The issue of Italian failure in the second world war is confronted indirectly by Rex Trye. A collector of Italian fascist militaria himself, his book will captivate those fascinated by wartime pistols and daggers, old ration books, badges and belt buckles. However, alongside superb illustrations and invaluable information about how Italian soldiers were fed, clothed and shod, not to mention their medical and burial services, there is a serious argument. Trye takes as his theme the remark by General Rodolfo Graziani, Mussolini's chief of staff and commander in North Africa, "you cannot break armour with fingernails alone". Paying heartfelt tribute to the ordinary Italian solder's bravery and capacity to sustain hardship, he stresses the deficiencies of staff work, intelligence services and, above all, weaponry and transport.

James Sadkovich's book robustly makes a similar argument for the navy but takes it much further. (Like Trye, he is keen to do away with "the stereotype of the cowardly and incompetent wop.") He argues reasonably that, having an industrial capacity less than 20 per cent of that of Germany, Italy's performance in the second world war is understandable. He asks what would have happened to Hitler's great blitzkrieg offensives if they had been mounted with the handful of armoured divisions and the limited and obsolete airforce available to Mussolini. However, instead of concluding that to go to war so ill-equipped throws serious doubt on the sanity of the Duce and the professional capacity of his high command, he indulges in special pleading to the effect that British successes in the Mediterranean were less than they seemed and, in any case, the consequence of unfair technological and economic advantages.

Under no circumstances could Italy, given her economic under-development, have emulated the military machine of the Third Reich. However, it would have helped if Mussolini had had an Albert Speer. As minister for armaments and war production, his prodigious organisational talents increased the capacity of German industry, trebling arms production and prolonging the course of the second world war by two years. In doing so, he made the fullest possible use of slave labour.

Gita Sereny's evocative book is not a biography of Speer in any conventional sense but rather an account of her quest to discover how far he was telling the truth. The diaries intrigued her with what she perceived to be his overwhelming sadness. Nevertheless, she approached her subject with deep suspicions, finding him altogether too smooth and charming. Over three years of interviews, she came to know him and trust him. Her book - based on the interviews and his voluminous personal archives - oscillates between his past and their present. Long and unwieldy, it nevertheless portrays him with empathy, revealing him to be a man of great intelligence and emotional aridity. Her sensitive recreaction of his family life, for example, movingly portrays a man so stiff that he was incapable of laughing with his children. He makes no secret of his own bewitchment by the Fuhrer but glibly excuses his role as "turning away" from the fate of those who died to keep Hitler's machine turning. The entire process makes compelling reading. Sereny ended up inclined to believe Speer, in part because Hitler often "protected those closest to him - who from 1933 on included Speer - from any awareness which could have disturbed them or the harmony of their relationship with him". The honesty which glimmers on every page means, despite her partial conversion, there can be no doubt that he still felt pride as well as shame for his work for Hitler.

Paul Preston is professor of international history, London School of Economics.

Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany: The 'Fascist' Style of Rule

Author - Alexander J. De Grand
ISBN - 0 415 10598 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £6.99
Pages - 102

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