“Although I deal with the Italian attempt to build a fascist state,” Chronicles editor Paul Gottfried wrote in response to an obtuse critic of his latest book, Antifascism: Course of a Crusade, “I am also quite critical of Mussolini’s career, especially his involvement with Hitler’s Third Reich and the unfortunate anti-Semitic laws that Il Duce issued in September 1938.”
While I am in agreement with Dr. Gottfried’s indictment of today’s nihilistic, misnamed “antifascism,” I want to add a few thoughts on the phenomenon of Mussolini’s fatal “involvement” with Hitler—fatal to Italy, to the fascist movement he founded, and to the Duce personally. This is long overdue: almost 76 years after his April 1945 murder by Italian communist partisans, Mussolini is yet to be reclassified as a significant, flawed, even pathetic, but not monstrous figure of Europe’s 20th century history.
Revisiting Mussolini’s legacy is necessary not only because he is too facilely branded together with Hitler, but also for the sake of linguistic hygiene and mental discipline. It is necessary because the word “fascist”—which he coined in 1919—is still used as an abusive term a century later, arguably with greater frequency and less responsibility than ever before. George Orwell noted the trend as early as 1946 in his essay “Politics and the English Language:” “The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”
Orwell understood that just as thought corrupts language, language can corrupt thought. In our own time the problem is not confined to the gutter end of the public space. Columbia University professor Robert O. Paxton wrote a year ago that he had “resisted for a long time applying the fascist label to Donald J. Trump,” but Trump’s incitement of the invasion of the Capitol “removes my objection to the fascist label.” Yale professor Timothy Snyder routinely calls Putin’s Russia “fascist” in op-eds for The New York Times and others, without providing a hint of structured analysis to prove that the current Russian political system belongs to the tradition of totalitarian regimes. A legion of editorialists calling Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, or France’s Marine Le Pen, or any number of other figures of the right “fascist” are guilty of similar mental sloppiness, often combined with plain ignorance of history.
Fascism was born out of the crisis of European liberalism at the fragile time when traditional political forces were delegitimized by the Great War, shaken by subsequent internal instability, and scared by the revolution in Russia and its echoes in Central Europe. Its early recruits were surviving veterans bitter at having been “stabbed in the back” at home, or the Arditi south of the Alps, having had their victory “mutilated” by foreign machinations—as exemplified by the Fiume Legion of Gabrielle D’Annunzio, a precursor of the ideals and specific scenarios of Italian fascism’s political action.
Among several varieties of fascism in Europe between the wars (including an array of “native fascisms,” mostly in the former Habsburg lands), a salient feature was the celebration of their nation’s glorious past—the Roman Empire in Italy’s case—and the promise of a correspondingly glorified future, based on that nation’s alleged particular qualities and its mission ordained by “providence.” Common to all was the declared opposition to Marxism (even when the distinctly leftist aversion to “bourgeoisie” was explicit), and the reliance on the dynamism of violence and direct action.
The sentiment found a fertile ground before it became an ideology. The Paris settlements of 1919 proved to be a major source of weakness for those who appeared to have gained the most. Poland’s eastern territories beyond the Curzon Line and its absurdly drawn corridor to the Baltic, Czechoslovakia’s possession of the Sudetenland, and Romania’s undeserved doubling in size in Transylvania, Bukovina, and Bessarabia, created a constant source of revanchist malevolence among the losers who exacted their revenge two decades later. The newly created South Slav state found itself in a similar position. The most acute problem concerned Italy. The Italians were unwilling to give up what had been promised to them in London in 1915: Dalmatia with most Adriatic islands. To their dismay, in December 1918 the Italians found that this enemy territory became, by the act of Yugoslav unification, an “Allied” land.
Mussolini’s rise was welcomed by many Italians not because of fascism’s ideological appeal, still vaguely defined at the time, but because it seemed to offer practical solutions to the problems of the “red menace” at home and the “mutilated victory” abroad. The perceived injustice meted out to Italy in 1919 was a potent sentiment, as illustrated by D’Annunzio’s adventure in Fiume. Theatrics notwithstanding, it reminded Mussolini that if he did not assume the role of the nationalist hero, someone else would.
Mussolini understood, and from the outset in 1922 Italy’s international status was perceived as the criterion by which the Fascist experiment would stand or fall. His aggressive new foreign policy course, starting in 1926, reflected Mussolini’s consolidated hold on both internal and external policy, after he heralded the one-party dictatorship in his speech of Jan. 3, 1925. He was no longer subjected to the tutelage of the career diplomats who had assisted him in the early days (to the point of grooming him in the finer points of table manners). The diplomats of yore were keen to oblige him at first. His goals, after all, corresponded to Italy’s nationalist, rather than specifically “fascist” objectives: the annexation of Fiume, a foothold in Albania, a future expansion in the Mediterranean. Those objectives had been supported by the senior foreign ministry establishment, whose members subscribed to the notion of a mutilated victory of 1918.
Il Duce subsequently found himself in the contradictory role of supporting and actively sponsoring Yugoslavia’s enemies in the Balkans, while remaining staunchly anti-revisionist on the issue of the Brenner frontier, on resisting Habsburg restoration, and on upholding Austrian independence vis-à-vis Germany. His ambiguity was costly: as the late author Dennison Rusinow has aptly noted, it “inexorably led to the Axis, and a German triumph in the Balkans that could not stop short of Trieste.” Mussolini’s “activism” reflected his limited grasp of foreign affairs, which went beyond his impatience with old diplomacy. He had no strategy: his emphasis on “action” packed together ends and means in semantic imprecision until the means, the acquisition of strength, became an end in itself: “when the rhetoric of the regime became identified with a statement of ends, Italian policy became the prisoner of that rhetoric.”
This was a damning verdict. In the early 1930s Mussolini tried cementing relations with Austria and Hungary and thus became more closely identified with the revisionist camp in the Danubian Basin. This need not have been so. Italy and France shared an interest in maintaining the system codified at Versailles, since any upset was more likely to work to their detriment than to their advantage. Both had grounds to fear a resurgent Germany, on the Rhine as well as on the Brenner. Mussolini’s courting of revisionists in Central Europe exemplified his confusion of ends and means. His activist policy got him linked to a motley band of European discontents, from Austrian corporatists to Hungarian revisionists and Croatian separatists. His moves coincided, however, with the coming to power in Berlin of a revisionist par excellence.
By striving to keep Austria and Hungary under Italy’s influence in the first year and a half of Hitler’s rise, and by taking a strong defensive posture in the Danubian basin, Mussolini temporarily acted as a defender of the existing order. The abortive Nazi coup in Vienna and the dispatch of four Italian divisions to the Brenner in 1934 made Italy look like a guardian of the European status quo. At that time the Duce apparently understood the potential menace that the new regime in Berlin posed to Italy’s position in the Danubian basin, particularly to its long-term hold on the former Austrian lands.
The first half of 1935 could have been the turning point in Italy’s foreign and security policy, making her a guardian of the Versailles order. Everything changed with Ethiopia. Planned as an old-fashioned colonial expedition, it escalated into an international crisis. Mussolini responded in his ad hoc fashion: by changing the substance of his foreign policy and thus altering the political map of Europe.
A fundamental, and ultimately fatal, contradiction in Italy’s foreign policy in the late 1930s was inherent in Mussolini’s invention of an “Axis” with Berlin. Hitler’s repeated renunciation of any aspirations in South Tyrol demanded Italy’s acceptance of the Anschluss in return. But even if Alto Adige was safe for Italy, its interests in the Danubian area and along the eastern Adriatic were not. Hitler had sacrificed the South Tyrolese to the Italian alliance; but it was uncertain whether the same applied to other Italian gains dating from the fall of 1918. The bleak possibility was that Hitler—the anti-Habsburg, anti-Marxist—was ready, eventually, to risk the Italian alliance by sponsoring a German drive on Trieste which could only be based on Habsburg tradition and economic determinism. This is exactly what happened after Italy’s collapse in September 1943.
A decade earlier Hitler wanted an alliance with Italy, but at the same time he sought the end of Italian influence in the Danubian basin. Hitler’s Danubia ultimately included the eastern shore of the Adriatic, whether he had planned it to or not. By assuming sovereignty in Austria in 1938, Hitler could not avoid inheriting its southern strategic concerns. As his Ostmark Gauleiters and commanders in the Adriatic Operations Zone proved after September 1943, the logic of the Habsburg inheritance functioned regardless of Hitler’s deliberate design.
On June 10, 1940, Mussolini sealed his destiny by declaring war on France and Britain. His address to a rapturous crowd from the balcony at Piazza Venezia was a sign of weakness, a temptation which General Franco wisely avoided when meeting Hitler five months later. In April and May, as Germany scored one success after another, Mussolini’s caution melted as quickly as the French divisions. The King and the army tried to stem the tide. Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio made the amazing admission that Italy’s intervention could only be considered “if the enemy was so prostrated to justify such audacity.” In the end German victories in France made “the enemy” utterly prostrated, and his fear that the spoils would be all Germany’s forced Mussolini’s hand.
The rest is history. The alleged strategic community of interests between Italy and Germany remained unclear. This ambiguity was to have grave consequences. In pursuit of his relatively limited objectives Mussolini was frequently erratic and inconsistent. He eventually limited his options to the point where he played a subordinate role to Hitler, whose long-term goals were dangerously open-ended, but who displayed skill and—until June 1941—considerable rationality in their pursuit.
The two dictators are often tied together, but they differed in world outlook, basic assumptions, strategic objectives, temperament, and above all in the degree of moral depravity. Mussolini’s failure to grasp the implications of his Faustian pact with Hitler cost him his life and reputation, cost his country many lives and much suffering, and cost his movement total discreditation. Il Duce was not a sulphur-reeking monster like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Tito, however. Benito Mussolini was a deeply flawed man, yet recognizably human. The fact that his one early victim of repression, Giacomo Matteotti, is known to posterity by name is telling. No such luck for tens of millions of lives lost in the Great Purge, in the Holocaust, or during the Great Leap Forward.
None of the above will be of the slightest interest to the “antifascist” thugs in our inner cities and to their elite-class abettors. Their ignorance and unteachability is proportionate to their lust for wanton destruction per se. They are not deserving of being called Marxist, as they lack a coherent world view and an intellectually disciplined method of analysis, however flawed.
German Federal Archive, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE