Seeing through Mussolini’s lies

Paul Corner’s academic take-down of Mussolini’s illusions and myth-making is a vital contribution to our understanding of modern Italian culture.

Opera Nazionale Balilla, an Italian Fascist youth organisation.
Opera Nazionale Balilla, an Italian Fascist youth organisation. Credit: MARKA / Alamy Stock Photo.

Mussolini in Myth and Memory: The First Totalitarian Dictator, by Paul Corner, Oxford University Press, 2022, 192 pp

With the centenary of Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome this month and the hard-right Brothers of Italy party having just won a landslide in the Italian General Election last month, now is a very pertinent time to answer questions which many of us have been asking for decades: why is it that Mussolini and Fascism remain so popular in Italy and what mechanisms are at work to allow the Duce to evade the scorn afforded to all other totalitarian dictators?

Paul Corner’s timely book distinguishes between history and memory, the former a rigorous discipline involving facts and archives, the second preferring ‘myth to the historical record’. ‘Memory has no rules’, he writes, ‘it is a free agent’. The result is what the Russian sociologist, Lev Gudkov, calls a ‘phantom utopia’ of the past, compared favourably to a worrying present. Or, as the Israeli historian Alon Confino puts it: ‘we remember the past not in order to get it right, but in order to get it wrong.’

That false memory is the result, Corner suggests, of Italians’ ‘persistent recourse to victimhood’. In the post-war period, anti-Fascism was so celebrated and eulogised that it appeared there had never been any supporters of Mussolini at all: ‘with Italians portraying themselves as victims of Fascism, this obfuscation of reality was only to be expected; the reasoning was that any responsibility lay with them — the fascists — and not with us — the victims. Thus, in the same way as there was an anti-Fascism without a Fascism, we now had a Fascism without Italians.’

Italians’ tendency towards ‘self-absolution’ (a phrase repeated in the book) re-emerges when the revisionist historian, Renzo De Felice, began publishing his four-volume biography of Mussolini between 1965 and 1997. His huge work was more nuanced than a quick summary can provide, but he certainly presented the idea that, in contrast to the ‘we were all anti-Fascist’ narrative, Mussolini actually enjoyed consensus and widespread support for much of his time in power. De Felice was controversial because he brought evidence that Fascism wasn’t widely scorned but actually, often, widely admired.

And yet, in what Corner calls a ‘strange psychological process’, Italians continued to be convinced of their innocence with regard to Fascism. This new hypothesis of consensus didn’t lead to a national soul-searching, but to the removal of the negative sign usually placed against Fascism. ‘This was done’, Corner writes, ‘by recourse to a persistent stereotype relating to the self-image of Italians – that of “Italiani brava gente” (Italians are good people). According to this stereotype, Italians — by definition intrinsically “good people” — would have been constitutionally incapable of consenting to an evil regime. Mass consensus for Fascism was read, therefore, as a justification of Fascism; after all, the reasoning went, if Italians are “good people”, and if there was a mass consensus for the regime, then, logically, Fascism could not have been so bad. It was a question of identity.’ It’s a crisp summary which will convince anyone who has lived in Italy and heard, incessantly, how Mussolini ‘did good things’.

What happened, therefore, has been called the ‘defascistisation of Fascism’. This ‘self-serving absolution’ created the myth of an innocuous Fascism, in which the same tropes get repeated ad nauseam: Mussolini did ‘many good things’ (as the former President of the European Parliament, and Forza Italia politician Antonio Tajani, said in 2019), he only ever made ‘one mistake’ (his alliance with Hitler) or that his Race Laws (1938) were an aberration, rather than representative, of the cause. Once this genie was out of the bottle, it became very adept at granting wishes. Even the comparison with Hitler could no longer harm Mussolini’s totalitarianism: ‘the lesser evil becomes no evil at all.’

Having described how myth and memory falsify the historical record, Corner then corrects some of the most common tropes. He reasserts the centrality of violence to the Fascist cause, calling it ‘ritual murder, designed not simply to intimidate enemies and discourage any further opposition but also — perhaps more importantly — to impress onlookers and give the air an act of legitimate justice to what was nothing more than an ordinary assassination. It was an expression of one of the defining characteristics of Fascism — the sacralization of violence as a means of resolving disputes…’

Bloodshed wasn’t only present at the regime’s end but also its genesis: the earliest Fascists were financed by large landowners and employed as strike-breakers. Rather than representing a revolutionary ‘one-nation’ solution to landlord-worker disputes, and ushering an golden era of wellbeing, Fascists were always reactionaries, doing the dirty work of the industrialists and agrarian latifundistas. Thanks to the Fascist conquest of power at the local level, between July 1921 and October 1922 real wages in industry fell by 21%.

That trend continued throughout the regime’s ventennio: in 1927, wages were twice cut across the board by decree. Further reductions were made in 1930 and 1934. By 1938, ‘industrial workers were earning, in real terms, 20% less than they had earned at the beginning of 1923 and they were working longer hours.’ One police informer wrote of ‘the blackest misery’. Figures printed by the Fascist union of Rovigo revealed that, in 1931, labourers were earning only 60% of what they had been paid in 1921. Pellagra, a disease associated with malnutrition, increased by a factor of ten between 1932 and 1939.

Another claim often made in order to rehabilitate Fascism is that, compared to the self-serving politicians of Italy’s First and Second Republics, there was less corruption under Mussolini. Here, again, Corner ably slays the trope. ‘In a regime that rested heavily on a whole network of personal contacts,’ he writes, ‘corruption represented a kind of glue, keeping the network together…’ But the corruption he traces isn’t only profiteering, but also a form of coercion: ‘the regime always had the knife by the handle… it was, above all, this discretionary nature of decision-making that rendered people so vulnerable to what was, in effect, blackmail…’ Revisiting that explosive concept of consensus, he analyses ‘consensus within coercion’, the ‘enforced complicity’ in which coercion and consensus are no longer opposites but rather ‘two sides of the same repressive coin.’

While Corner is intransigent in his condemnation, he also perceives the subtleties, paradoxes and contradictions of Mussolini’s regime. ‘The process supposed to incorporate the private within the “total” public sphere, thus eliminating the private, in fact favoured the privatization of many of the functions of the public realm.’ This was one of the results of ‘rife’ corruption, whereby personal interests trumped public ones.

But it’s perhaps on the vital question of the Race Laws, antisemitism and Italian complicity in the Holocaust that the book becomes most convincingly coruscating. Invariably dismissed nowadays by regime airbrushers as a late-regime blip, the Race Laws were actually the logical consequence of the Fascist philosophy: honed amidst anti-Slav racism in Trieste and Fiume/Rijeka, that philosophy led to the killing of perhaps as many as 50,000 people in the 1920s ‘pacification’ of Cyrenaica (Libya), widespread squadrismo in Somalia and to the invasion of Abyssinia (‘a culmination’ of Fascist thinking) where 25,000-30,000 Ethiopians were murdered after an attempt on the life of General Rodolfo Graziani. ‘Far from being in some way an unfortunate side-effect of Mussolini’s relationship with Hitler,’ he writes, ‘the racial laws belong very firmly to the thought and practice of the regime itself.’ They were ‘functional to the regime in the sense that identifying a new “internal enemy”… was part of the process of further consolidating the regime around themes that denounced any kind of diversity.’

Corner writes with clarity and concision, and this slim volume is a vital corrective to the quicksand of Fascist revisionism, where nothing is solid and all debate is sucked downwards into ‘whataboutery’. Mussolini was, more than anything else, an illusionist (‘illusion is, perhaps, the only reality in life’, he once wrote) and this great academic take-down allows the reader to see and understand the tricks that he is still, posthumously, playing on the Italian people.


Tobias Jones