Mussolini wasn’t so bad. He started out as a socialist, after all, didn’t he? And as director of the party’s newspaper, Avanti!, he was firm in his opposition to Italy entering the First World War, at least until his sudden change of heart of 1914, which may or may not have been facilitated by sums of money secretly paid to him by the French to promote the cause of intervention. As director of the newly founded Popolo d’Italia, following his expulsion from the Socialist Party, Mussolini became one of the most influential pro-war voices in the country, but seeing as the eventual intervention cost Italy a mere 750 000 lives, this wasn’t so bad.
After the war, Mussolini organised a great number of disbanded veterans – to whom the state, brought to its knees by the conflict that he had so ardently advocated, could offer no prospects – into armed squads and employed them in a campaign of intimidation and violence against socialists and communists, unionists and anarchists, with the direct support or acquiescence of landowners, industrialists, the police and several sectors of the state. Socialist member of parliament Giacomo Matteotti described in 1921 to the assembly a typical incursion in his electorate: the trucks loaded with fascists rolling into town, always careful to greatly outnumber their victims; the circling of the house of the local political or union leader; his abduction and torture, including the simulated drownings that are so popular nowadays, frequently followed by the forced administration of castor oil, with the symbolic humiliation that it entailed. Matteotti couldn’t know this at the time, but what he was describing were the circumstances of his own abduction and murder, three years later, at the hand of one such squad. Or the beating that led to Giovanni Amendola’s death, and countless others. Cowardly acts, all. But were they really so bad?
After Mussolini seized power, in a mock revolution that was negotiated with and authorised by none other than the king, he sought to limit the actions of the blackshirts, opting for more subtle means of securing consensus and manipulating elections. Now that he controlled the state apparatus, he no longer needed to set fire to a trade-union branch or a newspaper office to silence the people within: he could get the police and the prefects to shut them down instead. And this he did, at first slowly, then with great alacrity after a failed attempt on his life in 1926, whereupon he dissolved all political parties, cancelled all passports, shut down all anti-fascist publications, created the secret police and introduced the practice of internment, the death penalty for all crimes against his person and a special tribunal for prosecuting his opponents. None of these measures were so bad.
It is at this time that Antonio Gramsci was arrested. At his trial, for sedition and other crimes, Mussolini’s prosecutor famously called for ‘that brain of his to be silenced for twenty years’. The judges sentenced him to twenty years and four months of imprisonment. They did everything but kill him: he died of a brain haemorrhage in 1937, aged 46, six days after being released on account of the seriousness of his health conditions.
If Mussolini wasn’t so bad at home, he was even less so bad abroad. Bothered by the ambition and restlessness of blackshirt leader Cesare Maria De Vecchi, he sent him off to Somalia to act as the new governor, where De Vecchi initiated a campaign of terror and enslavement of the local indigenous population, made all the more brutal by the fact that if a slave died on the job, the Italian landowner would suffer no financial loss whatsoever, but could apply for a replacement to be supplied free of charge by the colonial authority.
And then there was the young colonel Rodolfo Graziani, who Mussolini put in charge of consolidating and expanding the Italian presence in Libya, for which end he resorted to mass deportations, the indiscriminate bombing of mujahideen fighters and their families as they fled towards the Algerian border, and the concentration camps in which as much as one fifth of the entire population of Cyrenaica perished. These not-so-bad methods convinced Mussolini that Graziani was the right man to lead the fight against Ethiopia, a country that he was determined to conquer in order to turn Italy into a proper imperial power. And conquer it the Italian army did, after a campaign of unprecedented ferocity that involved the at first sporadic, then systematic use of mustard gas – a breach of the Geneva convention expressly authorised by Mussolini – and in which buildings and camps bearing the symbol of the red cross weren’t spared. At one point in the invasion, frustrated by the stubborn resistance of the invaded, Mussolini even instructed his commanders to employ bacteriological weapons. However General Badoglio successfully dissuaded him on the grounds that the backlash in the region and among the international community from such an unprecedented move would likely negate any advantage on the ground.
Italians weren’t so bad either, and after the fall of Ethiopia they tributed il Duce his greatest accolades. If news of the methods employed on the battlefield filtered back home – as they certainly must have, since they had a multitude of witnesses – this doesn’t appear to have perturbed many. In fact, Italians aren’t so bad to this day, as evidenced by the fact that the butcher of Ethiopia and Fezzan, Rodolfo Graziani, was honoured no later than last year with a mausoleum and memorial park in his native Affile, built at the taxpayers’ expense.
In this, the cover of a primary school report that was issued to all schools in the kingdom, we see a comparison between the territory controlled by Italy in the first year of the Fascist Era (1922) and the eighteenth (1939). The red M for Mussolini elegantly links the now more extensively controlled Libya to the newly conquered Ethiopia.
The evidence of Mussolini not being so bad comes thicker and faster as the end of the regime draws nearer. The massive and bloody contribution to the civil war in Spain that is likely to have tipped the conflict in Franco’s favour; a host of ruinous economic policies at home; the late entry in the Second World War alongside Hitler so that Mussolini could find, as he put it to his chiefs of staff, ‘the few thousand dead I need to sit at the negotiating table’; ethnic cleansing in Slovenia; the decision to attack Greece on the grounds that they seemed so weak – ‘We’ll break their backs!,’ he thundered – turned disastrous as the army was sent totally unprepared into the mountainous north during the winter; the even more catastrophic adventure in the Soviet Union. In the space of two years, a nation that was meant to pluck an easy victory on the Germans’ coattails crumbled ahead of its more powerful ally and would soon be ravaged by civil war and occupation, with Mussolini, himself the figurehead of a puppet state, presiding over the deportation of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and workers so that the Germans could use us at least as slaves, since we had proved so useless as friends.
And then, of course, there were the Jews. This is the single, partial concession that Berlusconi makes. That the racial laws of 1938 were Mussolini’s mistake, tempered by the fact that he never really subscribed to Hitler’s supremacism. But our role in the Holocaust wasn’t at first ‘wholly conscious’, and Mussolini entered the war almost to moderate the excesses of the Germans, who were, as everyone knows, Worse Than Us. We, all of us, not just Berlusconi, have always clung to those three words. Our collective and historical memory of those years is founded on acts of guilt displacement.
I recall this episode, which I thought I read in Primo Levi but this week was only been able to find in a testimony by Liliana Segre. She tells of the day when the Jews were led out of the penitentiary of San Vittore, in Milan, where the common prisoners saw them. ‘They cried “God bless you, you’ve done nothing wrong.” They saw us from their cells and they tossed us oranges, biscuits, gloves, anything.’ By contrast – although I read this elsewhere – in the streets of the city on their way to the train station they were met by closed windows, drawn curtains, and a deathly silence. That is who we were. The contrast to what happened inside the prison tells us that that silence outside of the prison must not be mistaken for meek, fearful acquiescence: it was active collaboration. And besides, history proves that we were capable of appalling, unbridled ferocity given the chance.
Of this the nation has almost no memory. Our curtains are still drawn. But this isn’t passive ignorance either: it had to and still has to be carefully cultivated. Berlusconi’s remarks must be understood within this context: not as a ‘gaffe’, as some in the international press have suggested, but as a calculated statement designed to attract consensus by making a precise, familiar and comforting historical claim: that Mussolini wasn’t so bad, and therefore that we weren’t, and aren’t, so bad ourselves.
Some of the atrocities listed in this post are compiled by historian of colonialism Angelo Del Boca in his excellent Italiani, brava gente? For the book and our many conversations on this subject, I thank Giacomo Lichtner.