Friday, June 08, 2012

My opinion is that universities don't stifle enough writers. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

Achtung! Ampelmännchen sagt halt! The point just after Davey Street turns into Sandy Bay Road. June 2012.

Just the one book finished this week, and a trip back in time with Mussolini And The Rise Of Fascism by the academic/ historian Donald Sassoon. Sassoon is the author of what is to my mind the definitive work (and weighty tome coming in well over 1,000 pages long) on continental European socialism, One Hundred Years of Socialism, so I was looking forward to his analysis of the development of fascism in Italy.

You might already be familiar with the tale: in 1919 the former socialist newspaper editor-cum small time political player Benito Mussolini had assembled a ragtag group of followers in Milan and launched the movement that was to result three years later in a dictatorship. This itself would last 23 years, and draw Italy into an escalating number of foreign interventions, ending ultimately with a disastrous war that was to leave large parts of her in ruins.

Oddly enough, it seems almost fashionable these days to claim Mussolini as a fundamentally decent bloke led astray by a poorly-thought-out and opportunist alliance with Hitler. Now, let's be frank, anyone looks halfway decent next to Hitler. In this book though - which concentrates itself on the immediate pre-WWI years ton the ascension of the fascists in 1924 - Sassoon leaves us in no doubt that Italian fascism was as false as it was abominable.

The key focus of the book is the detail of how and why Mussolini obtained office in the first place. This is an incredibly interesting tale. Like most of Europe, Italy after the First World War was convulsed by political violence. Despite being on the 'winning' side, discontent ran high as returned soldiers roamed the streets in search of work, and industrial grievances grew. The spoils of victory were few and far between, and certainly not equally shared. It is easy to forget that Italy had 1.2 million dead, over 300,000 more than the British, despite it being in the war for a shorter period and almost completely avoiding the more well-know horrors of the Western Front. The collapse of the Russian Empire and subsequent revolution, followed by the escalation of political violence across Europe allowed Mussolini (among others) to exploit fears of communism to justify a violent reaction.

This is a really well put together explanation of how Mussolini came to power. Someowhat ironically, the regime subverted the usual narrative in mythologising its 'revolutionary seizure' of power and the 'march on Rome'. Rather, Mussolini's rise to the Premiership was - if a little odd - wholly constitutional. Indeed, he arrived in Rome by sleeper train and was driven to the palace to be sworn in by the king, who asked the leader of the rising parliamentary party to head a coalition government (primarily to avoid granting power to the left). Nothing revolutionary about it at all, and power that derived from the explicit choices of the wealthy Italian elite. Usually dictators are keen to play up the legality of their arrival, the Italian fascists were about pretending that theirs was one of brutal seizure, rather than political gamesmanship.

The book is especially good at exploring the paralysis that overtook the liberal order that had run Italy since its unification. At its heart, this is a story that demonstrates just how easily liberal politicians and big business believed they could co-opt Mussolini and his motley band of radicals, and how well he outplayed them. Far from seizing power, ultimately Mussolini was given it. Unfortunately the price for Italy was profound.

I suspect that there is another book's worth of material on the splintering of the Italian left, and how their position so radically altered from the heady opportunities of 1919 (where they were the dominant political force). Hopefully Sassoon may write it! If you are at all interested, you could do far worse than pick this one up.

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