In an interview with the British Spectator last summer, Steve Bannon said was "fascinated by Mussolini," whom he clearly admires for some of his accomplishments. But is this more than an isolated view? Two exhaustive Mussolini biographies – one, Mussolini, A New Life by Nicholas Farrell in English (which is more than ten years old but still cited by Bannon), and another, Dux: Benito Mussolini oder der Wille zur Macht, by Werner Bräuninger in German – provide ample food for thought. Neither Farrell nor Bräuninger has added to our screeds against "fascism," and both explore why Mussolini had such magnetic appeal in the interwar period. The Italian quasi-dictator (who had to deal with both a monarchy and extensive clerical influence) managed to rule Italy for over twenty years. Also, until he allowed himself to get dragged into Hitler's war in 1940, Mussolini's regime seemed to most observers to be remarkably stable. Italy weathered the Great Depression at least as well as most other Western countries, and its leader enjoyed widespread respect in international circles, including the expressed admiration of Winston Churchill and the respect of members of FDR's brain trust.
Although in November 1938 Mussolini imitated his German ally by introducing disabilities against Italian Jews and expelling Jewish members from the Partito Nazionale Fascista, before that Jews had been welcome in both the Italian fascist government and Italian public life. (Mussolini's longtime mistress, press agent, and biographer, Margherita Sarfatti, was Jewish.) Between 1934 and his move into the Nazi German orbit in 1936, Mussolini had been a loud critic of Nazi Germany and provided haven for Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. His volte face in 1936, in the wake of his disastrous decision to invade and annex Ethiopia, a move that left Italy diplomatically isolated, undoubtedly prompted Mussolini's unexpected rapprochement with Hitler's Germany.
The fascist government claimed to be free of both parliamentary rancor and class warfare. Mussolini's regime likewise boasted of being independent of the "plutocratic nations" (meaning England and the U.S.) while keeping its distance equally from antinationalist Bolshevism. Fascists were carrying out a "national revolution" that would be built on specifically Italian and Roman traditions. It would operate through an authoritarian state and be subject to the will of its new Roman commander and his council of advisers. At least in its outward form, the fascist economy would be structured on a corporate model in which all working and managing groups would be assigned organizational rules. A fascist Grand Council authorized great national projects, like the construction of public buildings with a distinctive imperial style and the draining of the Pontine Marshes near Rome, which had long been a source of infection. Attempts were made in the early and mid-1930s to export the Latin fascist model, and among its takers, at least for a while, were the Blue Shirt nationalists in Ireland, Oswald Mosley's Black Shirts in England, Revisionist Zionists in Poland, and Marcus Garvey's Back-to-Africa movement in the U.S.
In their massive biographies (Farrell's contains 821 pages and Bräuninger's 460), our two authors depict the cultural atmosphere of an age that was very different from the present. Both explain why Mussolini was taken seriously as an interwar leader, why the movement he founded resonated across Europe, and why fascist aesthetics left their imprint on numerous writers and artists and on architectural style (of a kind found in Union Station in Washington). Despite the fact that Mussolini was an anti-German interventionist and combatant on the Allied side in World War I, Hitler readily borrowed for his Teutonic movement Latin fascist trappings and rhetoric.
Bräuninger notes that the German dictator always treated Il Duce with reverence. This continued to be the case, even when the Italians proved themselves a liability as war allies. The reason was that Hitler never forgot the exemplary role played by Italian fascism for his and other nationalist authoritarian movements. Here one must qualify, as Farrell does, by pointing out that Italian fascism never reached the level of brutality and totalitarian control characteristic of German Nazism. Even when Italian fascists assisted occupying German forces in rounding up Jews and other presumed enemies of the regime in 1944, collaboration, as Farrell properly observes, was less than what had occurred under the Vichy regime in France. Old-time fascists, like the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, loudly protested such actions, and the round-up evoked strong reactions from Italian inhabitants.
Italian fascism and its Alpha Male leader had admirers well beyond Nazi circles and revolutionary nationalists. Mussolini was a matinee idol, who carried on torrid affairs with women across Europe, including Italian, French, and English nobility. Italian literary luminaries Filippo Marinetti, Gabriel D'Annunzio, Luigi Barzini, Curzio Malaparte, and Luigi Pirandello; inventor Guglielmo Marconi; and (at least in the 1920s) musical conductor Arturo Toscanini and distinguished composer Ottorino Respighi all lavished praise on Italy's fascist experiment. Respighi composed music to celebrate Mussolini's rule, and American songwriter Cole Porter described the Italian leader as "the tops." In March 1925 at a cultural congress in Bologna, a "manifesto of fascist intellectuals" was issued, which included the names of a multitude of Italian artists, composers, architects, and authors. For about a decade or more, Mussolini managed to be for his age what Fidel, Obama, and Che Guevara have become in more recent times: a combination of sex symbol, artistic inspiration, and political model.
Il Duce has now fallen into disrepute, and this might have happened even if Hitler had never seduced him into a destructive alliance. Despite his socialist upbringing and rants against the bourgeoisie, Mussolini was too much of a man of the right to appeal to an age of internationalist elites and egalitarian, feminist ideology. He glorified virility and warlike attributes, and he built his national revolution on a hierarchy of command culminating in his highly personal and sometimes idiosyncratic rule. His two biographers have engaged in heavy-duty research and writing in order to make their subject credible to contemporary readers. But can Mussolini be raised from a stereotyped villain to someone who is at least worth understanding? On this, the jury may still be out.
Editor's note: This article was originally published at American Thinker and has been rerun with permission.
Paul E. Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe. He serves as head of the editorial board of The San Francisco Review of Books.