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The Life and Death of Benito Mussolini

11:00 PM, Feb 28, 1999 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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When it comes to dazzling political spectacle, no regime in history can touch the Fascist powers. Inducing mass rapture by convincing one's countrymen to abandon themselves to the leader's will -- goose-stepping legs and saluting arms by the tens of thousands jerking upward like those of marionettes -- is an art that Hitler and Mussolini commanded. "One must always know how to strike the imagination of the public: That is the real secret of how to govern," Mussolini declared, authoritatively.

That the public should have a single imagination -- that everyone learn to think the same thought, feel the same feeling -- was required for the sort of governance Mussolini had in mind. Il Duce on his balcony would shout out a question, and the assembled multitude below would respond in ecstatic unison. There was no room for improvisation, by Mussolini or the crowd. The only questions he could ask were those he knew the crowd would answer as expected. He called the balcony his stage, and like any other actor he had to charm his audience. Although he was given to claiming that he would reshape the Italian character in his own heroic image, he proved in the end far more image than hero.

A new life of Mussolini, the eighteenth book by the English biographer and historian Jasper Ridley, makes one reflect on what happens to a showman when reality intrudes on his show.

Born in 1883, Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was named by his father, a blacksmith and devout Socialist, for three heroes of the left (beginning with the Mexican president Benito Juarez). Young Mussolini was a handful. He was a bookish type, even something of an embryonic intellectual, but already as a boy he showed himself an adept young thug by knifing two classmates who had made the mistake of crossing him. Later he taught school, tramped his way around Switzerland, and contributed articles and poems to Socialist newspapers. Marxism was his intellectual daily fare, but the "spiritual eroticism" of Nietzsche ravished him. He told acquaintances that he had written a history of philosophy and another of Christianity, but no one ever saw them.

Despite these highbrow pretensions, his real talent lay in what is now called popular culture. His novel Claudia Particella: The Cardinal's Mistress (which combined bodice-ripping with anticlericalism) was serialized in a Socialist weekly paper. But newspaper writing proved even more his line than novels. After a spell in jail for threatening to bludgeon a factory manager during a strike, he was rewarded in 1909 with the editorship of the socialist Worker's Future in Trentino, a largely Italian-speaking province of Austria. During the seven months he spent there, the authorities regularly hauled him into court, mostly for an excess of journalistic vehemence.

Back in Italy, he began editing the Class Struggle, a four-page weekly in Forli with a circulation of one thousand, which he promptly doubled by assailing Italian nationalism every chance he got: "The national flag is for us a rag to be planted on a dunghill." In 1911, speaking out against Italy's imperialist war on Libya, he urged workers to blow up the local railway line and bring troop transport to a halt. Imprisoned for inciting violence, he spent his five-month sentence writing his autobiography. A few days after Mussolini's release, an anarchist tried to assassinate the king; when three distinguished Socialists of a moderate stripe joined in the formal congratulation of the King on his escape, Mussolini accused them of class collaboration and betraying the revolution, and he spearheaded a movement that expelled them from the party.

Word got around about the young firebrand. Writing from Vienna in the newly founded Pravda, Lenin praised Mussolini for his uncompromising revolutionary stand. A few months later, Mussolini was appointed editor of the national Socialist party daily, Avanti!, and he proved he had the touch: Circulation rose from 34,000 to 60,000 during his first eighteen months. With a style that he called "electric" and "explosive," he made a reputation as the leading popular journalist in Italy. His star was ascendant, and it was red.