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Bench Warrantless

The left likes to compare George W. Bush to Hitler and Mussolini, but is there a lesson to be learned from Il Duce's rise?

12:00 AM, Jun 28, 2004 • By JOEL ENGEL
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LAST WEEK a federal appeals court judge compared the inauguration of George W. Bush to the ascensions of both Hitler and Mussolini, his point being that all three took power legally but were / are illegitimate office holders. "That is what the Supreme Court did in Bush v. Gore; it put somebody in power," Judge Guido Calabresi told an audience at the American Constitution Society in Washington. "The reason I emphasize that is because that is exactly what happened when Mussolini was put in by the king of Italy. That is what happened when Hindenburg put Hitler in."

Soon after his remarks came to light, Calabresi apologized in writing for how his "rather complicated legal argument" had been misinterpreted as political partisanship. Poppycock. His remarks can't be interpreted any other way. The judge (a former dean of Yale Law School appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton) was obviously sounding a clarion a call to the ballot boxes this September, hoping to replace the current president.

But let's not quibble. Instead, let's take his original comments at face value and indeed recall just how and why Mussolini took power a full ten years before Hitler. The lessons to be derived aren't exactly what Judge Calabresi intended.

BENITO MUSSOLINI was born in 1883 in a small northern Italian town. His father was a blacksmith, his mother a schoolteacher, both of them Catholic Church-hating socialists, which explains why they named their first son after a hero of the Mexican revolution, Benito Juarez, and their second after a medieval heretic, Arnold of Brescia.

Trained as a schoolteacher, Mussolini moved to Switzerland to find work. But instead of teaching, he studied Marx, met up with socialist revolutionary groups, and honed his writing and speaking skills. Two years later he returned home a changed man--a hothead devoted only to abandoning Italy's liberal constitution and redistributing its wealth. Too many had too little to eat, he said, blaming King Victor Emmanuel III.

Mussolini stood on street corners and shouted that Italy's war with Turkey and its 1911 invasion of Libya were an imperial grab meant to distract the people from their hunger. He organized and led protests, some of them violent, and was jailed. That made him a martyr and, when he was released, a hero of the left. As a reward, Avanti, the newspaper of Italy's socialist party, named him editor. This was where he earned a national reputation, for his nasty editorials against the government. He was a socialist, not an anarchist, but he also showed contempt for democracy, believing that most people were too stupid to know what was in their own best interests and that they were anyway too ignorant to choose their own best leaders.

WORLD WAR 1 began in 1914 with Italy declaring neutrality. That was the position Italian socialists liked best; they claimed that the fighting only enriched the established manufacturing class at the expense of the workers and the soldiers--who were usually, of course, from the same class. But then England, France, and Russia began enticing Italy to their side by promising a piece of Austria-Hungary as spoils.

Now Mussolini was suddenly not so much a socialist as a nationalist--a man who, like Garibaldi before him, envisioned a greater unified Italy. To rationalize his about-face, he claimed the fighting would create a power vacuum into which socialist revolutionary change always flowed. But the publishers of Avanti were having none of that, and fired him. So with money from French businessmen who wanted Italy to fight on their side, he founded his own newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia (The People of Italy)--which led the Italian socialist party to excommunicate him. What finally made the matter moot was Italy's joining the war, essentially as a mercenary force. Mussolini, now 32, was drafted.

A year and a half later, Corporal Benito Mussolini was badly wounded when a weapon he planned to fire exploded prematurely. The months he spent in a hospital bed gave him plenty of time to imagine his ideal Italy, and in his imagination it looked nothing like a socialist Italy. Not even the success of Lenin in Russia later that year changed his mind. No, Mussolini was now entirely a nationalist.

So, like millions of Italians, Mussolini shouted angrily when the war ended and the Allies reneged on their promise by ceding much less land as spoils than Italy had expected. The betrayal sparked the kind of unrest he'd once predicted would be created by the war. It was in this atmosphere that the writer and soldier Gabriele D'Annunzio, who'd done much to convince Italy to enter the war in the first place, led a band of black-shirted militant nationals against Fiume in the north, setting up his own quixotic government that lasted for several months.