The Magazine

Not-So-Sunny Italy

The slow, but steady, revelations of the Fascist era.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By MICHAEL LEDEEN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

For the most part, Italians didn’t want their behavior examined too carefully, preferring to act as if they had either opposed the regime or clenched their teeth and endured it. Duggan regrets that there was no Italian purge of the sort imposed on German society, and does his best to identify leading groups—from the Catholic church to the centrist and right-wing political parties to the forces of public order—who should have had their activities exposed, if not punished. At least, he says, the real history of fascism should have been written and the real culprits held to account.

Fair enough. But Duggan downplays one of the ugliest reasons for the failure to see Fascist history plain, and it involves the other totalitarian force in 20th-century Italy, the Italian Communist party. He touches briefly on this story, which has slowly come into view over the course of the past decade. 

The Communists had at least two reasons to participate in the whitewash of Fascist activities. The first was their portrayal of fascism as a reactionary response to those advocating socialist revolution after World War I. To expose mass popular enthusiasm for Mussolini was tantamount to undermining that theory. Second, the Communist party actively recruited Fascist officials and intellectuals, and, in exchange for their support, offered a convenient rewriting of history. The former Fascists’ activities would be expunged, and they would be presented as anti-Fascist fighters. Duggan writes: “In order to avoid accusations of ‘turncoat,’ converts often rebuilt their pasts.”

The falsification of Fascist history—the “rebuilding” of personal reputations—could not have been managed successfully by the new comrades alone. It required vast complicity from scholars, journalists, broadcasters, and the political class. The Communist party was able to deliver, thanks to its domination of Italian culture. Thus, an entire generation escaped accountability, and two generations of postwar Italians were systematically misled, both about the nature of fascism (especially its great popular appeal) and about many leading personalities in public life.

The most dramatic example has to do with anti-Semitism. The campaign against the Jews of Fascist Italy was considerably nastier than most early accounts let on, and when, in 2005, a book was published (The Redeemed) about the conversion of Fascist anti-Semites to leftist respectability, the reaction was intense. Many leftists savaged the book, even though the documentation was impeccable. (The affair was well described and analyzed by Giorgio Israel, a leading Jewish mathematician who has written extensively about Italian racism, especially in the scientific community.)

The most obvious explanation for this attitude is that “those who were redeemed” were among the front ranks of those on the left who had been transported from the right—and this is the theme of Fascist Voices. But not even this explanation is fully adequate, unless it is further recognized that the process of crossing over to the left—by people who had been compromised by their adherence to racist policies—had been, in effect, a mass phenomenon.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the overthrow of Mussolini’s regime, and we are still quite far from having a full picture of Italian fascism. Christopher Duggan has made a major contribution to our understanding, but there is still a great deal of work to be done.

Michael Ledeen is the freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author, most recently, of Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles.