Perhaps the most terrible thing about fascism was its enormous popularity. The German and Italian people—the same who had given the Western world many of its most notable cultural achievements—not only endured fascist tyranny; most of them were active and enthusiastic participants.
After World War II, Germany was an occupied country, and the archives of the Third Reich were in Allied hands. Nazi leaders were prosecuted, incarcerated, and executed, and the archives of Hitler’s state were largely available for scholars to analyze. Not so in Italy, where Mussolini had been overthrown by Italians; the Italian Army had ultimately fought alongside the Allies against Hitler’s forces, and the documents of the regime were contained in the national archives, which were highly restricted for many years. Accordingly, German enthusiasm for Hitler was a lot easier to prove than was Italian enthusiasm for Mussolini.
To be sure, there was plenty of circumstantial evidence—for one, those big crowds under il Duce’s balcony in Rome—and for most of the 20 years of the Italian Fascist era, there was precious little reason to believe there existed any substantial opposition to the regime. By the 1970s, the first serious biographer of Mussolini—my late friend Renzo De Felice—could talk about a national consensus in support of fascism starting in the late 1920s. But it is only in recent years that a full picture has begun to emerge of Italian society under Fascist rule, and Christopher Duggan’s work is enormously helpful. He has read thousands of letters to Mussolini, mostly written by average Italians, and he has studied scores of diaries as well. While Duggan is admirably honest about the motives for the letters, and unusually modest about the significance of his research, his work is compelling and convincing.
Without doubt, the “intimate history” shows widespread enthusiasm for fascism and for its leader, in good times and bad. Duggan eliminates many myths, and while there is plenty of work still to be done, this book is indispensable for anyone interested in the popular history of the period. Indeed, it’s more than that: Fascist Voices is not just a thoughtful guide to 20 years of Italian history; it’s a serious investigation into the dynamics of totalitarian regimes. Consider, for example, the relationship between the manifest failure of a totalitarian regime and popular opposition to it. In the Italian case, the conventional wisdom is that the people began to turn against fascism when things got tough in the second half of the 1930s, and that they did so even more when Mussolini joined the Axis. But, as Duggan tells us:
[A]s far as the cult of the Duce is concerned, there was no simple link between disappointment and the withdrawal of support or trust. Indeed, the more people suffered the more they often seem to have looked towards Mussolini for hope. It was probably only in the course of the second half of 1942 . . . that the talismanic appeal of Mussolini began seriously to wane, at least on the home front.
Charismatic leaders are not immediately blamed for the failures of their regimes: “If Stalin only knew” was a commonplace during the worst years of the Soviet era. The ruling party is blamed—whether Communist or Fascist—as are underlings, but the supreme leader is long given a pass. Fascist Voices is therefore not just an intimate history, but also a history of intimacy. Over and over, Duggan finds ordinary Italians extending a warm embrace to a Mussolini they envisage as “one of them.” He was, after all, the son of a blacksmith and a schoolteacher, and, although his bravery in the war was widely praised as a model of what the “new Fascist man” was supposed to be, he was widely held to be first among equals, not something unique.
He was decidedly not a Superman, except in the fantasies (and, not infrequently, the beds) of women who yearned to experience his near-legendary sexual capacities. This, too, is a common element in the charisma of the 20th-century tyrant: He is a sex symbol as well as a political power, and feelings of intimacy toward him are an important facet of daily life.
The dictator is also omnipresent, both in public spaces and in citizens’ homes. The Italian secret police actively snooped on the intimate details of the lives of actual (and potential) opponents and Fascist party members alike. They were not as intrusive as the East German Stasi (brilliantly portrayed in the 2006 film The Lives of Others), but they worked avidly, with similar results. Conversations were taped, meetings observed, relations between parents and children described in detail in formal reports. And still the myth of Mussolini endured until it was obvious that Italy was going to lose the war.
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.