A century after his March on Rome brought the first Fascist government to power in 1922, Benito Mussolini lives on as a pillar of Western punditry. What would we do without him? On the one hand, the anti-elite ideas in his early political program resemble those of the disgruntled voters in any democracy. On the other hand, he inspired, and allied himself with, Hitler’s Germany. Whoever you are, whatever you stand for, you can use Mussolini as an Archimedean fulcrum for comparing anyone who disagrees with you to Hitler.
But according to the historian of modern Italy R.J.B. Bosworth, a good deal of what we think we know about Mussolini’s ideological legacy is wrong. Mussolini and the Eclipse of Italian Fascism is a set of reflections on the 1930s, when Mussolini collapsed and Hitler rose. Bosworth focuses especially on two episodes: Mussolini’s lurch into imperialist adventures in Libya, Ethiopia, and Spain, and his embrace of race-based policies (particularly anti-Semitic ones) that he had never shown much evidence of caring about.
In 1932, halfway through his two decades in power, Mussolini would not deign to meet with Hitler, though he did send him an autographed picture. By the end of the 1930s, Mussolini had become Hitler’s supplicant and sidekick, with a country too strapped to import coffee and an army unprepared for the international conflict into which it would soon be dragged.
Bosworth’s book assumes a familiarity with the European political landscape in the wake of World War I. Italy was on the winning side, but didn’t feel that way. It had joined Britain and France in mid-war on the promise Italy would acquire territory from German-allied Austria. But after losing half a million dead, Italy had been denied that territory at Versailles on the say-so of its putative ally Woodrow Wilson. This national outrage—the so-called vittoria mutilata—arose just as millions of young men who had been dealing out death in trenches for several years came pouring back into Italian political life.
The Socialists were the best-organized of the new political movements. They shut down factories, took bosses hostage, and urged