Friday, November 30, 2007

R. J. B. Bosworth - Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship 1915-1945 (2005)

'Fascism' is a term which has taken on a life of its own in polemical discourse (if I see the term 'Islamofascism' one more time...) - but, when we think of Fascism (I'd argue) we're thinking of Nazism, rather than fascism in its original and earliest incarnation in Italy. Bosworth's weighty tome (nearly 600 pages) sets out to map the history of Fascist Italy not in terms of 'isms', 'great men', and what is relevant to the more major powers (although all of these are considered), but in terms of the progress of life under fascism, both that of 'ordinary people' and of the fascists themselves (however defined), the way in which an extreme and theoretically all-encompassing ideology wove itself into the lives of Italians, the ways in which people championed, used, were subjected to the control of, and resisted fascism as a force in their lives.

Bosworth (also author of a lauded bio of Mussolini) leans much more toward social than cultural history, and this means that at times the book is hard going (unusually for me, it took me quite a while and a false start to finish it). From external appearances, I had the impression that this work would be much more a cultural history of the lives of 'ordinary Italians' in this period, whereas, in fact, I'd call it a social history of the Italian nation during the Fascist years. The constant flow of factual information can be overwhelming; but once one gets into the 'rhythm' of the work, it has numerous fascinating insights and is not only entirely worthwhile, but a pleasure to read.

Bosworth is very much concerned with dismantling two major stereotypes: that of Italians as 'brava gente' ('good people') who were incapable of Nazi-style brutality, and that of fascism as a movement helmed by madmen holding sway over a propaganda-hypnotised people. In demolishing these, however, Bosworth confirms a number of other common ideas about Italy: that Italian nationalism is not deeply rooted, so that, for the majority, ties to family, to region, to paese, and the ties of the clientelist/recommendation system by which most Italian business is done, outweigh those to nation and to abstract ideals when it comes to action (notwithstanding the small group of highly ideological fascists, very few of whom became leaders); and that cynical and self-serving maintenance of position, influence and comfort, of 'sistemizzazione' (roughly, working out a comfortable place for oneself) were, most of the time, accorded precedence before ideological self-sacrifice.

For the most part, Bosworth does an excellent job of presenting the ambiguities of a time of deep crisis and hideous human misery in Europe in all their complexity. He also has some excellent insights which I haven't seen before spelt out so clearly: for example, the way in which fascism (particularly the Italian version) is not an ideology (the fascists were politicians employing anti-political rhetoric par excellence) but a need for continuous action and continuous revolution. However, I was troubled by his generalities which seemed to suggest (despite his rejection of this concept in many particular episodes he examines) that fascism was 'imposed' on the Italian people and that their inherent response was to resist this artificial, top-down imposition.

Despite this criticism, however, and despite the tweakings and differences in emphasis that I would've liked to see, I would definitely recommend this work. The individual episodes depicted at every level of the social spectrum are absorbing, ranging from the hilarious to the tragic and cruel; while the material Bosworth covers includes a lot of information, particularly on the Second World War and on Italian colonialism in Africa, which has been considered unimportant and passed over in general histories of WWII and of interwar and colonialist Europe. The material about the connections and contradictions between fascism and institutional Catholicism, and fascism and Nazism, are also fascinating in the way in which they tease out the labyrinthine strands of support and resistance, coercion and co-option, striking at preconceptions while not shying away from conclusions about what is particular in a culture. Also much appreciated is the final chapter, which traces the afterlife of fascism and the vexed Italian relationship to a fascist past - especially attempts to rehabilitate fascism through comparison with Nazism, and the rhetoric of Silvio Berlusconi (the populist and right-wing Prime Minister at the time of the book's writing, at whom Bosworth takes a number of swings, while denying the 'neofascist' label with which some have tagged him). Ultimately, this work is both a fascinating historical narrative, and a much-needed corrective to stereotypes and ellipses in the distorted received knowledge of European twentieth-century history.

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