Review of “Mussolini in Myth and Memory. The First Totalitarian Dictator” by Paul Corner, Oxford University Press 2022
The interest in Italian Fascism — both popular and academic — has always been high, but skyrocketed last year. This was not only due to the centenary of the March on Rome (Marcia su Roma) and the Fascists’ seizure of power, which were marked by notorious commemorations in Benito Mussolini’s birthplace, Predappio, but also because the Brothers of Italy led by Giorgia Meloni won the most recent Italian elections, a party labelled by many journalists as neo-fascist. Books and articles dealing with the aspects of Fascism, popping up in contemporary Italian politics and deconstructing Italians’ nostalgia for the “good old Fascist times”, became a cottage industry – and there is certainly more to come. Many of these books raise a persistent question in Italian scholarship: what does the collective memory of Fascism look like in different areas of contemporary life? The “indulgent memory of Fascism” is a topic analysed by as diverse authors as Cristina Baldassini, Luisa Passerini, John Foot, or more recently and in a literary way: Antonio Scurati.
One of last year’s publications in this vein focussed on the most common stereotypes that Italians associate with Fascist times. Paul Corner conceived his “Mussolini in Myth and Memory. The First Totalitarian Dictator” as an immediate political intervention in the debates marking the centenary of the Fascist seizure of power, detecting a stubborn persistence of myths about Fascism that circulate in public opinion beyond Italy despite all the painful processes of facing the past that took place in this country.
The Pervasiveness of Distorted Memory
Paul Corner, Emeritus Professor of European History at the University of Siena, devoted his academic career to the analyses of social aspects of Italian Fascism. His latest book published with OUP is meant less as an opus magnum (it has a very portable size of 192 pages) but rather attempts to attract non-academic English-speaking readers by a clear-cut argumentative design. The points Corner makes do not offer new evidence or arguments (some areas of the postwar Italian collective memory are rather well researched), but he does deliver them in a concise and reader-friendly way. Though Corner’s book clearly has an ambition to reach more popular audiences, he also relies on former research, and quite often quotes ordinary people’s remarks or criticism (noted in reports of the secret police) as well as points made in private notebooks by close collaborators of Mussolini.
Corner assesses several of the most notorious, self-indulgent narratives about the Fascist period that are circulating in contemporary Italian society and beyond. Each chapter considers a different commonplace: from the myth of “good-natured fascism”, to the myth of mass support for the regime, to the cliché of Mussolini’s “one mistake” of entering into alliance with Hitler and the alleged modernization of the country under his rule. While doing so, the author takes stock of the all too often repeated refrains of today — “Mussolini was not Hitler, nor was he like Stalin, nor was he PolPot, he was ‘just’ another dictator; and he also did a lot of good things” (p. 16; ebook edition) — to contrast social myths about Fascism with historical facts.
Engaging with the difficult task of deconstructing firmly rooted myths, Corner’s main goal is to answer two questions: (1) How far does the affirmation of “many good things” done by Fascism corresponds to the historical reality?; and (2) Why do so many people today share a “permissive memory” of Fascism? Here it has to be stressed that Corner’s choice of myths-and-facts approach allows to answer him only the first question — which he does in a very persuasive way. Let us look at the misperceptions of the Fascist regime that the author deconstructs in more detail before we would move on to the second question.
It is a praiseworthy endeavor to debunk repeatedly stated assessments that are simply contrary to the historical evidence. It is enough to mention that even former European Parliament’s President Antonio Tajani, quoted in the book, once remarked unashamedly in an interview that “Mussolini also did many good things”. If the elites representing “noble” European institutions share such views in good faith, why should one then expect a different approach from the common people?
In her recently published book “Dandelions”, author and TLS editor Thea Lenarduzzi describes how she had a hard time listening to her grandma’s stories in which she tends to repeat social clichés about Fascism. Lenarduzzi even places in a visible location in the house a book similar to Corner’s — “Mussolini ha fatto anche cose buone. Le idiozie che continuano a circolare sul fascismo” [Mussolini did also good things. The still circulating stupidities about Fascism] by Francesco Filippi— just to observe that it remains forever untouched. However, Lenarduzzi never dares to explicitly confront Nonna about her mistaken convictions in anticipation of condescending behaviour of an otherwise lovely and charming grandma. This is just an example of how wide spread are the erroneous convictions about the benevolent character of Fascism (including those who experienced it on their skin!), and how difficult it would be to eradicate those beliefs (or even confront them) in the sphere of popular opinion and small talk.
The Myth and the Real Thing
One of the most fundamental arguments made by Paul Corner goes into the very heart of the Italians’ postwar identity: it concerns anti-Fascist Resistance and the basis of the 1947 Italian Constitution, which he associates with a permissive memory about the Fascist period. In a nutshell, Corner states that the myth of the Resistance was established without any clear indication of what this opposition was against (many scholars have pointed to aporias and silences affecting Italian collective memory). The author aptly captures this paradox: “there was an anti-Fascism without a Fascism, we now have a Fascism without Italians” (p. 23). He elaborates that this interpretation was derived mainly from the fact that the final stages of the war clearly had good and bad characters — “the Italians” versus the evil Germans, whereas Mussolini was pushed into the background.
Moreover, the Italians quickly started to portray themselves as victims of the Fascist regime rather than “willing accomplices of Mussolini” (p. 62). It is an Italian commonplace to see the Fascist past as an inevitable fatum; “we couldn’t do anything else”, quotes Corner and says Lenarduzzi’s Nonna. In accordance with other scholars, Corner asserts that the stereotype of Italians as good people — Italiani brava gente — precludes some of them from taking any responsibility for the existence of Fascism (a concept known in scholarship, but not to the general public, as the FT’s review of the book has shown). The author elaborates that according to this myth, Italians are simply good and “constitutionally incapable of consenting to an evil regime” (p. 24), so, logically, Fascism could not have been so bad. In his next steps, Corner depicts that actually the fascist regime was a totalitarian one (even the first ever totalitarian regime to exist) because it banned political opposition, used force to resolve argument and claimed impunity before the law. The fact that Hannah Arendt did not include Italian Fascism into her classic study of totalitarian regimes is, for Corner, only a proof of the Fascist myth’s appeal.
Generally, the arguments made by Corner showcasing the reality of the Fascist period can be divided into: (1) myths about good-natured Fascism; (2) myths about modernization and social policies; (3) myths about Mussolini himself. Firstly, as the author states, one the greatest absentees from the specific characterizations of the Fascist regime is violence. As was observed by Emilio Gentile, by comparing Fascism to Nazism, the former was assessed as a mild regime, since the latter is associated with the greatest evil possible. Thus, Fascism comes to be seen as a “lesser evil” and violence is ascribed only to a short period prior to the March on Rome (or, as Corner puts it, for some contemporary Italians “the lesser evil becomes no evil at all”, p. 163).
To contest such depictions, the author provides an overview of the oppressive and totalitarian regime that was in place once Mussolini started to rule. In Corner’s view, Fascist violence was distinctively class based. The Fascist squads attacked laborers at the behest of proprietors and out of their fear of losing political control in the face of socialist victories in administrative local elections. Moreover, the role of the Italian political police is still underestimated — PolPol (Polizia Politica) and OVRA (founded before German Gestapo) were two institutions responsible for the persecution of civil population. Corner provides some disturbing examples of people sentenced to harsh punishment after having expressed mild criticism of the regime (f.e., a man who called his pig Mussolini “was sentenced for five years in short order”). Moreover, the mass consensus thesis, argues Corner, is used by Italian politicians from all the ideological camps as a form of self-absolution: if everybody was supporting the regime during the ventienno (20 years of Fascism), then why to make a fuss around it? The author deconstructs this thesis by showing complexities of the support for Fascism (its religious, class and political/repressive dimension).
Secondly, the author evokes the repeated myth about “the good things” Fascism did, most notably social reforms, including land reclamation (bonifica) and establishment of the pension scheme. In fact, as the author states, most economic changes simply occurred during the Fascist period and not because of it. Once again, the class distinction is discernible — the first impulse of Fascism, argues Corner, was to reduce wages for the workers and suppress any kind of labor protests; this class then became economically handicapped. Moreover, the architecture of social policies was already in place before Mussolini, whereas under his rule the reforms were developed in a piecemeal manner to favor certain social groups (such as large landowners). The bonifica program did not take any radical action against large landowners, and by 1940s only half of the land reclamation projects have been realized. Corner sums this part up by pointing to the usual discrepancy between a project plan and its realization, where only the agenda of the project is remembered in the collective memory.
And finally, Mussolini, reviled and executed by Italians, after the war quickly became once again an object of cult — by the early 1950s, notes Corner, “popular magazines were running articles on the Duce and his family” and he almost became a posthumous celebrity. The myth of Mussolini comprises several elements: that “if he only knew” what’s bad inside his Party, he would have stopped it; that his “only mistake” was to side with Hitler; that he was a “great colonizer” of North Africa and had a sense of military command. However, Corner piece by piece deconstructs these myths by pointing to all kinds of crimes the regime and Mussolini committed: the persecution of the Jewish population was in place before the alliance with Hitler; Mussolini upset the international stability by attacking Ethiopia and conducing the Debre Libanos massacre of monks in 1937; Italy invaded mainland Greece and used brutal repressions in Yugoslavia. Clearly, it was not just “one mistake”.
But There Is a “But”
Of course, there is always something to be critical of. To answer the second question posed at the beginning of the book adequately (why the myth of good-natured Fascism is so persistent), the author should have conducted different research, perhaps more psychological or sociological rather than one based on historical sources. As we have seen, while Corner pays a lot of attention to the deconstruction of myths, he does not directly engage with the sources of Fascism’s contemporary popularity. Finding the reasons behind distorted forms of memory is a different task from evidencing the discrepancy between myths and reality. The latter are convincingly elaborated by Corner: it is because Italians are presented as victims of Fascism rather than victims of Mussolini (to preserve the reputation of the latter), and because the anti-Communist component of Fascism was valued during the Cold War (among many other bad, not mentioned, elements).
Without presenting sufficient evidence, in his conclusion the author provides an explanation for Fascism’s popularity: it supposedly stems from the desire for a sense of direction in times of increased insecurity, and Mussolini is depicted as the embodiment of a strong, just leader who truly cares about the well-being of his citizens. This psychological reason is too generic (or even a cliché) to be accepted as an explanation for complex behavior. In addition, Corner writes on his concluding pages that “those who are still indulgent towards Fascism and enthralled by the myth of the Duce should open their eyes… If they look hard and reflect a little, they may even discover that much of what they think about Mussolini…is not really about Mussolini at all” (p. 210-211, emphasis added). Therefore, his final response to a problem described in psychological/sociological terms is of a sheerly intellectual nature: if only people could think about it more, they would change their minds. Lenarduzzi’s account is very helpful in this regard: for a dear granddaughter it is not easy to talk about the Fascist past; can you even imagine her telling Nonna: “reflect over your convictions more”?
It is clear that Corner’s book assumes some degree of historical knowledge: the author does not offer a chronology of the events that happened during ventienno, but goes directly into the deconstruction of myths . This rigid selective approach is of course justified by the architecture of arguments (myth-fact, project-reality) and conciseness, but on the other hand the substantive material sometimes lacks contextualization. The conquest of Ethiopia is summed up as a “profound disappointment” but it is not elaborated what this disappointment was about; antisemitism is only briefly mentioned when describing the murder of 7,000 Italian Jews in the Shoah (one could ask for a more concrete explanation). Moreover, Corner repeatedly mentions the opinion surveys conducted for Mussolini which begs an answer how these materials influenced the Duce’s actions (or why he disregarded them, if that was the case).
One last point should be made regarding the originality and current relevance of the book. Though surely Corner’s intervention is timely, he fails to address the significance of those myths today: he does not mention contemporary Italian public opinion, nor does he discuss any kind of revival of the Fascist myths — he simply mentions their persistence. His book does not engage with the political manipulation of collective memory by contemporary Italian politicians — and this is truly a pity.
The author would like to thank Ferenc Laczò for his insightful comments.
In collaboration with Karen Culver.