Book Review: Christopher Hibbert, Mussolini, The Rise and Fall of Il Duce,

My impression of Mussolini from childhood was that he was a clownish leader of the Fascist Government in Italy from the 1920s, until he was strung up with his mistress to end their days on April 28, 1945. Hibbert’s biography shows that this was far from the case and that Mussolini was a shrewd and effective politician and dictator, albeit with some peculiar characteristics. The first edition of this book was written in 1962 and the second in 2008. Hibbert, now passed on, served in Italy during WW2, spoke Italian and had access to diaries, including that of Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, whom Mussolini later had shot in January 1944 at the behest of the Nazis. The events, especially those during WW2 are described by Tobias Jones, a present day historian of Italy as, “From the opening paragraphs, however, I was gripped. It was a real page-turner, a mixture of the styles of the scholar and the thriller-writer. Here was a true story about a heroic revolutionary who had freed his people from foreign oppression.”

The book describes the relationship between four dictators, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Franco as well as their interaction with leaders of democratically governed countries. Each dictator had their supporters in England for example. The common foe to many was Communism, and Fascism was sold in the west as the only viable alternative to communism. Liberal democracy was supported by some but not all leaders in the west. Many were reluctant to engage in another world war.

Another dimension of the book is Mussolini’s envy of Britain for having an empire and the desire by Hitler and Mussolini especially to create their own empires. Mussolini tried in Africa and Albania and Hitler in the east, which put him on a collision course with Stalin. One of the saving factors was the British navy which managed to control the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea. For me the book is about both the functioning of dictatorships and the history of the interwar years.

Today, Tobias Jones provides an update of present day Italy and its politicians, some of whom appear clownish to outsiders. I have yet to read these accounts in detail.


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