The Mussolini story, a review of M. Son of the Century (M. Il figlio del secolo) by Antonio Scurati.

24 February 2021

Kim Gordon-Bates reviews ‘M – Son of the Century by Antonio Scurati published by Harper Collins.

We’ve all used the word « Fascist » to describe somebody or something, generally as an insult but also as a means to try and qualify a regime or a political system. And yet, when it comes to providing an accurate description of what is “Fascism” we’re a bit lost, an attempted definition would generally burn down to describing a brutal anti-democratic system of governance; that much “Fascism” is, unquestionably. But such a definition is a sort of lowest common denominator for all repressive regimes and doesn’t really describe “Fascism” as a system as distinct say from a military rule which may, or may not, be of a “Fascist” bent. Nor does it apply to shall we say “selective democracies”, systems such as Apartheid or Israel where democratic rights exist but not for all those who live within the country.

This vagueness, in reality, isn’t surprising since Fascists themselves didn’t (and don’t) know how to define their movement, proof of this lies in the abject failure (thankfully) of the 1934 and 1935 meetings in the Swiss town of Montreux where there had been an attempt to create a “Black International” to counter the Komintern. The two meetings were convened at the behest of an Italian Fascist university association. About a dozen national Fascist movements were there represented though not Nazi Germany because, a little known historical fact, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, at that time, were genuinely about to go to war with each other over the Austrian / Tyrol question. In retrospective, it was perhaps a pity they didn’t… It would take the Spanish Civil War to get the two Fascist powers to reach a (un)gentlemanly agreement over the sharing of prospective territorial spoils and thence, in 1938, to enact both the Anschluss and Munich.

International fascist meetings at Montreux (34/35)

The Montreux meetings at which Mosely’s British Union of Fascists wasn’t present for some reason but Ireland’s Blueshirts were, represented by Eoin O’Duffy, was bitterly divided over a number of important issues. The question of race and anti-Semitism was one such issue as not all Fascist movements, at that time, were anti-Semitic. Indeed, Italy’s National Fascist Party (NFP) had a number of ardent Jewish leaders in its ranks, such as the ace aviator Aldo Finzi, the banker Ettore Ovazza and, of course, Mussolini’s (main) mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, who was not only Jewish but also a financial backer of the NFP as well as editor of one of the party’s publications. On a different level, the Fascists at Montreux had trouble defining what a Fascist State should look like, highly centralised or federal?

What would be the role of trade unions for it is perhaps only a short step to go from Anarcho-syndicalism to visions of a corporative State and a number of Italian Anarcho-syndicalists were to be enrolled in the country’s Fascist movement… These tensions would again emerge within the so-called “Nationalist” camp in Spain: José Antonio Primo de Riviera’s Falange proposed a vision of a corporate State where workers would be assigned to Confucian-style corporations and where their rights would be “protected” by strong (State-sanctioned) Unions, the Falangist proposition though clashed with the political objectives of Carlists and others groups within the Francoist camp.

Early German and Italian fascism

A new book, “M. Il figlio del secolo” (“M. a child of the century” – the first of a planned three-volume opus on Benito Mussolini) by Italian writer Antonio Scurati shines a fascinating light on the early days of Fascism. The book is something of a 900-page literary tour de force. It is written in the form of a novel, or more precisely as a diary giving as a nearly day-by-day account of Mussolini’s rise to power but also of those key (unsavoury) characters who would become the country’s Fascist Grandees. The historical references are researched (though the references themselves could have been better documented) and the reading compelling.

The first volume takes the reader back to the immediate aftermath of WWI when a surprising parallel takes places. In defeated Germany, the vanquished army and ultra-nationalist groups quickly merged to form the Freikorps militia notable for their crushing of the Spartacist uprising when Rosa Luxemburg was executed. The Freikorps and those individuals and groups that were to later find a lease of (malevolent) life within Hitler’s Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) or Nazi party, were drawn together and spurred on by a burning feeling of humiliation. To say that is understandable is only to say that it is quite comprehensible that defeated soldiers should feel humiliated and seek some sort of revenge.

The book is something of a 900-page literary tour de force. It is written in the form of a novel, or more precisely as a diary giving as a nearly day-by-day account of Mussolini’s rise to power but also of those key (unsavoury) characters who would become the country’s Fascist Grandees.

But, oddly, a similar movement arose in Italy, despite the fact that that country had been one of the war’s victors. Although the Italian army had suffered a humiliating defeat at Caporetto (the “greatest defeat in Italian military history”, before WWII that is), the same army subsequently won an equally stunning victory over the same (Austrian) arch-enemy at the sixth battle of Isonzo, thus restoring martial pride. Naturally, both series of battles were phenomenally bloody. But co-victorious Italy arrived at Versailles to participate in the writing of the infamous treaty in an unprepared and uncoordinated manner. Italy represented by its Prime Minister, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, and foreign secretary, Sidney Sonnino, failed in the eyes of many Italian irredentists to grab what were considered to be key territorial pickings, notably the town of Fiume and much of the (Yugoslav) Dalmatian coast.

Among Italian war veterans and notably those from the elite Arditi corps, the Versailles Treaty became known as the “mutilated victory”. They felt that their blood, and those of their dead comrades, had been spilt for nothing. That, just as the Freikorps believe that German soldiers had been stabbed in the back on the battlefield, the Italian veterans believed they had been stabbed in the back after the battles… From this acute sense of ultra-nationalist frustration grew a movement that began early on to revere revolutionary violence as a means to redress perceived injustices. And this is where a formerly socialist school teacher and journalist turned (momentarily) vagrant (penniless and sleeping under Swiss bridges) and quondam political activist, Benito Mussolini, steps into history.

Here was a man who would seek to conquer much of North Africa and wilfully ravage Ethiopia in the quest for an Italian Empire yet who started his political life by denouncing and opposing Italy’s colonial adventure (and conquest) of Libya.

To modern eyes, and as viewed in most historical documentaries and films, he who would be known as the “Duce” is shown as a jaw-thrusting bloated, buffoonish, boor. Compared to the modern perception of Hitler, Mussolini is shown as a sub-dictator of sorts and yet, Scurati’s book shows how difficult it is to properly define the man. Mussolini was an assemblage of contradictions, not least in his nationalist outlook. Here was a man who would seek to conquer much of North Africa and wilfully ravage Ethiopia in the quest for an Italian Empire yet who started his political life by denouncing and opposing Italy’s colonial adventure (and conquest) of Libya. Soon though, Mussolini was to become an ardent interventionist, vehemently arguing for his country’s joining the 1914-1918 conflict on the side of the Allies (which occurred in 1915). And this is perhaps a key element that will define the movement soon to be called “Fascism”.

Mussolini and the Arditi meeting in San Sepolcro square 1919

Antonio Scurati’s book starts on the 23 of March 1919, the day the first “Faces of Combat” were formed by Mussolini at Milan’s San Sepolcro piazza, the original fountainhead of Fascism. Politically, there wasn’t much there: no programme, not even a political direction. We are indeed at a time when “Fascism” hasn’t yet garnered its “lettres d’ignoblesse”. There had been proto-Fascist formations or currents in the XIX Century – Boulangism, Maurrassism and Bonapartism in France come to mind, so do certain right-wing Toryisms – but nothing that offered a plan of action for a mass movement. On the piazza San Sepolcro that day were but a handful of angry, frustrated Arditi, yearning for a fight, grieving for a Past, yearning for a corrected future. The only unifying factor among them, and shared by a re-emerging Mussolini, was an ardent belief that interventionism in the war had been the right thing to do, a conviction that separated them viscerally from the Left, especially from those groups and politicians who had espoused pacifism and neutrality.

In the minds of the small crowd present on Milan’s piazza San Sepolcro, these non-interventionists were in part responsible for the “mutilated victory” and were, an outrage to their eyes, enjoying the rewards of peace whereas they, they who had fought, had been cast out and left in limbo. This wasn’t entirely false. They had indeed been treated in a way that was a bit like those Vietnam veterans who returned to the USA only to find themselves living in the streets and psychologically difficult if not impossible to re-incorporate into civil society…

Thus, on Milan’s San Sepolcro piazza on the 23rd of March 1919, anger at the shoddiness of the post-war treatment that had been meted out to those who had fought macerated with an exaltation of the past or rather a selective vision of a once glorious past. Apart from this anger and national adulation, there was very little else. “Fascism”, then, was a political virgin, a historical “terra incognita” not a dirty word… the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, of WWII, the Holocaust and even the terrifying brutalities of the “squadristi” were still to come. But Mussolini’s genius (if such is the right word) was to give that movement of discontent and frustration a political form and direction, one that would take him to the top.

For the time being though, “Fascism” embodied little more than a vague concept to promote a populist national re-awakening (“Risorgimento”). “Fascism” in those “innocent” days was thus little more than a gut-felt ultra-nationalist sentiment seeking its place under the political sun. It was also, and importantly, an expression of frustration of people who could not be attracted to the Left since the left, then, venerated a foreign country, the Soviet Union, and argued for the very antithesis of their nationalistic emotions, internationalism.

Mussolini’s ‘socialist’ borrowings

Among the “known” facts about Mussolini is his socialist past. According to Scurati, Mussolini clung to this socialist past of his for a long time, even after his famous “March on Rome” in 1922. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the tentative political manifesto published in the Fascist Popolo d’Italia (editor: Benito Mussolini) on the 6th of June 1919. The Fascist programme then argued “for an eight hour working day; increased minimal wages; trade union representations on factory boards; workers’ management in the industrial sector; land reform to benefit landless farmers; establishment of pensions and insurances for all workers; secular education in schools; confiscation of all property owned by religious congregations; taxation of 85% of all profits made through the war; higher taxation on the rich; expropriation of all (extreme) wealth; abolition of the Senate…”

Nothing is there that would shock a Socialist militant. Indeed, at the time and for a while later, Mussolini was reading Trotsky and even stated his admiration for Lenin. A little later, when it would be deemed necessary to create a secret police, this instrument of repression would be called Ceka (like Lenin, Mussolini’s view of the need for revolutionary violence was that it had to be used “surgically”, strategically, not an as gratuitous outlet for Blackshirt hatreds or as a means to evacuate excess testosterones). Some would argue that this first Fascist programme was devised in a manner to opportunistically attract members of the working classes and poor peasantry from what was then a very powerful though catastrophically divided Left-wing movement.

Yet, at that time, in the Fascist early days, the movement was not bankrolled by rich farmers nor by the barons of the growing Italian Industry… that will come later, for the time being, the business-owning-classes and families preferred to rely on Catholic and Conservative, Centre-Right political formations to counter what was a hotbed of left-wing mobilisation, of industrial strikes and struggles for social improvements. Scurati though makes the case for a Mussolinian Fascism at pains to keep an organic link with the “Duce” (and others) erstwhile comrades. In many ways, this early stage of Fascism resembled what would be called National-Bolchevism.

in the Fascist early days, the movement was not bankrolled by rich farmers nor by the barons of the growing Italian Industry… that will come later, for the time being, the business-owning-classes and families preferred to rely on Catholic and Conservative, Centre-Right political formations to counter what was a hotbed of left-wing mobilisation, of industrial strikes and struggles for social improvements.

In 1970, following a Vietnam War demonstration in Paris that had turned into a riot – a turn of events that was pro-forma back then – I remember being cornered up in Paris’ Gare Saint Lazare with a handful of fellow demonstrators whilst the police were firing tear gas inside the station. I fell into a surreal conversation with a young Italian chap who’d been on the same demonstration as I but who proudly proclaimed himself to be a Mussolinian Fascist. He strove, for the better part of the night whilst trying to wash the gas from our faces, to prove to me that we – the Left – had got the “Duce” all wrong, that both he and the “Duce” were just as revolutionary as the then French youth… Evidently, that young man had been taken in by Mussolini’s early programme one which, needless to say perhaps, that soon went into the dustbin when it became an embarrassment for something far more important: Mussolini’s own rise to power.

Mussolini and D’Annunzio, the Fiume experiment

But back in those early days (and this I confess was a surprise for me), Mussolini was only “number two” within the coalescing Fascist movement and would stay as such until 1922. The ultra-right wing figurehead then was the unlikely figure of Gabriele d’Annunzio then one of Italy’s leading, if not the leading, poet. It was D’Annunzio who had captured the irredentist emotions of nationalist Italians. It was he who started the balcony “dialogues” with the people below. It was D’Annunzio who resurrected the Roman stretched arm salute that was to become such a distinguishing feature of Fascism.

D’Annunzio led quasi-mutinous sections of Italian soldiers and Arditi to capture the city of Fiume (now called Rijeka in Croatia) and (vainly) seek the town’s annexation by Italy – something the Italian government and the 1918 victors opposed. Instead of being (just) a political clown, D’Annunzio was considered a serious political leader that all sectors of Italy’s nationalist movement sought to co-opt. Mussolini himself, more than once, went to pay obeisance at the court of “Commander” D’Annunzio whilst ruminating as to how he could get the fogey out of the way, something that happened in 1920 when the Fiume experiment came to a crashing end.

Before that though, Fiume, for a couple of years, was a Fascist, or perhaps a proto-Fascist, test: its “Constitution”, known as the “Charter of Carnero” was relentlessly corporatist with a strong military backbone. Yet, in its early days, Fiume, as described by travellers at the time, was more like a 24/7 hedonistic cross between a carnival and a bordello (the town was to have the highest incidence of venereal disease than anywhere else in Italy). Artists and libertines from all over the world came in droves, dancing in the streets and music was more prevalent than gunfire… Whilst all this was happening on Italy’s borders, Mussolini was content (well, not really, bidding his time more likely) to remain as Fascism’s second fiddle. Yet D’Annunzio’s mini-State proposed a feature that would also come to define Fascism: Romanticism and especially a romanticised vision/appreciation of the Past as well as an artistic or aesthetic vision of a people and history. In its early days, Italian Fascism was open to artistic experiments. Fascist revolution sought to obliterate the staid dustiness of the previous century’s artistic creations.

Thus one of Mussolini’s early adherents was the (other) poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder and leader of the Italian Futurist movement. Both D’Annunzio and Marinetti openly proclaimed their Fascist inclinations, both were friends (of sorts) but how different they were… whereas D’Annunzio much-acclaimed writings were of the (turgid) romantic, narcissistic, oft-erotic prose type, Marinetti’s was truly innovative. Like many Fascists though, Marinetti venerated the (supposedly) cleansing attributes of war and violence – his famous call to “abolish moonlight”, which is sugar-coated romantic soppy codswallop artistry, still resonates. Soon though, Marinetti would be side-lined by the movement, his and his fellow Futurist artists would even be described as “degenerate art” by the Nazis.

I like to think that the Futurists’ rejection of Romanticism (that obsolete “moonlight”) clashed with the emerging Fascist will to play on emotions and construct a romantic vision of (relevant) History. Under the bus, or rather then train, go the “Fascist” Futurists who paradoxically would inspire the Dada movement of art. In comes a school of art called the Novecento Italiano, inspired by none other than Margharita Sarfatti and which will become enthroned as the official artistic expression of Italian Fascism. Novecento Italiano appears as a bastardised concept, one that sought to exhume certain elements of earlier Classicist styles with a compromised revolutionary look. This vision will of course morph into Nazi Germany’s adulation of neo-Classicism.

Was Mussolini’s fascist regime unstoppable?

Unlike its “Red” foe, Fascism still had no established political doctrine to draw on, no “class analysis”, no “historical materialism”, no “economic policies”, no philosophical principle, no eschatology other than that offered by crude nationalism… in his toolbox, all Mussolini had was opportunism. Mussolini was a consummate opportunist; he was also consequently a consummate liar. Mussolini blows with the wind as much as he contrives to control the wind. It is not always successful, there are times when even he is at risk of being expelled from his own National Fascist Party (NFP). It was a party torn between original “revolutionaries” seeking a return to the founding tenets/emotions of Fascism and a complete break from the “bourgeoisie” / rich landlords and those, like him, who are committed to conquering the machinery of State (with the approval of the monarch, Victor-Emmanual III) through means as legal and as constitutional as possible.

It was a battle between those who worshipped sticks, knives, revolvers and cod liver oil of the squadristi, such as Roberto Farinacci, and those, like Mussolini himself, who sought respectability… respectability and power that is.

Reading Scurati one is struck by how easy it would have been, despite the benefit of hindsight, to have derailed the Mussolini-Fascist train. The advent of the NFP and the establishment of a Fascist dictatorship was anything but pre-ordained. Even after the (in) famous “March on Rome” in October 1922, following which, like Hitler eleven years later, Mussolini would be “invited” to form a government when the gates of the Roman capitol opened to receive him (under pouring rain). At first, the Left could have barred the way. The left, after WWI and for many years, was, by a considerably long chalk, better organised, far more numerous, more clairvoyant in its long term political objectives but exceedingly disorganised, doctrinally puritanical, personality led and contradictory (something for which Lenin himself bears a fair share of the blame). Red strikes came to nothing, even without the deterrent of squadristi terror.

The Italian Left scored own-goals after own goals, ensuring that the road remained open to he who willed…

The Italian Left scored own-goals after own goals, ensuring that the road remained open to he who willed… At the same time, Mussolini’s success in elections was initially marginal (like that, later, of the NSDAP, the Nazis) but this is where the “Duce’s” craft and consummate opportunism came to fruition. He organised the regional squadristi, or had them organised, as strikebreakers and bashers of Left-wing militants and thus, and only then, came onto the payroll of businesses and landowners big and small. Only then did Fascism become the chosen political expression of frightened middle-classes.

The disorganised state of conventional Centre and Right-wing parties was such that it became increasingly difficult to establish a stable government even through alliances. Mussolini’s obsession with power, through (relatively or at least visibly) legal means led him to form a Fascist-Nationalist united front of sorts for the 1924 elections. Just about anybody willing to call themselves a “Fascist” was included on the list thus allowing the NFP to gain an overall majority in parliament. But then, something happened that could be compared to a botched Reichstag.

Matteotti’s murder by the fascists

On the 27th of February 1933, less than a month after Adolph Hitler had been “invited” by Hindenburg to become Chancellor of Germany, the Nazis set fire to the German parliament, the Reichstag, and used the event as a pretext to suspend the country’s civil liberties and establish the foundations of Nazi dictatorship. Seen from the Nazi perspective, the burning of the Reichstag was a successful operation. In Italy, there was a similar seminal event but one that went in the opposite direction. For Italian Fascists, there was one bugbear, one Left-wing political leader who had immense popularity, commitment, meticulous research, combativity and oratorical abilities: Giacomo Matteotti. He was a scion of a rich landowner family who had broken with his father to espouse the cause of the (very) impoverished peasantry. Matteotti, unlike the majority of the Parliamentary opposition members, did not pull his punches, on the contrary. His verbal attacks against the Fascist party and its leader were precise, documented, repeated and heard.

Consequently, at some point, Mussolini had his Henry II moment. Instead of uttering “who will rid me of this turbulent priest”, he was heard (a few times), of exclaiming words to the effect that he wanted Matteotti “done in”. And so it was done. In April 1924, Giovanni Marinelli, a Mussolinian sycophant (and crook), seeking to please his “Duce” dispatched a psychopathic squadrisiti, Amerigo Dùmani, to murder Matteotti, which he did. Only the operation backfired spectacularly. Instead of consolidating Mussolini’s hold on power it did quite the reverse, all the not-so-dyed in the wool parliamentarian Fascists sought to distance themselves from what was nearly unanimously denounced as an outrage. In hindsight and bearing in mind all the horrors the XX Century was to inflict on entire populations, the cause of Mussolini’s wobble seems somewhat risible. But there it was, disaffections in the ranks of NFP grew, whole legions of squadristi deserted, “Fascist” parliamentarians were brought close to accepting a motion of no confidence against their own “Duce”, the Centre-Right and other constitutionalists came (momentarily) back in favour, the king was displeased and big businesses suspended their financial contributions to the party. Mussolini’s own rivals within the ranks of the NFP saw an opening for themselves – particularly those who wanted a return to the good old days of unrestrained “Red bashing”… Mussolini became isolated and shunned by all but his closest advisers (in addition to his sundry wives, prostitutes and mistresses, Scurati is quite prolix on that particular matter).

It would have taken but a political feather, a timid expression of political will to have toppled him. But the push of the feather never came. Through a remarkable and indeed brazen act of political acuteness, the “Duce” regained control of the situation by, of all things, accepting the responsibility for Matteotti’s murder, by cloaking the deed in aggressive rhetoric… The rest is history, history and subject matter for Scurati’s further two volumes on the “child of the century” that are eagerly awaited.

Fascism today

And where does that leave us? Back to the initial question, what is Fascism… and is the danger still present? Perhaps contrary to most perceptions, Fascism is little more than ultra-nationalism, romantic adulation of a (selective) Past, an allergic rejection of democracy. Its guiding principle is opportunism unencumbered by principles. The movement’s links to the wealthy classes and big business emerge(d) only when all other means to maintain Capitalist normality fail. By opportunism, read populism; “populism” has indeed become the accepted word for political opportunism. An essential ingredient for the Fascist brew is the projected memory of some form of historical humiliation, a humiliation that has somehow marred the otherwise glorious historical narrative. Racism and anti-Semitism though often inscribed on the menu so to speak are in fact secondary adjuncts or were so. Genuine Fascist movements in Italy (CasaPound), France (Génération Identitaire), Greece (Golden Dawn) to name but a few engage in social welfare programmes based on “national preference” but such is not a compulsory facet of Fascism.

The rise of Fascism can be less brash, less “rejectionist”, more pernicious. The Brexit movement, though anti-European, was not expressly anti-foreigner. It had a romantic appeal though no credible “Duce cum Fuhrer”. The Brexit movement is a complicated assemblage of people and quests, it is not a Fascist movement as such but the seeds of one might be therein. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is perhaps closer to the mark, it too references a mythical loss of national prestige. But we are at a time when, for one reason or another, a discussion has been opened on the “limits” of democracy. It is a perilous topic one already perverted by QAnon and other conspirational themes. The threat of Fascism is still present…

Kim Gordon-Bates is a retired journalist for Le Monde and Journal de Geneve.

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