Reading Note:
Even the Trains
31 October 2018

Finally, finally, I have come to the end of RJB Bosworth’s Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship 1915-1945. If it hadn’t been so well-written, I’d have hated it. There was too much information for a first-time reader, too many new names, even for someone who had just read Jasper Ridley’s brisk but by no means summary biography of Il Duce himself. The subtitle ought to have been Life Around the Fascist Dictator, for the topic under discussion almost always concerned jockeying for favor. And a great deal of dispersed information could have been boiled down a bit and collected in a single chapter, “No, He Didn’t Make the Trains Run on Time. Even.” 

It’s a disaster story in slow motion. Mussolini, a man of the people whose father was a blacksmith (and an insurrectionist; he named his son after Juarez), did well in school and became, by all accounts, a first-class newspaperman. There you go. He certainly knew how to talk — his speeches, far from run-on rants, were usually concise, at least until the last, desperate years. But politics? Nobody in Italy really understood politics, at least the kind of politics that you can discuss with your mother. Italy itself was too new, unified only in theory. As usual in a nineteenth-century polity that didn’t speak English, Italian leaders made a complete hash of liberalism, and were hardly more democratic than their Fascist successors. Nor did anyone grasp the rudiments of relations between modern government and modern industry. (I’m sometimes afraid that, in this country, they have been forgotten.)

For me, the killer tragic fact was that, on the eve of the War, the Italians were producing about 1600 planes per year, substantially fewer than the United States produced in a week. Such radical inadequacy in matériel across the board rendered Italy totally unfit for any European war.

In short, the temptation to feel sorry for Mussolini and his gang is at times very strong, especially when comparisons are made to their Axis pals to the north. But if, to be bad, you have to be Hitler or Himmler, then we’re all in a lot of trouble. The Fascists were thugs, or, to be nicer, they were confused and displaced veterans of Italy’s shambolic campaign in the First World War, who knew how to have fun with a gun. They used the Party to feather their nests, and of course became semi-respectable in the process, careful to ensure that their sons didn’t take after them. They grew pathetically middle-aged, but although they gave up shooting in the streets, they never really grew up.

Indeed, it’s a picture of jowly squadristi, on their way to some PNF festa in Rome, that opens Iris Origo’s A Chill in the Air, which together with her War in Val d’Orcia sparked my desire to know more, much more, about Italy between the wars. I’m glancing through these incredibly apt diaries a second time. Nothing puts me on the ground faster, or at least creates the illusion of doing so. My next biography is going to be about her. 

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