“Although I deal with the Italian attempt to build a fascist state,” Chronicles editor Paul Gottfried wrote in response to an obtuse critic of his latest book, Antifascism: Course of a Crusade, “I am also quite critical of Mussolini’s career, especially his involvement with Hitler’s Third Reich and the unfortunate anti-Semitic laws that Il Duce issued in September 1938.”
While I am in agreement with Dr. Gottfried’s indictment of today’s nihilistic, misnamed “antifascism,” I want to add a few thoughts on the phenomenon of Mussolini’s fatal “involvement” with Hitler—fatal to Italy, to the fascist movement he founded, and to the Duce personally. This is long overdue: almost 76 years after his April 1945 murder by Italian communist partisans, Mussolini is yet to be reclassified as a significant, flawed, even pathetic, but not monstrous figure of Europe’s 20th century history.
Revisiting Mussolini’s legacy is necessary not only because he is too facilely branded together with Hitler, but also for the sake of linguistic hygiene and mental discipline. It is necessary because the word “fascist”—which he coined in 1919—is still used as an abusive term a century later, arguably with greater frequency and less responsibility than ever before. George Orwell noted the trend as early as 1946 in his essay “Politics and the English Language:” “The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”
Orwell understood that just as thought corrupts language, language can corrupt thought. In our own time the problem is not confined to the gutter end of the public space. Columbia University professor Robert O. Paxton wrote a year ago that he had “resisted for a long time applying the fascist label to Donald J. Trump,” but Trump’s incitement of the invasion of the Capitol “removes my objection to the fascist label.” Yale professor Timothy Snyder routinely calls Putin’s Russia “fascist” in op-eds for The New York Times and others, without providing a hint of structured analysis to prove that the current Russian political system belongs to the tradition of totalitarian regimes. A legion of editorialists calling Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, or France’s Marine Le Pen, or any number of other figures of the right “fascist” are guilty of similar mental sloppiness, often combined with plain ignorance of history.
Fascism was born out of the crisis of European liberalism at the fragile time when traditional political forces were delegitimized by the Great War, shaken by subsequent internal instability, and scared by the revolution in Russia and its echoes in Central Europe. Its early recruits were surviving veterans bitter at having been “stabbed in the back” at home, or the Arditi south of the Alps, having had their victory “mutilated” by foreign machinations—as exemplified by the Fiume Legion of Gabrielle D’Annunzio, a precursor of the ideals and specific scenarios of Italian fascism’s political action.
Among several varieties of fascism in Europe between the wars (including an array of “native fascisms,” mostly in the former Habsburg lands), a salient feature was the celebration of their nation’s glorious past—the Roman Empire in Italy’s case—and the promise of a correspondingly glorified future, based on that nation’s alleged particular qualities and its mission ordained by “providence.” Common to all was the declared opposition to Marxism (even when the distinctly leftist aversion to “bourgeoisie” was explicit), and the reliance on the dynamism of violence and direct action.
The sentiment found a fertile ground before it became an ideology. The Paris settlements of 1919 proved to be a major source of weakness for those who appeared to have gained the most. Poland’s eastern territories beyond the Curzon Line and its absurdly drawn corridor to the Baltic, Czechoslovakia’s possession of the Sudetenland, and Romania’s undeserved doubling in size in Transylvania, Bukovina, and Bessarabia, created a constant source of revanchist malevolence among the losers who exacted their revenge two decades later. The newly created South Slav state found itself in a similar position. The most acute problem concerned Italy. The Italians were unwilling to give up what had been promised to them in London in 1915: Dalmatia with most Adriatic islands. To their dismay, in December 1918 the Italians found that this enemy territory became, by the act of Yugoslav unification, an “Allied” land.
Mussolini’s rise was welcomed by many Italians not because of fascism’s ideological appeal, still vaguely defined at the time, but because it seemed to offer practical solutions to the problems of the “red menace” at home and the “mutilated victory” abroad. The perceived injustice meted out to Italy in 1919 was a potent sentiment, as illustrated by D’Annunzio’s adventure in Fiume. Theatrics notwithstanding, it reminded Mussolini that if he did not assume the role of the nationalist hero, someone else would.