This biography of Benito Mussolini is a narrative achievement. In 428 pages of text, the author succeeds in painting a non-stereotyped and well-documented image of the Italian dictator. Painstakingly assessing successes and failures in each phase of Mussolini's rise and fall, R. J. B. Bosworth delivers a coherent portrait of a provincial intellectual seeking fame beyond the restricted boundaries of his Romagnole origins. Armed with self-delusional intellectual ambitions, a Machiavellian view of politics, and a Darwinist conception of humanity, Mussolini rose to power but failed to revolutionize the lives of Italians or to pave a third way between liberal capitalism and state socialism. He fell prey to his own existential pessimism and the sociohistorical forces that have shaped Italian history for centuries.
This book is an "antifascist" biography (p. 11) that counters the sympathetic portrait drawn by Mussolini's principal Italian biographer, Renzo De Felice, while avoiding the image cultivated by Anglo-Saxon historiography of the dictator as a "sawdust Caesar" or "buffoon" (p. 2). Bosworth shows that Mussolini was a skilled and ruthless tactician who sought to maximize his options and to leave an out for himself at all times—and at any cost to others or to the ideological purity of the movement he created. But as a statesman, he pursued the traditional goal of his liberal predecessors—the international recognition of Italy as a great power—by new ideological means. Hence, Bosworth pays careful attention to Mussolini's diplomatic action and foreign policy, providing a nuanced account of the progressive, but not predetermined, Nazification of Fascist policies. Yet Bosworth's success in amending the traditional picture of Fascism comes at the regrettable price of narrative compulsion substituting for methodological rigor, and historiographical polemicism preventing a more fruitful confrontation with alternative frameworks of interpretation.
This biography is problematically framed between a first chapter that fast-forwards to the end of the dictator's career—the wartime Republic of SalÚ (1943–45)—and a final chapter on the legacy left by "the ghost of Benito Mussolini" on Italian life and politics from 1945 to the present. Bosworth's main characterization of Mussolini as a cynical pessimist is conveniently foreshadowed in the opening portrait of the last two years of the duce's life, thereby allowing the author to simply repeat it [End Page 506] throughout the book without offering convincing evidence to support it, discussing its evolution, or at least speculating on its deeper psychological roots. In addition, the first chapter establishes the other protagonist of the morality play that is about to unfold: Mussolini's son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, Italian foreign minister from 1936 to 1943, who was sent to death on January 11, 1944, for betraying Mussolini. But Bosworth later reveals Ciano as Mussolini's "alter ego" (p. 358). The privileged position of Ciano in Bosworth's story is mirrored in the prejudicial weight given to his diary over similar sources, in particular the diary of fascist intellectual-believer par excellence, Giuseppe Bottai. Bosworth cites Bottai abundantly, seemingly to avoid meaningful discussion of fascism as an ideology, cultural system, and regime. Readers may get the impression that the author is principally interested in constructing an elaborate dismissal of "Italian" fascism itself via the combined portrait of the Machiavellian Darwinist Mussolini, who never believed in the ideology he created, and the bourgeois pleasure-seeking realist Ciano, who jumped on the fascist bandwagon only to later pay with his life when he tried to disentangle himself.
Bosworth makes plain the presentist stakes of his antifascist stance, as well as its rhetorical assumptions and historiographical implications. The final chapter reveals "the structural implications of possible repetition" (p. 357); parallels between Mussolini and his liberal predecessors prefigure the dictator's life as a tragedy for its own farcical counterpart in the present (i.e., Silvio Berlusconi's premiership of contemporary Italy). Clearly, Bosworth's "structuralism" (p. 4) owes more to the rhetorical trope of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire than to the dialectical materialism of the Communist Manifesto. At the same time, the author's...