Mussolini: Rome Revived or Rome Reviled?

Is a politician’s image imposed externally, by admirers and critics located domestically as well as abroad, examining the politician within his respective surrounding context and time period? [Bottom-up] Or, on the other hand, does a ruler paint his own political picture, a self-created phenomenon, descending internally from the ruler himself? [Top-down] This is the question that R. J. B. Bosworth examines in a chapter of his 1998 publication, “Mussolini the Duce: Sawdust Caesar, Roman Statesman or Dictator Minor?”. Truly, as Bosworth illuminates based on multiple academic’s opinions of Benito Mussolini during and after his reign of power, a politician’s image is both a combination of self-determining propaganda and external popular evaluation.

Mussolini ruled as a charismatic leader, relying upon his positive public image to reinforce his extremist Fascist party ideology and state. While the Duce’s dictatorship and personality paled in comparison to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia (hence the Dictator Minor label), all three rulers shared in common a tendency toward the ‘Great Man’ approach. This approach to history evaluates a leader based on his heroism as the determining force of his historical impact. As Bosworth asserts, normally this approach to analyzing history is “well out of favor” but “to some extent, however, the history of Fascism and, more generally, that of twentieth-century European politics, is an exception to that rule.”1

Bosworth examines how over the course of Mussolini’s dictatorship from 1922 – 1943, the effective influence of Mussolini’s fascist rule lost power parallel to the decline of what Emilio Gentile calls, ‘the imagined Mussolini’. Passerini accepts Gentile’s view “that Fascism brought mythical thought to power.”2 Other historians, throughout Bosworth’s article, refer to this grandiose conception of Mussolini as ‘the myth of Mussolini.’ When Mussolini rose to power, he did so under the pretense of embodying the values of the Italian public, as a “medium of a mass age.”3 Public reverence for the heroic dictator reached levels of deep religious awe; Mussolini’s call for a New, collectivist, Italy resonated deep in the Risorgimento national spirit. Italy was traditionally a diverse and separated country, even after the Italian Unification of the 19th century  – Could Mussolini finally be the leader destined to bring together the Italian people into a united nation? Mussolini capitalized on the declining pre-modern Catholic papal influence to replace with a modern religious appreciation of the secular state. But after 1925, when Mussolini decided against ruling by the Italian Constitution and created his own pseudo-legal totalitarian state, public adoration turned to public crucifixion.

Especially when Mussolini – always an an advocate of aggression rejecting the doctrine of pacifism – joined the WWII offensive in June 1940, with a false consolation to the Italian masses that it would be a short-lived dispute, public opinion of him really fell out of favor when increasing global military conflict created a sense of betrayal within the Italian people. Bosworth extols this concept, “Figures blessed or afflicted by charisma may, of course, be hated as well as loved. Prayers to the good Mussolini were matched by anathemas to the evil one.”4 While the Duce may have been a master propagandist in his own right, his pervasive slogan, ‘Mussolini is always right’ will go down in history as an ironic catchphrase, as his resonant historical image, in the words of Bosworth, is as war-time Europe’s “failed dictator.”5

Based on your understanding of each of the dictator’s cult of personality and their respective states (Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, Stalin’s Communist Russia, and Hitler’s Nazi Germany), do you believe that Bosworth’s concluding assessment of Mussolini’s “image of a failed dictator, at least in contrast with Hitler and Stalin”6 is an accurate evaluation?

  1. B.J.B Bosworth, “Mussolini the Duce; Sawdust Caesar, Roman Statesman or Dictator Minor?” The Italian Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of Mussolini and Fascism, London: Arnold, 1998, 74. 59 []
  2. Bosworth, “Mussolini the Duce”, 61. []
  3.  Bosworth, “Mussolini the Duce”, 62. []
  4.  Bosworth, “Mussolini the Duce”, 65 []
  5. Bosworth, “Mussolini the Duce”, 59 []
  6. Bosworth, “Mussolini the Duce”, 59 []

3 thoughts on “Mussolini: Rome Revived or Rome Reviled?

  1. Perhaps this question is dependent on what is defined as a successful dictatorship. All three dictatorships eventually fell, so what makes Mussolini’s Italy a failure in comparison with Hitler and Stalin? I found it extremely interesting how in some cases a lot of Italy’s “failure” was derived from preconceived notions about Italy as a nation. Many writers expressed a sense of superiority over Italians, and the patronizing tone that some authors took when describing Italy, was extremely evident. When Mussolini’s actions in Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II arose, it was almost seen as inevitable, that neither [Mussolini] nor his people possessed what was still readily called ‘historical greatness’ ((B.J.B Bosworth, “Mussolini the Duce; Sawdust Caesar, Roman Statesman or Dictator Minor?” The Italian Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of Mussolini and Fascism, London: Arnold, 1998, 77.))

  2. I appreciate the questions posed by Emily in her blog post and in Claires comment. However, based off the two, and particularly off the framing of Claire’s question, I would tweak the wording of the questions from “failure” to “weakest”. In this case, I would say that Mussolini certainly was the weakest of the three Dictators because of his inability to have a firm grasp of power over his population. As we have talked about, when Mussolini was handed power in 1922 following the March on rome, he was “handed power”. He was not elected to power unlike Hitler. He did not “seize” power unlike Stalin. The second things is that there was a king in Italy, unlike in Germany and the Soviet Union, where Hitler and Stalin did not have a Monarch or a higher figure than themselves. Another thing to consider is the cultures and histories of these three countries. Would it really matter for Mussolini if Italy’s past was far worse? Would it also matter if the political structure in Italy was different?

  3. Italy strikes me as an opportunist country that never quite got the break it needed. From the onset of the First World War to the end of World War Two, Italy (and its government) seemed to receive the short end of the stick. Despite being members of the victorious allies at the end of World War One, the Treaty of Versailles treated them in a similar manner to the conquered Germans; instead of profiting off of the war (as they hoped they would) they ended up losing out. The same can be said for the Mussolini era. The Duce, an effective technocrat who made the trains run on time, did not have the authoritarian style or manipulative, self serving political machine around him like Hitler and Stalin, nor did he have a military capable of backing up his aggressive, Axis based foreign policy. Mussolini failed, yes, but his reign doomed itself from the beginning simply through the matter of geography. Italy did not have the capability to follow through with Mussolini’s vision, despite the capability of its leader.

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