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Europe’s last Caesar

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Ninety years ago Benito Mussolini, the founder of Italian fascism, stood at the pinnacle of power and prestige. In February 1929, he struck an unprecedented agreement with the Catholic Church on its role in the Italian society, the Lateran Treaty. Yet Mussolini, always remembered as bloodthirsty dictator associated with Hitler, diplomatically settled a dispute of more than 50 years between the Kingdom of Italy and Holy See that dated to the 19th century era of Italian unification.

To the horror of anti-clerical fascists led by Minister of Education Giovanni Gentile, the Church recognized the Italian State and withdrew all its political and territorial claims; and Mussolini, by his turn, recognized the Papacy’s sovereignty over Vatican City, legalized Catholic associations, and gave the Church great power in matters of morality and education.

“Who was Mussolini?.” André Brissaud asks at the beginning of his biography on the founder of the Fascism. “For some, an anti-communist reactionary, a Chaplinesque dictator, a carnival caesar, of no historical importance, an insignificant parentage in the history of Italy (…) For others, a bold reformer, an out of state man, a reincarnation of Rome, a human and heroic guide, perhaps a martyr or a saint. ” And after opening this dichotomous analysis, the author advances to a synthetic answer:” The reality is that this son of the land of Romagna, who began as a far-left revolutionary socialist, invented fascism, a historical truth that must be accepted. And for 23 years, he was the Duce (leader) of Italy, who turned it into a European power. He was one of the most important personages of the international scene from 1920 to 1945.

“If I were an Italian, I would be with you, I would be Fascist,” Winston Churchill told Mussolini in Rome.

Look at an old photograph or watch an old film, listen to a speech from the epoch, and you begin to understand the charismatic, popular character of this man who, in December 1944, four months before his death and defeat, despite the appalling sufferings and harshness of war, misery, and bombardment, still gathered 100,000 people in his last public speech in Milan during the civil war between the anti-fascist resistance and the Mussolini’s Republic of Salo.

“What a figure!” said with ironic tenderness Rachelle, Mussolini’s wife, when, in 1922, she learned that the king had called her husband to lead a new government.

With a reputation as a subversive and revolutionary, teacher Mussolini only gets a place in the primary school of Piave de Saliceto, a village of Gualtieri, Italy’s oldest commune. After some time, however, he decides to leave Italy and go to Switzerland, living the typical life of many immigrants and emigres: starvation, humiliation, resentment, dreams of greatness and revenge. Mussolini worked as a bricklayer, butcher, and as a messenger in a chocolate factory. He was arrested for vagrancy, slept under bridges, his clothes in tatters, exhibiting willful behavior (as seen in portraits, at age 20), with a Karl Marx medal around his neck that didn’t give a good impression to the Swiss police.

Sorel’s Influence

In Lausanne, Mussolini was assisted by Vilfredo Pareto, and in the local library he read Blanqui, Kropotkine, discovered the writings of Le Bon and, above all, the work of George Sorel. Sorel meant a whole new world to the young revolutionary. Sorel with his ethical socialism, his syndicalist metaphysics, his primacy of the myth about utopia, the centrality of the revolutionary vanguards in the dynamics of history. Sorel was heterodox, voluntarist, aristocratic Marxist, showing the young Mussolini a whole new philosophy and theory of action. In Sorel’s writing, Mussolini learned the power of violence to fulfill the revolution’s goal.

“It was this master of syndicalism who, through his rude theories about revolutionary tactics, contributed more to forming the discipline, energy, and power of fascist legions,” Mussolini said, in an exhilarated and romanticized way, retrospectively, in 1922.

As Europe marched into the period that the German historian Ernst Nolt called the European Civil War (1914 – 1989), Mussolini wrote this political analysis:

The central empires, attacking Serbia, attack France and England, a general conflagration is then inevitable, and I am convinced that the German Socialists will follow the lead of their Kaiser, and the International Socialist will be torn to pieces. The French socialists will find excellent reasons in Marxist doctrine to think that such a war is the aggression of a feudal military power against a democracy which, though bourgeois, is nonetheless progressive. They may thus become soldiers of the homeland without the slightest crisis of conscience. I cannot condemn them. No abyss opens beneath them, between the imperatives of reality and their socialist conscience.

This insight by the future Italian dictator shows a young man with a strong political instincts, making it easy to understand his sudden rise in a political party full of skillful minds. Mussolini, by his own intellectual formation, could show that he was not an orthodox Marxist, but something more. Looking into the nationalism across Europe, Mussolini proved to be both a radical intellectual and a talented politician.

Intellectual-Political Synthesis

Mussolini was the only leaders who made history during World War II to fully attained intellectual status. Churchill was more a historian than a man of ideas; Lenin and Stalin wrote books and influenced the Marxist doctrine; Hitler was a frustrated artist, but he had no intellectual ambitions. Mussolini was the only one who went one step further and created something entirely new. Hitler did not create the National Socialism, nor did Stalin and Lenin, the Communism. Although it was Giovanni Gentile who established the philosophical framework of the fascist movement, Mussolini was the creator and most important ideologue of the Fascism.

According to the historian of fascism A. James Gregor, Mussolini did not have an intellectual body of work like Gentile, Sergio Panunzio, or Ugo Spirito, but he was equally intelligent and cultivated. In Mussolini, the intellectual and the political are blended, being impossible to distinguish where one began and the other ends.

It was through the rise of nationalist passions that Mussolini led the socialist dissent that opposed to the Socialist Party’ pacifist line. He  united nationalists, dissident socialists and radical unionists under the umbrella of a single political movement — the Fascist Associations. The ties that united these sectors, which in the period before World War I walked on separate paths, were forged by the fire of the war and the battles on the fronts.

When the 1918 armistice was signed, Mussolini still did not know what his political future would be. But it was the recklessness of the socialists, animated by the sparks generated by the Russian revolution, in trying to establish soviets across Italy, which gave Mussolini what he most needed at that moment: an internal enemy. He posited his nationalist socialism dialectically as the synthesis of the conflict between bourgeois forces and Marxist socialism animated by the Russian Revolution and as the only chance to save an Italy that was imploding from within. The fascist congress in Rome, in November 1920, allowed Mussolini to turn the fascist movement into a political party and to write the platform of the new party. He proposed an opening to the right, building an alliance with conservatives and liberals. Less than one year later, his movement that preached authoritarianism and modernization reached the power.

There was no revolution in Italy in 1922, and Mussolini avoided political radicalization, all because of the eclectic character of both fascist ideology and its founder. As Mussolini’s biographer Renzo de Felice wrote, these early years were the structures of government’s years of accommodation, the formation of a political consensus among different parties and consolidation of power.

A Non-liberal Capitalism

James Gregor notes that in the early years of his rule, Mussolini took a 180-degree turn in relation to the Marxist convictions of his youth and in tune with the pragmatic approach as prime minister. If, as a young man, he saw capitalism as the root of all evil, he would see it now as the only modernization tool for Italy. Mussolini even affirmed the full compatibility between the free-market regime and the Fascist doctrine. His position alienated the more radical sectors of the National Fascist Party, and it was due, mainly, to the influence of Pareto and the alliance with the more conservative segments of politics. This state of affairs would last until 1925 when an internal political crisis made Mussolini harden the regime and take more interventionist economic measures.

Such a social-political arrangement is unthinkable in a totalitarian government; Mussolini and his regime were far away from this concept. Mussolini consolidated his power on the basis of the agreements and solving the problems as they arose. Grandiloquence and radicalism were confined to Il Duce’s speeches and rhetoric.

Fascist-Nazi Clash

Mussolini did not immediately understand the meaning of the rise of Adolf Hitler. From the perspective of the Italian prime minister, the German chancellor was one more chess piece in his intricate game of realpolitik. With his radical opposition to the treaty of Versailles and clamor for revision of the established borders, Hitler had become a useful tool to put in check the French, Britons, and Russians. The Nazis were the storm that Mussolini was waiting for.

The Italian leader did not look favorably on the rise of his German counterpart, despite having been a financial patron of the Nazi party over the years. Of the two outstanding leaders who took power in 1933, the one who caught the attention of the Duce and excited his imagination was not Hitler, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mussolini immediately sought to establish relations with the US president and was duly reciprocated by FDR and his inner circle. The criticism that many American members of the Old Right (Alfred Jay Nock and H. L. Mencken, for example) had about the New Deal pointing to its fascist origins was not unfounded. FDR was a sincere admirer of Mussolini.

It is worth noting that the Fascists across Europe did not see Hitler as an automatic ideological ally. Early on, Mussolini showed little interest in Hitler and after a meeting was not at all impressed by the new German chancellor who lectured him on the superiority of the Aryan race and the dangers of the Jewish people. Ricardo de la Cierva, biographer of Spanish military dictator Francisco Franco, and Jaime Nogueira Pinto, biographer of corporatist Antonio de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal, along with Stanley Pine, historian of fascism, and Renzo de Felice, agree that Mussolini saw Hitler with contempt and as a boring figure. Hitler, by his turn, could not hide his admiration for the Italian leader.

Mussolini’s hostility towards Hitler was beyond the dimension of personal relationship. It is also defined as a clash between two distinct political and ideological movements. While Italian Fascism was a kind of radicalized nationalism that sought to build an authoritarian and corporatist state, Nazism was much more radical in proposing the construction of a new society and a new kind of human being. Pseudo-scientific racism was virtually exclusive to Nazism, with no equivalent in other fascist movements.

Mussolini, De Felicci writes, was much more pragmatic on political issues and always sought to establish a consensus between his allies and his antagonists. On the other hand, Hitler was more fanatical and attached to the idea of politicizing and indoctrinating all layers of society. On many levels, Hitler was much more a version of a nationalist Bolshevik, a Germanic counterpart of Stalin than he was an equivalent of the Italian Duce. For no other reason, when Hannah Arendt was writing about totalitarianism, it is Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia she had in mind. Hitler is Stalin’s diametrical counterpart. Both created regimes based on the same premises of total domination of the individual and liquidation of the bourgeois society.

Making things even more complicated for their relationship, Mussolini opposed Hitler’s desire to annex Austria. It was the Duce who led the resistance to the Nazi expansionist ambitions of the 1930s in Central Europe. When Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, a conservative Catholic, was assassinated during an attempted Nazi coup in 1934, Mussolini moved 40,000 troops to the border with Austria and ensured the country’s independence.

A pagan Savonarola

It is also true that fascism and Nazism had many similarities; Benito Mussolini was not a conservative attached to the preservation of a present social order. He looked to a past that no longer existed, the Rome of the Caesars, as the foundation for an eschatological future. In this sense, fascism is as revolutionary as Marxism. The view that the Fascist state was a historical product resulting from the overcoming of social contradictions and that the Duce represented this whole process in flesh and blood is proof of this Messianic and Hegelian nature of his fascism. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that one of the leading ideologues of fascism, Gentile, was the prominent Hegelian philosopher in Italy. Mussolini himself does not cease to be a product of the many internal contradictions of the movement he helped to create. He was a conciliatory pragmatist with a spirit of a revolutionary prophet, a kind of pagan Savonarola. Like all Marxist intellectuals, Mussolini placed both dimensions of his personality to work dialectically, with the conciliator acting to advance the ideals of the revolutionary and often using his revolutionary side to cover up his pragmatic movements.

This sui generis character of the fascist doctrine is shared by the equally sui generis character of Mussolini. Whatever the delusions of megalomania present in any speech, his political action underlies a strong sense of realism and pragmatism. If it is clear that Mussolini was a narcissist, it is equally clear to his biographers and contemporaries that he was not some sort of sociopath. When he interviewed the Duce in the 1930s, the Jewish writer Emil Ludwig found him a charming figure of seduction. When Ludwig wrote an introduction to his book of interviews with the Duce in 1949, he argued that there was nothing to indicate a possible alignment with Hitler or that the events both that preceded and followed the 1939 Pact of Steel were somehow unavoidable. Other contemporary Jews also fell under the spell of Mussolini’s personality, and many of them were members of the National Fascist Party. The Zionist movement saw the Duce as a man of Providence for the cause of international Judaism.

The alignment with Nazism sealed the fate of Mussolini. Moved by a mixture of fear and opportunism, the man who had made a brilliant political career by outsmarting his rivals was finally dragged into an unwanted alliance with Hitler. Eventually murdered by the Italian Communists in 1945,  Europe’s last Caesar ended up as a dead body swinging from a rope, tied by the feet, at a gas station.

“Everything that goes into history cannot be erased,” Mussolini stated  at the beginning of March 1945, when in the agonizing last days of the Italian Social Republic he presided with no illusions — approaching the end of everything, including his existence — serves as a motto to the lens through which the Duce understood the world and himself.

Homepage picture – credit – WikiCommons

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Silvio Simonetti Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.

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