Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of IL Duce by Christopher Hibbert

Reviewed by LJ Frank

My take: I have two separate works on Mussolini. This particular thick scholarly volume was sitting on my shelf and consulted more as a reference rather than a single read through. The Australian author Hibbert is an authority on the history of Italy especially the modern state. It remains fresh. Perhaps disturbingly so. Nationalism and fascism are at the forefront again in modern day Italy among other countries.  This past week a far-right wing nationalist, Giorgi Meloni was elected Italy’s Prime Minister. She identifies with tenets traceable to fascism and Benito Mussolini. It remains to be seen what the effect of her leadership will be.

Mussolini the man in person and the object of this copiously researched and footnoted biography is different than the animated gestures and facial contortions and theatrics of the man seen on newsreels. “No one understands him” was written about him. The canvas for this study is a society that has elements of illiteracy, of want, insecurity, fear, intrigue, and the unforgiving textures of a society where the question of meaning and survival are bubbling up at the surface. It’s where the loud voices beat down the timid adversaries as if those boisterous voice knew more.

Reading this work begins with the capture and execution of Mussolini and his mistress, Claritta (Clara) Petacci, and then being hung by their feet in the public at Piazzale Loreto in Milan in 1945 for the crowds of people to express their anger on the couple’s dangling bodies. It’s the initial point to embarking on and digging into Mussolini’s modest family roots and background.

 The scholarship becomes readily apparent to the reader who may find the author weaving a story back and forth while at the same time we are witnesses to an historical figure that is not as dramatic a personage as seen on a film screen. Mussolini, through arrogance, avarice, charisma and with an oversized ego reveals how the character of this man’s life created a devastating trauma on Italy and Europe and that trauma was felt around the world. He was intelligent but not the intellectual that he thought he was – the mirror he gazed into was only a surface reflection, and below the surface?

Mussolini was dramatic in his flattering of America and how it could be great one day, one can’t help but see the similarities in type of words used by former President Trump and the current Italian Prime Minister Meloni. Different times and contexts but power and control have similar effects.

Mussolini was neither a socialist nor democratic, He had little use for democracy. He believed in his version of the totalitarian state, which was a positive (with no negative connotations) word.

The author provides a penetrating look into Mussolini’s struggles and offers some psychological insights into the man and the legend. There was little to suggest from physical appearance of the enormity of misaligned passions within. There was an insecurity to be mastered during his upbringing. (His father was a passionate socialist)

Though seeing Hitler as unsopisticated, he joins in the Axis of power with Germany and Japan. He admits to his own racism in part and yet sees racism as a delirium. The author writes of Mussolini as a man of contradictions and inner conflict. Though kind to some Mussolini was horrendously brutal and without a hint of conscience to others.

Overall, this biography offers a readable, balanced analysis of Benito Mussolini and revealing the private man behind the public mask. Though he accomplished such things as getting the trains to run on time he was a man whose compassion seemed fraudulent, masking his desire for control. The private man is juxtaposed to the public man who was tyrannical and dictatorial that in turn led to human slaughter. He appeared to be a despot from an earlier era.

And today he is looked upon with ambiguous thoughts, emotions, and trepidation with the words – never again, that was written and spoken by those who loathed him. Italy’s identity was tarnished by his hollow and obsessive leadership and yet his nationalist fervor remains alive in a globalist economy.

This work is a comprehensive study, save some foreign relations details, to be read singularly or in concert with others. I found it to be an excellent reference resource.