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Paul O’Brien, Mussolini in the First World War. The journalist, the soldier, the fascist, Oxford-New York, Berg, 2005, p. 212.

Paul O’Brien is an Irish scholar living in northern Italy. This book is the development of the Ph.D thesis which he presented at Trinity College Dublin. He explores an obscure aspect of Benito Mussolini’s career, namely, the future fascist dictator’s use of his journalistic skills for purposes of self-mythification during WWI. O’Brien’s primary source is Mussolini’s writings between 1914-1919, in particular articles in Il Popolo d’Italia (a newspaper founded by Mussolini himself in 1914) and the future dictator’s war diary. O’Brien has examined these documents with great skill, composure and attention, comparing then with the main secondary studies on Mussolini and the origins of fascism which have been published over the last few decades. The author is very aware of the importance of WWI in the subsequent development of Italy’s history during the 20th century. For this reason he does not try to develop a new, comprehensive interpretation of fascism, but prefers, rather, to contribute to a better and deeper understanding of its origins. Indeed, O’Brien is concerned to understand whether fascism emerged from the social turmoil and atmosphere of nationalistic discontent developed in the first post-war period or whether its starting point cannot in fact be traced back to the 1914-15 interventionist climactic and the ensuing years of the world war itself.
The study covers the period ranging from the summer of 1914 to the early spring of 1919. At the time of the Sarajevo assassination, Mussolini was one of the most prominent socialist leaders, and O’Brien carefully traces the “revival” of this former maximalist tribune. He makes a very thorough study of this previous incarnation so as to throw light on Mussolini’s ambiguous use of the concepts of nation and nationality even before July 1914. In spite of his support for the maximalist wing of the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI), and his engagement in the campaign against the Libyan War (1911-12) and in the Settimana rossa (the riots in Romagna and Marche during spring 1914), Mussolini nurtured unmistakable sympathies for Nietzsche’s theories. O’Brien has identified a kind of self-identification between Mussolini and the “Superman” already in the writings of these early years. This attitude will be a constant factor in Mussolini’s career, and it will be crucial for allowing him to rise above the other interventionist leaders during and immediately after the war.
Conversely, Mussolini had never had a well-established understanding of Marxism. Instead, at the time of the declaration of war in 1914 he referred repeatedly to Giuseppe Mazzini. But O’Brien identifies a heavy use of the categories of irrationalist and Nietzschean “Superman” terminology in Mussolini’s interpretation of Mazzini’s thought. The future duce increasingly drew from Mazzini’s national and anti-socialist topics, while side-stepping the democratic, humanitarian and anti-imperialistic themes which underpinned the great Genoese’s message. Mussolini had a very wavering and opportunistic attitude towards social issues. Like the great majority of interventionists, he only raised the subject of social reform (in particular the issue of land distribution so dear to the peasants who made up the bulk of the Italian army) when it coincided with military or political crises, and he dropped it when the emergency had passed. On the other hand, he was unstinting in his claim that workers and peasants alike had to fight for the greatness of Italy, and that at the end of the war they would have to apply to the factory and the field the same values of hierarchy and discipline they had experienced during the war. Mussolini thus regarded the conflict as a social workshop for experimenting with new models of social subordination. These in turn would have to be imposed by force after the war in order to eradicate Marxist “subversion”. He dreamed and planned the birth of a new post-war society (which he referred to as “national socialist”) to be led by an alliance of soldiers and what he ambiguously termed “producers”.
But the most interesting novelty of O’Brien’s book concerns Mussolini’s advancement of himself as leader of the interventionist right. The future duce had to match his aspirations with those of some very hardened competitors, including the main exponents of futurism, the nationalistic leaders, and, above all, Gabriele D’Annunzio. Mussolini was the interventionist leader most capable of developing and spreading an effective self-representation technique and for this he used two main tools: his Diario di guerra, and Il Popolo d’Italia. The latter, indeed, often published extracts of the war diary, which meant that he could create and strengthen his own myth for a growing audience and reconvert his public image from one of minority political leader to heroic soldier. He portrayed himself as an ostensibly common but in fact special soldier who became the spokesperson of the “trench people without a voice” as well as the upholder of the memory of the fallen (which would become one of the founding myths of fascist ideology). In this successful endeavour he had the strong and self-interested support of the Italian military and political authorities, as well as key economic players such as Ansaldo, who had quickly caught on to the former socialist’s great reactionary potential.
Who were Mussolini’s social terms of reference to obtain leadership of the imperialist and reactionary milieu? O’Brien has skilfully studied this social niche and identified its core in the young non commissioned offers. Notwithstanding Mussolini depicted himself as the voice of the ordinary soldier, he in fact only identified with the officers both at the cultural and social levels. Indeed, when Mussolini was at the front he used his diary to record in some detail how he had established links on an equal basis with the officers, independent of rank, but especially with the NCOs closest to him. The privates, on the other hand, were relegated to the background. Whenever they did come to the fore this was only to express their devotion and esteem for the future duce. In short, Mussolini had converted them to a component of the “war landscape”. Such an approach was part of the building of the “trench aristocracy” myth. This élite was to be made up of the junior officers, a part of the NCOs and a small minority of national syndicalist workers. Mussolini and many other interventionists (not only right-wingers) planned to give this “trenchocracy” the central role in the future of Italy, because they had a strong reactionary and anti-socialist political attitude, as well as a lower and middle bourgeois social origin. They would continue to be Mussolini’s main audience throughout the war and the fascist movement itself would later appeal to precisely these circles.
Mussolini’s experience of combat ended on 23 February 1917. The official bulletin stated that he had been severely wounded by the explosion of trench mortar. O’Brien has studied some military and medical documents and certificates and is convinced that the effects of this accident were greatly exaggerated. This happened because Mussolini and his associates needed to cover up a severe neurological disease caused by tertiary syphilis (tabes dorsalis). Notwithstanding he had spent a lot of time in the quiet sector (high Isonzo and Carnia front), Mussolini had built up a mythical public image of himself as “heroic soldier”. Not for nothing, therefore, did he have to handle discreetly what could have been a very negative spin-off from what at the time was a socially shameful and politically compromising disease. He was able to keep this pretence alive with the connivance of some doctors, high-ranking officers, politicians (especially Leonida Bissolati) and perhaps even the king. He stayed for a long time in hospital and, on account of his presumed “serious wounds”, obtained an unwarranted leave of absence which amounted to an effective discharge.
Now he had to manage a new period of his life: the transformation of his self-built myth of soldier into that of “champion of the Nation”. Mussolini had no political organization, and Il Popolo d’Italia once again became crucial to obtain influence and followers. In fact, Mussolini held the journalistic profession in very high regard, considering it to be a type of “art”. He regarded a good journalist as an artist who could manipulate consciences and feelings, and he was convinced that a journalist with a war experience had a much better chance than an intellectual or a traditional politician of winning over the trincerocrazia. In this way he put forward his own candidature for the leadership of the subversive Right during 1917 and was strongly supported in this by reference to his personal experience at the front.
O’Brien’s basic theory asserts that Mussolini had already fully carried out his shift to the nationalist and imperialist cultural area by September 1914 and that he had already developed the project to win leadership of the extreme right during the interventionist campaign. O’Brien is therefore in contrast with a large part of the Italian historiographic tradition when he asserts that Mussolini’s newspaper and movement (whose foundations were laid during the war) never had any leftist character in their DNA. Also, the term fasci was not influenced by the nineteenth-century democratic Sicilian fasci, but by the fasci interventisti founded between 1914 and 1915. O’Brien’s main difference is with theories of Italian historian Renzo De Felice. The Irishman refuses to accept that Mussolini and his followers could be considered part of the left during the interventionist campaign, not only because of their violent and continuous anti-socialist vitriolic but also for their global vision of life and social relationships. Mussolini’s newspaper denied the political and cultural autonomy of the working class and upheld the need to strengthen the authority of the ruling class and to impose its discipline on the workers. In Mussolini’s view, only the pedagogic action of the middle class could raise the workers to what he saw as a higher level of dignity by teaching them to recognise the superior value of nation over class. At times Mussolini supported the rights of some oppressed nationalities, but this was only ever contingent on the long-term strategy to obtain the disintegration of the Central Empires and, subsequently, Italian imperialist predominance in the Balkans. Some Italian politicians planned to change the post war international balance of power with a further period of international political and military tension without recourse to diplomatic mediation. Undoubtedly (and unfortunately for Italy), Mussolini was one of the foremost and capable of these and, on account of the intellectual and programmatic outcome of his journalistic activity during the Great War, he was capable of defeating all other pretenders to the leadership of the extreme right between 1919 and the seizure of power in 1922.
To conclude, therefore, O'Brien provides an in-depth analysis of the cultural, political and organisational mechanisms that, in and through the Great War, allowed already existing nationalist, imperialist, reactionary and racist ideologies to forge into a system of ideas and practices that are identifiable with fascism. In the decades preceding the interventionist mobilisation these had remained the prerogative of somewhat isolated political and cultural cirles of the upper classes, whereas in the context of the post-war social upheavals, and on account of Mussolini's personal skills in identifying and mobilising a mass base in the petty bourgeoisie, fascism could go on to challenge for, and eventualy seize, power. It is by virtue of its ability to fill in this important historiographical gap between the pre- and post-war periods that O'Brien's book deserves to be read by a broad European audience.

Marco Pluviano

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