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mussolini in myth and memory

28 january 2023

Apparently the phrase "Mussolini did good things too" is a commonplace in contemporary Italy – to the point where there's a book (by Francesco Filippi) called Mussolini ha fatto anche cose buone – a book that I wouldn't be all that keen to read on a bus in Rome, even though the subtitle is Le idiozie che continuano a circolare sul fascismo: stupid things people keep saying about fascism.

I learned of Filippi's book via Paul Corner's new Mussolini in Myth and Memory, which examines revisionist positive takes on Mussolini for English-language readers. I haven't had the impression that Mussolini did any good things, but then my impressions of the dictator come entirely through reading and my reading tends to come from the anti-fascist side of the debate. Though here and there some shred of a positive contrast to other totalitarians comes through. Fascist Italy was much less concerned with developing a totalitarian cultural aesthetic than Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or Maoist China. Some Fascist-period architecture is attractive, livable, pleasantly functional. Mussolini briefly resisted Nazi-style racial laws, though after 1938 he loses all the points he gained for that resolve. The "iron prefect" of Sicily, Cesare Mori, brutally suppressed the Mafia during his brief rule of the island, an episode I remember from a discussion in Leonardo Sciascia's Giorno della civetta. And, says Corner, some of the trains actually did run on time (127).

So there's that, and Corner confirms the few fleeting positive impressions I had gleaned from my reading. Set those few things against massive corruption, favoritism, repression of dissent, constant worrying about informers who could cost you your job or spin you into internal exile, prison, or worse; set them against the bizarre confluence of hysterical militarism, foreign expeditions, colonialism, military incompetence, and the ravage of the islands and peninsula as the Allies and Axis fought over them for years; set them against a declining overall standard of living and massive inequalities; set them against anti-Slavic campaigns, anti-Semitic oppression, and complicity in the Holocaust … "did good things too" starts to sound like some guy who beats you up on an hourly basis but occasionally holds a door open for you.

Corner does an excellent job discussing the role of nostalgia in the rise of intolerant nationalisms. He discusses "phantom utopias" (4) customized to accentuate positive aspects of the past (often imaginary) as against the obvious real negative elements of the present, a comparison in which the past always wins. He argues for a principled dichotomy between history and memory (9); even if all history is narrative, some of it can actually be narrative about reality. He offers keen contemporary examples of phantom utopias during the Mussolini ventennio itself, when people began to grumble that before Fascism, everything had been great (79, 151). And he warns against forging national identity on the basis of avoiding the past (161-62). Benedict Anderson, in his analysis of nationalism, notes that nations must sometimes forget the past. That may be true as a practical maxim. But when reminded of that past, they must remember it accurately. Paul Corner's work serves as such a reminder.

Corner, Paul. Mussolini in Myth and Memory: The first totalitarian dictator. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.