Over much of Gooch’s long and fascinating book hangs Mussolini’s personality. By turn gungho and monosyllabic, truculent and cheerful, he changed his senior soldiers around, issued orders and then cancelled them, committing Italy to battles she could not win. Gooch is skilful at carrying his narrative forward, through painful campaigns and quixotic tactics, through advances and retreats, victories and losses... It is hard to imagine a finer account, both of the sweep of Italy’s wars, and of the characters caught up in them. That Mussolini’s soldiers fought for so long, against such odds, often with such tenacity and courage, is what really stands out.
The finger of blame for Italy’s humiliation is firmly pointed at Mussolini, although many others played their part. At the same time, Gooch — an obvious Italophile — is keen to dispel the cruder stereotypes of Italian military incompetence. He notes that “suffering massive defeat is not the prerogative of the losers alone”, citing the British military disasters of Dunkirk and Singapore. “The United Kingdom,” he writes, “had the resources to fight back and the political and organisational framework necessary to make the best of them. Fascist Italy had neither.”
Mussolini’s War is an important book, adding much to our knowledge of Italy’s baleful contribution to the conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s. If it lacks a little colour and atmosphere, that is often the price to pay for a work of such meticulous scholarship.
Fascist Italy’s fate was sealed the moment it entered the war against Britain and an already defeated France on 10 June 1940: it had only had a display navy (frogmen aside), a parade army (with few effective units) and gallant pilots not actually trained or equipped to defend Italian airspace or support ground forces in combat. Although Mussolini’s unrealism was extreme, even he knew that Italian forces could not defeat the French, but as he told General Badoglio, the army’s then chief of staff, he needed only a ‘few thousand dead’ to be able to sit at the peace conference as a victorious belligerent. In that ambition he was successful: by the time France surrendered to the Germans on 22 June the Italian army’s failed attack on the French Alpine frontier had left him with 1247 soldiers dead or missing, 2631 wounded and 2151 in hospital with frostbite.
Gooch’s authoritative account might have benefited from more human anecdotage, but offers much detail about Italy’s war-making. Essentially its industry was far too weak for the country rationally to adopt a choice to participate in a total war.
If it is extraordinary that Mussolini himself went to war, it is even more so that he persuaded millions of his countrymen to acquiesce. Today, unfortunately, we are able to view a laboratory recreation of a democratic society’s willingness to embrace fantasies, deceits and absurdities of the most pernicious kind, in contradiction of all evidence.
Mussolini’s War, diligently researched if at times indifferently written (‘Starace was privileging loyalty, whereas Bocchini was prioritising reality’), offers an exceptionally detailed portrait of the Duce as warmonger. Gooch is among the first historians outside Italy to consider fascism solely through the lens of Mussolini’s prolonged and unwin-nable war. It may be fashionable these days to claim Mussolini as a fundamentally decent fellow, led astray by Hitler. Understandably most Italians wish to view themselves as brava gente — good people — so they prefer to blame Hitler both for Mussolini’s murderous anti-Semitism and the calamitous Russia campaign.
In sum there are lights and shades in Gooch’s book. Mussolini’s War will gratify those who glory in ‘our’ triumphs in the Second World War and are sure that ‘our’ enemies were wicked, even when, as in the Italian case, incompetence was their primary hallmark. Such an interpretation, however, leaves much of the complex nature of the Italian dictatorship in need of further elucidation.