Richard Bosworth on Mussolini as compared to Hitler

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We continue our interview (see yesterday’s post) asking Richard Bosworth, the renowned Mussolini biographer: Is it useful, from your point of view, for Italians to see their fascism as the predecessor of German nazism, and viceversa: is it useful for Germans to look at these relations between the two megalomaniac dictators?

I think for a lot of my life, I would have basically agreed with the tendency of your question.
You’re certainly correct to argue that Hitler in the 1920s was impressed with the fascists rise to power, with Mussolini’s emergence as a dictator by 1925, and with quite a few aspects of fascist policy, when Mussolini was ruling as a dictator from 1925 onwards.

There is also no doubt that deep into the Second World War, quite contrary to other members of the Nazi leadership, Hitler retained a soft spot, for Mussolini anyway, perhaps less for Italians, and continued to admire him, despite having quite a lot evidence that there was nothing much to admire. And I seem to remember that Goebbels for example, wrote in his diary on one occasion, that the Italian people „is not worth a hill of beans“, which seems to me to be a general summary of German racist view of Southern people, like the Italians, who are likely to be „feckless, bandits, cowards, traitors“ – people who would not follow through, and would eventually betray you.

The sort of magnetism Mussolini apparently had on the masses, did this work on Hitler himself too? What’s your idea, you’re one of the persons in the world who know Mussolini best?

It’s a very tough question, and I am not sure that I can provide you with a very adequate answer. My first contextual point would be that all sorts of strange people are thought to carry charisma, and obviously dictators very often have charisma inscribed, and one of the things that you find in the inscription of charisma is a great deal of repetition. So, for example the idea of the dominant eyes, of the eyes that somehow fix you, that you can’t escape from, that make you feel small and occupied, that’s by no means only found in people commenting on Mussolini.

I think you can find people saying this about many other dictators, and even other political figures who aren’t dictators. Think of members of royal families and so on, who again are likely, however banal they are, however non-existent they are, are likely to have charisma inscribed on them. I suppose, in Italy itself, one of the complications all the time about of fascist dictatorship is that there was a Pope. Popes too are people bear tremendous charisma, and there again you will find plenty of commentators coming out from an interview with Pius XI, or some other Pope, and talking the charismatic talk really. Now, that I think is important, because a lot of the discussion sometimes I think avoids that and thinks that’s unique to Mussolini, and Mussolini is completely special in that regard.

I do wonder therefore, as people used to argue about nazi propaganda at Nuremberg and so on, whether it was really „converting“ the people listening at Nuremberg to the nazi movement, or whether you went to Nuremberg after you’d been „converted“ to the nazi movement and then reinforced your „conversion“; so just how much people who talk about Mussolini’s charismatic appeal have already decided that they are somehow sympathetic with this dictator and dictatorship, I’m not sure.

In the case of Hitler of course I think it becomes all the more difficult, because of course if it’s Mussolini who Hitler’s „in love with“, it’s a „love“ that’s conducted by letter, at a distance, and not by touch, by actually being there. The first time Hitler and Mussolini meet is in June 1934 at Venice, and it’s a tremendously unsuccessful meeting: the two do not „hit it off“. Now, later on they probably get on better. Whether they really „hold hands“, and deeply understand each other’s ideals and purpose, I’m much much more doubtful of.

One of the words that sticks in my memory from the recently discovered and published Petacci diaries, is that after the Munich agreement, Mussolini comes back to Rome, and he has to report, of course, to his young lover because he has’nt been around for a couple of weeks or whatever it is, and she’s always very worried that he is having sex with other people. and he has to report to her, and he reports what a wonderful, wonderful success HE’s been, nothing much happened at Munich, this was just all about Mussolini who won, Mussolini who dominated, Mussolini who told Chamberlain and Daladier what to do, and he comes back and says, Hitler of course, Hitler loves me, but then Hitler is really, and here’s the word, „Hitler is just a sentimentalone„, just a sentimentalone, and I suppose in English I have translated that in one place as „teddy-bear“, that Hitler is just a bit of a sentimental old daddy-figure, and that’s a quite unbelievable extraordinary misunderstanding of Hitler’s personality, it seems to me.

So, whatever Hitler was thinking of Mussolini -and again I don’t think you should exaggerate these matters too far, because it does seem to me that the fundamentalist nature -and I use that adjective deliberately- the fundamentalist nature of Hitler’s antisemitism, the fundamentalist nature of Hitler’s anticommunism, the fundamentalist nature of Hitler’s racist positions towards the peoples to the east of Germany, are not matters that Mussolini shared at all, and I mean, one of the ironies of the late Second World War, it always seems to me, is when Mussolini sees Hitler and tries to get a word in, each ways in their discussions and says, look let’s have a compromise peace with the Russians, that of course never goes anywhere, and how could it?

Because Hitler viscerally believed in what Germany was doing in Eastern Europe, in the murders of, in thefinal solution“ to the „Jewish problem“, and also what the Nazis aimed to be after all, the „final solution“ to the Communist problem, and the „final solution“ to the Slav problem, and the idea that you could still have some sort of Machiavellian thing after two years of war, the sort of war that had been waging in eastern Europe, you could certainly have a peace, hold hands and all work together against the Americans, is a sign not of Mussolini being like Hitler but rather of Mussolini being unlike Hitler. So I suppose, it seems to me, that if you had to come to some sort of ultimate position on the two dictators:

Hitler always remains to me in the final analysis a mysterious figure, and I think in the English language historiography the matter, the mystery has’nt been solved. Ian Kershaw wrote this wonderful massively long biography of Hitler, but his conclusion there really is that Hitler was mad, and it seems to me that when you come up with an adjective like that, you’re coming up with an adjective which is really in the final analysis saying: I can’t understand this person.

Now it seems to me that with Mussolini, there is no question he was mad. He was a perfectly comprehensible Italian of his age, of his generation, of his life-style, of his ideological background, of his family background, there are plenty of other matters that you can use to understand Mussolini. Mussolini is an understandable person. I think, most dictators, the Gaddafis, the Saddams, the Perons, you can go on with the vast long list of 21st Century dictators, they are far more like Mussolini than they are like Hitler. They all need setting in their own societies, Mugabe people like these, they have not been unique, they’re people who come out a particular historical moment. Really, if you imagine yourself being Dr Who, and going back into a time machine, and strangling them at their birth, that’s the end of them.

It’s really quite likely if one did a sort of Niall Ferguson so-called virtual phantastic history, there would be another one like them waiting to take over the role that in fact Mussolini and Gadafis and Mugabes and these other people have performed in their countries, in their time.

(second part of a June 2012 interview at Oxford with Richard J. Bosworth by faschistensindimmerdieanderen – to be concluded tomorrow)

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