Books: De-Caesarizing Benito

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MUSSOLINI (304 pp.)—Paolo Monelli—Vanguard ($4).

On Oct 29, 1922, Benito Mussolini was called to office as Head of the Government of Italy. "Excuse my appearance," the new boss told King Victor Emmanuel, "but I come from the battlefield." Mussolini referred to his Fascist Party black shirt, not the striped pants ("too long and tight") or the frock coat ("sleeves . . . too short") which he had borrowed from his pals. As for his "battlefield," this, too. was the property of friends: it was they who had made the historic "March on Rome" the preceding day, while Leader Mussolini stayed snug in the office of his Socialist newspaper, Il Popolo d'ltalia, under protection of the Milan police.

Forty thousand ardent Fascists gathered in Rome to hail the new head, stomped by his palace window looking upwards eagerly. But a lady visitor had come to see Mussolini, and the head was in no position to review his followers.

Author Monelli, no professional historian but a veteran newspaperman, has written a biography that often verges on caricature. Obviously ashamed of his people's long allegiance to Mussolini, Author Monelli does his best to de-Caesarize Italy's 20th century Caesar. In destroying the legend of Mussolini as hero, he occasionally seems to build up another legend of Mussolini as utter boob. But with that qualification in mind, Mussolini can be enjoyed as a highly readable biography.

Birth of a Legend. "What a character!" sighed his wife Rachele, when she heard of her Benito's sudden rise to power. Most Italians echoed her words, wondered what sort of oddity their new ruler was. They knew he was the son of a Romagna blacksmith and had come up the hard way, going to jail for his political activities, suffering poverty in Switzerland. They knew little of his real character—e.g., that he could be bullied by anyone who took the trouble. They knew still less of his chronic ailments (syphilis, stomach ulcers) and his antipathy to taking baths, changing his shirt, or shaving.

He became popular at once. He seemed ready to work hard and cooperate with other parties, and his chief desire was to be "respectable." When the lights burned late in Mussolini's palace, it was often because he had got his hands on "lists of subscribers to opposition papers" and was busy marking down those who were to be "beaten up until they bled." But, asserts Author Monelli, some of Mussolini's followers were far tougher than he. When his old Socialist enemy, Giacomo Matteotti, was murdered by some of his Fascist pals and Mussolini was blamed for the act, the situation scared the striped pants off him. Sobbing in the arms of one of his women, the chief cried: "Dear Matilde, my worst enemies could not have done as much harm as my friends!"

In the style later perfected by Adolf Hitler, he often rolled on the floor, bit his nails, beat himself over the head, and he "lived in dread of seeing his executioners burst open the door to shoot him."

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