Mussolini's War by John Gooch review – fascist dreams of the 1930s and 40s

A meticulous, skilful account of the Duce’s erratic and ultimately disastrous attempt to make Italy a great power

After the end of the second world war, several of Mussolini’s generals said that they believed that Il Duce had been “mad for four years”. Others claimed that he was incompetent, wayward and with no grasp of strategy. A few allowed him moments of brilliance. All agreed that his great mistake had been to think that the army could be led by men appointed for their politics rather than their military skills. And, as John Gooch spells out again and again in his scrupulous account of Mussolini’s wars, Italy at every stage lacked resources, which made her ever more fatally beholden to Germany, her dangerous and untrustworthy ally.

In 1922, Mussolini inherited a country with a troubled history and reputation when it came to fighting. Having vacillated over which side to join in the first world war, then sided with the Entente, Italy suffered a catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, her reputation barely redeemed by later bravery, and came away from the Paris Peace Treaty humiliated. It was, as Gabriele D’Annunzio famously put it, a “mutilated victory”. What Mussolini instinctively understood was that to win a place at the top table of the Great Powers he needed to forge a “new resurgent state”, while modernising his inadequate military. What he really dreamed of was a new Roman empire, full of italianità and romanità, one that would cover the Mediterranean and north Africa, include a generous slice of the Balkans and open gateways to the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

His first test, retaking Libya, conquered and then mostly lost in the first world war, succeeded largely through brutality and the merciless hunting down of rebels. It brought to the fore two men, Rodolfo Graziani and Pietro Badoglio, who emerged as ruthless if conservative soldiers and who would have a hand in most of Italy’s warfare in the years to come. For Mussolini, the experience was nothing but positive. It had shown Italy to be effective and tough, his soldiers possessed of spirit and will, which was exactly what he wanted from his “new Fascist man”. When, in 1935, he advanced on Abyssinia, he was undeterred by the sanctions imposed by the League of Nations, and though victory came with yet more savagery – and the use of poison gas – it gave him the empire he craved.

All this, however, used men and materiel. Support for Franco in the Spanish civil war ate up planes, trucks, ammunition and left Italy with a deficit of over 40 billion lire, but did not stop Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law and foreign minister, from proclaiming it to be “a new formidable victory for Fascism: perhaps up to now, the greatest”.

The top table beckoned, but it was clear that to sit at it Mussolini would need friends. On 22 May 1939 he signed the “Pact of Steel” with Hitler, committing their two countries to each other’s aid if either was at war, while at the same pointing out that Italy, depleted by Abyssinia and Spain, would not be ready to fight until 1943. When Germany went to war without him, he sat out an uneasy year of neutrality, but once the French Maginot line was breached, he sensed that he could wait no longer without forfeiting his share of the spoils.

In 1940, Mussolini knew perfectly well that Italy lacked the manpower or resources – tanks, mortars, rifles, iron, copper, steel, nickel, rubber and oil – for more than a single short campaign. But he never much liked his senior fascists, the gerarchi, or the generals who surrounded him and never believed in experts unless they agreed with him. As the war in Europe spread, Italy was sucked into campaigns across north and east Africa, Russia and the Balkans, so the only way that Fascist Italy could earn her place was by depending ever more on Germany. Some historians have maintained that Italy really became subordinate to Germany only when Rommel arrived in north Africa in February 1941, but Gooch believes it was inevitable from the start. He is good on the meetings between Mussolini and Hitler, when the Führer harangued a partner whose feebleness he increasingly deplored and whose needs he seldom met. Italian soldiers sent to the Arctic Russian plains to crush, so they were told, the barbaric Bolshevists, sometimes marched on paper boots. At every turn, Italy’s equipment was inferior and scarcer than that of its ally. “Fascist Italy,” Gooch writes, “continued on its chosen path towards defeat.”

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.

And the losses were indeed overwhelming. By the time Tunis fell to the allies in May 1943, and all north and east Africa was lost, some 400,000 Italians had been taken prisoner, and almost 30,000 were dead. The 17-month Russian campaign saw a third of the army of quarter of a million soldiers die, and 70,000 taken prisoner, many soon also to die on forced marches and in camps.

Related: The fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstream

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.