In his 1943 essay “Who are the War Criminals?” George Orwell, a Briton, observed that members of Parliament clamored to put Benito Mussolini on trial for war crimes. What made this peculiar to Orwell was the fact that the politicians who clamored the loudest had been, before the war began, lavish in their praise of Il Duce.
Orwell quotes Winston Churchill, who in 1927 said to Mussolini: “If I had been an Italian I am sure I should have been whole-heartedly with you in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism... [Italy] has provided the necessary antidote to the Russian poison. Hereafter no great nation will be unprovided with an ultimate means of protection against the cancerous growth of Bolshevism.”
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A second political leader in Great Britain, a man by the name of Lord Rothermere, also extolled Mussolini's efforts against international socialism. Rothermere said, “In his own country [Mussolini] was the antidote to a deadly poison. For the rest of Europe he has been a tonic which has done to all incalculable good. I can claim with sincere satisfaction to have been the first man in a position of public influence to put Mussolini's splendid achievement in its right light ... He is the greatest figure of our age.”
Other political leaders feted Mussolini as well. Lady Chamberlain, sister-in-law of the Prime Minister, was credited by some for her outspokenness in support of closer ties between Great Britain and fascist Italy. She was joined by Neville and Austen Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, and other national figures whose names are no longer remembered.
Years before Mussolini allied himself with Adolph Hitler, he’d displayed to the world what it meant to be a fascist. When he invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), it was a clandestine act in defiance of the League of Nations. His forces committed war crimes by using banned chemical weapons, throwing prisoners from aircraft, crushing prisoners beneath tank treads, and indiscriminately hoarding civilians into concentration camps.
Mussolini’s concentration camps appeared in places such as Danane, Nocra and Benghazi. “The prisoners were generally men suspected of resisting the Italian occupation army or women and children who lived in villages suspected of sympathizing with the resistance (source).” For the most part, it was Arabs who were placed behind the barbed wire fences, fed starvation rations, and allowed to die from the infectious diseases that thrive in crowded, unsanitary spaces.
The leaders in Great Britain knew these things but supported Mussolini all the same. Orwell discerned that, for the moneyed few, nothing was as terrifying as the specter of Bolshevism. In the minds of the oligarchs, if fascists did battle with communism they deserved support. Orwell wrote, “The lords of property had decided that Fascism was on their side and they were willing to swallow the most stinking evils so long as their property remained secure. In their clumsy way they were playing the game of Machiavelli, of ‘political realism’ …”
Orwell believed that “political realism” was both stupid and immoral. It was stupid because, as events would soon show, British leaders could not rely on the loyalty or gratitude of a man like Mussolini. For all the support they’d given him, Mussolini still chose to side with Hitler in a war of aggression against Europe.
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Speaking to the immorality of realpolitik, Orwell said, “the inability of the moneyed class to see anything wrong whatever in concentration camps, ghettos, massacres and undeclared wars” was a sign that the oligarchs had succumbed to “moral decadence.” In this, Orwell’s views align with those of numberless Classical Republicans who have warned us since time immemorial of the corruption that arises when vast wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. A possessor of unearned wealth becomes too attached to the lifestyle that this affords, but cannot escape the nagging worry that the same societal quirks that arbitrarily assigned him this wealth could also take it away.
But for the British oligarchs, the warmth they felt for Mussolini wasn’t solely because he was enemy of their enemy. The admired Mussolini as a man of action. In Italy, he had crushed labor unions and peasant collectives. His invasion of Abyssinia was an act of empire-building, something that British leaders could appreciate and something that they could hardly condemn.
Mussolini was one of the early technocratic political leaders. He had the values of a businessman. As he once said, “The working of the State services must be made really efficient, whether it be by removing the bureaucratic management or by industrialization,” adding that the privatization of “postal, telephone and railway services” would be instrumental to achieving this aim. He made the trains run on time.
From a certain point of view, even the draconian steps of building concentration camps and singling out broad swaths of the population for internment maybe seen as the bold moves of a man who is neither afraid of controversy nor hindered by delicately-tuned scruples.
Even though his political aims benefited the moneyed elite, Mussolini was popular among ordinary working Italians. He’d earned the reputation of being a straight-talker. He attributed his own popularity to “telling upon every occasion and in every place the plain truth,” adding, “the more this truth is unpalatable the greater the need to speak it out.” Members of the public yearn to be told unpleasant truths, once they've arrived at the point where they no longer trust the official pronouncements of establishment politicians and suspect that what is being kept from them is an honest discussion of the economic hardship they are already experiencing.
He was a nationalist, and for Italians wracked by poverty, his message was sorely welcome. “We deny … internationalism, because it is a luxury which only the upper classes can afford; the working people are hopelessly bound to their native shores.”
Another key to Mussolini’s popularity was his shrewd insight into the nature of politics. He was not interested in developing policy positions or offering government programs. In his own words, “Our program is simple: we wish to govern Italy. They ask us for programs but there are already too many. It is not programs that are wanting for the salvation of Italy but men and will power.” Mussolini did not offer the electorate an agenda but instead an attitude. He derided “cowardly politicians.” He opined that it is, “better to live a day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” He praised the Italian people for the simple reason that they were Italian. He bared his muscled chest before the people. He married, and had affairs with, young and beautiful women. He declared, “We do not argue with those who disagree with us, we destroy them.” Ordinary Italians wished to live vicariously through him, and resolve the rage they felt after years of humiliating poverty.
When the Tories were openly embracing Mussolini before the war, where were the liberals? They spoke out with moral indignation, and reminded the public of Mussolini’s atrocities. But their critique was half-hearted and received as an obligatory fault-finding with the views held by the opposing party. The liberal view did not prevail until Italian bombs starting falling on British ships.
Where did the conventional wisdom stand? To address this point, it bears noting that Lord Rothermere, who openly consorted with Hitler and Mussolini, controlled the editorial content of the Daily Mail.
Coverage of the Mussolini’s rise by the British press was mixed, ranging from a complete lack of recognition to mild disapproval. The Daily Telegraph’s December 30, 1922 yearly review of important world events did not even mention the Italian fascist coup. The Times (London) of November 18, 1922 declared Mussolini a “masterful man,” whose, “programme bears the stamp of his strong character,” reflecting the Conservative view that Mussolini’s takeover marked the welcome end to Italy’s previous corrupt liberal government, and was on the whole a positive resolution to Italy’s dire political situation (source).
Although particularly venomous in his criticism of the Tories’ embrace of Mussolini, Orwell did not spare the liberals. Just as the conservatives forgave Mussolini his crimes, many liberals forgave or chose to overlook Stalin’s crimes. The Left, Orwell observed, “have been too easily satisfied with themselves.” Their condemnation of the Tories was accurate, but their capacity for self-criticism was markedly deficient.
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“The attitude of the Left towards the Russian régime has been distinctly similar to the attitude of the Tories towards Fascism,” Orwell wrote. “There has been the same tendency to excuse almost anything ‘because they're on our side’. It is all very well to talk about Lady Chamberlain photographed shaking hands with Mussolini; the photograph of Stalin shaking hands with [Nazi foreign minister] Ribbentrop is much more recent.” In another essay Orwell observed that the “liberal intelligentsia is lacking. Bully-worship, under various disguises, has become a universal religion, and such truisms as that a machine-gun is still a machine-gun even when a ‘good’ man is squeezing the trigger ... have turned into heresies which it is actually becoming dangerous to utter.”
He said, “If there is a way out of the moral pigsty we are living in, the first step towards it is probably to grasp that [political] ‘realism’ does not pay.”
If we follow Mr. Orwell's logic, we may conclude that we never see the lies we believe. So if we are leading blinkered lives, and we are unwitting adherent to a cult of bully-worship, what are the signs? If our political leaders ally with tyrants and admire technocratic efficiency, if they've given up on moral suasion and diplomacy in favor of bombs and guns, these are our warning signs. When these conditions exist, it is likely that our political leaders have become the agents of a small cadre of individuals who possess vast wealth and property, and are pursuing the aims of securing more wealth for these few individuals and defending their position of wealth and privilege against all threats. Bully worship will only thrive when the will of the few is being imposed forcibly on the many. It will wither away when the will of the people is respected.