In 1929, Carlo Rosselli had founded Italy’s clandestine Justice and Liberty movement, soon to become one of the gravest threats to the Fascist state. By the time of his murder, he had been watched by no fewer than forty-two of Mussolini’s police. For two years he languished in confino – internal exile – on the remote prison-island of Lipari off Sicily until he escaped to France via Cap Bon in Tunisia. The Rosselli brothers might have disappeared from Italian history had Bernardo Bertolucci not made The Conformist (1970), starring Jean-Louis Trintignant as a Fascist police informer on the trail of a university professor who is clearly modelled on the figure of the murdered Carlo. Rarely has Fascism appeared so irredeemably nasty as in that great film. The Rosselli brothers had reportedly been eliminated by right-wing French extremists in the pay of Mussolini’s agents.
These days it is fashionable to claim Mussolini as a halfway decent leader led astray by an opportunist alliance with Hitler. (One recent biography by a British author spoke admiringly of the Duce’s “charisma”, “prestige” and slyboots Machiavellian adroitness.) Contemporary Italian Blackshirt movements such as CasaPound, founded in Rome in 2003 and named after the avowedly antisemitic poet Ezra Pound, may not have returned Mussolini to the mainstream, but they are part of a wider tendency that exalts the Fascist past as a romantic drama that offered populist alternatives to parliamentary democracy. Carlo Spartaco Capogreco’s immensely detailed historico-geographical essay on the civilian internment camp system under Mussolini is intended partly as riposte to “comforting and self-absolving” apologies for the Fascist past and for Fascist Italians as brava gente – a good people – who wanted no part in Nazi German antisemitism. Capogreco, a Calabria-based history professor, will not exonerate Mussolini from charges of murderous anti-Jewish legislation and the extra-legal internment of Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals and other “undesirable elements” who threatened the sturdy Blackshirt bond of race and nationhood.
First published in Italy in 2004, Mussolini’s Camps (I campi del duce) is the fruit of two decades of painstaking and scrupulous research. Capogreco sought out every last physical vestige of Fascist-era civilian camps that operated…
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