R J B Bosworth Arnold, 584pp, £25
The clenched jaw swells. The eyes bulge, rolling in their sockets. The close-cropped hair bristles on the shaven skull. The Italian prime minister's acolytes tremble, awaiting the breaking storm. Yes, Silvio Berlusconi is about to make another of his undiplomatic outbursts.
R J B Bosworth classes Mussolini as the least of all the great dictators who made the European weather in the 1930s and 1940s. He estimates that 2,000 people died violently at the hands of Mussolini's fascist goons during the new movement's amazingly rapid rise to power between its foundation in 1919 and Mussolini's "March on Rome" (actually a train ride) in October 1922. A further million, Bosworth suggests, were victim to Mussolini's increasingly ill-advised and ill-starred foreign adventures: his annexation of Libya; his brutal aggression against Ethiopia; his intervention on Franco's side in the Spanish civil war (much more extensive than Hitler's notorious bombing of Guernica); and, as readers of Louis de Bernieres's Captain Corelli's Mandolin will know, his farcical attack on Albania and calamitous tangle with Greece undertaken out of envious pique at Hitler's effortless territorial acquisitions. All this culminated in the disastrous - and domestically unpopular - "me-tooism" of Italy's entry into Hitler's war, which was a military catastrophe from the outset, and swiftly dragged both Mussolini and his regime to their doom.
At least part of the reason why Mussolini escaped the obloquy heaped on Hitler, Stalin, and even little Franco, is that he was perceived as guiltless of the really big crimes. Aside from the 2,000 socialists and communists shot, bludgeoned and choked on castor oil, the million deaths caused by his foreign policies can be put down, at a pinch, in the "casualties of war" column. Despite his pretensions at reviving the Roman empire, Mussolini never had any real interest in Hitler's racial delirium. Thousands of Italian Jews were deported to the death camps, but this was at the behest of the Nazis, and at the war's last gasp. However, there is no evidence that Mussolini had any regard for their lives - or, indeed, for any human life. After all, he ignored his daughter's tearful pleas and had his own son-in-law, Count Ciano, shot for daring to vote to depose him.
Mussolini's crimes were characteristic of the small-town gangster sort: for all his vaunted hostility to the Mafia, he made a good goodfella capo. In 1924, his infant regime was fundamentally shaken by the bungled abduction and murder of Giacomo Matteotti, a fearless socialist with inside dope on fascism's financial corruption. Similar gangster crimes included the assassination in Marseilles in 1934 of King Alexander of Yugo-slavia, carried out by Croatian fascists acting on Italian orders, and the elimination in 1938 of the Rosselli brothers, anti-fascist exiles, by French fascists, again acting on Italian orders. These crimes, as Bosworth points out, were indicative of the petty cowardice that characterised the regime, a sort of tawdry shittiness of soul. Mussolini's strutting and posturing, his grandiose architecture and jutting jawline, could never powder away the five o'clock shadow that darkened his regime, and they make all the more surprising the early indulgence of his many foreign admirers - including Churchill, who said that, had he been Italian, he would have donned the black shirt.
Mussolini is more of an impressionistic canvas than a formal life - a bewildering chronological hotchpotch, and ill organised at that, with a selection of sources more impressive in its breadth than its depth. Hobbled with obligatory nods in politically correct directions and such irrelevancies as the state of the author's arteries, the whole is couched in a lumpy style as indigestible as cold tortellini. However, it is impossible to quarrel with Bosworth's central conclusion that, although fascism may have been the ruling idea of the 20th century, it is now - Italian nostalgia aside - as dead as pre-Raphaelitism. The right often sneers at the ideological death of socialism, but what is less often noted, as Boswell remarks, is that fascism is even deader. What price now Mussolini's dynamic nationalism, his "autarchy", his corporate state? It is the detested plutocratic globalisation that has conquered.
Nigel Jones is assistant editor of BBC History Magazine. He is working on a short biography of Oswald Mosley