Towards the end of his 23-year dictatorship, Benito Mussolini became addicted to a German-manufactured aphrodisiac pill called Hormovin. Taking the prototype Viagra was in some ways a political act as it served to prolong the myth of the fascist leader as one who never flagged. Mussolini had routinely mauled women on mattress-like cushions installed under his desk for the purpose. His sexuality has largely been ignored by historians, yet it was central to the “virile” cult of fascism and the Duce’s own image of himself as a man of power and ardimento – physical daring. Mussolini had relations (or one-night stands) with “as many as 400” women, according to one reliable Italian source. In April 1945, with Italy’s defeat now certain, he was executed by anti-fascists and his body strung up in Milan alongside that of his mistress Claretta Petacci. So much for Hormovin.
As Madeleine Albright, US secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, reminds us in her new book, Fascism: A Warning, Mussolini’s political movement took its name from the ancient Roman symbol of authority – an axe bound in rods or fasces. A tinpot Caesar, the Duce introduced the stiff-armed Roman salute and on occasion wore a richly tasselled fez. The high priests of fascism adopted the passo romano or Latin goosestep, which Hitler later claimed as his own. Has the blackshirt spirit returned in the person of Donald Trump, whose vainglorious sexual antics and boastfulness, Albright believes, are those of a neo-fascist “demagogue”?
Occasionally sententious (“There are two kinds of fascists: those who give orders and those who take them”), Albright’s book opens with a lengthy history of Italian fascism and ends with a roster of nativist or quasi-“fascist” movements currently agitating from Italy to the Ukraine. With the rise of Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria and the Golden Dawn in Greece, the F-word has insinuated itself back into political debate. Not since the Second World War has “fascism” posed such a threat to freedom, prosperity and peace, Albright insists.
In Albright’s view, Trump’s oft-vented “scorn” for democracy has served to strengthen the hand of dictators everywhere. He has attacked the judiciary, ridiculed the media, defended torture and condoned police brutality. Hitler (a “genius at reading a crowd”, says Albright) exhibited similar strong-man tendencies. We see these tendencies at work today in many of the illiberal democrats praised by Trump, among them Erdogan of Turkey, el-Sisi of Egypt, and Orbán of Hungary. Trump’s conviction that life is a “wilderness of Darwinian dogfights” has allowed fascism a new chance to strut round the world stage. If we are not careful, the Clinton-era diplomat Albright seems to be saying, a new Benzino Napaloni (the Mussolini-like buffoon of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) will spark off World War Three. Like the Duce before him, Trump thrusts out his chin pugnaciously for the cameras and was, it seems, born to rant; he is, says Albright, the “first anti-democratic president in modern US history”.
Trump is not a fascist, however, and neither is his fair-weather ally Vladimir Putin. On coming to power in 2000, Putin said he wished to recreate the “Great Nation” of Russia as it had been under his Soviet-era hero, Yuri Andropov. Many ex-KGB agents are keen on judo, and Putin has often posed in white kit for photo shoots; Mussolini might have done the same, had he been a black belt. Yet, far from being the “fascist” of Albright’s reckoning, Putin is a typical product of the middle-ranking Soviet intelligence operative. For him, the state is more important than individual liberty, but that does not make him a disciple of ducismo.
Albright, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, is understandably horrified by fascist racial supremacism. Having fled Nazi-occupied Prague, she arrived in the United States in 1948 at the age of 11. Earlier, she had been living in London when Oswald Mosley (“an adventurous Brit with a toothbrush moustache to match Hitler’s”) used his British Union of Fascists to instil pro-Nazi propaganda and stop Britain going to war with Hitler. Albright’s social scientist father, Josef Korbel, broadcast news from London on behalf of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. Her maternal grandmother, a Czech Jew, had been murdered by the Nazis at the age of 54.
Albright’s father knew that fascist political thought was deeply rooted in interwar Britain. The extreme right loathed Jews and liberals in equal measure. Yet British fascism ultimately failed because parliamentary democracy was shown to work very well in the face of a national crisis. Anyway, British fascism was a rather dilettante form of Italian fascism. Mosleyite uniforms, with their toggled kerchiefs and futurist jackets stitched with the fasces insignia, suggested the Boy Scouts. Albright’s book, for all its earnest concern at the rise of totalitarian dominance, sounds an unduly alarmist note. Puffed up with self-importance, Trump has no discernable ideology or strategy besides tweeting and glad-handing Kim Jong-un.
Ian Thomson’s books include “Primo Levi: A Biography” (Vintage)
Fascism: A Warning
Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward)
William Collins, 288pp, £16.99.
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis