The fall of Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy from 1922-1943, occurred in slow motion. And, as Ray Moseley shows in his book, "Mussolini: The Last 600 Days of Il Duce," the subject could fill several books because of its repercussions within Italy and beyond.
It also has elements of melodrama, of swashbuckling adventure, of tragedy and of comic opera. (Mussolini acknowledged that "I am only the first actor in a vast comedy that we all recite together.")
In the book, Mussolini appears as a puppet of the Nazis, the Allies and the Italian resistance. He was a racist, as demonstrated by his laws against Jews and his disparaging comments about blacks. But when famine began to afflict the Italian population in the last months of World War II, he insisted on eating the same rations as his countrymen and on earning the same salary as his Cabinet ministers.
Contrary to the image portrayed by many historians, Mussolini was not an illiterate bully. He spoke German, English, Spanish and French. He was fond of the poetry of Goethe, was an expert on Italian history, and had memorized Plato's "Republic," one of his favorite books.
At the same time, he was one of the worst leaders Italy had ever had. His misadventures in Africa and the invasion of Ethiopia, his aid to Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and the occupation of Albania were among the nails he had hammered into his coffin.
By July 1943, the Fascist grand council refused to back Mussolini's policies. Among the "traitors" was his son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano.
The king dismissed Mussolini and had him placed under arrest. Subsequently, he was freed during a daring rescue led by a captain of the Nazi SS and became head of the Fascist puppet government set up in Salo, in northern Italy.
In the meantime, the Italian resistance, one of the most powerful in Europe, plunged the country into a catastrophic civil war, while an Allied invasion set the stage for a confrontation with the Germans. Never before had Italy suffered such devastation. And Mussolini became a helpless spectator plagued by domestic tragedies, including the execution of his son-in-law.
Mussolini was captured after the German collapse and executed with his mistress, Claretta Petacci. During the last months of his life, so splendidly captured by Moseley, his motto was, "I work and I try, yet I know that all is but a farce."
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