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Mussolini: A Biography, by Jasper Ridley, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999, $27.50.

In 1927, when an out-of-office Winston Churchill was passing through Rome, he gave a press conference to the Fascist media, to which he said, after meeting Il Duce, Benito Mussolini: “I was charmed by his gentle and simple bearing and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers. If I had been born an Italian, I am sure I should have been wholeheartedly with you from start to finish on your triumphant struggle against the bestial passions and appetites of Leninism. The Fascist Movement has rendered service to the whole world. Italy has shown that there is a way of fighting the subversive forces….She has provided the necessary antidote to the Russian poison.” This was at a time when the black-shirted Fascist militia forced castor oil down the throats of Il Duce’s political opponents and shot Italian Communists on his orders. Mussolini reportedly was very pleased when he heard his future opponent’s praise, while the Russian ambassador in Rome at that time was certainly not.

Churchill’s comments are included in Jasper Ridley’s newest work, Mussolini: A Biography. His previous books include biographies of Lord Palmerston, Napoleon III and Eugénie, Garibaldi, Tito, and Maximilian and Juarez, plus a dozen other works.

During the war, Ridley notes, there was an alleged secret correspondence between Premier Mussolini and English Prime Minister Churchill. Although the author discounts that story, he does raise the intriguing, if improbable, possibility that Mussolini may have been shot in 1945 not by Italian Communist Partisans–as was previously thought–but by the British Secret Service, to keep this secret correspondence from falling into any of the “wrong” hands.

One of the most interesting biographies of Il Duce ever written, this splendid work comes complete with a selection of 24 photos, some never previously published outside of Italy. Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the book is “The Mafia,” dealing with a subject never before covered in any previous Mussolini biography in English. According to Ridley, Mussolini’s “reputation abroad rose still higher when he confronted the Mafia in Sicily, which had existed since 1900. The leaders were lawyers, doctors and other professional men in Palermo.” There were 700 murders in the Prefecture of Trapani alone.

After a visit to Trapani in May 1924, writes Ridley, Mussolini “decided to crush the Mafia, and chose Cesare Mori for the job as Prefect of Trapani, center of the murders. Mori began on November 8, 1925, and arrested hundreds of suspects and threatened to arrest the wives and children of men on the run within 12 hours if they did not surrender. Large numbers of bandits did within five weeks.”

Ridley asserts that just before his death Il Duce turned over his secret correspondence, papers and personal diary to the Japanese ambassador, who first fled to Switzerland and then returned them to Mussolini’s son, Vittorio, who subsequently lost them through betrayal. Ridley notes that Vittorio thinks he knows who has those documents today, however. Thus we still may not have heard the last word from Benito Mussolini.

Blaine Taylor