Among English-speaking historians, the interpretation of Mussolini’s foreign policy first developed three-quarters of a century ago by the distinguished anti-Fascist historian Gaetano Salvemini has exercised a powerful influence. His depiction of a Mussolini operating without plan or principle was taken up and expanded by the doyen of English historians of Liberal and Fascist Italy, Denis Mack Smith. For Mack Smith, Mussolini’s distinguishing features were an urge to power, lust for conquest and a quest for prestige. The key element — and instrument — in this policy was propaganda, and its key deficiency was a military machine whose strengths the Duce repeatedly exaggerated and whose weaknesses he continually ignored, despite carrying personal responsibility for all three service ministries from 1933. The whole Fascist edifice was a dream built on bluff, and the bluff was called in September 1939 when Mussolini was ‘shocked to find that the Germans expected him to fight’.1 The notion that Fascism — both at home and abroad — was nothing more than a hollow politica del bluff is one which has attracted numerous other scholars, Italian as well as English.
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