Border patrol — I

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

I recently came across what appear to be two bad books from what are two good publishers. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that — these things happen, a lot of books get published on military history and they can’t all be good. But it turns out that the author of these books is even more questionable than the content. I worry that, having got this far and established a track record, he will be able keep convincing publishers to look favourably upon his work.

The author in question is Frank Joseph, and the books are Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy’s Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935-45 (Helion & Company, 2010) and The Axis Air Forces: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe (Praeger, 2011) — the publisher’s pages can be found here and here. I must admit to not having read them, so this is not a review. But enough is available on Google Books, here and here, to cast serious doubts upon Joseph’s reliability, and these doubts are amply confirmed by reviews available elsewhere, for example by Richard Carrier in Global War Studies. I’ll focus on Mussolini’s War, though The Axis Air Forces appears to be pretty bad too — I’ll just mention here the blunt, unsupported claim from that an American experimental VTOL aircraft of the 1950s, the Convair XFY, ‘had been built from Campini’s original plans’ (p. 31) for the Caproni Campini Ca.183bis, a planned ‘futuristic Italian interceptor’ with ‘a highly innovative vertical takeoff and landing design’ (p. 30). The only trouble is that, as far as I can tell, the XFY owed nothing to any Italian aircraft (though it did to a German one, the unbuilt Focke-Wulf Triebflügel), and the Ca.183bis was not a VTOL design at all, but a high-altitude interceptor of relatively conventional configuration (albeit with a Campini compressor, making it a crude jet). The only somewhat unusual feature they had in common seems to have been contra-rotating propellers, but they weren’t actually all that rare. But on to Mussolini’s War.

Joseph describes Mussolini’s War as

a blow-by-blow recreation of the Second World War from the Italian perspective divested of its dated propaganda trappings, resulting in an unsuspected revision of our understanding of the Duce’s armed forces, their performances in North Africa, the Mediterranean, France, Britain and Russia, together with his own leadership abilities. (p. 10)

Carrier, an expert on the Italian Army in the Second World War, calls this ‘an amazingly ambitious project’, and, it would seem, one which doesn’t come close to succeeding. He criticises Mussolini’s War for many things: lack of coherence, lack of rigour, lack of sources and what he terms ‘a lack of historical awareness’. Well, quite. Apart from the examples cited by Carrier (the exaggerated claims made for the Italian campaigns in Spain, France and Greece), Joseph’s account of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia is justified by the gifts of the colonisers to the colonised:

during Fascism’s brief administration, hospitals and schools had been built, general hygiene institutionalized, modern agriculture introduced, inter-tribal warfare ceased, and many adult males found employment in a new, immense colonial army. (p. 28)

R. J. B. Bosworth, in Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship 1915-1945 (Penguin, 2006) offers a somewhat different account of the Italian impact on Abyssinia, suggesting that the Italians actually exacerbated ethnic and racial tensions and that a country which had been self-sufficient in food now had to import it (pp. 383-5). On the other hand, according to Joseph, far worse than Mussolini was Haile Selassie:

Far many more Ethiopians — upwards of nearly two million — had died under his despotism than the 15,000 who fell in the mid-1930s’ conquest of their country. (p. 28)

He gives no cite for this figure of 15,000. It seems remarkably light when set against the official figures of 10,000 Italian dead and the brutality of the invasion (Joseph notes the presence of European Red Cross units in the conflict zone but not the Italian use of mustard gas against them, let alone against the Ethiopians themselves). Bosworth again:

It is likely that tens of thousands of Ethiopian lives were sacrificed in those years and that there were further killings in 1937, after the Ethiopian resistance wounded Viceroy Graziani in an assassination attempt. For three days Fascist militia were encouraged to rampage through the ‘native’ quarters of Addis Ababa in an expanded colonialist version of a murderous squadrist raid. The casualties at that time numbered in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. Ethiopian historians estimate the total dead from Italian wars and governmental action as above, even well above, 300,000. (p. 384)

It’s true that available casualty figures vary greatly, but Joseph is not interested in weighing the evidence, instead going straight to the low end of the scale.

I could go on, but judging from the available evidence the whole book is like this: Joseph minimises the harm done by Mussolini while exaggerating his successes. And not just in military terms, either; the background Joseph provides on the Fascist regime suggests he views it in favourable light. Here’s what he says about Mussolini’s imposition of dictatorship in 1925 ‘as part of his intention to utterly transform Italian society, economy and culture’:

His move had been prompted by press agitation that very nearly toppled the Fascist regime, when the murder of a wealthy Socialist, Giacomo Matteotti, was dilated into a cause celebre. ‘I have tried for more than two years to share power with my opponents, who do nothing but prate about democracy, while digging in their heels against any form of progress that threatens their profits’, Mussolini declared on 3 January 1925. ‘Italy wants peace and quiet, work and calm. I will give these things with love if possible, with force if necessary.’ Thus was born the modern totalitarian state, in which all life was conditioned and permeated by a definite ideological style and world-outlook. As German Major Walter Troege was to tell the First European Student and Front Fighter Meeting in Dresden on 17 April 1942, ‘Mussolini transformed Italy from a museum into a state.’ (pp. 13-4)

Matteotti was murdered by Blackshirts after denouncing the regime in Parliament, possibly with Mussolini’s knowledge (the jury is still out on that); Joseph glosses over this by implying that this crime was ‘dilated’ into a crisis. The ‘modern totalitarian state’ which resulted was one in which ‘all life was conditioned and permeated by a definite ideological style and world-outlook’. Leaving aside the question of just how ‘total’ Fascist Italy was, just what does he mean by ‘a definite ideological style and world-outlook’? Most troubling is his approving quote of Troge’s claim that ‘Mussolini transformed Italy from a museum into a state’. I’m pretty sure Italy was a state before Mussolini came along. Joseph is taking sides here, and he’s siding with Mussolini.

Carrier’s judgement on Mussolini’s War is politely damning:

I am afraid this book will not get a warm welcome from the small group of Italian and non-Italian specialists of the military history of this period. The work does not meet expectations, and the promise of a revisionist understanding of Mussolini’s wars is not kept. If Joseph’s good words about the Italian soldiers, pilots, and navy crews are welcome commentary, his praise of Mussolini as a great strategist is historically unsound. Should military historians forgive the numerous and very serious limitations of this book? I believe that question will have to be answered by the reader.

I think it’s clear where I stand. Carrier, quite appropriately, here uses the word ‘revisionist’ in the proper sense, of a legitimate revision of historical understanding based on rigorous research. All historians seek this, and in the case of Italy in the Second World War it’s probably well overdue — Joseph is right that the legacy of Allied propaganda still leads us to dismiss the Italian war effort. But in Mussolini’s War, Joseph comes perilously close to being a revisionist of the other kind, the kind that is an apologist for, if not a defender of, fascism. It could be argued that one or two dodgy books don’t matter much in the scheme of things, but Mussolini’s War is currently cited in more than twenty articles on the English-language version of Wikipedia, including such important subjects as Mussolini himself, Italian Fascism, generic fascism, fascist ideology, and the invasion of Sicily.

In a follow-up post I’ll take a closer look at Joseph himself. It gets worse.

Comments (6)

6 thoughts on “Border patrol — I

  1. Pingback: Border patrol — I

  2. This just reinforces how important the review process is outside of the publisher’s own vetting process. The unpaid collegial peer work that reviewers do is vital to keeping scholarship honest.

  3. Yes, it’s critical. It would be great if everyone who was thinking of reading Mussolini’s War could read it Carrier’s review first. However, only a vanishingly small number of people (including Wikipedia editors) have access to Global War Studies so they’re never going to read it. This is a good argument in favour of open access (as long as we don’t destroy academia in the process). Maybe we even need an OA Journal of Bad History as a central clearinghouse, though that’s a depressingly negative idea.

    • Just waiting for the lawsuits when the Journal of Bad History gets published. And how many military history works (of whatever kind) would find their way into the journal? Setting out the criteria for inclusion would be interesting though.

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