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John Gooch's "Mussolini and His Generals"


Active Member
I have read "Mussolini e i suoi generali", i.e. the Italian edition of John Gooch's "Mussolini and His Generals. The Armed Forces and Fascist Foreign Policy, 1922-1940", Cambridge University Press, 2008, and I would like to provide my review.

This book covers the interwar years and is focused solely on top strategy, planning, programs for new weapons, and the organization of the Armed Forces. No space is devoted to military operations in Libya, Ethiopia, Spain or Albania.

The narrative follows a strictly chronologic scheme and, within each period, a thematic approach. The themes are always the international political situation, the meetings of the Commissione suprema di Difesa in February of each year (a topic of primary importance), and the situation and programs of each Armed Force. The style is dry and somewhat boring, and the book lacks a synthetic analysis. The roles of the author are mostly those of providing a summary of the tons of documents that he has read, but seldom making use of them in any comparative way, and of adding some critical/sarcastic remarks about certain decisions or people. Anyway, the greatest quality of this book is the professional research and the abundance of primary sources employed, a job which deserves the deepest respect. The book, in fact, is primarily based upon documents from the archives of the three Armed Forces.

Besides the style and the rather useless remarks, I think that this book has two shortcomings. The first is the way that Italian foreign policy is treated: while not terribly biased, the author makes use mostly of the anti-Fascist and practically anti-Italian British historiography, which follows the idelogic approach to the matter. In other words, it looks like that Mussolini wished to wage war as an ally of Nazi Germany since his childhood and every detail which does not fit into this frame is ignored or understated (I think about the plans against Germany requested by Mussolini after the Anschluss and disregarded by the author, for example). The Italian history of foreign affairs by scholars like Pastorelli, Vedovato, Giannini and Quartararo, for example, is completely ignored. Only Mario Toscano, whom honestly it would have been impossible to avoid, is used. The second shortcoming is more specific: the author does not make use of Giuliano Colliva's articles "Ufficio Trasporti Rifornimenti in Guerra. Studi per un conflitto (1931-1940)" and "La Marina fa la spesa. Prezzi, miti e realtà delle commesse militari della Marina italiana tra le due guerre mondiali". The former study, in particular, would have provided an invaluable support to the author's researches and in particular to the study of the planning of imports in case of war, while the latter is of great importance for shipbuilding.

An aspect which is completely absent, save a few remarks scattered around the text, is the human one. I don't think it's a problem, because clearly the author did not wish to delve into this topic and it would not be strictly necessary in my opinion, but the readers who would like to know how the Italian generals/admirals behaved or some details about their career, character, relationships and enmities, etc. will be disappointed by the complete lack of these kind of information (and the title is somewhat misleading). Information which are very difficult to find also in Italian language, since one should read directly the memoirs, diaries, biographies of the involved people, hoping that they are not too biased or blatantly false. The only Armed force which had the fortune of being analyzed also with regards to its human dimension was the Regia Aeronautica: Giuseppe D'Avanzo's "Ali e poltrone", which Gooch often uses (but only for the doctrine or the planning), is a masterpiece from this point of view. A honest book, based not only upon written sources, but also on the personal knowledge by the author, a journalist and aviator who spent his whole life in the environment of the Italian Air Force and civil aviation. Something rather similar, but less personal, is "I generali della dittatura" by Giuseppe Bucciante, who was a journalist, son of a general of the Army, friend of Balbo, Mario Badoglio (the son of the Marshal), and the Cavallero family. His background made him the perfect person for such a book, but he often avoided to write about private matters and tried to keep a detached point of view, probably due to his discretion. The more recent "I generali di Mussolini" by Giovanni Cecini is just a collection of short biographies of the most known generals and admirals, nothing exceptional nor new, but probably, given that those who were adults before and during WW2 have all passed away, in future it will be very difficult to find anything better.

The Italian edition has some annoying typos (or at least I hope they are typos and not mistakes; for example the 50 - !!! - ships that could have been handled daily by the port of Massaua) and the translator has the strange habit of keeping the words "attaché" instead of "addetto" and "Shewa" instead of "Scioa".

In conclusion, Gooch's book is a must for those people interested in Italy in WW2, given that it provides a documented history of how this country reached this dramatic moment in World history. The fact that it's available in English language is surely a value added. I also think it is much better than "Mussolini's War" by the same author, already reviewed here, because this time Gooch has made a better use of sources, looks less biased and does not write about military operations, which clearly is not his job.