My PhD thesis was redrafted and published as a book by Berg (Oxford and New York) in 2004-2005. It examines a much ignored period of Mussolini’s political development, namely the First World War. It argues that it was precisely during the 1914-1918 conflict that he came to fascism, and effectively invented it. The book is now available electronically, for which go here. Scholarly comments on my book include:
“An important study of the young Mussolini, this book shows us the future fascist leader in a new light, helping us to understand better why Italy turned to fascism and how Mussolini himself – still a socialist firebrand in 1914 – became the champion of the Italian Right. This study will become essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the development of the fascist movement and its duce”.
Paul Corner, Professor of European History, University of Siena
“This book makes a real contribution to our knowledge of the birth of fascism in Italy. Hitherto, historians have ignored Mussolinis experience as combatant in the First World War. Paul OBrien has identified a major gap in the research, and he argues cogently for the crucial role of Mussolinis war experience. This provocative, but carefully argued, book is a welcome application of the new cultural history of the Great War and will be essential reading for those seeking to understand the origins of fascism”.
Alan Kramer, Associate Professor of History, Trinity College Dublin
“For all the recent biographies of Mussolini, not much attention has been paid to the war years and to the future Duce’s wartime diaries. Paul O’Brien’s new study fills the gap and, in the process, challenges those who view Mussolini as essentially a man of the left, a heretical socialist of some sort, from 1914 to 1919”.
Alexander De Grand, Professor Emeritus of History, North Carolina State University
“The Great War was undoubtedly a defining experience for Mussolini, and Paul O’Brien has produced a useful and readable study of it … He demonstrates convincingly that Mussolini was a national-imperialist from the outbreak of the war, that he was fundamentally an anti-socialist who never had any profound concern for the Italian peasantry. En route, he scotches one of the more sensitive myths of the Duce’s war. In 1917, Mussolini was hospitalised and then given a year’s leave, not because of wounds but because he had neuro-syphilis — a fact about which the Italian autopsy on his body in 1945 is, not unsurprisingly, silent”.
John Gooch, Professor of International History & Politics, University of Leeds
“Paul O’Brien explores an obscure aspect of Benito Mussolini’s career, namely, the future fascist dictator’s use of his journalistic skills for purposes of self-mythification during WWI. He provides an in-depth analysis of the cultural, political and organisational mechanisms that, in and through the Great War, allowed already existing nationalist, imperialist, reactionary and racist ideologies to forge into a system of ideas and practices that are identifiable with fascism. It is by virtue of its ability to fill in this important historiographical gap between the pre- and post-war periods that O’Brien’s book deserves to be read by a broad European audience”.
Marco Pluviano, co-author of Le Fucilazioni Sommarie Nella Prima Guerra Mondiale
During research for the PhD I came across documentation in the Italian State Archives concerning the injury incurred by Mussolini at the front in 1917 and for which he was exempted from further service. My argument overturned the standard interpretation of this incident and showed that he was in fact suffering from neurosyphilis. The findings were published in Italia Contemporanea, no. 226, March 2002 and are available here in Italian. A review of the article was published in the Italian national daily La Repubblica in May 2002, and can be viewed here. A shorter version of the original piece was published in English in the 2002-2003 edition of the Journal of Postgraduate Studies in Trinity College Dublin, and won the dean’s prize for best essay. This can be downloaded here. Read it on-screen or download the jpeg files.
These days my intervention in the historiographical debate is normally by means of book reviews for Italia Contemporanea and Modern Italy. My views on the school of thought associated with the Italian historian Renzo De Felice are expressed both in my book and here in a review of Emilio Gentile‘s book on the work of De Felice from May 2004. The continuity between the fascist and post-WW2 state apparatus is discussed in this November 2004 review of Nicola Palombaro‘s book on the unwillingness to purge the fascists in the province of Pescara (and Italy as a whole) between 1943 and 1948.
I am naturally eager to engage with books the theses of which are similar to mine and was therefore very pleased to have the opportunity to review Angelo Ventrone‘s volume on the origins of fascist totalitarianism, which can be downloaded by clicking here. A November 2006 review article on the character of the war conducted by Italy between 1915 and 1918 as seen through the manner in which the Italian army arbitrarily executed its own men can be downloaded here. My views on the limits of the liberal approach to the analysis of fascism can be assessed in a February 2007 comment on Borden W. Painter‘s study of Mussolini’s reconstruction of Rome which can be downloaded here, whereas my overall position on the character of fascism can be found in my favourable January 2008 review of Martin Blinkhorn‘s pamphlet on fascist Italy, which is available here. A full list of my various publications in English and Italian can be found in my CV. This includes a recent article on Mussolini and the “enemy within” during WW1 , contained in the multi-volume history of Italy at war edited by Mario Isnenghi and Daniele Ceschin and published by UTET (Turin). Information on this work, and on the two volumes dedicated to the Great War in particular, can be found by clicking here, whereas the article itself can be downloaded here. My 2010 take on Mark Thompson’s book on Italy in the Great War is available here.
A cold day in Milan with my friend Paolo Ferrari, editor of the review Italia Contemporanea.