There is probably no more frequently asked question about twentieth-century Italian history than ‘Why did Benito Mussolini come to power in 1922?’. Donald Sassoon, the distinguished historian of the Italian Communist Party and of European socialism, and the author of a recent, monumental survey of the development of Europe’s cultural markets in the last two centuries, has provided a nuanced, balanced and in many respects comprehensive answer in an elegant extended essay that will come as a godsend to A-level students and undergraduates up and down the country. It is a work that draws very heavily on the Italian and Anglo-Saxon scholarship of the last forty years; but Sassoon’s command of the field of international history also enables him to place Mussolini and Italian fascism in often refreshing and unfamiliar comparative perspectives.
In all big ‘why?’ questions, historians have to decide whether to privilege long- or short-term explanations and what weight, if any, to attach to over-arching and inherently deterministic theories of change. Given the degree to which contemporary politics in Italy has long been closely bound up with often acrimonious debates