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W. Vincent Arnold. The Illusion of Victory: Fascist Propaganda and the Second World War. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. 270 pages. Bibliography. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8204-1895-1.

Reviewed by Paul Baxa, University of Toronto.
Published by H-Italy (June, 2000)

Studies of fascist propaganda have grown exponentially since Philip Cannistraro published La Fabbrica di Consenso [1] in 1975. Curiously neglected in this literature has been the role of propaganda during the Second World War. With his book, Illusion of Victory, W. Vincent Arnold attempts to fill this gap. The central argument of the book is that the propaganda initiatives taken by the Ministry of Popular Culture ultimately ended in failure, as the regime's insistent belief in victory "failed to survive in a world of objective reality" (p. 11). This inability to deal with the realities of the war was due to the increasing number of military defeats; the lack of a long-term strategy which forced the ministry to react to events rather than anticipating them, and the inability of the regime to centralize and control all mass media outlets.

The strength of Arnold's argument lies in his account of the futile attempts to deal with the often unforeseen developments of the war. Events like the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 caused Italian propaganda to suddenly drop its anti-Bolshevism, a central feature of fascism's self-image until then. Crises such as these were the inevitable consequence of a lack of long-term strategy which forced the Ministry of Popular Culture to react to events rather than anticipating them. Arnold is adept at demonstrating how this weakness led to an increasing dependence on Nazi Germany in formulating a common propaganda; a relationship which frequently saw Italy take directives from the German general staff. For the most part, Arnold's analysis is sound in outlining the various contradictory paths taken by Italian propaganda, though it would have been intriguing to know if the frequent directives given to the press by the ministry, and Mussolini, were carried out to the letter. Arnold is also a little unfair in criticizing the regime for not having a precise strategy at the outset-wars are rarely predictable.

Illusion of Victory is less convincing with regard to the response of the Italian public to fascist propaganda. While Arnold is not incorrect in denoting the lack of popular enthusiasm for the war, his tendency to treat the Italian public as a single, unified entity is problematic. Despite using reports from the Ministry of Interior from selected cities, Arnold never distinguishes between classes, cities, or regions and treats Italian public opinion as a single entity. He also fails to consider political differences. For example, in chapter four, Arnold argues that by 1941 Italians were increasingly turning to the Vatican for alternative sources of information on the war. Considering the Vatican's recognition of the regime before the war one has to question if all anti-fascists, especially on the Left, genuinely saw the church as a trustworthy alternative.

While he at times offers some evidence, Arnold often seems to rely on personal conviction to explain Italian response to propaganda. At one point, he argues that the regime's inability to control all mass media outlets "must have limited the effectiveness of the regime's propaganda." (p. 114) Arnold offers no evidence to support this, asking us instead to take it on faith that pro-war propaganda could only have emanated from government agencies. This is characteristic of the sharp dichotomy between state and society presented to us by Arnold; a dichotomy which ignores the points of intersection between the two. For example, Mabel Berezin's Making the Fascist Self [2], shows how letters from soldiers on the Greek and Albanian fronts often repeated Fascist propaganda. Despite these problems, Illusion of Victory is a well-researched, useful, and rich account of the formulation of propaganda during the Second World War which will, hopefully, serve as an impetus to increased investigation into this obscure period of Fascist Italy.


[1]. Philip V. Cannistraro. La Fabbrica di Consenso: Fascismo e Mass Media. Bari: Laterza, 1975.

[2]. Mabel Berezin. Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Interwar Italy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 10/07/2000
S D Stein

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