Border patrol — I

[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

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.

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12 thoughts on “Border patrol — I

  1. Alan Allport

    Helion seem to maintain a very uneven list – there’s some interesting WWII-era memoirs there (including one by a former Grenadier Guardsman I’ve read and enjoyed), but also a lot of Waffenporn, Nazi-UFO garbage, and nostalgic reminiscences about white Rhodesia and South Africa.

    Praeger have clearly embarrassed themselves, however.

  2. Christopher

    It rather seems to recall Borghese’s memoir about the Italian special forces. He was an unreconstructed fascist and it was interesting to read about the philosophy to fascism. However, there was an air of unreality to the whole book – did either text you reviewed produce such an impression?

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    Yes, I think ‘uneven’ is a good term. Helion do publish some quite decent stuff, including academic monographs (I reviewed one here a while back). Their bread and butter is clearly popular military history, though, and quite a lot of it, and the quality is variable. They cover a lot of territory which wouldn’t otherwise be accessible to the general reader — sometimes that’s good, sometimes that bad (as we have seen). I think I missed the Nazi UFO ones though!

    And yes too on Praeger. They are a very different kind of publisher to Helion, much more academic-focused. When I first pieced together what was going on here, by chance a Praeger book happened to be sitting next to me because I’d been referring to it. I cringe for their other authors!


    I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘air of unreality’. Certainly utterly delusional in places. This is from p. 10 of Mussolini’s War:

    Most startling of all is how remarkably close he [Mussolini] came to overcoming the Allies. During several pivotal crises, his forces were within a hair’s breadth of winning the war. In these fleeting moments of truth, he held the key to final victory.

    I’m struggling to think of what these ‘fleeting moments’ might have been. Maybe I should buy the book after all!

    (I should point out again that I haven’t seen the books in their entirety, only parts of them, so I don’t claim to have reviewed them.)

  5. Alan Allport

    This is what I had in mind … I confess that whenever I see the words ‘Nazi’ and ‘space’ in close proximity to one another, I now think of this.

  6. Post author

    Ah, yes, that one. I can’t find a preview of it, but the blurb suggests it’s on the same spectrum as Joseph’s books as far as exaggerated claims go (which is not to say they are necessarily ideologically similar, I don’t see evidence for that in this case):

    Much evidence is produced to suggest that planning and preparation were underway for an attempted intercontinental rocket launch against New York at war’s end. A final section of the book examines further German rocketry projects that were on the drawing board by the end of the war, including sophisticated orbital craft.

    Yeah, nah. Could be the publisher dressing it up with some ambiguous but tantalising wording, though; for all I know it is firmly grounded in primary sources and quite moderate in its claims. But we surely don’t need yet another thinly-researched book about Nazi superscientific wonderweapons etc. The annoying thing is that it’s a perfectly legitimate historical research topic (just like death rays and phantom airships! and for that matter Joseph’s chosen topics), but it’s tainted by this kind of stuff.

  7. Perhaps the primary concern is the individual’s ability to spot a bad book. I despair at times when confronted by regular examples of otherwise intelligent people’s credulity. It seems rarer than it ought for people to have the ability to evaluate information and check it – which I’d regard as basic skills but are clearly not.

    In publishing specifically, there are different situations where bad – or fraudulent – books are published. The worst are where a publisher knowingly publishes fiction and imaginings as fact – the classic being the mainsteam publishers promoting Gavin Menzies’ untenable theories by classifying them as ‘history’. They are clearly not, but it makes more money to claim they’re history than getting them into the dreamers section.

    Different to that is where a publisher is caught out by an author representing his or her work as something it is not; and that problem extends into academic publishing (the infamous Lancet MMR vaccination Andrew Wakefield case) and more commonly in mainstream or mass market publishing.

    Academic publishing has a corrective and sanctions process, invoked the Wakefield situation, while mainstream publishing is normally only moderated after publication where laws can be brought to bear – more difficult that you might expect. (A well-documented and relatively black and white example would be the the legal cases and their difficulties against David Irving.)

    When discussing this with Brett, I said my feeling was that most publishers were relatively poor at checking out an author’s credibility, both in their specialisation and in general (a famous case of an author who wasn’t qualified as he claimed, though it probably enhanced his CV as a fiction writer, is Jeffrey Archer with his ‘Oxford’ qualifications). As Brett is outlining, a good track record can be built up, despite some pretty easily found major concerns – but it is clear even basic checks are often not carried out in publishing houses.

    Although hard to tell at times, there is a difference between negligence, as above, and simply not caring enough to ensure a book is honest, whic might be, at times, being simply cynical (Menzies publishers) after a legal, but unethical quid and dollar. However a publisher’s list will often reveal which of the above they may be, as against a more coherent and honest list, and that brings us back to the readers’ need for discernment.

    There’s an interesting essay on the BBC website here which touches on publisher expectation (with a quote) and due diligence on subject/author honesty. (It has another layer, given the subject is Lance Armstrong, but even so the context had some relevance to this discussion.)

  8. Post author

    Thanks, interesting comment. I’m not terribly surprised, or even all that disappointed anymore, by the foolish things some people will believe. It’s just what humans are like. That doesn’t mean bad history (etc) shouldn’t be called out when it is seen — over on the SMH thread I suggested there might be a need for a Journal of Bad History. Part of that is some old-fashioned gatekeeping, to not allow these clowns to gain any veneer of academic respectability by letting academic (or semi-academic) presses publish them without consequence. If they want to allow their reputations to be damaged, that’s their choice, but damaged they should be.

  9. Maybe all we need is an equivalent to the Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award? A history version probably won’t get the coverage that does though. Can’t think why not.

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