‘This book is … the first English-language monograph in almost thirty years on Italian Fascist youth organizations’, claims the author (p. 8). Yet in fact Alessio Ponzi has written a rather run-of-the-mill administrative history of the type appearing in the 1970s. It does not really supersede the admirable 1985 study by Tracy Koon to which he is referring. Meanwhile there has appeared a book by Ute Schleimer in 2004, which in addition compares the Fascist youth organizations with the Hitler Youth. Ponzio complains that ‘she did not look at interactions and cooperation between’ them (p. 230). That constitutes the main thrust of his book, though in truth there was not a great deal of mutual exchange. He admits, buried in a footnote, to ‘the unstated and underlying rivalry’ between the two, which seems to have been stronger (p. 279). Plans for joint training academies for youth leaders never got off the ground, though the outbreak of the war was partly to blame for that.
However, an investigation of the training programmes is Ponzio’s main interest. He admits at the outset that he is not going to deal ‘with the effectiveness of the Fascist and Nazi educational systems in instilling their spirit and values in the youth’, though the outcome of all that training would seem to constitute an integral part of an analysis (p. 12). And he acknowledges that ‘the uomo nuovo and the neuer Mensch remained unattained ideals’. What puzzles him is ‘why the Fascists and the Nazis remained so extraordinarily committed to their training programs’ (p. 13). It seems to me that in that age of ideologies there is a rather simple answer: the leadership was aware that the ideal had not been reached, and so found it necessary to strive even harder to perfect the means of reaching it, rather than concede defeat for their programme or themselves. The Italian sources appear to be more forthcoming about such self-awareness than the German ones. Ponzio relies too heavily there on cheer-leading articles in the official Nazi press and self-serving assessments in official reports, as when he talks of the ‘enthusiasm’ of Italian gymnasts and their German audience five times in a couple of pages. Instead of an objective, critical comment about this, he merely concludes, ‘The voice of this student vibrated with enthusiasm’ (p. 136). But one would expect nothing less from such sources.
In both countries, the grand plans failed to materialize. Already in 1928 Mussolini approved a new curriculum for physical education instructors. They were to receive certification as sports teachers after two years, but needed to add a third year, in order to qualify for more senior positions in the Fascist youth organization. However, that ‘third year was never officially organized’ (p. 50). One year later, a more ambitious plan for youth officials was introduced, to allow for two extra years’ training before qualification. Again, ‘the reform was nipped in the bud and nothing changed’ (p. 52). Fifteen years later, a major proposal ‘was never implemented’, while another ‘remained a dead letter’ (p. 208). There were high hopes for the Hitler Youth, too. In 1935 ‘the Reichsführer wished that very soon…’ youth leaders would have spent several weeks training in the institutes that they ‘wished to build all over Germany’ [my emphases] (p. 103). Wishful thinking again. Ponzio seems to understand the problem, quoting Michael Kater about the ‘chronically inadequate leadership recruitment and training’ but too often the unadorned recital of official decrees and reports gives a misleadingly optimistic impression. Ten pages of architectural description of the Mussolini Forum are all very well, but the success or failure of the training in this academy is more pertinent. Most useful are the references to significant differences between the two countries, such as the acceptance of Jewish youths into the Italian leaders’ training academy. That no doubt appalled the Hitler Youth, who in any case viewed collaboration with their Fascist counterparts as ‘mere forms of German cultural imperialism’. When they spoke of ‘spiritual unity’, Ponzio concludes, ‘they meant Teutonic uniformity’ (p. 187).
The disappearance of the central Hitler Youth archives is a major obstacle to this comparison. There is some excellent recent literature on the Hitler Youth, for example the book by Michael Kater, but all too often Ponzio depends on decades-old studies of Nazi youth. That is also true for his sources on the Third Reich in general. He would sooner cite Joachim Fest’s writings on Hitler from the 1970s than use the superb, recent work by Ian Kershaw or Richard J. Evans. Wanting to quote from some general documents on the two regimes, he turns to an old textbook first published in 1952 (p. 4).
And there is a bigger problem. Ponzio is much less comfortable with German sources than those in his native language. When citing German terms, he rides roughshod over case endings and umlauts, and often offers an unhappy English translation. Grenzlandlager were not camps held in ‘marginal lands’ (p. 260), but in border areas. The Kinderlandverschickung (which he misspells anyway) does not translate as ‘Save the Children in the Countryside’ but as the children’s evacuation programme (p. 203). German ranks are strangely anglicized: Wilhelm Frick was not the ‘Home Secretary’ but the German Interior Minister (p. 89). And Ritter von Epp, the Bavarian Reichsstatthalter, was its governor, not its ‘Reich lieutenant’, as a glance at any reference book would reveal (p. 121). Spelling errors also occur with the names of well-known scholars, such as Walter Laqueur (p. 233), or historical figures such as Kurt Harrer (p. 251).
In sum, this is a catalogue of the smoothly functioning, political education of the two nations’ youths that the leaders would have liked to enshrine, but never achieved. This is not to say that thousands of youths did not feel inspired by the activities they pursued in these organizations, but the overwhelming success sought by the leaders evaded them. The reasons for this in the Party organizations of both countries have been well explored elsewhere: lack of funding, the social Darwinism of political rivalries and so on. This study does not shed much new light on this, because the author declines to set his findings in a broader context. Looking exclusively at the structure without evaluating the output leaves one searching for answers in the existing literature.