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De Felice, Renzo

Historian Renzo De Felice’s early academic career as a Marx-inspired historian of late eighteenthcentury Italian revolutionaries offered few hints of the furore he would provoke when he turned his prodigious research and publication energies to the apparently sympathetic study of fascism. The appearance of each volume of his magnum opus, an eight-volume biography of Mussolini inaugurated in 1965 and still unfinished thirty years later, became the occasion for controversy far beyond university halls. Political opponents accused him of making Mussolini a progressive figure, inventing a mass consensus for his regime and diminishing the value of the Resistance; fellow historians deplored his lack of methodological rigour, conceptual clarity and interpretative perspective. De Felice retorted that it was time to jettison the ideological straitjacket inhibiting the serious study of fascism and that his conclusions were directly based on the vast array of hitherto unknown documents he had unearthed. The bitter dispute was fuelled by often provocative interviews given in the years of terrorism, when any threat to the historical and moral distinctions between fascism and anti-fascism had immediate political reverberations. Beyond the polemics, the significance of De Felice’s work seems more likely to rest on his accumulation of the documentary evidence necessary to assess fascism than on his interpretations of the details he uncovered.