The best books about fascist propaganda

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professor of Classics at Rutgers University, where I’ve taught since 2000; before that, I spent a decade on the faculty of Bryn Mawr College. For three years I served on the staff of the American Academy in Rome, a somewhat frenetic experience that prompted me to shift my focus from ancient Roman history to the history of the city of Rome. Since 2010 I’ve been managing a private family archive in Rome, that of the papal Boncompagni Ludovisi, which covers the period from the early 1400s to the 1940s. Now completely digitized, the archive has much new material to offer, not least on the era of Mussolini, including resistance to his regime.


I wrote...

The Fasces: A History of Ancient Rome's Most Dangerous Political Symbol

By T. Corey Brennan,

Book cover of The Fasces: A History of Ancient Rome's Most Dangerous Political Symbol

What is my book about?

“Fascism” is a word ubiquitous in our contemporary political discourse, but the Roman roots of the term today seem largely forgotten. In antiquity, the ‘fasces’ were a bundle of wooden rods bound with a leather cord, in which an axe was placed—in essence, a mobile kit for corporal or capital punishment. Attendants typically carried the fasces to induce feelings of respect and fear for the relevant authority.

Starting in the Renaissance, we find revivals and reinterpretations of the ancient fasces, accelerating especially after 1789, the first year of the US Constitution and the opening volley of the French Revolution. But it was Benito Mussolini, who propagated the fasces on an unprecedented scale. The fact that the emblem has grown largely unfamiliar has offered an opening to contemporary extremist groups.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini's Italy

T. Corey Brennan Why did I love this book?

Still after 25 years, Falasca Zamponi’s work remains the best treatment of Mussolini’s “aesthetic politics” (the author’s term). She shows how his regime painstakingly constructed a symbolic universe to represent and indeed aggrandize its power, which went well beyond mere propaganda and instead created a cultural dynamic with the Italian public. But she also demonstrates how Mussolini, soon after coming into power in October 1922, “began to create the conditions for the demise of the Fascist Party” which he had formed, “and the growth of his own stardom.”

By Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Fascist Spectacle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A cultural history of Italian fascism, this work traces the narrative path that accompanied the making of a regime and the construction of Mussolini's power. The author reads fascist myths, rituals, images, and speeches as texts that tell the story of fascism. Linking Mussolini's elaboration of a new ruling style to the shaping of the regime's identity, she finds that in searching for symbolic means and forms that would represent its political novelty, fascism in fact brought itself into being, creating its own power and history. Falasca-Zamponi aregues that an aesthetically founded notion of politics guided fascist power's historical unfounding…


Book cover of The Fascist Revolution in Italy: A Brief History with Documents

T. Corey Brennan Why did I love this book?

In her decades of work on Italy’s Fascist era, Marla Stone has shown an especially keen eye for the development of the regime’s policies and ideologies, whether in the sphere of art and culture, or that of political violence and imperialist aggression. Here Stone offers a succinct and penetrating overview of the origins, rise, consolidation, and eventual crash of Fascism in Italy, followed by a translation of some three dozen primary documents—about a third of which were otherwise unavailable in English—to illustrate her narrative. Particularly chilling are the propaganda texts from 1938 on, when Mussolini’s grandiose claims to the legacy of ancient Rome took a back seat to full-blown racial politics, “as Italians were declared ‘Aryans’ and biological anti-Semitism became part of official ideology.”

By Marla Stone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fascist Revolution in Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the first mass movement of the radical right to assume power in the wake of World War I, Italian Fascism became the model and inspiration for violent anti-democratic and anti-socialist forces that swept Europe between 1919 and 1945. In this volume Marla S. Stone provides an essential introduction to the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini's Fascist dictatorship. Drawing on the most recent historical scholarship, Stone explores the multifaceted nature of Fascist rule, which drew strength not only from its terror apparatus but also from popular support for its social programs. More than 35 primary sources, including speeches, decrees,…


Book cover of She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon

T. Corey Brennan Why did I love this book?

When Rome started minting coins for export markets in the third century BCE, one of the first emblems it chose was the she-wolf that, according to legend, suckled the twin infants Romulus and Remus on the site of the city not yet founded. In Italy, almost every generation since then has embraced the animal—as the author explains, “a beast that was Roman and mother, ancient and wild, fearsome and protective”—to communicate pretty much whatever message it wanted. Cristina Mazzoni amply illustrates the indeterminacy of the symbol, which Mussolini leveraged in his propaganda to elicit feelings of both patriotic pride and terror, but still found difficult to control. Case in point: just fifteen years after Mussolini’s death, the wolf with twins became the symbol of the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics.

By Cristina Mazzoni,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked She-Wolf as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since antiquity, the she-wolf has served as the potent symbol of Rome. For more than two thousand years, the legendary animal that rescued Romulus and Remus has been the subject of historical and political accounts, literary treatments in poetry and prose, and visual representations in every medium. In She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon, Cristina Mazzoni examines the evolution of the she-wolf as a symbol in western history, art, and literature, from antiquity to contemporary times. Used, for example, as an icon of Roman imperial power, papal authority, and the distance between the present and the past, the she-wolf…


Book cover of The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology

T. Corey Brennan Why did I love this book?

The raised-arm salute is the most distinctive gesture of 20th-century Fascism and Nazism; in the 21st century, it still thoroughly shocks when spotted. Its origin? Though the so-called “Roman salute” has been widely supposed to date back to classical antiquity, Winkler in a meticulous study demonstrates that it is a modern creation, an anachronism that first consistently cropped up in theatrical contexts (stage and early motion pictures) in the 1890s. Though nonsensical from a historical point of view, “it does make political and ideological sense”, argues Winkler, “to all those who see in the Romans a model for power and might and for glorious conquest of others.” More generally, the book is essential reading on the origins and evolution of Mussolini’s theatricality.

By Martin M. Winkler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Roman Salute as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The raised-arm salute was the most popular symbol of Fascism, Nazism, and related political ideologies in the twentieth century and is said to have derived from an ancient Roman custom. Although modern historians and others employ it as a matter of course, the term “Roman salute” is a misnomer. The true origins of this salute can be traced back to the popular culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that dealt with ancient Rome: historical plays and films. The visual culture of stage and screen from the 1890s to the 1920s was chiefly responsible for the wide familiarity…


Book cover of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present

T. Corey Brennan Why did I love this book?

“At its core, propaganda is a set of communication strategies designed to sow confusion and uncertainty, discourage critical thinking, and persuade people that reality is what the leader says it is." So writes Ruth Ben-Ghiat, one of the top historians of Italian Fascism and a high-profile media expert on contemporary struggles between democracy and authoritarianism. In this wide-ranging study, Ben-Ghiat details precisely how propaganda—"a system of attention management that works through repetition”—figures as one of the autocrat’s chief “tools of rule,” plucking examples from far beyond Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. There’s an audiobook too!

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Strongmen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is the expert on the "strongman" playbook employed by authoritarian demagogues from Mussolini to Putin-enabling her to predict with uncanny accuracy the recent experience in America and Europe. In Strongmen, she lays bare the blueprint these leaders have followed over the past 100 years, and empowers us to recognize, resist, and prevent their disastrous rule in the future.

For ours is the age of authoritarian rulers: self-proclaimed saviors of the nation who evade accountability while robbing their people of truth, treasure, and the protections of democracy. They promise law and order, then legitimize lawbreaking by financial, sexual, and…


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Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

By Helena P. Schrader,

Book cover of Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

Helena P. Schrader Author Of Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I first went to Berlin after college, determined to write a novel about the German Resistance; I stayed a quarter of a century. Initially, the Berlin Airlift, something remembered with pride and affection, helped create common ground between me as an American and the Berliners. Later, I was commissioned to write a book about the Airlift and studied the topic in depth. My research included interviews with many participants including Gail Halvorsen. These encounters with eyewitnesses inspired me to write my current three-part fiction project, Bridge to Tomorrow. With Russian aggression again threatening Europe, the story of the airlift that defeated Soviet state terrorism has never been more topical. 

Helena's book list on the Russian blockade of Berlin and the Allied Airlift

What is my book about?

Stopping Russian Aggression with milk, coal, and candy bars….

Berlin is under siege. More than two million civilians will starve unless they receive food, medicine, and more by air.

USAF Captain J.B. Baronowsky and RAF Flight Lieutenant Kit Moran once risked their lives to drop high explosives on Berlin. They are about to deliver milk, flour, and children’s shoes instead. Meanwhile, two women pilots are flying an air ambulance that carries malnourished and abandoned children to freedom in the West. Until General Winter deploys on the side of Russia...

Based on historical events, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader delivers an insightful, exciting and moving tale about how former enemies became friends in the face of Russian aggression — and how close the Berlin Airlift came to failing under the assault of “General Winter.”

Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

By Helena P. Schrader,

What is this book about?

Fighting a war with milk, coal and candy bars....

In the second book of the Bridge to Tomorrow Series, the story continues where "Cold Peace" left off.

Berlin is under siege. More than two million civilians in Hitler's former capital will starve unless they receive food, medicine and more by air.

USAF Captain J.B. Baronowsky and RAF Flight Lieutenant Kit Moran once risked their lives to drop high explosives on Berlin. They are about to deliver milk, flour and children's shoes instead. Meanwhile, two women pilots are flying an air ambulance that carries malnourished and abandoned children to freedom in…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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