Shortly after he was forced out of office in November 2011, Italy’s longest serving postwar prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, told the press he was spending his time reading the last letters written by Mussolini to his mistress Clara Petacci. ‘I have to say,’ he confessed, ‘that I see myself in many aspects of those letters.’ In the Duce’s view, according to Berlusconi, Italy was ungovernable. ‘What sort of democracy is this?’ Mussolini had wondered. When a journalist suggested that it might not be entirely accurate to describe Mussolini’s Italy as a democracy, the former prime minister replied: ‘Well, it was a democracy in a minor way.’
The right-wing parties which have dominated Italian politics since the end of the Cold War have consistently rejected the legacy of anti-Fascism represented by the Christian Democrats and the Communists, the two parties that dominated Italian politics from the late 1940s until the early 1990s. Exploiting Italians’ deep frustration at the chaotic instability and corruption of the postwar political system, the New Right has based its appeal on its claim to represent law and order, on the idea of Italy for the Italians, on respect for the Catholic Church and its values and, not least, on financial rectitude and political stability. Neo-fascist and self-styled ‘post-fascist’ political groupings have played a full part in the manoeuvrings and mergers that have characterised Italian politics over the past two decades, moderating their policies and rhetoric where necessary in order to obtain a share in power.
In this situation, serious public criticism of Mussolini has become increasingly rare. His rule, which lasted from 1922 until 1943, is widely portrayed as having been relatively benign. ‘Mussolini,’ Berlusconi told the Spectator in September 2003, ‘never killed anyone.’ If he sent his opponents into internal exile it was to holiday resorts. Politicians like Gianfranco Fini, who began his career in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), had no difficulty in attaining high political office under Berlusconi (he was foreign minister for several years). In 1992, Fini declared that Fascism had been ‘part of the history of Italy and the expression of permanent values’. Alessandra Mussolini, the dictator’s granddaughter, after playing a prominent but repeatedly disruptive role in post-fascist politics, became a member of the Italian legislature as part of Berlusconi’s right-wing alliance. In 2008, Gianni Alemanno, the former secretary of the youth wing of the MSI, was elected mayor of Rome on the promise of expelling illegal immigrants from the city. His victory speech was greeted with arms raised in the Fascist salute and chants of ‘Duce! Duce!’ from the crowd.
In Mussolini’s home town of Predappio, souvenir shops line the main street. They still sell online what the town council has banned them from selling in their shops: black shirts, Fascist banners, statues of the Duce, books and DVDs celebrating his life, and, more disturbing still, manganelli, clubs inscribed with such slogans as molti nemici, molto onore (‘many enemies, much honour’). Every year, on the anniversaries of Mussolini’s birth and death as well as the 1922 March on Rome, thousands of sympathisers, many dressed in black shirts and wearing Fascist badges, march from the town centre to the mausoleum where his body is interred, chanting Fascist songs and slogans. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of people come to the mausoleum every day and leave comments in the visitors’ book placed in front of the tomb. What they have to say is overwhelmingly positive, their words almost always addressed directly to the Duce himself: ‘Only under your wise guidance did Italy become a “nation”, a nation that was feared, respected, fruitful and envied.’ ‘If you were here, we would not be in this mess.’ Many of the messages are quite personal, even intimate, and religious phrases and sentiments are common: ‘If you could see how low our poor Italy has sunk,’ one visitor wrote in 2007, ‘return, reincarnated in one of us! Now and forever.’
It’s impossible to imagine Germans openly expressing similar sentiments about Hitler, former Nazis and neo-Nazis joining a present-day German government, German politicians claiming Hitler never killed anyone, someone with the name Hitler being elected to parliament, a former German head of government ‘seeing himself’ in Hitler’s letters to Eva Braun, German crowds chanting Nazi slogans, or German souvenir shops selling Nazi memorabilia. While Italians are widely dissatisfied with their political system and even more with the state of their economy, there has seldom been a political system that has enjoyed such widespread support as the system brought into being in 1949 by the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany: it has delivered stability and prosperity, and nurtured in the Germans a palpable smugness that is sometimes hard to bear, however justified it may be.
In Italy a general amnesty for political and military prisoners was issued in June 1946; there was no consistent policy for prosecuting Italian citizens for war crimes and Fascist bureaucrats and administrators stayed in office. The judge appointed in 1957 as president of the Constitutional Court had also been president of the tribunal set up in 1938 to adjudicate on issues stemming from the Fascist racial laws. In 1960, 60 of the country’s 64 regional prefects and all 135 of its police chiefs had begun their careers under Mussolini. Senior figures in the regime went unpunished: there was no general reckoning with Fascism’s crimes either at home or abroad. In Germany, as we know, only a handful of former Nazis escaped denazification, and war crimes trials continued for several years, giving shocking publicity to the misdeeds of the Third Reich and its servants.
In Germany, there is a gulf between past and present that Germans can’t conceive of bridging, perhaps as a result of the reorientation of German public memory since the end of the Cold War, reflecting the widespread tendency, especially in the US, to place what at that point came to be called the Holocaust at the centre of any retrospective assessment of the Third Reich. Even Italian neo-fascists have felt obliged to distance themselves from Mussolini’s introduction of racial and anti-semitic laws in the late 1930s. Yet the fact that for most of his time in office, Mussolini didn’t persecute the country’s Jews, who were sent to Auschwitz only after the Germans occupied Italy following the Duce’s fall, has preserved the memory of his regime from the fate of its German counterpart.
While a considerable body of research now exists documenting the nature and extent of ordinary Germans’ support for Hitler during the Third Reich, there is nothing comparable on Fascist Italy. In his magnificent new book, a pathbreaking study that everyone interested in Fascism, or in Italy past and present, should read, Christopher Duggan fills the gap by examining a wide range of diaries, including Petacci’s, and the numerous letters sent to Mussolini by private citizens during the two decades of his rule, which often express the same intimate feelings towards the Duce and his regime as the messages left in recent times on his grave. This enables Duggan to deliver not merely a detailed account of popular attitudes towards the regime, but, far more, a general history of Fascism that for the first time treats it, not as a tyranny that allowed ordinary Italians no possibility of expressing themselves freely, nor as the brutal dictatorship of a capitalist class that reduced the great majority of the country’s citizens to the status of victims, but as a regime rooted strongly in popular aspirations and desires. Yet this material, by its nature, quite possibly exaggerates the degree of popular success enjoyed by Mussolini. In The Fascist Party and Popular Opinion in Mussolini’s Italy, Paul Corner paints a very different picture, arguing that corruption and mismanagement had made the Fascist Party deeply unpopular by 1939. And other sources used by Duggan himself reveal a more complex situation than the letters and diaries he quotes seem to suggest.
True, Mussolini secured the support of the Catholic Church and the gratitude of the faithful. His concordat with the papacy in 1929, ending the mutual hostility of church and state that had begun with unification in the 19th century, and putting in place arrangements that have endured to the present day, marked the symbiosis between the two that made Catholicism one of the regime’s most important props. Mussolini’s anti-semitic laws too were backed by leading Catholic periodicals, and praised by the rector of the Catholic University of Milan, Father Agostino Gemelli, as part of the ‘terrible sentence that the Deicide people has brought upon itself and for which it goes wandering the world, unable to find the peace of a fatherland, while the consequences of that horrendous crime pursue it everywhere and at all times’. Nor would conversion release the Jews from this sentence: thanks to their race they would never be assimilated into what Gemelli called Italy’s new Fascist unity ‘of descent, of religion, of tongue, of customs, of hopes, of ideals’.
When Mussolini spoke in public, as he often did, he was the object of adulation; he told Petacci of ‘fanatical scenes, delirious, mad’; of crowds ‘weeping, kneeling, shrieking, arms stretched out’. The enthusiasm expressed in the letters ordinary people sent him convinced him that this wasn’t stage-managed (though Corner presents compelling evidence that a great deal of it was).
To a degree, Duggan undermines his own argument by documenting the extraordinary degree of surveillance imposed on real or potential dissenters. Known critics of Fascism were targeted; Benedetto Croce’s house was broken into by armed blackshirts in November 1926 and its contents trashed before the eyes of his terrified family. The police guard permanently stationed outside his house thereafter was less to ensure his safety than to note down the names of his visitors – now rapidly dwindling in number. Soon friends were obliged to meet him ‘in deserted streets and in solitary corridors’. Even greater isolation was the lot of those exiled to remote parts of southern Italy; 13,000 of them in all, including not only political opponents and critics but troublemakers of all kinds, as well as homosexuals and petty criminals. The villages where they were sent, a long way from their families and jobs, were godforsaken places, as even their inhabitants admitted: Christ Stopped at Eboli, the classic account of exile by Carlo Levi, takes its title from a local saying. Absorbed in the daily struggle for existence in a harsh and unforgiving environment, the peasants had little time for intellectuals, politicians or even the Italian state, whatever its political complexion; for them, Rome, as Levi noted, was ‘the capital of the Signori, the centre of a foreign and malicious state’.
The political police or ‘PolPol’, formed in 1926, had a budget of 50 million lire, half the amount assigned to the police force as a whole, and liaised with local police through what Duggan calls ‘another vast tentacular organisaton’, OVRA (Organisation for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism, also short for piovra or ‘octopus’), whose job it was to open and copy the correspondence of dissidents. A Special Confidential Service tapped the phones not only of opponents of the regime but also of leading figures in the Fascist movement, against the day when Mussolini might need to use their tawdry secrets in order to blackmail them. By 1938, the service was employing 462 stenographers just to transcribe the conversations it overheard. OVRA – according to Mussolini, ‘the strongest organisation in the world’ – employed a large number of spies, often under the threat of exposing their own personal vices. Some of them were former socialists or communists persuaded to work for the regime by payments that rescued them from the financial ruin into which so many had fallen.
The result of all this was a pervasive atmosphere of suspicion and distrust; even the schoolchildren whose diaries Duggan quotes were wary of expressing criticism of the regime. A law of November 1926 banned statements that were ‘seditious or damaging to the prestige of the authorities’ as well as the display of ‘symbols of social subversion’, though (as wasn’t the case in Germany) the political jokes that proliferate under any dictatorship seem mostly to have gone unpunished. But arrest and imprisonment were far from being the only sanctions in the economic depression of the late 1920s and 1930s; dismissal from a job, however badly paid, could spell ruin, and was frequently resorted to. As in Germany, many people sent denunciations to the police when they witnessed imprudent remarks or behaviour, though Duggan says, rather charitably, that this was mainly because they were worried that if they didn’t report them ‘they might themselves risk an accusation of complicity.’
Despite the regime’s strong links with the Catholic Church, sexual libertinism seems to have been as prominent a feature of political life then as it has been more recently. When Berlusconi said that he could see himself in the letters exchanged between Mussolini and his mistress, he may well have been referring to their often highly sexual content. The Duce’s ill-concealed sexual voracity, like Berlusconi’s, projected an image of virility that many Italians found deeply impressive. Like Berlusconi, Mussolini spent huge amounts of time on his sex life, his official image as a faithful family man paralleling an unofficial one as a man of uncontrollable priapic urges.
Women, he liked to boast, threw themselves at him, and he didn’t even pretend to fend them off. There can have been little doubt what was being offered in some of the 1500 pieces of correspondence from private citizens that reached his office every day: ‘So many kisses and caresses I would give my dear Benito,’ one woman wrote: ‘I would embrace him so he could not escape!’ Most of these women, he told Petacci, he made love to once, and never saw again. He simply used them, he told her, ‘for my carnal satisfaction’, and to reassure her, he phoned or wrote to her a dozen or more times a day after their relationship began in 1936.
The lusts of the regime’s satraps were also a matter of public knowledge. During the disastrous military campaign in Greece in the winter of 1940-41, Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano installed himself and his entourage in a large hotel in Bari, where twenty or more girls were brought in by government officials every week for orgies in which the participants divided into teams and squirted water from soda-siphons at one another’s genitals while hacking at their clothes with scissors. Just to make sure everyone knew what was going on, the windows were left wide open. All this was a world away from the priggishness of Hitler, who concealed his own utterly conventional sexual relationship with Eva Braun from the public until they finally married on the eve of their mutual suicide at the end of the war. When he found out that Goebbels was conducting a passionate affair with the Czech actress Lida Baarova, Hitler gave him a furious dressing-down and forced him to break it off.
Mussolini’s standing with the Italian public wasn’t damaged by any of this. People might grumble about one thing or another, but as in Nazi Germany, the Leader bridged social, cultural, generational and regional differences to help bind the nation together. ‘If only the Führer knew,’ was a phrase frequently heard from citizens of the Third Reich outraged at yet another peccadillo of a corrupt Gauleiter or party boss, and it was much the same in Fascist Italy: ‘If only the Duce knew.’ Mussolini seemed to be a sacrosanct figure, however much his subordinates were reviled.
He reached the height of his popularity with the invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935, as the regime pursued wild fantasies of imperial wealth and expressed its determination to exact revenge for liberal Italy’s defeat at the hands of Menelik forty years before. Determined to avoid a repeat of the disastrous ground war of 1896, Mussolini ordered poison gas to be sprayed indiscriminately from the air on military and civilian targets alike. This too was widely supported. Any means were justified to punish the ‘inhuman, vile … bestial Abyssinian people’, a group of students told him: ‘Chemical weapons are expensive, it is true, but the Italian people are ready to make the financial sacrifices required to save their sons.’ Critics in Geneva were told the chemicals only knocked people out briefly, while photographs of mustard-gas victims were said to show victims of leprosy.
Duggan cites one or two diarists who expressed doubts about the conduct of Italian troops during the war – for example, when the party secretary, Achille Starace, used Ethiopian prisoners for target practice, shooting them first in the testicles and then in the chest – but the overwhelming majority of comments were ecstatic. As numerous testimonies quoted by Duggan demonstrate, Mussolini became at this point the embodiment of Italian national pride and national achievement. ‘It is right that we look for a place in the sun,’ one diarist wrote: ‘Today Italy is a nation, a people, conscious of its worth, that knows what it wants and how to get it. The Italy of 15 years ago is finished, dead.’
The war in Ethiopia kindled in the regime a new optimism that Italians could be remoulded into aggressive, well-disciplined and fanatical members of a new master race. Among other things, this meant getting rid of ‘bourgeois’ customs such as the handshake (declared to be ‘soft’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and to be replaced with the Fascist salute) and the formal mode of address, Lei (branded as a ‘foreign import’ with connotations of ‘servility’). Coffee-drinking was condemned as decadent (even more of a lost cause than the other proposed reforms). Mussolini announced his intention of making Italians ‘less nice’ and more ‘odious, tough and implacable: in other words, masters’. In April 1937, he made it illegal for white Italians to have sexual relations with blacks, a measure prompted by the mass sexual exploitation of Ethiopian women by Italian troops following the invasion. As the 26-year-old Fascist journalist Indro Montanelli, who had enrolled as a volunteer for the 1935 campaign, wrote: ‘We will never be dominators without a strong sense of our predestined superiority. There is no fraternising with negroes … No indulgences, no love affairs … The white must command.’ This did not stop him spending 500 lire on purchasing a 12-year-old wife from her Ethiopian father, though he was prudent enough to leave her behind when he returned home.
The conquest of Ethiopia combined with Mussolini’s large-scale intervention in the Spanish Civil War imposed unsustainable financial burdens on the state, making it impossible to invest seriously in military equipment or the expansion of the armed forces. Mussolini thought he was militarily invincible, and no one dared tell him otherwise. In his conversations with Petacci he poured scorn on other Europeans: the English were ‘a disgusting people … They think only with their arses.’ ‘People who carry an umbrella,’ he added, ‘can never … understand the moral significance of war.’ The Spanish were ‘lazy, lethargic’, and the French a ‘hotchpotch of races and scum, a haven for cowards’, a ‘spineless and gutless people’, corrupted by ‘alcohol and syphilis’. Only the Italians and Germans were able to ‘love that supreme, inexorable violence which is the chief motor force of world history’.
In 1939 it finally dawned on him that the Italian armed forces, poorly trained, and with obsolete equipment and severe shortages of arms and ammunition, were woefully unprepared for a European war. When it broke out he had no alternative but to adopt a stance of ‘non-belligerence’, to the relief of most Italians. As German victories multiplied, however, Mussolini grew increasingly irritated at his countrymen’s evident distaste for war: ‘I have to say they nauseate me. They are cowards and weaklings … It’s disappointing and soul-destroying to see that I’ve failed to change these people into a people with steel and courage!’ The popular reaction to Italy’s declaration of war on France and Britain on 10 June 1940 was mixed. The doubters were right to worry.
If the Italian attack on France was a fiasco, the invasion of Greece was a catastrophe. Instead of the anticipated lightning victory, the poorly prepared Italian forces were humiliated by superior Greek troops, while the British quickly routed the Italians in Libya and Ethiopia. Hitler had to step in to rescue the situation, and the ease with which the Germans drove the British out of Greece, combined with Rommel’s stunning victories in North Africa, only rubbed salt into the wounds of Italian pride. The letters and diaries quoted by Duggan now mixed patriotic and Fascist commitment with increasing doubt and scepticism. When Mussolini visited wounded soldiers in hospital he was greeted with cries of ‘assassin!’ (a second visit produced better publicity – the injured had been replaced in their beds by policemen). People refused to buy the 50 cent stamp with the picture of Hitler and Mussolini, complaining that ‘they’re even forcing us to lick his backside.’
Duggan reports ‘explosions of collective joy’ when Mussolini was overthrown by the Fascist Grand Council following the Allied invasion in 1943. The Fascist movement disappeared from view. As Corner shows, the everyday experience of Fascist rule had alienated most people long before the regime melted away in 1943. Fascism had never succeeded in breaking free from its roots in local and regional politics, and had become the vehicle of the personal and financial ambitions of local power-brokers. Just as 19th-century nationalism had tried to ‘make Italians’, so 20th-century dictatorship had tried to ‘make Fascists’; both, in the end, failed. Italians greeted the surrender in September 1943 with huge relief, only to be rudely disabused when the Germans occupied the country and arrested most Italian troops, sending them to Germany as forced labourers in the factories and fields. Just as it had begun in civil violence, so the regime ended. The former Duce was rescued from captivity by the Germans and installed in the puppet regime of Salò in the north, at the same time as a resistance movement emerged, meeting with brutal reprisals from Mussolini’s remaining followers, backed by the Germans. More than fifty thousand people were killed, including Mussolini and Petacci, shot by partisans while trying to flee. Their bodies were strung upside down from the gantry of a petrol station in the suburbs of Milan after being reviled, spat and urinated on by rejoicing crowds, a large number of whom had most probably been cheering the Duce to the rafters only a few years before.