You’re the Top! You’re Mussolini!

grey Youre the Top! Youre Mussolini!
“Where are we going on our Honeymoon then, Adolf?“
“A lovely place in the east, Benito! Called Stalingrad.”


Mark Simpson on the oddly pas­sion­ate adu­la­tion the ‘Roman Genius’ Benito Mussolini inspired — and still inspires to this day.

(Independent on Sunday, 29 June 2003)

 

I grabbed her on the stairs, threw her into a corner behind a door and made her mine,’ wrote Mussolini recall­ing one of his teen­age woo­ings. ‘She got up weep­ing and humi­li­ated and through her tears she insul­ted me. She said that I had robbed her of her hon­our. It is not impossible. But, I ask you, of what hon­our was she speak­ing… She wasn’t in a sulk with me for long.… for at least three months we loved each other not much with the mind but much with the flesh.’

Benito happened to be describ­ing, in typ­ic­ally Nietzchean pos­eur stylee, the ravishing/raping of a peas­ant girl neigh­bour, but he would have liked us to believe that he could also have been describ­ing his seduc­tion of Signora Italia, whom he fam­ously ‘made his’ dur­ing his March on Rome in 1922 (which, actu­ally, was not a march at all but a jolly day out on the train).

This more fam­ous affair not much of the mind but of the flesh ended up last­ing over twenty years instead of three months, cost Italy rather more than her hon­our and some tears — even­tu­ally involving a hairy three­some with Adolf Hitler — and did not end until Il Duce (along with his real-life mis­tress of the moment) was sum­mar­ily executed by Partisans in 1945 as he tried to flee to Austria dis­guised as a German sol­dier, in some­thing of a crimine di pas­sione.

Although Italy, like the peas­ant girl of his mem­oirs was the vic­tim, it’s not entirely clear that Signor M was quite the tower­ing stud­meister he presen­ted him­self as being or more of a jumped-up gigolo eagerly play­ing the role that his­tory paid him to.

Italia, vic­tim or no, did love him. After sanc­tions were imposed to pun­ish Italy for his unpro­voked and mass-murderous inva­sion of Abyssinia in 1935, Il Duce called on Italians to donate their wed­ding rings to him — in exchange for steel ones — and other gold to help the inva­sion effort. Astonishingly, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Italians heeded the call from the reverse Midas, and handed over 33,622 tons of gold for steel, lit­er­ally mar­ry­ing their leader and provid­ing the dowry themselves.

To be fair, it wasn’t just the Italians who couldn’t res­ist Mussolini for the first dec­ade or so of his dic­tat­or­ship. Mussolini was the first pop star politi­cian in the age of mass com­mu­nic­a­tion and had a global, fren­zied fan-base. The American poet Ezra Pound was besot­ted, Cole Porter penned a song which helped turn his name into a super­lat­ive, ‘You’re the top!… you’re Mussolini’ (the Duce-worshipping lyric was actu­ally writ­ten by PG Wodehouse for the London ver­sion of ‘Anything Goes’). Pope Pius gush­ingly IX described him as a ‘man of Providence’. Before he left the Italian Socialist Party even Lenin spoke approv­ingly of him.

Once he became a bul­wark against Bolshevism, The Times and the Daily Mail heaped praise on this ‘great politi­cian’ and ‘fore­man’ of the Italian people. Winston Churchill, that great and uncom­prom­ising defender of Parliamentary demo­cracy and scourge of tyr­ants, was a pas­sion­ate admirer of the ori­ginal Fascist dic­tator he dubbed ‘the Roman genius’: ‘What a man! I have lost my heart!… he is one of the most won­der­ful men of our time,’ he sighed in 1927, provid­ing an early inspir­a­tion for the char­ac­ter of Jean Brodie.

In fact, the only other anti-Bolshevik who was hot­ter for Mussolini than Churchill was an ambi­tious former Austrian Corporal chan­cer kick­ing around Bavaria who des­per­ately wanted to be like his Italian ‘man of steel’. He insisted on eat­ing in Italian res­taur­ants and wanted to know everything about his fave pop­ster Il Duce. ‘He seemed like someone in love ask­ing news about the per­son they loved,’ recalled one SS Colonel. Hitler made many requests to meet Mussolini but the would-be groupie was con­tinu­ally rebuffed by a Mussolini who was not keen to share the Fascist limelight.

Until, of course, Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933. Observers noted that, on meet­ing Mussolini, the future mer­ci­less mas­ter of Europe had tears in his eyes. Afterwards he had noth­ing but praise: ‘Men like that are born only once every thou­sand years,’ he exclaimed. ‘And Germany can be happy that he is Italian and not French.’

Mussolini’s ver­dict was less rhaps­odic: ‘He’s mad, he’s mad.… Instead of speak­ing to me about cur­rent prob­lems… he recited to me from memory his Mein Kampf, that enorm­ous brick which I have never been able to read.’ Nicholas Farrell, who clearly is one of Mussolini’s grow­ing num­ber of con­tem­por­ary fans, makes much in his bio­graphy Mussolini: A New Life (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) of the Bald Big Head’s (as the Partisan who arres­ted Il Duce called him) dis­like of Hitler, both to dis­tin­guish Italian Fascism from National Socialism — which was, we can all agree, rather nas­tier — and also to por­tray the forth­right blacksmith’s son Benito as more sym­path­etic. Personally, how­ever, I found myself rather touched by Hitler’s crazy devo­tion to Mussolini, which long out­lived the Italian windbag’s use­ful­ness and always sur­passed his merits.

Mussolini’s rant­ing about Hitler, on the other hand, while very funny, seems almost, dare I say, unkind, or at least bitch­ily ungrate­ful. Worse, it merely sup­ports the pre­val­ent post-war per­cep­tion of him as a comic, impot­ent buf­foon that Farrell is so keen to punc­ture. Mussolini is undoubtedly more likable than Hitler; but he’s also, for that reason, more con­tempt­ible too. At the news of Mussolini’s dar­ing ‘res­cue’ by German troops from the moun­tain prison he was incar­cer­ated in after being deposed in 1943, Hitler, bless, was as ecstatic as he was at the fall of France, stamp­ing and dan­cing on the spot.

But when Mussolini real­ised that the men who had arrived in gliders were Germans rather than English he groaned, like some Latin Alf Garnet or Sidney Trotter, “That’s ALL we need!”. As the pic­tures taken (for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses) dur­ing this oper­a­tion show, the dimin­ut­ive ‘Roman Genius’ being bundled by tower­ing blond Nazi Special Forces into a tiny Stork aero­plane ready to whisk him off to Hitler’s Hideaway, was def­in­itely not a mas­ter of events by this time: he was a situ­ation­ist com­edy in jackboots.

Even though he prob­ably deserves less than most other his­tor­ical fig­ures I can think of, it’s impossible not to sup­press a cer­tain amount of pity for poor Benito by this time. You see, I sus­pect that he was begin­ning to real­ise that Adolf was behav­ing rather like another Austrian in his life called Ida Dalser, an old flame who used to reg­u­larly show up shout­ing, ‘I AM THE WIFE OF MUSSOLINI!! Only I have the right to be near him!’ Once in power Mussolini would lock Dalser up in a lun­atic asylum in Venice where she remained until her death, a pris­oner of love. In a strange case of poetic-romantic justice, Hitler was to effect­ively lock Mussolini up with him in his own asylum until Mussolini him­self expired — also a pris­oner of love.

After his death, Mussolini’s widow Rachele was determ­ined to have the pocket Caesar to her­self as well, des­pite the fact that he fam­ously met his end with his mis­tress. She claimed to have received a let­ter from him just before his death: ‘… I ask you to for­give all the bad things that I have invol­un­tar­ily done to you. But you know that you have been for me the only woman that I have truly loved. I swear to you in front of God… this supreme moment.’ Conveniently, she said she had sub­sequently des­troyed the let­ter after ‘mem­or­ising’ its contents.

Farrell has drawn on newly dis­covered let­ters to write a book that some­times seems like a 477 page ver­sion of that phantom let­ter to Rachele, albeit writ­ten in the style of a Sunday Telegraph edit­or­ial, or Spectator column. For Farrell, the Fascist bully boy who abol­ished demo­cracy in Italy, invaded Ethiopia, Greece, France, Russia and Yugoslavia for no par­tic­u­lar reason other than he thought he could get away with it (and made a ter­rible mess of every cam­paign except Ethiopia where bombers, tanks, poison gas and half a mil­lion men were deployed against tribes­men); who sold Italy to Nazi Germany for the price of the Prussian goose-step (he made his short-legged Fascisti prac­tice it to ludicrous effect) giv­ing Hitler the green light for his European war and the apo­ca­lyptic con­flag­ra­tion that fol­lowed, was actu­ally a hugely tal­en­ted, likable, big-hearted giant of a man who, unlike his “cyn­ical” and “ruth­less” left­ist oppon­ents (whom he had his Blackshirts beat, shoot or incar­cer­ate), always had Italia — his one true love’s — best interests in mind. But who made just one small, invol­un­tary, entirely under­stand­able error in regard to the Second World War that was, any­way, really that nasty wop-hating knee-jerk anti-Fascist Anthony Eden’s fault.

Perhaps I exag­ger­ate. Perhaps I have even cari­ca­tured the author. But Farrell, in a revi­sion­ist his­tory which is not entirely without merit, has cari­ca­tured him­self rather more. He is even pic­tured on the jacket sleeve in a black Fedora, a black shirt and black leather jacket. The text tells us that since 1998 he has lived in Predappio in the Romagna ‘where Mussolini was born and is bur­ied like a saint.’

Mussolini, in other words, is still a pris­oner of love.

© Mark Simpson 2008

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