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 plenty of 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, symbolically 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 is clearly 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 likeable 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, likeable, 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.