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Why do Italians still have a soft spot for Mussolini?

The bloodthirsty Fascist dictator is still fondly remembered – especially in the south

By on Thursday, 24 May 2012

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I have just been reading Nicholas Farrell’s Mussolini, A New Life, a book which I have been meaning to catch up with for a very long time. There is a to my mind very fair review of it in the Guardian by the excellent Tobias Jones, which you can read here. 

Farrell aims to rescue Il Duce from those who have sought to demonise him, but to a large extent he is kicking at an open door. I lived in Italy for eight years and one of my hobbies was to get older people to talk about their experiences during il Ventennio Fascista (the twenty year period of fascist rule). None of the people I talked to were lunatics, all had witnessed the regime at first hand, and all were remarkably kind in their judgement of il Duce. One dear old lady I knew used to live on the Via Nomentana and every morning when Mussolini left the Villa Torlonia to go to his office at Palazzo Venezia, she would give him a loyal wave, which he dutifully returned. She loved the Duce. At the sight of the degradation of modern Rome, she would say what so many Italians of her generations said: “Quando c’era Lui….” The sentence was always left unfinished, but the sense was clear: when he was about, things were different.

An elderly priest put it succinctly: “Quando c’era Lui, Roma era un monastero.” Literally, when he was here, Rome was a monastery. Monasteries, I assume, are the acme of order to Italians. And that is how they thought of Mussolini – a regime of order, “un regime d’ordine”. When you consider just how disorderly modern Italy can be, especially below that invisible line that separates North from South, nostalgia for the Duce is understandable.

But this nostalgia is not to be found in the north of Italy. After the overthrow of Fascism in July 1943, the north was left in the hands of the Germans, and Mussolini presided over a puppet regime at their behest. This period was a dark one, though there are several contemporary Italian politicians who see the period of La Repubblicca di Salò  as something of a political golden age. These are the people of la corrente sociale as it is known – authoritarians who nevertheless favour extensive workers’ rights. Their current leader is Francesco Storace. 

But the truth of the matter is that Italy’s neo-fascists have never attracted much support. One of the points that Farrell makes is that Mussolini was always much more popular than his party, and this seems fair enough. Apologists also claim that Mussolini ruined everything by entering the War on Hitler’s side, and that this was a mistake. Farrell, surprisingly, makes use of an argument that I often used to hear: Mussolini had to enter as an ally of the Germans, as otherwise Italy would have been invaded by the Germans. But there is no evidence for this at all; and there is plenty of evidence that Mussolini was bloodthirsty and vainglorious. The War was not Mussolini’s mistake, it was the natural projection of his policy from the start. He was bellicose even in 1915, and the loss of life seems not to have bothered him. But the Italians are very forgiving people: they have a soft spot for the Duce still, and the man has received a more kindly judgement than he deserves.

Farrell’s book is worth reading, and contains two interesting insights. The first is into the character he calls “Mrs Mussolini”, and whom Italians refer to as Donna Rachele, “Lady Rachel”. In Farrell’s account this much respected figure appears as a towering comic creation, who bullies the great dictator mercilessly when he is at home. Then there is what Farrell has to say about Mussolini’s religion: he started life as a rabid anti-clerical, though never anti-religious as such; he only married in Church late in the day; the elder children were baptised several years after their birth; and yet, it seems that in the twilight of his life, Mussolini was reconciled to the Church. These are just some of the many contradictions that makes il Duce’s life so fascinating.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    I have had a lot of holidays in Italy and speak Italian, but I have never met anyone with a good word to say for Mussolini: the general reactions to him I find are contempt and humour. Perhaps the polite Italians deduce my opinion of him and fit their replies accordingly.  Should I be surprised that when Fr Lucie-Smith brings up Il Duce he finds that polite Italians are sympathetic to facism?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I think, as I said in the piece, that this is largely a geographical phenomenon. Certain parts of Rome are still very pro-fascist in the sense of nostalgic – places like Prati and the Appio-Latino, the latter being  aplace where mnay of the apartment blocks were built by il Duce. Ditto Garbatella. But if you go to San Lorenzo or Tiburtina, then it would be a different story entirely. And it is an age thing. Both the people I mention above have sadly died… most of the nostalgici who remember il Ventennio are dead or dying off….

  • Joseph Ingignoli

    I have a number of relatives in Italy and some of them have photo’s of IL Duce on their Walls. One cousin (who was ot born till after the war) has as his current calendar, one that features Mussolini above every month. Interesting. I’ve even noticed an Italian teacher here in the US, who although young, always referes to the period in a balanced light…

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Very interesting. There is a huge shortage of political heroes in Italy. I mean, no one would ever have a picture of Giulio Andreotti on their wall, would they?

  • Jeannine

    This article kind of reminds me of when my husband, before settling down w/ me in the early 1990s, was vacationing in Cartagena, Columbia and managed to meet & befriend some elderly nice German expats from Brazil. They invited him & he accepted to a party which turned out to be a German expat reunion where the main topic of conversation was the “good ole days” with Adolph. (My smooth-talking, anti-fascist, anti-communist, 50% German hubby had a knack of getting invited to some unusual events during those bachelor years of his.)

  • Oconnord

    Sometimes I think weaker people need to cling to a protector to avoid being victims. So they will forgive a lot. While I was growing up in a very tough area, I had some very questionable “protectors”. I justified it by joking..” he may be a psychopath.. but he’s MY psychopath.” 

    Surely it’s the basis for cognitive dissidence, you see a figure as a protector, and are grateful, whilst also seeing how they fail to protect others. Or even go so far as to abuse others in your name. You see hero and villain, but only acknowledge the hero. 

  • Parasum

    They might have one in “30 Days”.

  • Sean

    I personally know of one former headteacher of a Catholic school in Britain, who idealised Hitler. It wasn’t a backstreet dump, in fact quite the opposite. He did a lot of pontificating as well and apparently saw no contradiction.

  • haoben405
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nick-Farrell/1109463420 Nick Farrell

    Thank you very much for writing about my book! I have lived in Italy since 1998 (near Mussolini’s birthplace, Predappio, in the Romagna which has been “Communist” as they say here since the war in a country which had the largest Communist party in Europe outside the Soviet Bloc). Italians, even “Communist” ones, often speak positively about Mussolini. “Yes, terrible, but ….” Etc. Let’s not forget that Mussolini was a leading revolutionary socialist until he founded Fascism when the First World War made him realise that people were more loyal to their nation than their class. And that Fascism has much more in common with the International Left than the Anglo-Saxon Right. Finally,on the subject of World War Two I’d like to set the record straight. In my book, I write that Mussolini declared war on Britain and France in June 1940 not just out of fear of Germany but as a result both of his fear of Germany and his greed for territory plus his desire/belief that Fascism/National Socialism would replace/defeat Capitalism, and the simple practical reason that with the fall of France the war seemed over. I do not believe that Mussolini’s Fascist Italy could have stayed neutral in the Second World War.as Franco’s Nationalist Spain did.

  • Benedict Carter

    Funny thing, but a paternal great-grand uncle of mine was an Italian General during the First World War and after it became one of Mussolini’s first parliamentary deputies. A generation later, a paternal uncle was captured by Italian forces in the Western Desert campaign.

  • Benedict Carter

    Mussolini isn’t the only leader of that period to be remembered very fondly by many of his people. 

    Antonio Salazar (undoubtedly one of the very greatest men of the 20th century) is by far the most popular man in Portugal, 40 years after his death. 

    The Masonic self-serving and utterly corrupt Eurofag political class who run the country today are hated, and rightly so. 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Dear Nick, if I may, how nice of you to comment. The Duce goes on and on, he will run and run. You will not remember, it is many years ago now, but we once had a long conversation about him on the phone. You were working for some paper and were thinking of commissioning me for some article – details are hazy. But I remember the conversation with pleasure.

    I would like to offload some more Duce memorabilia while I have the chance.

    In 1935 my moither was touring Europe as a schoolgirl and arrived in Florence to check in with her family at the hotel in Piazza Santa Maria Novella. The hotel manager asked for their understanding re checking in: all the staff had been out all day, and were very excited as Mussolini had been in town that very morning and they had all taken the day off to see him.

    You may well have heard of Fr Jean Marie Charles-Roux, happily still with us at the age of 98. He insisted to me that Edda Ciano was the daughter not of donna Rachele but of Angelica Balabanoff. I notice you mention this rumour.

    By the way I loved your book and I laughed like a drain re Mrs Mussolini playing cards in the laundry etc….

    best wishes, ALS

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nick-Farrell/1109463420 Nick Farrell

    Yes, I remember, could we communicate via email? My email address: nik299@libero.it