Mussolini’s willing followers

The postwar orthodoxy held that most Italians never truly bought into Fascism. Yet, says Christopher Duggan, who died earlier this year, the devotion to Mussolini expressed in newly analysed diaries and letters of the time tells a very different story...

Benito Mussolini

This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In a broadcast in December 1940 Winston Churchill famously declared that “one man, and one man alone” – namely Mussolini – was responsible for Italy waging war on Britain. These words were designed to encourage Italians to break with their leader and get out of a conflict for which it was already clear the country was disastrously unprepared. And Churchill delivered them at a telling moment – just as the ill-equipped Italian forces had become bogged down and humiliated in the mud and snow of Albania following Italy’s unprovoked offensive against Greece.
Yet the idea that Italian people had simply been the ‘victims’ of a warmongering leader wasn’t confined to the dark days of 1940. In fact, the idea would go on to provide powerful ammunition for what, after 1945, became the dominant public interpretation of Fascist Italy: that it was ruled by a dictatorship built on limited or minimal popular support.
Various sources helped to make the idea that Fascism had never really been accepted by the mass of Italians into something of an orthodoxy. The Allies were content to accept it, not least because it spared them the need to press for purges of the public administration which would leave the conservative fabric of the state weakened at a time when the Italian Communist and Socialist parties appeared a major threat.
The church, meanwhile, keen to deflect attention from its collusion with the regime, maintained that Catholicism and Fascism were inherently antithetical, and, since most Italians had remained loyal to the church, they could not (at least in their hearts) have been Fascists. And the far left – who were to be the main standard-bearers of anti-Fascist ideology in the postwar Republic – regarded Fascism as a capitalist dictatorship from which ‘the people’ had liberated themselves with the Resistance.
Something of a backlash set in after the end of the Cold War. The collapse in the early 1990s of the main parties of the postwar Republic – including the Communists and Socialists – opened the way for the parties of the right, headed by Silvio Berlusconi and his ‘post-Fascist’ allies, to launch an attack on ‘anti-Fascism’. Mussolini’s regime, they claimed, had been unfairly demonised by the far left. It had not been a dictatorship forced on an unwilling population, but a largely benign political system. And as an indication of this, they suggested that Fascism had enjoyed high levels of support, at least until the late 1930s. Of course, assessing the level or nature of ‘support’ for a totalitarian regime is notoriously difficult. With opposition forces crushed and dissent often punished, finding reliable evidence of popular opinion is very difficult. Letters can provide some information. So, too, can reports of the secret police. But as has been pointed out for Nazi Germany as well as Fascist Italy, such reports need to be treated with caution given the constraints under which agents operated. What’s more, in the case of Italy the reports on public opinion are restricted mainly to the late 1930s and the Second World War.
Potentially more revealing are private diaries. They too present difficulties with interpretation, as diarists did not necessarily set out simply to record their unalloyed thoughts and feelings. But they offer a better chance of seeing how ordinary people viewed Fascism than most other available sources.
Locating the personal diaries of ordinary people from the interwar years is inevitably difficult, but the National Diary Archive in the Tuscan town of Pieve Santo Stefano has in recent years managed to acquire a quite significant body of material. The majority of the several hundred diaries in its possession that relate to the Fascist period were written during the Second World War, but there are also a substantial number for the 1920s and 1930s.
Those who kept these diaries were necessarily literate – and therefore principally from the urban middle classes – but the range of writers is nonetheless impressive. They include housewives, students, schoolchildren (who could be startlingly perceptive), teachers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, sailors, journalists, artisans, professors, priests, shopkeepers, businessmen and civil servants.
What do these unpublished diaries reveal about support for Fascism? One thing that is striking is just how few of the writers were in any sense ‘anti-Fascist’. There were of course some risks – particularly in wartime – in penning hostile comments about the regime. But such dangers were not particularly great in private diaries. And you might expect the diarists’ moral impulse to record their opposition to the regime to override any anxieties they felt about being caught.
This was the case for two prominent liberal intellectuals, Benedetto Croce and Piero Calamandrei, whose well-known (and published) diaries show that they felt almost viscerally driven to document their revulsion at Fascism.
The notion that parliamentary democracy had been totally discredited formed the basis of most diary-writers’ support for Fascism. The liberal regime had become synonymous with weakness and disorder. Typical was the view expressed by an elderly conservative soldier from Sicily, Bruno Palamenghi. He went to hear Mussolini give a speech in Rome in March 1924 and came away more convinced than ever of the need for Fascism:
“Who can forget the state of degeneration to which the masses had been reduced in 1920–1921–1922? There were continuous strikes – the occupations of factories, plants, workshops and land were daily occurrences… And all this because of the weakness of the governments at that time… Just a few months more of that regime, and this beautiful Italy of ours would have been finished, and would have become worse than Russia… Without the Fascist revolution… Italy would have fallen prey to Bolshevism, anarchy, bankruptcy, poverty – and we would have become the laughing-stock and joke of the other nations, worse than we were before the war.”
Benito Mussolini
Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini greeting crowd, where children in front are shaking his hand exitedly & saluting him w. heil sign. (Photo by Mauricio Fresco/Pix Inc./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Old and shameful

The idea that Fascism had saved Italy from ruin – whatever the costs in terms of violence and the curtailment of liberty – was at the heart of most people’s adhesion. For a majority of diary-writers, there was simply no possible alternative to Fascism: it was necessary in order to make the country better and ensure it did not slip back into its shameful old ways.
If Fascism had its faults – and there was plenty of criticism in diaries about various aspects of the regime, in particular the high levels of corruption in the party – the general feeling was that these would be addressed in due course by reforms. Indeed many diarists in the late 1930s found their almost instinctive alarm at the alliance with Germany, and the introduction of racial laws and other so-called ‘anti-bourgeois’ measures, tempered by the thought that these were the kind of developments that could help make the regime stronger and more successful.
Another vital component of popular support for Fascism was the allure of Mussolini. Indeed more than anything else it was the ‘cult of the duce’ that was the lynchpin of the regime. As the Florentine hotel manager Carlo Ciseri wrote in his diary in 1923, Mussolini was “the superior being sent by God to restore peace to us, and perhaps also the honours and glories of ancient Rome”.
The millions of letters (an average of around 1,500 a day) that ordinary Italians sent to Mussolini (many of which have survived) bear testimony to his astonishing appeal and the sense of closeness that people felt to him. The language they used was often fervently religious and, in the case of women, intimate. Typical was a letter from a young woman in Genoa who wrote to Mussolini after hearing him on the radio in March 1938:
“Forgive me if I, just a humble woman, dare to write to you and use [the familiar form of] ‘tu’. But when I turn to God I do not use [the formal] ‘Voi’, and You [Tu] for me are a God, a supernatural being sent to us by a superior power to guide our beautiful Italy to the destiny assigned to it when Romulus and Remus founded Rome, which will become, if you continue to guide us, mistress of the world… My duce, for a long time you have been talking of coming to Genoa… And I have such a desire to see you even if only at a distance and confirm that you are not a myth, but a man, and hear for once your passionate words not through the radio but from your lips. I am waiting for you soon, my duce…”
As such letters and many diaries indicate, much of the emotional force of Fascism derived from the way the cult of the duce meshed with the templates of religion. The church publicly hailed Mussolini’s escape from four assassination attempts in 1925–26 as a clear signal of divine protection – and, in doing so, did much to foster the Fascist leader’s providential aura. The diary of a young Tuscan woman, who confessed that the duce made her “tremble with excitement” (“I only need to hear his words to be transported in heart and soul into a world of joy and greatness”), shows well the reverence that many Italians accorded Mussolini. In August 1939 she wrote:
“O duce, duce of our life, commander of an entire people, everyone places their love in you, everyone hopes in you… Thank you, O Lord, for having given to Italy the pride and joy of a unique man, the pride and joy of having a man admired and envied by all the world.”
The cult of the duce was the supreme expression of Fascist ‘faith’, and the evidence of diaries – and of the letters that poured into Mussolini’s personal secretariat well into the war – shows how extraordinarily internalised and resilient this faith could be. The duce occupied an exalted sphere above the cut and thrust of daily life. He was not responsible for setbacks or misfortunes: the military disasters of 1940–43 were commonly blamed on incompetent advisers or traitors. And as individual suffering increased, so men and women strove, assiduously in many cases, to preserve Mussolini as a source of consolation and hope. The long and passionate letters that distraught women wrote to the duce after the death of a husband or son were often inspired, it seems, by a need to find meaning for their loss.
The Florentine hotel manager Carlo Ciseri, whose diary contains frequent avowals of faith (“It is true that I am not a [party] member, but that does not count – it should not count. What really matters is Faith: Believing – and I believe. I firmly believe”) was typical of many who found it hard to come to terms with the downfall of Mussolini in July 1943. Carlo was in a prisoner of war camp in Kenya when he learned the news, and was so shocked that he “was overcome with a kind of vertigo”. He refused to believe anything bad about the man he had revered for over 20 years:
“Until they bring me concrete and tangible evidence, I will not be able to believe the infamy that is being hurled in the face of a man who passionately wanted our greatness. Have there been any errors?… Until now he can be accused of only one, namely of having too much goodness, which in a man of government can be called weakness. Certainly this is strange in someone of his kind… Indeed if he had imitated, if only partly, the ferocious Stalin… purging all the scum, we would perhaps not have come to this.”
There were, of course, plenty of Italians who by the summer of 1943 had lost all residual faith in Mussolini and felt angry and betrayed. But given how long the regime had been in existence and how insistent (and seemingly successful) its propaganda had been in persuading people that Fascism was the true embodiment of Italian history and Italian values, the process of emotional disengagement was often hard.
Despite what was later claimed, in reality countless Italians had for many years been strongly committed to the regime and above all to the duce. The fact that dozens and sometimes hundreds of people every day still visit Mussolini’s tomb in his home town of Predappio and sign their names in the register (often with passionate dedications) shows that the ‘myth’ of the duce has still not disappeared.

Fascism: an Italian phenomenon?

Mussolini’s regime was the prototype fascist state and it is hard to overestimate its influence on politics in the 20th century. Hitler was one of Mussolini’s strongest early admirers, and the Nazi movement would almost certainly not have developed as it did without the Italian example. 
In the 1930s especially, when the liberal capitalist model seemed everywhere in crisis, Mussolini’s Italy inspired a broad array of political movements in countries ranging from Argentina and Brazil in South America, to Portugal, Spain, Hungary, Romania and Poland in Europe, to China in the far east. These movements all had different features and emphases, not least because at the heart of fascism was the idea of asserting the threatened identity of the nation, especially against communism. 
Hence in the case of Italy, the idea of Rome and its universal mission played an important role. In Franco’s Spain, the Catholic Reconquista of the Middle Ages provided an emotionally powerful point of historical reference.
Given how influential Italian Fascism has been – far more so than Hitler’s Third Reich, whose extreme racism and brutal expansionism place it on the radical edge of the spectrum – the fact that fascism has, since 1945, so often been viewed through the filter of Nazism has probably made for historical distortion.
Mussolini – the populist charismatic leader – is much more the prototype of the 20th-century dictator than Hitler. And though anti-Semitism was common to numerous fascist movements, it was not as central to many as it was for Nazism.
Arguably, it was the defence of religious values, seen as vital elements of national identity against the materialistic doctrines of liberalism and communism, that was a more important common factor.
Christopher Duggan, who died earlier this year, was professor of Italian history at the University of Reading and the author of Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy (Bodley Head, 2012).