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Dallying with Il Duce
December 2017 / January 2018


Nevertheless, Fascist propaganda directed against the “have nations” — England and France — the plutocrats “who were permanently blocking the way of the ‘have-nots’ to economic expansion”, and denying Italy its rights in the Mediterranean — “Mare Nostrum” — was effective. “Fascists are thus enabled to see the impending war as a struggle between the poor man and the rich — a genuine revolutionary movement.” One should never underestimate the motivating power of self-pity in fomenting nationalist feeling and in international affairs.

When Britain and France declared war on Germany in September, a half-English friend says, “Nothing, no propaganda, will ever persuade the Italian peasant and workman that it was Chamberlain who wanted war. They’ll know it was Hitler’s fault.” Her son agrees: “The more time elapses, the more difficult it will be to persuade us to fight on the German side.” “But,” Iris remarks, “I am not quite so sure.”

She was all too well aware of the lying propaganda spewed out by the newspapers and the effect of Mussolini’s speeches broadcast to crowds ordered to assemble in piazzas all over the country. People remained ready to believe the slogan Mussolini ha sempre ragione (Mussolini is always right). After one such speech “people looked more cheerful” and she wrote of Mussolini’s “immense personal ascendancy”.

Some of the propaganda was risible. Just before coffee disappeared from the market — no coffee in Italy? It’s barely credible — newspaper articles declared that it was bad for the health. An unnamed man told Iris that “the radio has made fools of us all”. She thought that “the ultimate result of unceasing propaganda has been to cancel out the effect of all news alike.” Meanwhile, Italians were assured: “It is now known and proved that the Fascist regime uses one method alone: always to tell the truth.”

Iris Origo was well-connected and better informed than most. Her godfather, William Philipps, was the American ambassador. He told her that the Russian chargé d’affaires was “by far the ablest and best-informed of all his colleagues”. She had other friends in the diplomatic corps and in the Roman “black nobility” — those who had refused to recognise the Fascist State until the Concordat with the Vatican in 1929. Some of these friends were now members of the Fascist Party, “but they are Catholics first. Whenever there is a clash between the two, Catholicism wins.”

The Norway campaign and the Battle of France leave Anglophiles depressed and bitterly critical of England. “Will England never arrive in time and save a small country before talking about it?” Liberals see England as “a weak traitor”. “For years,” one says, “we’ve all looked up to her as the defender of international justice. And now she’s not had the strength to uphold it.” For such people it’s like a marriage gone wrong.

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