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Dallying with Il Duce
December 2017 / January 2018

Iris Origo: Sceptic rather than dissident under Mussolini (PHOTO ©THE ESTATE OF IRIS ORIGO)

The sub-title “An Italian War Diary 1939-40” explains the title, though, since the diary stops when Italy entered the war, the chill is one of apprehension. Iris Origo, best known for the war memoir War in Val d’Orcia (published in 1947) and The Last Attachment, the story of Byron’s love affair with Teresa Guiccioli, was Anglo-American (American father and English mother), brought up in Italy and married to Antonio, a nobleman. Both were rich and together they had bought and restored a derelict estate, La Foce, in the south of Tuscany.

1939 was Year XVII of the Fascist era. Iris and Antonio are perhaps best described as sceptics rather than dissidents, disliking much about Fascism but accepting it as a reality. Antonio, as the president of a landowners’ association, perforce collaborated with the regime. In 1930 Iris had thought Mussolini “a very great man”, as many in England, among them Churchill and Hilaire Belloc, did then. Some of their friends were anti-Fascists, but Iris was in no doubt in 1939 that most Italians still trusted Il Duce. In particular they trusted that he would keep Italy out of the war. In May, Iris wrote: “To the best of my belief, Mussolini does not want war. He has never wanted a real war only, at home, the ‘heroic’ state of mind which its imminence produces . . . and abroad, the achievement of his expansionist aims”, which he believed he could achieve without it. Her judgment was probably right. Mussolini would declare was on Britain (always England in the text) and France only when he was sure Hitler had already won.

Certainly very few Italians wanted war. A country neighbour tells Iris that “all his peasants are terrified”. (“Like ours,” she adds.) One young woman, who is expecting her first baby, prays daily that it will be a girl. “What’s the use of having boys if they’ll take them away from me and kill them?” This is extraordinary, when you think how Italian mothers cherish and spoil their sons — nothing too good for the boys of the family.

She hears Mussolini speak to a reunion of the first Fascists, the squadristi. It’s a cold wet March day, but “there is another chill in the air: the universal distaste for Germany as an ally”. Others confirm her impression. A young officer, recently back from Abyssinia, tells her that “the army is intensely anti-German, the King anti-war.” The army would back the King if there should be “a division of opinion between him and Mussolini”. (It would do this in 1943 when the King dismissed Mussolini.) When people speak scornfully of the poor performance of Italian troops in the Desert War, they should reflect that they were not only very poorly equipped but fighting in a war they didn’t want, with an ally they mostly detested.
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