Dallying with Il Duce

Iris Origo's diary of the runup to Italy entering WW2 is a fascinating record which cuts through Fascist propaganda

Allan Massie

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.

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.

Moving between the family estate, Florence and Rome, meeting and listening to a wide variety of people, Iris Origo presents us with a fascinating record of shifts in mood and opinion. No doubt it is partial, as all such diaries must be, and of course her position was a privileged one, but she talks to peasants as well as priests and princes, to her hairdresser and to people met by chance on trains, to foreign visitors — two young Polish refugees and anti-Nazi Bavarian Catholic cousins. She offers a remarkably wide spectrum of sentiment and opinion, and I find her diary as persuasively reliable as it is unquestionably fascinating.

There are lighter moments, too long to quote here. One is her godfather’s account of a visit he makes to the King in his fishing-lodge in Piedmont; it’s sad and sympathetic, oddly charming. Another is her report of a strange, even uncanny, encounter in the Vatican.

When, finally, just before Iris Origo gives birth to a daughter (having written nothing about her pregnancy), the family and their tenants and dependents crowd round the radio to hear Mussolini announce that Italy has declared war. Antonio says, “Salute al re! Salute al Duce!”. “The men salute automatically, without enthusiasm. Then they shuffle away in silence.” Antonio, having done his public duty, says, “Ci siamo” — that’s it then — “I’m going out to look at the wheat.” Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Months previously a simple riddle circulated: “Mussolini? Hitler? Chamberlain? Daladier? Chi Vincera?” The third letter of each word gives the answer.

This diary is so good that I wish Iris Origo had continued to keep it going throughout the war. If you love Italy, read it — and then return to War in Val d’Orcia.

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