“A good and generous man”

By a strange coincidence, when Justin Murphy shared his newsletter on Mussolini, I had just finished “Conversation Hitler-Mussolini”. A book that studies transcripts of meetings, letters and notes from third parties involved in the Mussolini-Hilter relationship between 1934-1944. His author, Pierre Milza, a Science Po teacher, is one of top-tier specialists of Mussolini. Like a lot of books on my bookshelves, there is zero existing English translation. This book being an historical document but also an open-window on decisions that would lead both fascist dictators to their downfall, sometimes in a very theatrical way, I decided to take some of my highlights and to share them with my audience.


Italian are not exactly aryans

This passage takes place during the very first meeting between Hilter and Mussolini at Venice, in June 1934.

The second meeting was held face to face, without an interpreter, and was again a dialogue of the deaf. In the first meeting, if this term has any meaning, the most sensitive issues were discussed, especially those concerning Austria. According to some witnesses, this interview was “very eventful”. Hitler rejected all the responsibilities of the crisis on Dollfuss, while declaring himself ready to conclude an agreement in five points in which he would recognize that Germany had in no way the intention to annex Austria. He nevertheless demanded the resignation of the Austrian chancellor and his replacement by a man who would not be linked to any party and who would hold new elections, as well as the constitution of a government in which the Nazis would be represented. Finally, he demanded that Italy withdraw its “protective hand” from the small Danube state. The second conversation, also monopolized by the Führer, dealt mainly with questions relating to disarmament and the League of Nations, relations with France and Soviet Russia, as well as the “Jewish problem” and Germany’s relations with the Catholic Church. In passing, carried away by his own verbal delirium, Hitler clumsily alluded to the superiority of the Nordic races and the partly “negroid” origins of the Mediterranean peoples, which had the effect of infuriating Mussolini. The distant witnesses of the scene later recalled the screams, or rather the “barking” of the two dictators.

Fascist until the end

This passage takes place during September 1937, and talks about the public speech that was given by Mussolini and Hilter, at the german olympic stadium, in front of a crowd of 800k German people. This speech was a turning point in the relationship between the two dictators.

Mussolini responded in German with a speech that had been carefully prepared, but which he delivered at a rapid pace and which he had great difficulty in finishing, the storm having set in and the rain making the last few pages of the text almost illegible. He declared that his visit was not an ordinary diplomatic episode, but a manifestation of the solidarity of two revolutions with a common goal. Let it not be expected, therefore, whatever the desire for peace that guides the Italian government, to see Italy separate from its Germanic counterpart. And to finish his peroration, become more or less unintelligible for the assistance, after having pushed back of one held out to him the coat that gestures the faithful Ridolfi, by declaring, to the great satisfaction of his fellow: “When fascism has a friend, it walks with this friend, until the end”. After attending a gigantic military parade on Charlottenburg Avenue the next day, Mussolini took leave of his host. At the Verona train station, he found D’Annunzio, who had come especially from Gardona to greet “his old comrade”. This was the final meeting between the two men who had once been rivals in the march to dictatorship.

Sexually dissatisfied women

Mussolini explained American’s wokeness to his son-in-law, Ciano, in 1938, when they were coming back from Munich.

“When in a country, he will say, animals are adored to the point of creating for them cemeteries, hospitals and houses, when one makes legacies to parrots, one can be sure that decadence has begun. Besides, all other reasons aside, it is also a consequence of the composition of the English people. Four million too many women. Four million sexually dissatisfied women artificially create a cloud of problems for themselves in order to excite or soothe their senses. Not being able to embrace a man, they embrace humanity.”

Note that this line can found a very strange echo in this line from Plutarch, discovered via @costofglory.

The tipping point in the war

This following passage takes place on March 18, 1940, and is the moment when Mussolini decides to join Nazi Germany in the “Pact of Steel”.

For several months, Mussolini would thus waver to the liking of the contrary winds, sometimes wanting to commit himself formally to Hitler’s side, sometimes envisaging on the contrary a rapprochement with the democracies. The German aggression against Czechoslovakia caused great indignation in the country. Four days after the Prague coup, Ciano wrote in his diary: “The events of the last few days have completely changed my judgment of the Führer and of Germany. He too is disloyal and false. No policy can be conducted with him.” And in fact, the Duce’s son-in-law was now going to apply himself to curbing an alliance project that now seemed to him both dangerous and contrary to the will of the majority of Italians.

Faced with this opposition, the Fascist dictator found himself deeply isolated. How to explain in these conditions that he finally decided to ignore the reticence of the traditional magistrates – the king, the Catholic hierarchy, the majority of army leaders – as well as that of a large fraction of the new fascist elite? The ageing of the man and the wear and tear of power, the unshakeable confidence he had in his “star”, and even more probably the fear of having the Führer against him, and also the respect of the word given during the Berlin “coronation”, a sort of mafia feeling of honor that pushed him to make a contract with the devil, undoubtedly contributed to his choice.

The following passage takes place in 1941, and talks about the decision of Hilter to invade the URSS, a decision that provoked his downfall.

In the evening of June 22, 1941, Ciano dined at a relative of the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce, the marquise Balestra Mottola. Bismarck, who took part in the agape, warned him that he would have to make him an important communication at the end of the evening. Mussolini was in Riccione, on the Adriatic coast. At midnight, Bismarck rang the bell at Ciano’s house, carrying a letter with the Führer’s name on it. It was decided to open the message intended for the Duce, and Anfuso, who was also at the home of “Mr. Gendre” (as Ciano had been nicknamed in some circles hostile to the Mussolini clan), began to translate the Hitler letter into Italian. As always, the communication of an important fact took place at the last moment and at an unusual hour, to avoid indiscretions from the Italians. Ciano read by telephone to his father-in-law the letter in which the Nazi leader explained to him the most important decision of his life.

If the Duce was not really surprised, he was, as on previous occasions, extremely offended and humiliated by the procedure used by his ally. “I do not disturb my servants at night,” he declared to Ciano, “but the Germans make me jump out of bed at any hour without the slightest regard.” In the months leading up to the invasion of Russia, the Führer’s intimates described him as inhabited by dark visions. Hitler lost sleep. He spent hours meditating on the chances he had of defeating the Russians. He fed the fire in his fireplace with the reports sent to him by his ambassador in Moscow, Schulenburg, and said to him: “You have already made me read hundreds of these reports. Whether they come from Paris, Brussels or Oslo, they all say the same thing and I have always done exactly the opposite of what they suggested. I am not interested in allusions to Napoleon. Our war is not Napoleon’s war.

In his letter, Hitler pointed out to his colleague that it would have been dangerous to wait until England had time to acquire new armaments, and in particular to take advantage of those that the United States was already making a point of providing.His conclusion constituted a sort of justification of his past conduct, as well as a testimony of self-satisfaction for having succeeded in warding off the “mental torture” resulting from his past alliance with Stalin. Finally, Duce,” he wrote, “allow me to add one thing. Since I struggled to reach this decision, I feel spiritually free again. In spite of the absolute sincerity of the efforts to promote a final conciliation, the association with the Soviet Union was nevertheless for me often very ungrateful, because, in one way or another, it seemed to me to contradict all my origins, my conceptions and my former obligations. I am now happy to be free from this mental torture.”

Commedia dell’arte over the Russian front

This passage takes place in August 1941 during the visit of both dictators on the Russian Front.

On August 27, a new “excursion” departed from the Führer’s headquarters, this time in the direction of the Ukrainian battlefields. Part of the journey was made by rail, the Führer’s train preceding that of the Italians as they crossed Poland. Mussolini took advantage of the fact that he was in the company of his only compatriots to express what he thought of the way Hitler had treated the Polish people: 

“I have tried two or three times (he does not say when) to convince Hitler that what he is doing in Poland does not make common sense, but it is as if I were talking to a wall. In 1939, I was under the illusion that he wanted to give the Poles a fairly humane fate, which would have been the smartest thing and would have closed the mouth of Anglo-Saxon propaganda. It’s a wall. There is nothing to say and it’s too bad for him.”

[…]

When it was time to leave Uman for Lemberg, Mussolini asked the Führer if he could take the controls of his personal plane. Everyone was apparently anxious to get on board, everyone wanting to get rid of the risks, real or supposed, of flying near the front. So the Duce’s request caused a certain chill among the passengers, who were joined by several SS officers. Mussolini was certainly not an experienced aviator. He had nevertheless learned to fly an airplane as soon as he had the financial means to pay for the lessons, that is to say, immediately after the war, at a time when, as director of the Popolo d’Italia, he tended to confuse his personal bank account with the bank account of the fascist movement. The infatuation with the conquest of the air that the future dictator shared with many young people of his generation, the admiration that his companion, Margherita Sarfatti, had for the “knights of the air” and their idol, D’Annunzio, the competition with Balbo, the man who made the raid in a seaplane over the Atlantic and New York City, were all factors that played a role in the decision.

The pilot looked at Hitler with a questioning gesture, and with a glance he said he could agree to the Duce’s request, which he did, feigning indifference. So much so that when the master of Fascist Italy walked to the cockpit and sat down next to the first pilot, no one thought to raise the slightest objection. The event was no less significant and it is difficult to imagine all the reasons for it: Mussolini piloting the Führer’s plane not far from the front line, perhaps within range of an isolated piece of artillery; Hitler apparently impassive but betrayed by his pallor; the men of his black guard; the chief pilot, his eyes fixed on Himmler who was just as silent, less panicked it seems than the Italians, finally, more inclined than the others to see in the scene of which they were at the same time the spectators theatrical gesticulation worthy of the commedia dell’arte. All this during the three quarters of an hour flight during which the Latin dictator had in his hands at least symbolically the life of his Nazi counterpart. As we approached the airfield that served the Führer’s headquarters, the whole world began to stir and turn to the second pilot, the one who had given up his seat to Mussolini. The latter was respectfully invited by the captain to give up his seat during the landing maneuver. Mussolini did not ask for it. He returned to his seat, received without displeasure the usual compliments, as well as the congratulations of his ally, and participated without showing the slightest annoyance at the dinner that followed. Hadn’t he felt, during the long moment when he had been at the controls of the quadrimotor, the illusion to be again the master of the game?

Mussolini, fallen dictator

This passage takes place in September 1943. After a coup, Mussolini was placed in custody, before being exfiltrated at Hilter’s request by a SS commando. Hilter wanted Mussolini back into power to prevent the progress of the allied forces that had already invaded Sicily. From this point, the Duce will be nothing more than a phantom dictator put in place to justify an invasion of Italy by German forces.

The Führer’s position towards his Latin ally was not shared by all Nazi leaders. The army chiefs, notably Keitel and Rommel, would have preferred a direct military occupation of Italian territory. Himmler considered that the new state, if it existed at all other than on paper, would not have sufficient police forces to “rule by force. Rosenberg reproached him for having protected the Jews and still protecting them, Sauckel for not having sent him enough manpower, Göring for having refused to entrust the command of the Italian army to German generals. Goebbels thought that a common Quisling would have done the job, and that the Italians should be punished with the utmost severity anyway. 

In his first meeting with Silvestri, Mussolini explained to his interlocutor that he had exhausted the resources of dialectics during the September 14 tête-à-tête with Hitler in an attempt to persuade the latter not to insist on making him head of state and head of the new fascist government. Having renounced all personal ambition, he wanted only one thing: to retire from political life and spend peaceful days in his native Romagna. Moreover,” he said, “I did not believe in a possible resurrection of fascism. If Badoglio and the monarchy had taken responsibility for starting the civil war, I did not intend to share such responsibility.” To these reservations, formulated in a tone that was intended to be both convincing and friendly, the Führer responded with this tirade in the form of an ultimatum:

“I must be very clear. The Italian treason, if the Allies had known how to exploit it, could have caused the sudden collapse of Germany. I had to give a terrible example of punishment immediately, to intimidate those of our allies who might be tempted to imitate Italy. I suspended the execution of a plan already prepared in all its details, for the only reason that I was sure that I could rescue you and thus prevent you from being handed over to the Anglo-Americans, as Badoglio was planning to do. Your rescue was the rescue of the Italian people. If the Campo Imperatore operation had not succeeded, my revenge would have been inexorable. My plan called for the total destruction of Milan, Genoa, Turin and other less important centers of Northern Italy. On the other hand, all the regions placed under the military control of the Wehrmacht would have become real occupation zones, with the aggravating circumstance that the Italians would have been considered traitors to be punished. But if you disappoint me, I will have to order that the punitive plan be carried out. […] Northern Italy will have to envy the fate of Poland if you do not agree to reinvigorate the alliance between Germany and Italy, by taking over the state and the new government. In such a case, Count Ciano would obviously not be returned to you: he would be hanged here, in Germany.”

By threatening Italy with “polonization”, Hitler had every chance of being heard by his interlocutor.

Mussolini took leave of the Führer on September 17 and flew to Munich, where for a week the family was reunited at the Karl Palast, a sumptuous neoclassical building of which Ribbentrop had had an entire floor put at his disposal. The leader of the young Social Republic seems to have retained a curiously altered memory of his meeting with his “old comrade” in Rastenburg. At least, that’s what emerges from this exchange with Silvestri, dated December 30, 1943, which is not, to say the least, overly respectful of the truth. Here’s an extract: 

Silvestri – But is the “great friend” really the exceptional man his supporters talk about? 

Mussolini – He really is an exceptional man. 

Silvestri – It’s true that he constantly has uncontrolled movements, tremors of fury? 

Mussolini – Yes. Sometimes he can’t hold himself back, can’t control himself. But he’s a very good and generous man, and he does his utmost for his people, for his country. He’s very different from the way he’s portrayed by journalists, writers and diplomats who haven’t had the opportunity to get to know him in depth. You have to live with him in his house, have lunch with him at his table to get the image of the cordial, lively, fun-loving, burlesque man he really is. His sense of friendship is an integral part of his conception of honor. I’ve seen the proof.

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