How did Italy became enslaved by ‘a corrupt gang of warmongers’?
On 17 June 1934, Benito Mussolini’s daughter, Edda, presided over a fascist parade at Edgware Stadium in north London, flanked by the radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi and the Italian ambassador Dino Grandi. She was 23. Over 1,000 Italian children dressed up in the uniforms of the fascist youth groups Opera Nazionale Balilla and Avanguardisti and marched past the platform. The aim – as outlined in 1922 – was to ‘create in effect a new Italian empire’ using the ten million Italians abroad, those ‘in London in particular’. On that day, Edda Mussolini could not have foreseen that her host, Grandi, would play an instrumental role in bringing down her father. Nor that many of the children parading before her would cry over the loss of their fathers following Italy’s declaration of war on the United Kingdom in June 1940. Thousands of Italian civilians were interned as potential ‘dangerous characters’ and 470 were drowned when their passenger ship, the Arandora Star, was sunk by a German U-2 while en route to Canada in July 1940.
Edda was in London on a diplomatic mission. Mussolini wanted to be certain of Britain’s position before launching an attack against Ethiopia which would involve sending troops through the Suez Canal. She was to let the British government know about Italy’s ambitions and report back. In Caroline Moorehead’s gripping new book, we learn how she extracted a chilly green light from the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. Mussolini had reasons to be thankful to the glamorous emissary he had trained with a mixture of love and brutality since she was a child. She was his favourite. Even in her old age, Edda remembered how, when she was just three or four, her father put a frog in her hands. She had to squeeze it to keep it prisoner. She was told never to cry.
Moorehead’s meticulous research describes another of Edda’s diplomatic missions, this time to Germany, charged with establishing useful contacts. While there, she became an enthusiastic Nazi. An unbridgeable contrast ensued with her anglo-francophile husband, Galeazzo Ciano, who as Foreign Minister could not stop Mussolini from siding with Adolf Hitler. Edda wanted war at all costs.
Moorehead has previously written books about the anti-Fascist Rosselli family (A Bold and Dangerous Family) and female Italian resistance fighters (A House in the Mountains). Here, she looks at Italian fascism from the other side, going all the way into the abyss in an attempt to understand how Italy became enslaved by a corrupt gang of warmongers and the diabolic choreographers of a collective illusion. Notable among those is Arturo Bocchini, Mussolini’s Chief of Police, who set up capillary surveillance systems that could oversee every section of society. No one could be trusted, not even within a family. Moorehead excels in describing the role played by intellectual and aristocratic circles where many thought of themselves as passive spectators, when in fact they were complicit in the maintenance of fascist power. These people lived like dogs kept on a leash, pretending they were free to criticise the regime while hopping between salons and holidays on Capri where Edda herself was among the gallivanting habitués, ignoring the dissidents kept prisoner on penal islands nearby.
Asked about her father towards the end of her life Edda admitted that he was the only man she ever really loved. Ultimately she, herself, was the frog, firmly held in the grasp of a regime that squeezed the life out of her, and many others.
Edda Mussolini: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
Chatto & Windus 432pp £20
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Alfio Bernabei is the author of The Summer before Tomorrow (Castelvecchi, 2022).