Mussolini – Act One

In 1915 while serving in the army on the high mountain front, Mussolini wrote a war diary, a sort of early modern blog, to be published in instalments in Milan. Here is an entry.
“Today is Christmas. Yes, Christmas day. Today our hearts are hard and dry as these rocky craters. Modern civilisation has “mechanised us.” The war has pushed this “mechanisation” of European society to the limit. Twenty-five years ago I was a headstrong, violent little boy. Some of my class-mates still bear the scars of the stones I threw at them. Instinctively nomadic, I would go off from morning till night, along the river, stealing birds’ nests and fruit. I went to church. The Christmases of those years are still vivid in my mind. There were very few people who didn’t go to church on Christmas day: my father and a couple of others. The trees and hawthorns along the road to San Cassiano were stiff and white with hoarfrost. It was cold. The first masses were for the early risers, the old women. When we saw them coming back, it was our turn. I remember: I followed my mother. In the church there were lots of lights and, in the middle of the altar, in a small cradle decorated with flowers, the Babe born in the night. Everything was picturesque and fed my imagination. Only the smell of the incense upset me so much that sometimes I would feel unbearably sick. At last the organ blared out and the ceremony was over. The crowd swarmed out. Along the road, people chattered happily. Come midday, the traditional, delicious cappelletti di Romagna steamed on the table. How many years, how many centuries have passed since then? Canon-fire recalls me to reality. It’s Christmas at war.”

There has been much debate as to whether Mussolini was closer to his mother or father, which parent influenced him most. Perhaps we can more usefully say it was their irreconcilable differences that made the deepest impression. Benito was close to both and they were far apart. Christmas, in a rural Catholic community, should have been the supreme moment of unity. “There were very few who didn’t go to church on Christmas Day…” But first among those few was Mussolini’s father.
It was a gesture of radical obstinacy. Outspokenly anti-clerical, Alessandro Mussolini supported a different strategy for ordering society. His socialism would bring people together in equality, overturning tradition and class privilege, things in which the church had a considerable investment. At different times of his life a blacksmith, an innkeeper, a deputy-mayor, a writer of left-wing articles, Mussolini’s father spent the evenings in bars drinking and talking politics: it was time for the poorer Italian classes, hard hit by the country’s belated industrial revolution, to rise up and demand their rights.
“I was a headstrong and violent little boy,” Mussolini says. These are qualities that suggest an affinity with his father who would be arrested for violence at political demonstrations on more than one occasion. And the boy’s baptismal names – Benito, Amilcare, Andrea – were all chosen for him by his father. Benito Juarez had curbed the power of the church in Mexico and secularized the state. Amilcare Cipriani had a tumultuous life on the Italian left; the first Socialist elected to the Italian parliament, he refused to swear allegiance to the King and hence was banned from taking his seat. Andrea Costa had formed the Italian Revolutionary Socialist Party. These were inflammatory role-models for a little boy.
On the other hand, Benito was baptised, presumably on the insistence of his mother, Rosa. The names of great liberals and agitators were conferred on Mussolini by a priest. Such contradictions are still rife in Italy. However revolutionary one partner may be, however pious and conservative the other, each recognises the spheres of influence appropriate to a father and a mother. In Mussolini’s case, Alessandro got to choose the names, but Rosa decided the boy’s education.
“Instinctively nomadic,” Mussolini says of himself. He liked to spend time on his own. What relationships he formed he did so through fighting. He liked to plunder and steal. “I went to church,” he adds. What a surprising juxtaposition that is. “I would go off from morning till night, along the river, stealing nests and fruit. I went to church.” If in the relationship between his mother and father we are presented with one of the great ideological divides that has shaped Italy over the last two centuries – socialism v’s catholicism – here we have two other opposites which Mussolini will have to reconcile: The man on his own, anarchical, wilful, and the man in church, in the crowd, gregarious, submissive. “I followed my mother,” Mussolini writes. The bare, categorical form of these statements invites us to give them a meaning beyond the immediate context.
The community goes to mass in waves. The boy watches the old women and knows his turn is next. He is part of the same world. Everybody goes. Everybody except his father. The community is fatally flawed.
In church the boy is struck by the lights, the ceremony, the show. They feed his imagination. Mussolini would spend many hours in the future dreaming up quasi-religious ceremonies that would feed people’s imaginations, with lots of lights and quasi-altars. These would be ceremonies, however, at which representatives of both father’s and mother’s worlds could be present, celebrations that would superimpose Fascism’s totalitarian rituals over both socialism’s secular utopia and Catholicism’s congregation of believers. At that point there would no longer be any excuse for people who did not wish to attend. In these future ceremonies Mussolini would be at once supremely himself and the head of his own community. For him at least, individual and group, socialism and Catholicism would be reconciled.
Young Benito follows his mother. He enjoys the show. But the smell of the incense is “unbearable.” It causes a mental distress so strong as to be experienced as physical. Why? Would that incense have caused the boy the same distress if smelt outside of church? Elsewhere he wrote: “The pink light of the candles, the sharp smell of the incense, the colours of the holy vestments, the lilting chant of the faithful and the sound of the organ, upset me deeply.”
Like any nomad who wanders around the countryside fighting and stealing, Mussolini invested a great deal of his self esteem in his physical health, his prowess. And yet there would be occasions in his life when he was overcome by nausea, an unease that had no demonstrable physical explanation. A smell would get the better of him. He might be prevented from making love. At times he was reduced to writhing on the floor. It is something we must keep an eye on.
Finally the ceremony of Christian togetherness is over. Despite the pleasure of the spectacle, it’s a relief. At last we can enjoy what really unites the family: good food steaming on the table, those cappelletti di Romagna, a sort of delicate tortellini. Unfortunately, rich food was not something the Mussolini family could always afford. A watery broth eaten by all members of the family from the same pot was the standard fare. In a description of his maternal grandmother, Mussolini notes that she did not sit at table to eat with them. This for him was her defining characteristic. Separateness. Mussolini admires the person who makes himself distinct.

So much by way of introduction to some of the conflicts that tensed the younger Mussolini’s life. But a word must be spent on the frame of the passage. “It’s Christmas Day,” Mussolini begins. “Today our hearts are dry.” If the final verdict on Mussolini’s life can only be negative, one is obliged to allow him a certain literary talent. He can say so much so quickly, without fussing. Now come two sentences that could well have been written by D H Lawrence. “Modern civilisation has ‘mechanised’ us,” the writer declares from the rocky mountain trenches. “The war has pushed this ‘mechanisation’ of European society to the limit.”
Walking through the same Italian mountains only a year before, Lawrence had described the industrial development in the valleys thus: “It is … the horrible desolating harshness of the advance of the industrial world upon the world of nature that is so painful. It looks as though the industrial spread of mankind were a sort of dry disintegration.”
Like Lawrence, Mussolini juxtaposes this mechanisation and its elevation of the material world against all that is spiritual (Christmas) and natural (instinctive boyhood). Mussolini prefers spirit and instinct, even though they pulled against each other in his infancy. Why, then, would he be such a strong advocate of war, if war brings mechanisation? Because the war, unlike church at Christmas, brings absolutely everybody together, everybody is levelled, Catholics and atheists, northerners and southerners all wear uni-form, in a common cause, a ceremony of collective obedience, collective will.
This expression of community spirit would always be dear to Mussolini, more dear than love or friendship, to the point that, although he spoke obsessively of victory, one suspects that he was attracted to war not for the territory and spoils it might bring, and certainly not for the technology it demanded, but for the collective spirit it would, he imagined, generate. There are moments in the war diary when it seems that victory is important above all in so far as it would demonstrate beyond doubt that a united community had been formed: “morale is the fundamental coefficient of victory, more important than the technical and mechanical side. The winner will be the side that wants to win, the side that has greater reserves of psychic energy.” To win would thus mean to be spiritually superior, as a group.
But this pre-eminence of spirit over mechanics sits uneasily beside the lines that close the frame of the Christmas passage – “Canon-fire recalls me to reality.” Indeed. Here it is guns that matter, long-range artillery, here there is no question of illusion being the only reality there is. What matters in modern warfare is technology, hardware. The winner is the side with the guns.
Mussolini would never resolve this contradiction, which is perhaps one reason why Italian soldiers went to the Second War so poorly equipped. The last words of our passage, in the original Italian read: “è Natale di guerra.” Literally, “it is Christmas of war.” The connection between the two words seems vague, open to interpretation. The realms of the spirit and of mechanisation, of past and present, childhood and adulthood, silent nostalgia and canon-fire, are forced close together, but it’s not really clear how they stand in relation to each other. For all his famous dogmatism and intransigence, Mussolini rarely arrived at a position of closure on any issue. In this he was quite unlike Hitler and Stalin.

“The real story of my life is all told in those first fifteen years,” Mussolini later remarked. What story? However alien to each other the worlds they represented, the young Mussolini did not choose between his mother and father. He passes no judgement on either. Rather he seeks to please both. For his mother he is a good student. For his father he is aggressive and revolutionary. Later he would write nostalgically of the limited circumstances the family lived in, the five beds in one room, the meals missed. A disdain for money was one of the few ideals that both parents shared and an attitude their first-born son also adopted. Indeed, if money truly were the root of all evil, then the biographer of Mussolini would be in danger of depicting him as a saint. Money, like mechanisation and materialism in general, was something he despised. This would make it easier for him in the future to claim that the quarrels between workers and capitalists, over money, were unnecessary.
The Mussolinis, however, were by no means the poorest of the poor, rather the aristocracy of the poor perhaps, as one day Mussolini would follow Sorel in speaking of an aristocracy of the proletariat. At six years old he went to his mother’s village school which was located over his father’s blacksmith’s forge. One can imagine how important Benito felt among his schoolmates, taught by his mother in the classroom with his father’s virile hammer-blows clanging from the anvil below. On the other hand, there are indications that the attention his mother paid to the other students (she was much loved in the village) and that his father paid towards his fellow subversives and drinking partners, created a certain amount of anxiety in the boy. And by now he had to compete for that attention with the likes of his younger brother Arnaldo, two years younger, and Edwige five years younger.
Together with their disdain for money, the Mussolinis also shared an ambition for their children’s education, something that, alas, required money. At nine years old Mussolini was sent away from home as a paid boarder at a college of Salesean friars in the town of Forlimpopoli some 10 miles from Predappio. Rather than being at the centre of the school, he was now one of the least important members, reduced to eating at the third class table of those boarders who paid less. When he was expelled from the school a year later the friars wrote of him that he was “passionate and unruly” (F15) and appeared to feel that he had been sent to school as a punishment and was . “He opposes every order and discipline of the college. Nothing fulfils him: in a group of people he feels sad and lonely. He wants to be alone.”
Ten years later the revolutionary Angelica Balabanoff noticed Mussolini in a meeting of Socialists in Lausanne, Switzerland. She wrote: “This time I was distracted for the whole meeting by a man I saw in the attentive crowd. He was young, I’d never seen him before and his restless behaviour and shabby clothes marked him out from the other workers in the room. When the meeting had finished I asked one of the activist workers who he was. The man explained that he was an Italian deserter, that he had turned up at a meeting one evening no long ago. Another worker added: “My wife made some underwear for him from an old sheet. We all find jobs but he says he can’t. He’s too sick.”
I felt quite troubled about the young man and after a while I went to the back of the room where he was sitting on his own. “What can I do for you?” I asked. “I hear you haven’t got a job.” In a hysterical voice, without looking up at me he answered: “There’s nothing anyone can do for me. I’m ill, I can’t work or make any effort.”
Mussolini goes to Socialist meetings, an expression of solidarity, but sits alone. He is marked out by his shabby clothes. Other distinguishing signs are a newspaper in his pocket and an unkempt beard. Almost every memoir of him recalls these details. His is not the aloneness of someone who wants to hide, but who wants his aloneness to be noticed. He wants people to offer him help and then refuse it. He is beyond help. But he will accept gifts of underwear.
At nine Mussolini did not want to go the college of Salesians. He behaved badly. At a certain point he pulled a knife and wounded a classmate, for which he was made to spend the first part of the night outside sleeping with the dogs. He begged to be let back in. The result, as he must have known, was that he was expelled from the school and sent back home where he discovered that his mother and father had forgotten to feed his pet owl which had died as a result.
“My childhood was never a happy one,” recalls Mussolini in some hastily written memoirs. “My poor mother was always so distracted. It was hard to get her attention.” If you were entirely conformist no one noticed you. If you were truly alone, truly on your own, nobody could notice you. The thing was to be part of the school, the church, the socialist party, but pulling against it. Separating yourself from it. Even appearing to be sick, something that, along with insisting on his great health, Mussolini was paradoxically doing all his life, was away of creating the sort of separateness that demands attention.

Well, that’s as far as this little project got, I’m afraid…