- My Father Il Duce: A Memoir by Mussolini’s Son
- Kales Press, 163 pp.
Mussolini, Through the Eyes of His Son
Benito Mussolini had more than one mistress but only one wife, whom he legally married five years after the birth of their first child, Edda. Rachele Mussolini, née Guidi, was a woman from a village in Emilia Romagna who never tried to become a Roman sophisticate during her husband’s two decades as Italy’s dictator. She bore the Duce three sons and two daughters. This brief memoir is by the dictator’s son Romano, a well-known jazz musician until his death in February 2006 at the age of 78. The name Mussolini is still in the news. Romano’s daughter, Alessandra Mussolini, a former topless model and the niece of Sophia Loren, entered Italian politics as a right-winger in 1992 and is now a deputy to the European Parliament.
Of the five children of Benito and Rachele Mussolini, the best known over the years has probably been the Duce’s daughter Edda, who in 1930 married a young Italian diplomat named Gian Galeazzo Ciano. Before the decade was over Ciano, still in his thirties, had become Europe’s youngest foreign minister, a man who was for long a faithful henchman of his father-in-law but eventually went against him.
The Duce’s next two children, Vittorio and Bruno, both became military pilots; Vittorio lived until 1997 but Bruno died in a crash in 1941. Romano, the fourth child and the author of this memoir, was born in 1927. Finally, in 1929, came the fifth and last child, Anna Maria, who lived a long but quiet life, partially paralyzed from childhood polio.
This memoir by Romano was first published in Italy, in 2004, and its author is at some pains to emphasize that he was old enough to remember his father well. Clearly this was so; but it takes a careful reader to distinguish Romano’s own memories from what he heard from his mother and elsewhere.
As one might expect from a son’s memoir, the book paints a far better picture of the Duce than the man deserved. Fortunately there is an introductory essay by Alexander Stille, the Columbia University professor who is today perhaps America’s best academic expert on Italy.
As Stille says, Mussolini entered World War II because he became convinced that Nazi Germany would win the war, and he wanted a place at the victors’ table that would ensure for Italy a part of the spoils. Earlier, in the 1930s, he had invaded Ethiopia in his quest for an African empire, and killed hundreds of thousands. This Duce proved to be a fool. His generals lied to him about Italy’s military preparedness, claiming they had many more war-ready divisions than was the case. But Mussolini also deceived himself about this, as his son-in-law Ciano wrote in his frank diaries.
Ciano was executed in 1944, the year after he and other members of the Fascist Grand Council finally voted down the Duce. His wife, Edda, smuggled his diaries into Switzerland under her skirt. They were published in abridged form even before the war ended, and were used at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 to undermine the defense of Ciano’s Nazi counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Romano’s memoir ignores both Mussolini’s crimes abroad and, as Stille makes clear, the dark side of what the dictator did inside Italy. Although far fewer of Mussolini’s political opponents were killed after he took power in 1922 than was the case in Hitler’s Germany, he destroyed Italy’s parliamentary system after his thugs had kidnapped and killed Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti; the Blackshirt militia cowed the country with their thuggery; and thousands of opponents were imprisoned or exiled. (Read, if you have not, Christ Stopped at Eboli, the account by Carlo Levi of his banishment to a poor town in Italy’s South.)
Mussolini, as Romano writes, was a caring father. Stille, however, adds to Romano’s account some details of the cruel story of Ida Dalser, who gave Mussolini an illegitimate son, also named Benito, before Mussolini came to power. Romano says the two later “fell sick.” In fact, Mussolini had both mother and son hidden away by incarcerating them in mental institutions, where both died, one in 1937 and the other in 1942.
What Romano totally ignores and Stille does not go into is the question of the Duce’s own physical and mental health during his last several years. He was a sick man by the time he was deposed in 1943, but the only reflection of this in the memoir is Romano’s mention that his father was on a vegetarian diet and drank only water.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the memoir is Romano’s account of what happened on July 25, 1943. The Duce returned home at four o’clock that morning from the long session of the Fascist Grand Council during which 19 of the 28 members, including Galeazzo Ciano, had voted for a resolution (what the translator calls wrongly an “order of the day”) that called for the king to take direct charge–meaning the dictator must step down. The Axis was in retreat. Mussolini had foolishly sent hundreds of thousands of poorly equipped soldiers to help Hitler on the Russian front–help that Hitler had not wanted–and most of them had been lost. Italy had lost North Africa, and now the Allies were invading Southern Italy. The country was exhausted, and so was the Duce. He was no longer the strutting cock who not many years earlier had proudly announced the restoration of the ancient Roman Empire.
Rachele, ever the practical-minded country woman, told her husband flatly when he came home that morning that he should arrest all those who had voted against him. He would do it, he said, the next day. Rachele said, rightly, that that would be too late.
What Mussolini thought he needed to do next was go call on the king, Vittorio Emanuele III, who for more than twenty years had acquiesced in all the dictator did. The teen-aged Romano was not in Rome that day, but we can probably trust him when he says the Duce told Rachele that “I have to see the king because he and I signed the pact with Germany, and we must abide by it. Whether he relieves me of duty or not is secondary. The king first needs to know who the traitors are and authorize me to arrest them.”
What happened instead that afternoon was that the king thanked the Duce for his services, which he would no longer need; and when Mussolini walked out a carabinieri officer approached him, said “I have been ordered to ensure your safety,” and accompanied him to a waiting vehicle that took him off to internment. Two months later, Mussolini was released from his stay at a mountain hotel in the Abruzzo by German glider troops, and flown north in a little plane to begin a year and a half under German tutelage as head of an “Italian Social Republic.”
Romano’s little memoir includes details about the Duce’s final days before he and his last mistress, Claretta Petacci, were shot by partisans and their bodies strung up on public display at a gasoline station in Milan. Rachele and son Romano were living in a villa not far from the Duce’s and Claretta’s villa, and one day Rachele called on Claretta and told her to “Put an end to this disgusting performance!” Claretta began to cry, which did not impress the doughty Rachele; what seems to have impressed her at least a little was Claretta’s telling Rachele that “You are a fortunate woman. Il Duce loves you very much.” Strangely–much of Mussolini’s story is strange–this may have been true.
Several small mistakes in the book should be noted. Mafalda, the unfortunate daughter of Vittorio Emanuele III, died in a Nazi concentration camp but it was the camp at Dachau and not Buchenwald. When Mussolini was reunited with his family after the Germans flew him north, it was at Munich and not Monaco. A photograph caption incorrectly calls the fixed-wing Stork plane that flew the Duce away from internment a “glider plane.” Finally, the Duce’s mistress in his early days as a Socialist editor was not Angelica Blabanoff but Balabanoff.
This book is a small but interesting addition to the many accounts of Italy’s years under fascism. There are more important firsthand accounts of the period that still await translation into English, for example the memoirs of Dino Grandi, Mussolini’s minister of justice, the man who pushed his comrades to depose the Duce.