Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Waiting for War

Iris Origo, A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940, with an Introduction by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, and an Afterword by Katia Lysy.

On June 10, 1940, the Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini, announced Italy’s declaration of war against Britain and France. That day, FDR famously commented, “the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” That same day, at her estate at La Foce in Italy, Iris Origo listening on the radio, heard Britain’s Duff Cooper speak of “a nation led to destruction by a single bad man and France’s Paul Reynaud’s lament, “Le monde, qui nous regarde, jugera” (“The world, which watches us, will judge”).  Meanwhile her husband Antonio and others confined their comments to “ci siamo” (“there we are,” i.e., "that's it").

Iris Origo (1902-1988) was a British-born writer, married to an Italian nobleman, Antonio Origo, who devoted much of her life to their Tuscan estate La Foce. In 1947, she published Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, which made her famous. An earlier "war diary," covering the period leading up to Italy's ill-fated entry into the war as Germany's ally, was only recently published in 2017. Exceptionally well connected (including among her friends the U.S. Ambassador, who happened to be her godfather) she recorded in her diary gossip of the highest quality, as well as public news (in the golden age of radio), and her own varied observations. 

Her account confirms what is now conventional wisdom that the once seemingly promising (to Italians and non-Italians alike, among them for a while Churchill) Fascist regime foolishly - and fatally - gambled its and Italy's future on an unpopular alliance with Germany. On March 28, 1939, she wrote "there is another chill in the air: the universal distaste for Germany as an ally. The part of the speech received with the least applause is that which reaffirms the solidity of the Axis."

Unlike Hitler's position of virtually absolute power in Germany, Mussolini always governed with certain potential checks on his power. It is widely recognized that the Italian military owed its loyalty primarily to the Crown not to Mussolini. As the latter's popularity declined, due to the German alliance, the King's freedom of movement increased. (That was what finally happened in July 1943 when the King removed Mussolini from office and the whole Fascist edifice came tottering down.) So, for example, on March 31, 1939, she records an officer recently returned from Ethiopia saying "that the army is intensely anti-German. The King anti-war. If there should be a division of opinion on the subject between the King and Mussolini, the army would follow the King."  It was, of course, Italy's tragic fact that, after four decades on the Italian throne, the little old King proved so inept at seizing the available opportunity sooner than he did.

Origo's attitude toward Mussolini himself is suggestive regarding his personal and his regime's weakness.. On May 14, 1939, she wrote "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 which he achieved by such minor campaigns as Abyssinia and Spain) and abroad, the achievement of his expansionist aims. He does not want war now because he believes that he can achieve these aims without it." The Duce's actual behavior - staying out until the fall of France, then joining when he erroneously thought it was all over but the peace conference - confirmed her insight.

It has often been noted how, having nobly declared war in alliance with Poland, Britain and France then proceeded to do next to nothing for months. As a British national, Origo was acutely conscious of and sensitive to Britain's poor image and diminished respect. On April 16 1940, she quoted one woman's lament: "Will England never arrive in time and save a small country before talking about it." 

She also records some interesting observations about the role of religion. Besides the Crown and the military, another potential check on Mussolini's aspirations to absolute power was the Church. Origo had lots of friends in Italian aristocratic circles. Writing on July 30, 1939, about one  pro- Fascist family that was nonetheless part of the old "Black Nobility," she seemed convinced that "where there is a clash between the two [Fascism and Catholicism] Catholicism wins." On the other hand, literally on the very eve of Italy's entry into the war, she wrote that most Italian Catholics "have been content to accept the fact that, in actual practice, it has been easier in the last twenty years than in the fifty years of intense anti-clericalism after 1870, to bring up their children in a Catholic atmosphere at  home. They are prepared to yield in principle, where they can gain in practice. And it is this same fluid adaptability ... that has rendered possible the German alliance."

Perhaps of most immediate interest in today's context are are observations about how people grew increasingly cynical and distrustful of all news - and this long before the corrupting influences of contemporary social media!

Indeed, more than the recounting of comments of prominent people, it is her observations of a society on the verge of self-induced collapse that makes her Diary so well worth reading. She recalls an experience not that long ago or far away. She evokes  a mood, a mood that was contagious, and illustrates why it could so easily become so.

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