Monday, September 27, 2021

Italy at War - The Ciano Diaries

I just recently read The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943, the diary kept by Benito Mussolini's son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano (1903-1944), during his last four years as Italy's Minister for Foreign affairs. Kidnapped by the Germans in 1943, Ciano was executed in January 1944, and his diary (which both Mussolini and the King knew about) was smuggled from Italy to Switzerland by his wife, Edda, and subsequently published. This edition has an Introduction by Sumner Welles (1892-1961), U.S. Undersecretary of State from 1936 to 1943, the period during which Ciano was Foreign Minister. Welles met Ciano in 1940, before Italy entered the war, when he was sent to Europe by FDR to explore possibilities for peace. Welles' diagnosis of Ciano effectively captures why his diary is worth reading. According to Welles, Ciano in his diary, "shows himself to be precisely what he was in life - the amoral product of a wholly decadent period in Italian and, for that matter, in European, history. ... Yet where he showed himself far superior to the man who was his father-in-law, his political chief, and finally his executioner, was in his ability to see clearly where Italy's real security lay. ... He was under no illusions as to what a German-dominated Europe would imply for Italy. ... But what is equally important is his total inability to change the course upon which Mussolini had embarked."

The main storyline, obviously, is how Ciano as Foreign Minister saw the alliance with Germany and what war would entail. While forced regularly to meet with Hitler and Ribbentrop and play along with the alliance, Ciano regularly recorded his reservations. He also recorded those of the King (Victor Emmanuel III), who "has no trust in the Germans, and every time he talks of them calls them 'those ugly Germans'."

Since Ciano was foreign Minister, the King is a constant presence in his diary, a good reminder that Mussolini never quite enjoyed the absolute power he craved. Hitler's soldiers swore an oath of personal loyalty to him. Italy's swore loyalty to the King. In March 1940, the diary reports that the Minister of the Royal House, Count Acquarone, told Ciano: "the King feels that it may become necessary for him to intervene at any moment to giver a different direction to things; he is prepared to do this and to do it with despatch." As we all know, the King unfortunately did not do any such thing until much later - finally removing Mussolini in 1943. Had he perhaps acted earlier, he might have spared Italy some of the coming catastrophe.

Mussolini, as depicted in the diary, seemed to become increasingly hostile to the King and to the institution of monarchy. He called the King "the only defeatist in the country." In a sense, so was Ciano himself, who "did not hesitate to tell him [the King] that I would consider a German victory the greatest disaster for our country." Meanwhile even the gilded royal carriages at the ceremony of the Opening of Parliament irritated Mussolini. More importantly, Mussolini seemed to understand how monarchies "are potentially the natural enemies of totalitarian revolutions." Hence his active opposition to the hoped-for restoration of the Spanish monarchy after Francisco Franco's victory in 1939.

However, he never took any actual action against the Royal House and never seemed to recognize the real threat that the King ultimately posed to him. But Donna Rachele, his wife, did see the danger, Ciano quotes her as saying: "With the wind that blows even the starlings have changed direction; they are flying to the trees of Villa Savoia [the King's villa]."

If the monarchy represented a constitutional rival to Mussolini's would-be absolutism, an even more potent cultural rival was the Church. Although it was Mussolini who had engineered the successful reconciliation between Church and State in 1929, he remained consistently hostile, blaming Catholicism for "having made Italy universal, hence preventing it from becoming national. When a country is universal it belongs to everybody but itself." More than once, Ciano quotes Mussolini as calling himself "a Ghibelline" (the medieval Italian faction that was anti-papal in politics). He was also increasingly suspicious of the possibility of some sort of alliance between the Pope and the King. (Indeed in 1939, during Pope Pius XII's official visit to the King and Queen at the Quirinale Palace, Ciano overheard the Pope criticizing Germany in his conversation with the King.) In May 1940, Mussolini told Ciano: "The Pope need not think that he can seek an alliance with the monarchy because I am ready to blow both of them up to the skies at the same time."

What Ciano wrote in his diary in response to this reflected a much more realistic assessment of where the power lay. If Mussolini "intends to wage war, he must not provoke a crisis with the Church. the Italian people are Catholic but not bigoted. Superficially, maybe, they scorn the Church, but they are religious at heart, and especially in times of peril do they draw near the altars." A year and a half later, while Mussolini was showing disdain for Christmas, Ciano observed, "the crowds in the churches are overflowing."

One of the charming aspects of any good diary is all the little asides one is unlikely to find elsewhere, like the King's opposition to colored shirts or that Mussolini did "not like works of art" and detested "that period of history during which the greatest masterpieces were produced." In 1939, after Italy occupied Albania and the Albanian Crown was assumed by the King of Italy, Ciano wrote "better still, they would like to have me." (Given Ciano's deep degree of involvement in Albania, that may not be so crazy as it sounds, but it is still a bit much!) Even more intriguingly, we learn that Mussolini liked snow and cold and that he believed a colder Italy would improve "our good-for-nothing men and this mediocre race." For this reason, Mussolini had reforested the Apennines "to make Italy colder and more snowy." Who knew Mussolini was in the vanguard opposing global warming?

Mussolini promised his people to make Italy great again. But, rather than restore the imagined imperial grandeur of ancient Rome, Mussolini took Italy to an unwinnable war and the consequent catastrophe - and in the process discredited himself and his movement. Yet, for all his foolishness and personal buffoonery, Mussolini - and, more importantly, the Mussolini phenomenon - represented an important historical moment, one not without important lessons for later leaders comparably tempted. Even if, as Marx so famously remarked, all great world-historical facts and personages occur twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, the farcical character of more recent would-be Mussolinis must not keep us from learning the lessons of such problematic historical episodes. Count Ciano's diary does not address - let alone answer - all the many questions raised by Italy's Fascist experience, which was in many respects unique. It does, however, highlight the abiding importance of what we have more recently come to call constitutional and cultural "guardrails" and their central significance for restraining the exercise of political power and guiding its direction. In Mussolini's Italy, the constitutional "guardrail" was the monarchy, and the cultural "guardrail" was the Church. Neither performed optimally, and both failed in their efforts to keep Italy out of the war. Yet, had they been absent, the story would undoubtedly have ended even more tragically than it did.

What constitutional and cultural "guardrails" can we Americans confidently rely on?

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