Il Duce’s Status in 1943

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 137-139:

His ashy pallor and sunken cheeks made Benito A. A. Mussolini look older than his fifty-nine years and hardly the “head devil” that Roosevelt now called him. He still shaved his head, but more to hide his gray than in a display of Fascist virility. Because of his vain refusal to wear eyeglasses, Mussolini’s speeches were prepared on a special typewriter with an enormous font. Duodenal ulcers—some claimed they were “of syphilitic origin”—had plagued him for nearly two decades, and his diet now consisted mostly of stewed fruit and three liters of milk a day. A German officer in Rome reported, “Often in conversation his face was wrenched with pain and he would grab his stomach.” Once he had demonstrated vigor to photographers by scything wheat or by rubbing snow on his bare chest. Now, wary of assassins, he lolled about the Palazzo Venezia, in a back room with tinted windows and the signs of the zodiac painted on the ceiling. Sometimes he lolled with his mistress, Clara Petacci, the buxom, green-eyed daughter of the pope’s physician, whose wardrobe was filled with negligees and goose-feather boas personally selected by Mussolini.

He had risen far since his modest boyhood as a blacksmith’s son in the lower Po Valley, and he would fall even farther before his strutting hour on the stage ended. As a young vagabond he had been an avowed socialist, stalking the streets with brass knuckles in his pocket and reciting long passages from Dante. His politics devolved to ultranationalism and the Fasci di Combattimento, which he founded in Milan in 1919 and which was the precursor to the Fascist party he rode to power in 1922. By the late 1920s, he had extirpated Italian parliamentary government to become an absolute tyrant—il Duce, the Leader—cleverly accommodating both the Vatican and the popular monarchy of King Victor Emmanuel III. With an autodidact’s quick mind and bombastic oratory, he raised national confidence, stabilized the lira, built a modern military, and boosted farm production by reclaiming vast tracts of swampland. The trains, famously, ran on time. His invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 helped destroy the League of Nations; he empowered Hitler by showing how easily Western democracies could be cowed and by condoning Germany’s Anschluss with Austria. The Führer’s gratitude led to the Pact of Steel in May 1939. “Believe, Obey, Fight,” the Fascist motto advised, and hundreds of thousands of Italian women surrendered their wedding rings to be melted down for Mussolini’s war effort. In Italian cinemas, moviegoers rose as one when the Duce strode across the screen in newsreels; he also required Italians to stand during radio broadcasts of armed forces communiqués, often delivered at one P.M. to ensure a captive audience in restaurants.

Lately the country was getting to its feet mostly for bad news. Italy’s colonial adventures in Eritrea, Somaliland, Abyssinia, and North Africa had been ruinous. Without informing Berlin, Mussolini also had invaded Greece, only to require German help to stave off catastrophe. Rome declared war on supine France in 1940, but thirty-two Italian divisions failed to overwhelm three French divisions on the Alpine front. The Italian air force had been gutted in Libya; two-thirds of the Italian army fighting in Russia had been destroyed; 40 percent of Italian soldiers on Crete reportedly lacked boots; and three-quarters of the merchant fleet had been sunk in the lost-cause effort to resupply North Africa. Raw materials, from cotton to rubber, were now dispensed by the Germans, who even provided the fuel that allowed Italian warships to leave port. About 1.2 million Italian soldiers served on various foreign fronts, along with 800,000 in Italy; but few had the stomach to defend the homeland, much less fight a world war. A German high command assessment on June 30 concluded, “The kernel of the Italian army has been destroyed in Greece, Russia, and Africa…. The combat value of Italian units is slight.”

Since December 1942, Mussolini had vainly urged Hitler to draw back from the Eastern Front, or even to forge a separate peace with Moscow. With combat casualties approaching 300,000, Italy found itself in the “ridiculous position of being unable either to make war or to make peace.”

In July 1943, King Victor Emmanuel III replaced Mussolini as prime minister with colonial war-hero General Pietro Badoglio, 1st Duke of Addis Ababa and former viceroy of Italian East Africa.

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Filed under Africa, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Italy, Mediterranean, military, nationalism, USSR, war

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