These days it is fashionable to claim Mussolini as a fundamentally decent fellow led astray by an opportunist alliance with Hitler. Whether this revisionism is the song and dance of a minority, or something more widespread and daft, is hard to say. Italians understandably wish to view themselves as brava gente — good people — so they prefer to blame Hitler for Mussolini’s murderous 1938 racial laws against the Jews. The truth is, Nazi Germany never demanded an anti-Semitic campaign as the price of friendship with Italy. On the contrary, Mussolini resented the imputation that his anti-Jewish legislation was imposed on him from without.
By the time Iris Origo’s Italian war diary opens in 1939, the racial laws have declared Italian Jews a contaminant akin to the Nazis’s Fremdkörper, an alien within the state. The anti-Semitic propaganda was of course endorsed by the Fascist Party and the muzzled Italian press, but it was not taken seriously by the larger public, and certainly not by Origo.
Born Iris Cutting in 1902, the Anglo-American diarist and biographer was living at this time with her aristocratic Italian husband, Antonio Origo, at La Foce, a Tuscan estate in the Val d’Orcia. The region gave its name to her bestselling work, War in Val d’Orcia, a diary account of the year 1943–1944, when Hitler invaded northern Italy.
A Chill in the Air, a precursor to War in Val d’Orcia, shows Italy facing imminent catastrophe in 1939 from the ‘Juggernaut of war’. The diary was not intended for publication; it was a private venting of anxieties. Antonio Origo remains cautiously loyal to Mussolini throughout, not least because the Fascist government had subsidised the renovation of La Foce and its fabulous gardens (celebrated today throughout Italy).
Iris, too, had been impressed by the Duce, who was anyway widely admired in pre-war Britain. Newspapers (notably Lord Rothmere’s Daily Mail) carried flattering photographs of the dictator; Mussolini was on good terms with King George V, more-over, who in 1923 publicly congratulated him on his ‘wise leadership’. For the younger Iris, the Duce was a ‘very great man’ (she wrote to a friend in 1930). The ‘virile’ alternative of Fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s appealed to Britons and Americans alike, disgruntled by an age of leftist poets, flappers and perceived Judeo-Bolshevik threats.
Later, however, Origo’s views shifted. In her introduction to A Chill in the Air, Lucy Hughes-Hallett commends her as a ‘kind of Mother Courage’; Brecht’s cart-pulling peasant woman is not known to have worn Fortuny tea-gowns (as Iris’s English mother did) or to have had a Swiss nanny to hand, yet she and Origo did share a doggedness and wariness of political authority. On 7 April 1939 — Good Friday — Mussolini invaded Albania. With this cynical smash-and-grab raid the Duce had struck another blow against the sanctity of international law. Origo is aghast that her Catholic friends express no distaste at the choice of Good Friday. (Perhaps it should have been April Fool’s Day.)
Worse was to come. On 22 May, Mussolini forged ‘the pact of steel’ military alliance with Hitler. Previous pacts between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had been fairly meaningless, but this was the signal that a general European war was about to start, and more-over it committed Italy to rally to Germany’s aid. The Duce, having hitched his carnival chariot to the Führer’s funeral hearse, was now leading Italy irrevocably to ruin. Origo would remember this time personally as one of a political awakening. ‘We are now wholly pro-German,’ she despairs; a last chance for peace in Europe had been lost with Mussolini’s cosying up to Hitler.
On 10 June 1940, under pressure from Hitler, Mussolini finally declared war on Britain and France. The Duce’s speech, transmitted nationwide by wireless, booms into La Foce as staff assemble in the grounds to listen. (The wireless, Hughes-Hallet observes, is at the very centre of the diary.) ‘People of Italy, to arms, and show your tenacity!’, the Duce hollers from his Rome headquarters. The dictator’s balcony-ranting is by now intolerable to Origo. ‘MUSSOLINI IS ALWAYS RIGHT’, the slogans proclaim hopefully (when actually Mussolini is usually wrong).
In Rome, where her godfather William Phillips was US ambassador, Origo finds anti-German feeling ‘rampant’. The promulgation of the Fascist racial laws — a shameful chapter in the history of modern Italy — had left Roman Jews uncertain what to believe. The terrible events developing in far-distant Poland took their place in the rumour-ridden politics of the moment.
Nowhere in A Chill in the Air does one learn of the circumstances of Origo’s marriage, her husband’s name, even if she has children. So it comes as a surprise when the diary ends abruptly on 1 August 1940 with the birth of the author’s baby daughter. The reader has been quite unaware of the pregnancy. Origo’s diaries, trenchantly and pithily written, are a glory; anyone with an interest in the fate of Europe today should read them.