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No man’s land
Sarah Watling
19 April 2023
published in Issue Three
Edda Mussolini: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
Caroline Moorehead

(Penguin, 2022)

Sisters in Resistance: How a German spy, a banker’s wife, and Mussolini’s daughter outwitted the Nazis
Tilar J. Mazzeo

(Scribe Publications, 2022)

In June 1934, Edda Mussolini went to London. As befitted the daughter of the ruler of Italy, a certain amount of fuss was made of her there. The Marchesa Marconi threw her a lunch at the Ritz, the King and Queen received her at court and she was invited to the country homes of Lady Astor and Sir Philip Sassoon. At a ball, she danced with the Prince of Wales. People who met her remarked on her surprising candour. Rather than a mission of diplomatic dissembling, her father had sent her to tell the truth: to let it be known that he had every intention of invading Ethiopia, and to assess how the news was received. A mission of outspokenness, of saying what was unwelcome or unsettling, it played neatly to his daughter’s strengths.

Benito had been reassured by his ambassador that the British would not wage war over Ethiopia; there were signs that the mood was far from hostile among Britain’s ruling class. « Had Lady Chamberlain not commented on his air of authority and his muscles? » Caroline Moorehead notes in her elegant and perceptive new biography of Edda Mussolini. « And [had] Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, not compared him » — as praise, we presume — « to Napoleon? » Yet invasions were a matter that could not, apparently, be trusted to the opinions of ambassadors — nor even to Edda’s husband, Galeazzo Ciano, who had been a diplomat himself and would soon become Italy’s Foreign Minister. For the London trip, Edda’s husband and children had been left behind, which was exactly how she liked it. Afterwards she was able to confirm the reports of general British tranquillity (though the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was not especially encouraging about the Duce’s imperial ambitions) and the next year the Italian army advanced into Ethiopia with mustard gas...

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As an Egyptian magazine judged things in 1942.

It was a limited escape, given that Benito subsequently had Marconi connect Rome with Shanghai. When Edda was about to give birth in 1931, the Italian consulate was besieged with paternal telegrams.

Poker and Mahjong were her preferred means for losing large sums of money, whereupon, Moorehead tells us, « her polished manners would desert her and she reverted to the cruder language of Milan’s backstreets. »

War galvanised her: she volunteered immediately for the Red Cross without waiting for permission from either husband or father. Two years later, though, her outspokenness (or naïveté) was causing trouble in the alliance. Visiting Germany, she took Hitler to task for the appalling conditions she had discovered in a labour camp for Italian workers, but when she spoke of them to her father, she was told to keep quiet about what she’d seen.

« We must keep them disciplined and in uniform from morning until night, » he went on. « Beat them and beat them and beat them. »

Galeazzo was far less enamoured of the Nazis than his wife was, but he, too, misread the situation, Moorehead points out, convincing himself that the Germans could be outwitted.

Of course, the feminist thing is to study the interesting women we have without worrying if they’re nice enough to deserve our attention. But here we are, with a life on trial.

The motivations of the idle rich can be hard to fathom. A perfectly straightforward reason for their various flirtations with fascism (leaving aside the probably unsurprising right-wing leanings of their circle), could be that, in many London salons, the shocking statement passed for wit. As late as November 1935 — weeks after Italy invaded Ethiopia — Cunard was recorded at one of her dinner parties « trying to tease the Foreign Office boys by being violently pro-Mussolini. » Quoted in Richard Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right (Faber & Faber, 2015).

Mosley made much of the party’s high proportion of female election candidates, as Julie V. Gottlieb points out in Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement (I.B. Taurus, 2000).