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Life Under Il Duce

Charismatic, admired, and feared, Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, when he became the youngest Prime Minister in Italian history. After destroying all political opposition through his secret police and outlawing labor strikes, Mussolini and his fascist followers consolidated their power through a series of laws that transformed the nation into a one-party dictatorship. Within five years he had established dictatorial authority by both legal and extraordinary means, aspiring to create a totalitarian state. In 1935–1936, Italy invaded Ethiopia, ostensibly for both long-range expansionist plans and to give Mussolini a foreign policy triumph that would allow him to a freer hand at home. However, on 24 July 1943, soon after the start of the Allied invasion of Italy, Mussolini was defeated in the vote at the Grand Council of Fascism. In late April 1945, with total defeat on the horizon, Mussolini was re-captured and summarily executed; his body was to Milan where it was hung upside down at a service station for public viewing .

In an interview with Dr. Milton Colvin beginning July 1988, Constance Ray Harvey recalls the early days of Italian fascism and discusses the popularity of both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. In the following interview with Margaret Sullivan beginning March 1989, Jane Byington recollects her own memories of life in fascist Italy and her hurried evacuation from Naples at the onset of World War II.  Read more about Medal of Freedom winner Constance Ray Harvey and her time as a POW.


“The trains ran on time”

Constance Ray Harvey
Consul, Milan, Italy

HARVEY:  I went out to Italy, to Milan, in August of ’31. I was there seven years, during practically most of fascism. But I had been in Italy before, in the fall of ’23, with my parents, when I saw Mussolini enter Florence for the first time. Of course, the march on Rome had occurred before that, but he had not gone officially to Florence. What I remembered was that the crowds in the street were cowed and silent as he stood up in his open car in the procession. They acted afraid of him, quite different from their subsequent admiration.

Q: Am I wrong in assuming that there was affection for Mussolini?

HARVEY: Oh, yes, there certainly was. He became very popular….They seemed to like his taking a firm hand. The trains ran on time, you know; that was the one thing that everybody said was good. Everyone admitted, even I and the Americans, that there were very good things about fascism, that the country needed to be better organized, and attempts were made to do so.

I think that, like all Latins, the Italians believe that once a subject or a program has been outlined, it is almost the same as if it had been accomplished….

Q: Did the Ethiopian crisis and the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy change the ebullient mood of the Italians?

HARVEY: I might say to that, not yet. The war wasn’t exactly popular, but it had its points, and people were rather proud that this was going to be a part of the new empire all around the whole of the Mediterranean—Mare Nostrum [“Our Sea,” from Roman antiquity]. And a lot of people felt they would get jobs in Ethiopia, and a good many did. The Italians, you know, are very good colonizers, and they probably wouldn’t have done badly in Ethiopia, despite the brutal way they overran the country in the beginning.

But what really developed—and this I saw even then—what really turned the tide in the awful sense, not necessarily against Mussolini, but to show how wrong he was, was his getting into the Spanish Civil War. Many people, when they were called up, thought they were going out to Ethiopia, and they found themselves on ships headed for Barcelona. It was quite a different story. I think it was the turning point of Italy’s capitulation to Hitler. Everyone in Italy was afraid of Hitler. The Italians are not, in the ordinary sense, brave people; they’re too intelligent to be so. They can see what’s coming and they were really afraid.

“We’re very sorry. We have come to arrest you”

The German influence, the Hitler influence, was really beginning to enter Italy. Jews, for instance, in Italy, were never particularly noticed as Jews. There were very important, wealthy Jews in Milan who had done a great deal of marvelous work for the city and had founded wonderful organizations and nobody ever particularly thought of them as Jews. They were just people like anybody else, living the life of the country, and were Italians.

One thing I must say about the delicious way the Italians often react. When someone from Germany, who was a Jewish refugee, but who had a lot of business connections with Italy, came down to Milan, and I happened to get to know him, he said, “You know, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be arrested. I think I won’t stay in Milan. I’ll go up to Lake Como, where I know a whole lot of people, and I think maybe if I’m arrested, that would be a better place to be arrested.”

So he did so. He was exactly right, because this was just before Hitler’s first journey to Italy, when everybody who had any doubts about Italian-German relations, especially Jews, were going to be pushed out of the way and perhaps locked up. This gentleman was told one day by the police in the little village on Lake Como, “We’re very sorry. We have to come to arrest you and put you in prison for a few days.”

And he said, “Oh, yes, yes, I understand.”

They said, “You know, the beds in our jail are very, very poor. We suggest perhaps with our help, we could move your bed from your hotel over for you. And the meals aren’t good either. You’d better perhaps have them send you some meals while you’re there, and wine, too. Then that would be better.”

He said, “Oh, yes, I’ll do that. I’ll arrange it. I’m sure the hotel will arrange it for me.” And that is what happened. He said, “My jailers came in and drank some of the wine every day, and we played trick-track and various things together, and had quite an amiable time.” After Hitler went home, those arrested were released….

During the couple of years before then [1939], there had been this growing fear and admiration of the Germans. They were very impressed by the Germans. They were the great Master Race for a large part of the Italians, which meant respect and fear both. I remember quite a few Italians spoke about them as supermen….

We began to realize that Americans were being watched, because there were always a number of Italians who disapproved of Mussolini from the beginning and who were very anti-fascist, but they were scattered. Of course, the government always wanted to know who these people might be, and Americans obviously would know. We did know somewhat.

“Something awful was going to happen”

Then, after the beginning of the Ethiopian war, the government sent out into the various towns and cities, young Italian women who were, of course, devoted Italian fascists…and they became sort of informal spies at cocktail parties. We began to realize what was going on. Then it became rather apparent, because the government couldn’t reimburse these young women, they couldn’t pay them because they were all from noble families and it would have been insulting. They had to do something to show their appreciation, so each one was gradually issued by the government a lovely new leopard-skin coat which came from Ethiopia. In no time at all, we realized what our spotted friends were up to.

Q: At this time Victor Emmanuel was the King of Italy. What sort of relationship existed between the crown and Mussolini, and how did people react to this relationship? 

HARVEY:  I’m sure that the crown just had to put up with it, so to speak. Of course, the position in society of Italians would have affected their reaction. The nobility, of course, even the provincial nobility, almost certainly had reservations about Mussolini, but the people throughout the country felt that he had been doing great things for them. They didn’t yet realize what was really beginning to occur. There was, of course, a great devotion to the House of Savoy, and they still had a lot of influence….

They were very conscious, indeed, that Germany was a strong power in Europe; no doubt about that. It had been evident in many respects for quite a while….

My very last job in Italy, when my mother was already in Switzerland and I was to leave within a couple of hours by train with my two maids and my cat for my next post in Switzerland, my chief sent me a note and said, “Just take a taxi, Constance.” I always knew that this meant something awful was going to happen….

Driving Mussolini more into the arms of Hitler

Jane Byington
Naples, Italy

BYINGTON:  Mussolini was fully in power by the time we got there, ’34. Well, I’m trying to think back to what I felt then as compared to afterthoughts now. I can’t think that I had been brought up with any great horror about dictators. One always says at least he made the trains run on time. He did a number of very beneficial social things in Italy. He had drained the Pontine Marshes and the terrible malaria they had in that area was wiped out because once they got rid of the mosquitoes… He’d settled a number of war veterans on these small farms. Certainly at the time we arrived in Italy, there was no active opposition to Mussolini within Italy. There were exile groups in Paris. We had a great many Italian friends, partly because of my husband’s own childhood there. We did not know Italian officials…our government policy did not encourage this. While it was not encouraging opposition, neither was it blessing the dictator.

We all knew…that our phones were tapped. And we certainly wouldn’t have rushed out in the streets waving flags, “Down with the Dictator,” or any activity of that sort. We were aware that people were jailed and one young man we knew didn’t show up for his black shirt drill and was put in jail and his older brother said, “Serves him right for being lazy.” He was released after a few days. At the time of the Ethiopian War, there’s no doubt about it that the population was definitely with Mussolini. We had a radio and he made a marvelous speech. The sanctions that were then applied didn’t work in any way, shape or form. We may have had a little less gasoline, but it didn’t impoverish the country and it didn’t bring it down or anything like that. And it had the effect of driving Mussolini more into the arms of Hitler.

I might just deviate a moment to Hitler because this is an absolutely true story that’s almost incredible. We had a German schwester— a trained baby nurse—who had left Germany and her parents because she was strongly anti-Hitler, and she had served with an English family for several years in England, and then she came to us and was with us — well, about five years. She had been to the United States with us and through all of this was stoutly anti-Hitler and never took her holidays back in Germany. Her mother came out to see her in Italy….

When Hitler came to Naples, she was ordered to be down at our railroad station at X hour in the morning to cheer Hitler along the way…. She finally came back at 11 o’clock at night ecstatic, wild-eyed. She’d shaken hands with Hitler and she was converted. This is an absolutely true story….The point I’m trying to make is the mesmerism of Hitler.

[Hitler] also, in his own way, was very impressed with the Italian Navy which as it steamed around the Bay of Naples was indeed an impressive sight….So I think in many ways, Hitler felt that Italy would be a stronger ally than they turned out. The Spanish Civil War was the first realization by my generation of the horrors of war….The Spanish War was not popular. In fact it was so unpopular that the hospital ships had to come in at night and the wounded would be unloaded when they could not be seen by the general population….

Q: Had it become apparent in Italy at that time that there was going to be war?

BYINGTON:  To the man in the street, probably not. Certainly all the Italians hoped that they would not be involved in it. At the time of Czechoslovakia, the Munich Pact, the whole attitude of every Italian, whether he was fascist or non-fascist, was just a great sigh of relief. For other Europeans, the Consular Corps, it was obvious that this was simply a postponement.

“I didn’t want to go”

Q: How much did this slowly escalating set of tensions affect your daily lives?

BYINGTON:  The diplomatic corps was split, but America was neutral. It just happened that the Italians were our particularly good friends. The diplomatic corps was also very mixed in the nationality of the husbands and wives. The wife of the German—I’ve forgotten what his rank was—but in any case, he was the Nazi Party head. He wasn’t the ambassador, but he was the head of the Party under an assumed rank, and she was an American, so it was very difficult for her. The Belgian Ambassador’s wife was Italian. There was a great deal of strain in that sense, the mixed marriages. The English Minister then was a bachelor. The French had the most difficult time insofar as the fall of France. They split right down the Embassy, some remaining with the one government and some remaining with the other. The wives weren’t ordered out.

Our government sent a ship to Ireland and a ship to Genoa and said these were the last ships that would be sent and urged….the wives and children to leave. Our Minister, who was Arthur [Bliss] Lane, absolutely insisted that the children go. But he left it up to the wives to do as they wished. So I and one other mother left and I took with me the children of the wives who didn’t leave, because I had the youngest child, though I didn’t want to go. Obviously I was the one who had to go. I couldn’t give the youngest child to someone else. It was ’40; he was six….

All ships at that time were held in Gibraltar for inspection. And then we traveled, of course, with lights and a red cross on the side. We didn’t have any troubles. I mean, in other words, submarines didn’t follow us. Well, they had stopped the ship before us, about ten days before we sailed, and made everybody get into the lifeboats, but they didn’t do anything.

Obviously these refugees were very nervous. They were Czechs. They were Poles. They were German Jews. And they were very unhappy, miserable human people, not being at all sure what was going to happen to them when they got here. Some of them had no means….The ship was crowded. They had beds in the swimming pool. It wasn’t exactly a luxury crossing. But, on the other hand, we had perfectly adequate meals, served, not standing in line, and they had a good bar, and you could get any drinks you could afford to buy. The cabins were of course crowded. We were five in a three-bed cabin with a cot. It wasn’t horrible in any way.