Daughter of a dictator
Moorehead’s latest explores the life of Edda Mussolini and the sinister allure of fascism
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
Caroline Moorehead’s latest book is sabotaged by its subtitle. A prolific author, historian and human rights advocate, Moorehead fails to provide convincing evidence that justifies calling Benito Mussolini’s daughter, Edda,”the most dangerous woman in Europe.” While Edda was certainly well acquainted with the leaders of totalitarian Italy and Germany, there was no shortage of really dangerous women and men in Europe, and she was hardly in their league.
A more appropriate title would have been Mussolini and His Daughter. To understand Edda, Moorehead writes, we must understand the years of fascist rule, when Mussolini’s vision ruled every facet of Italian life. What Moorehead has done, and done well, is to write a biography of Edda within the context of a parallel biography of her father.
In books such as A Bold and Dangerous Family and A Village of Secrets, Moorehead has written compelling accounts of ordinary people taking extraordinarily noble positions against the murderous dictators of wartime Europe. It may be that she is less at home writing about a thoroughly ignoble member of a thoroughly ignoble family who married a thoroughly ignoble opportunist.
Edda’s father was dictator of Italy and her husband, Galeazzo Ciano, rose to the rank of foreign minister. Her family ties and glamorous lifestyle made her a celebrity, but there is no evidence that her influence made any difference to the blood-stained decisions of her father and husband. From his first days in power, Mussolini made no secret of his desire to forcibly establish an Italian empire in the Mediterranean Basin. He needed no prodding from Edda to invade Albania, Ethiopia and Greece.
When it came to Italy’s fateful decision to enter the Second World War on Germany’s side, it is true that Ciano was against it and Edda was for it. However, what she wanted did not matter. For much of the 1930s, Mussolini and Ciano wavered between supporting Britain and France or Germany. Their thinking was purely transactional; they would support whichever power would help them achieve Italy’s imperial goals.
By the summer of 1940, Germany had conquered France and appeared to be on the brink of defeating Britain. Now, by entering the war on Germany’s side, Mussolini and Ciano calculated they could enjoy the spoils of war at little cost to Italy.
Although Italy had been among the victors of the First World War, it proved a costly victory. Incompetent leadership and inadequate equipment lead to almost half a million deaths on the battlefield and economic chaos at home. Mussolini, with his gift for violent, ultranationalist rhetoric, exploited angry gangs of disillusioned veterans to create the fascist movement that eventually made him dictator.
Edda was the eldest of his four children and became his favourite, although his belief in male superiority meant he put more weight on the opinions of her brothers. She grew up self-centred, outspoken and more interested in hedonism than politics. Her closeness to her father gave rise to speculation that she influenced his decisions, but even Moorehead admits Edda was averse to “high political intrigue.”
Contrary to official fascist family values, she and her husband had an open marriage in which both indulged in numerous affairs. Moorehead colourfully recounts her lovemaking, gambling and drinking adventures ranging from the exotic port of Shanghai to the quiet island of Capri. Surprisingly, in the closing years of the war, when Ciano was condemned to death for at last opposing Mussolini, she risked her life in desperate but ultimately hopeless efforts to save him, at one point even attempting to blackmail Hitler.
Putting aside the subtitle, this book is a timely reminder of fascism’s sinister allure. Luckier, or perhaps shrewder, than her father and husband, Edda survived the war and ended her days in affluent comfort, living long enough to see her niece, Alessandra Mussolini, elected to parliament on a neofascist ticket. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Winnipegger John K. Collins would not lose any sleep if history stopped repeating itself.
If you value coverage of Manitoba’s arts scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow the Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music and galleries while also ensuring the broadest possible audience can access our arts journalism. BECOME AN ARTS JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.