Defeatists and Disfattisti

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The
term "disfattista" ("defeatist") is somewhat
dated in Italian, bringing to mind, as it does, those Italians whom
Mussolini accused of not supporting fascism and the fascist war
effort. It has been given a new lease on life in English, however,
by the venerable neocon magazine National Review, which has
accused paleocon opponents of the invasion of Iraq of "espous[ing]
a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism." According to NR columnist
David
Frum
, the paleocons "are thinking about defeat, and wishing
for it, and they will take pleasure in it if it should happen."

It
is strange to find these echoes of Mussolinian rhetoric in National
Review, a magazine that champions what it perceives to be the efforts
of the Bush administration to bring democracy to Iraq. Mussolini,
like Hitler, was contemptuous of parliamentary democracy. The Duce
could write of his political awakening: "As if a revelation
had come to me, I realized that Italy would be saved by one historic
agency – in an imperfect world, sometimes inevitable still – righteous
force. Our democracy of yesterday had died; its testament had been
read; it had bequeathed us nothing by chaos."

Even
before Italy's entry into WWII in support of the Germans, many Italians
had misgivings about their eventual participation in the conflict,
as reported to Mussolini by his secret police: "At the present
moment there is a general atmosphere of calm and trust, yet the
people have begun to indicate their dissatisfaction should Italy
ally itself with Germany – this because of their distrust of the Reich
and its expansionist policies…"

Once
the war started, any criticism of it or the government by defeatists
was duly reported to the authorities, as Mimmo Franzinelli writes
in his Delatori (Informers). It didn't take much to be accused of
"defeatist activity damaging to national interests." The
truthful observation that Mussolini "has gagged the press and
stripped us of our liberties and I don't understand why people continue
to shout, Duce Duce Duce!" was enough to have the offender
reported to the police. One unfortunate who stated that he would
never use his bayonet against the French was sentenced to five years
in prison (he was released after serving only three). Things went
better for a prostitute working in one of the "closed houses,"
the legal brothels of the fascist era, who one night entertained
her clients by singing:

Colonel,
I don't want lead – I'd prefer a piece of bread for each of my bambini,
but that pig Mussolini…

The
woman got off with just a few days in jail after managing to convince
her accusers that she had had no intention of offending the Duce,
but rather the English prime minister.

For
Mussolini and his loyal fascist followers, the ultimate act of defeatism
was the decision of the fascist Grand Council in July 1943 to remove
him as head of the government for his bungling of the war. This
vote was perfectly legal and was approved by King Vittorio Emanuele III,
Head of State. Nevertheless, in January 1944, five of the fascist
leaders who had voted against Mussolini (the others were in hiding)
found themselves tried for treason. Among the five was Galeazzo
Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law, a man so high up in the fascist hierarchy
that he was often referred to as Mussolini's dauphin. Ironically,
the philo-Germanic Ciano was singled out by the Germans "observing"
the trial as especially deserving of the death penalty. How much
Mussolini – by then a puppet of the Germans – could have
done to save his son-in-law from the firing squad remains a controversial
point in Italian history.

It
must be remembered that Mussolini entered the war in June 1940 because
he thought it would soon be over and wanted his share of the spoils.
After a series of lightning wars, the Germans were in control of
Europe. As it turned out, it proved far easier for the Germans to
invade and occupy countries than to hold on to them. Had the Duce
paid heed to the murmurings of the disfattisti in the shops and
taverns, had he accepted the resolution of the Grand Council disfattisti
and gone into the political obscurity he afterwards longed for too
late, he might have saved his beloved Italy much grief and blood.

March
28, 2003

Kevin
Beary (send him mail)
writes
from his home in Italy.


     

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