Defeatists and Disfattisti

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.