World War II: Fascinating Behind-the-Scenes Facts
As authors of historical fiction know well, writers always do more research than they can possibly depict in their novels. In the process of researching my most recently released novel, The Model Spy, I learned some surprising things about the time and setting. The novel takes place mostly in World War II Italy, and there simply hasn’t been as much fiction or scholarship about war-time Italy as, for instance, France and England.
The Complicated Dance Between Mussolini and Hitler
Benito Mussolini took control of Italy in the 1920s, and Hitler greatly admired Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome—when thousands of Fascist supporters strode into the Italian capital, setting the stage for Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister. In fact, Hitler tried to emulate this strategy in his Munich putsch, and Hitler even acknowledged that Italian Fascism was the elder brother of Nazism. Then, when Hitler came to power in 1933, Mussolini publicly praised his takeover.
Although the two became allies, this was more a marriage of convenience than a meeting of minds. Mussolini surmised that Hitler was poised for military expansion and victory, and he wanted Italy to share in the spoils. Hitler used Italy as a pawn in his military schemes. He misled Mussolini about the timing of his war plans and pushed Italy into military action before the country had adequately prepared for war. As a result, Italy’s military was ill equipped for the battles they undertook and Italy crumpled when, in July 1943, the Allies invaded Italy, which Churchill considered “the soft underbelly” of the Axis. From then on, Mussolini was on the run.
Galeazzo Ciano—Italy’s Doomed Foreign Minister
In 1930, Galeazzo Ciano married Benito Mussolini's daughter Edda. Whether this was a love match and/or a play for power isn’t clear, but the marriage obviously brought Ciano into Mussolini’s orbit. Ciano was considered a hero of Italy’s Ethiopian campaign and, upon his return from the battlefield in 1936, Mussolini appointed him Foreign Minister. Ciano went on to serve as Il Duce’s emissary in numerous meetings with Hitler and his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ciano began keeping a secret diary about this time, and this diary, which survived the war, provides a fascinating glimpse into the Mussolini regime, Axis war strategies, and Il Duce and Ciano’s meetings with Hitler and Ribbentrop.
Ciano did not see eye to eye with Mussolini on many matters. He was highly skeptical of Mussolini’s military plans and understood, better than Mussolini, that Italy was ill prepared for war. This put him in the unenviable position of trying to advise Il Duce against the expansionist dreams he harbored. Ciano even leaked intelligence to Belgium about the impending invasion by Hitler. While Mussolini followed in Hitler’s footsteps and took action against Italy’s Jews, Ciano tried to forestall official government actions against the country’s Jews. Increasingly at odds with Il Duce, he was removed from his post as Foreign Minister in 1943. Ciano, along with his wife and their three children, fled to Germany. But the Nazis returned Ciano to Mussolini’s clutches and, against the entreaties of his daughter Edda, Mussolini charged him with treason and had him executed. His last words were “Long live Italy.”
The Muddled Italian Resistance
Much is known about the French Resistance movement, which sprang into action during Germany’s occupation of France. The French Resistance was united in its opposition to the Nazis. But the Italian Resistance predated the war and consisted of numerous and varied political factions opposed to Mussolini’s fascist government.
While many Italians admired Mussolini’s charisma and promises of peace and prosperity, by the 1930s many had grown disenchanted with him. Mussolini ruled with an iron fist, and, once he embarked on his foreign wars in Ethiopia and Albania, life for the average Italian became increasingly difficult, mostly due to food shortages. Shopkeepers and factory and government workers were forced to sign party membership cards and sometimes bused to Mussolini’s rallies and expected to cheer him on. People became secretive and kept their feelings about Mussolini to themselves, knowing that disloyalty could well lead to the castor oil treatment administered by Mussolini’s thugs, the Blackshirts.
One anti-fascist movement, Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), achieved such prominence and influence that two of its leaders, brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli, were assassinated in 1937 in France, where they had set up their anti-fascist operation. Galeazzo Ciano was allegedly involved in plotting the murders.
By the end of the war, Italians were tired of the hardships and military defeats they’d been subjected to, and in April 1945 partisans hunted down Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci as they tried to flee to Switzerland. They were shot, and Mussolini’s corpse was kicked and disfigured. They were hung by their feet in a square in Milan. In the end, the people of Italy had their revenge.
Two days later Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker and the Allies took control of Europe. Italians suffered great hardship during Mussolini’s dictatorship and his ill-fated entry into the war. After the war there was a short-lived campaign to purge the country of fascists. In 1946 Italy’s weak king, Victor Emmanuel III, abdicated and the country voted by referendum to establish the republic that persists to this day.