Fascism's Secretary of State

"Too many painters, sculptors and architects have represented Italy in Poland in the past," Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, complained in his diary during a visit to Warsaw in early 1939. "They love in us the poetry of the pen rather than the strength of our arms, in which they still do not completely believe. We must work hard to correct the bad name they have given us for centuries."

A few weeks later Italy invaded Albania, and less than two months after that sealed the pact with Nazi Germany that eventually brought Italy into World War II. The invasion of Greece -- like that of Albania, promoted and planned by Ciano -- started in October of 1940. Such were the feats with which the Italian Fascists hoped to impress the Poles and the rest of the world. Ciano would have been worse than chagrined had he known as he wrote these words that his most significant and lasting achievement would turn out to be not a military victory or a diplomatic coup but a book.

Ciano's diary of 1937-1943 is one of the most important sources of information we have about the political side of the Axis war effort. It is also a collection of vivid and devastating portraits of the principal Nazis and Fascists -- above all, Benito Mussolini, Italy's dictator and Ciano's father-in-law. A lust for power and a lack of principle led Ciano to the heart of the Fascist regime, but his intelligence and intermittent moral sense enabled him to make acute and illuminating observations once he got there. That combination of opportunism and integrity makes Ciano's story, as told by Ray Moseley in Mussolini's Shadow, an absorbing historical and personal narrative.

Ciano was a scion of the Fascist aristocracy, the son of a World War I naval hero who was made a count in 1925 and whom Mussolini later picked to succeed him in the event of his sudden death. The elder Ciano further rewarded himself, it seems, with kickbacks and payoffs during his tenure as Minister of Communications.

The younger Ciano was an unenthusiastic law student and a frustrated playwright, who showed no interest in fascism before Mussolini came to power, and who briefly worked for a left-wing newspaper. After graduating from his university, he joined the diplomatic service and held posts in Latin America and China. The Duce personally recalled him on the recommendation that Ciano would make a good match for his eldest daughter, Edda, whom Ciano met in early 1930 and proposed to seventeen days later. They were married in April of that year. Theirs was to be an open marriage. The baby-faced Ciano, with "a high-pitched, nasal voice [and] a flat-footed, slightly comic walk," was nonetheless a consummate ladies' man, with a preference for the daughters and wives of the old nobility in Rome. (Like his womanizing father-in-law, he was more abstemious when it came to tobacco and alcohol.) The initially shy bride briefly locked herself in the bathroom on their wedding night, but soon took lovers of her own, favoring "alpine guides and lifeguards" over aristocrats. Ciano and his wife produced three children, and would ultimately show a devotion to each other stronger than other family attachments and even the fear of death.

"You have found an insurance policy for life," a friend remarked to Ciano shortly after his betrothal. After three years abroad, the young count became Mussolini's chief propagandist. A photo from that period (featured on this book's dust jacket) shows him seated at his desk, looking thoughtful and a bit diffident, under a martial portrait of the Duce; but as he grew more powerful, Ciano increasingly emulated the stern and strutting mannerisms of his patron. In 1935 he volunteered as a bomber pilot in Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. The following year, when Ciano was thirty-three, his father-in-law made him Europe's youngest Foreign Minister, in which capacity he oversaw Italy's assistance to Franco's Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, and the increasingly close alliance with Nazi Germany.

Ciano personally favored the British and the French, whose languages he spoke fluently, and was wary of abetting German domination of the Continent, a hesitation that Mussolini shared. But the democracies offended the Duce with their sanctions after his imperial adventure in Ethiopia, whereas the Nazis were ideological kin and offered a chance for expansion through war -- an essential good, according to the Fascist creed.

Thus Italy staged an invasion of Albania even though the country was, in Moseley's words, "in effect an Italian feudal holding." The Fascist propaganda machine touted the swift operation as a glorious conquest, and Ciano took particular satisfaction in his leading role. The count thereafter referred to Albania as his "grand duchy," and the seaport Santi Quaranta was renamed Port Edda, in honor of his wife.

Knowing that Italy was not ready to fight a real war, Ciano opposed the German invasion of Poland, in September of 1939, which touched off the conflict with Britain and France. Italy might have left the alliance at this point, because the Pact of Steel required consultation between the two countries before either provoked hostilities, but Mussolini and Ciano let themselves be swayed by Hitler's promises of easy victory. After less than a year of "non-belligerence," a restless Duce brought his country into the war in June of 1940. Ciano again volunteered as a bomber pilot, a role he resumed with gusto. "Imagine my orgasm!," he exclaimed to Edda after one raid, in a telephone conversation (one of several quoted by Moseley) recorded by the Italian Secret Service.

Relations with the Nazis were naturally the main subject of the diary Ciano kept as Foreign Minister. Mussolini knew about the diary-keeping and even encouraged it, occasionally directing his son-in-law to write down specific incidents for posterity. The Duce seems to have imagined that the diary would be material for propaganda in a future war against Germany.

Ciano's account of his dealings with Berlin belies the image of Axis solidarity it suited both regimes to project. If his diary has a dominant theme, it is Hitler's treachery and Mussolini's helpless resentment. With little or no notice to Italy, Germany invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Romania. Hitler's non-aggression pact with Stalin, and then his violation of that pact with the invasion of Russia, likewise came as last-minute news to Rome. Every time Hitler's actions embroiled Italy more deeply in a war that it was not ready to fight, Mussolini privately seethed; but he never had the courage to object or to opt out, until finally it was too late and Germany had become Italy's master.

"Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli," the Duce complained. He approved the ill-conceived invasion of Greece in an attempt to impress his rival: "This time I will pay him back with the same coin. He will learn from the papers that I have occupied Greece. Thus the balance will be re-established." The resulting debacle eventually required German intervention, only confirming Italy's subservience.

The count's careful record of these indignities would pay off in a kind of postwar revenge on the Germans. The words he attributed to Germany's Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, shortly before the invasion of Poland -- "We want war" -- would prove an important piece of evidence against the Nazi diplomat at Nuremberg.

Ciano depicted the Nazis as malevolent and untrustworthy, but also as ridiculous. After the German Foreign Minister received a prestigious decoration from the Italian King, the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, "whose star is no longer in the ascendant, had tears in his eyes when he saw the collar of the Annunziata around Ribbentrop's neck," Ciano wrote. "[German Ambassador Hans Georg] von Mackensen told me that Goering had made a scene, complaining that the collar really belonged to him, since he was the true and only promoter of the Alliance. I promised Mackensen that I would try to get Goering a collar." Though Ciano more than once succumbed to Hitler's charisma, the German dictator struck him as a windbag: "It is always Hitler who talks! He can be Führer as much as he likes, but he always repeats himself and bores his guests."

Yet it is Mussolini who comes off worst of all in Ciano's account -- as not only vain and callous but also insecure and increasingly irrational over the course of the war. Repeatedly the Duce blamed his failures on the weakness of the Italian people, whom he called "sheep," and whom he pledged to beat until he could make warriors of them. He ordered false air-raid sirens to sound in Rome, and had anti-aircraft guns fired just to make the atmosphere "more exciting." When it snowed, he welcomed the weather for its toughening effect on the population; he had the same reaction to news of food shortages. (Even more chillingly, he also reasoned that hungry faces would make for a better bargaining position at the eventual peace conference.) In the midst of the Greek disaster he occupied himself with a campaign against certain Catholic holy days. A year later he forbade the newspapers to mention Christmas, which, he said, "only recalls the birth of a Jew who gave the world debilitating and devitalizing theories, and in particular screwed Italy through the disintegrating work of the papacy."

Over time Ciano lost faith in Mussolini, even secretly writing a letter to Winston Churchill in which he asserted that his diary ought to be published "so that the world may know, may hate and may remember, and that those who will have to judge the future should not be ignorant of the fact that the misfortune of Italy was not the fault of her people, but due to the shameful behavior of one man." Ciano underrated his own guilt, and that of his compatriots, but he appreciated the power of his diary to embarrass the Fascist and Nazi regimes. In the end he hoped to use it to bargain for his life.

As early as May of 1941, just before Italy lost Ethiopia, Ciano had surreptitiously been in touch with the Americans to propose the Duce's overthrow and a separate Italian peace. He later backed off, and supported the Axis as long as it seemed that Hitler might win. Ciano's leanings were no secret, though -- least of all to the Germans, who shared their intelligence with Mussolini. The Duce relieved his son-in-law of his ministry in February of 1943 and made him envoy to the Vatican.

Ciano remained a member of the Fascist Grand Council, Italy's nominal governing body, and kept in touch with the growing ranks of disaffected members. He was one of those who pressed for a meeting of the council in the summer of 1943, which Mussolini called on the evening of July 24. The Duce had ignored warnings from his wife and advisers, and was remarkably calm during the hours of speeches criticizing his war policy. Several of the members had arrived armed with hand grenades, expecting Mussolini to resist an ouster; but after a majority -- including his son-in-law -- voted to restore the constitutional powers of the King, the parliament, the cabinet, and the council itself, Mussolini mysteriously failed to have them arrested. The historian Denis Mack Smith has suggested that the exhausted dictator may have welcomed this escape from his predicament. Neither he nor Ciano can have realized that this vote would trigger the immediate collapse of the regime and its replacement by a government that would swiftly have them both arrested.

The new Prime Minister, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who had been the chief of general staff, continued to fight on Germany's side but furtively sued for peace. Badoglio also secretly imprisoned Mussolini in an empty ski hotel on the highest peak of the Gran Sasso mountains. By the time Italy announced an armistice, in September of 1943, the Germans had already begun moving troops into the peninsula. A team of German paratroopers delivered the Duce from his mountain prison -- they crash-landed in gliders outside the hotel and then flew him in another plane to Munich -- without firing a single shot. Hitler installed Mussolini as head of the puppet government of the "Italian Social Republic" -- German-occupied Italy.

By this time the Germans had already "rescued" the Duce's son-in-law from house arrest in Rome. Ciano had good reason to fear the Nazis' wrath, yet he had actually appealed to them for help -- his other options for escape would have meant leaving his wife and children behind. Edda later claimed to have believed that the German plane on which the family left Italy was headed for Spain, but Moseley credibly argues that they must have known better. Perhaps Ciano placed his faith in Hitler's fondness for Edda; but she offended the Führer by hectoring him to make peace with Russia and tactlessly offering him a commission if he would change her lire into Spanish pesetas. Hitler sent the count back to the rump of Fascist Italy, where he was arrested upon arrival.

What followed deserves Moseley's description as "a family tragedy of epic proportions." Mussolini knew he would lose the respect of Hitler and the diminishing band of loyal Fascists if he spared Ciano. So the Duce ignored his beloved daughter's pleas for mercy.

Through his wife and a sympathetic SS secretary (who may also have been his lover), Ciano again appealed to the Germans. The SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, considered letting him escape in return for the diary, with which Himmler hoped to compromise his rival Ribbentrop; but when Hitler learned of the negotiations, he ruled them out.

The story does not end with Ciano's death. An exciting subplot involves Edda's lover Emilio Pucci, the future fashion designer, who helped her to escape from Italy and endured torture at the hands of the Germans rather than reveal her whereabouts. Edda and her children made it to Switzerland, closely pursued by Nazis seeking the diary. There Edda made contact with Allen Dulles, who was then an agent of the Office of Strategic Services, and with a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, and the diary was published in June of 1945.

Moseley is a gifted storyteller, a veteran newsman who writes with academic rigor and journalistic immediacy, and who can draw excruciating suspense from events whose outcome the reader already knows. The account here of Ciano's final hours -- reading Seneca all through the night, briefly taking heart at the rumor of a last-minute reprieve, cursing and then forgiving Mussolini as he walked to his execution -- movingly substantiates the author's claim that the count ultimately displayed "an element of heroism."

Ciano's end was all the more dignified by comparison with that of Mussolini, who was caught in April of 1945 as he tried to flee Italy in a convoy of German soldiers, disguised in a Luftwaffe helmet and overcoat. Italian partisans shot the Duce and his mistress, Clara Petacci, and strung up their bodies in a Milan gas station, where an enraged crowd kicked and spat at them. Among this book's well-chosen illustrations is a famous image of the two, hanging by their feet like pigs in a butcher's window, Mussolini's beaten face swollen out of recognition, Petacci's merely frozen in terror.

Another, less familiar photograph included here is as brutal and piercing as Goya's The Third of May, 1808: The stout figure of a caped priest, black against the snow, walks away from a row of condemned men. One of the witnesses covers his face with his hands. A member of the firing squad glances toward the camera. And Galeazzo Ciano, strapped to a chair, with his back to the riflemen, turns in his last moments to look over his shoulder. It is a fitting valedictory image for a man whose greatest legacy would be testimony to events he did not understand until it was too late to stop them.

Francis X. Rocca lives in Vicenza, Italy. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The American Spectator.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; Fascism's Secretary of State - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 91-95.