Waugh and Mussolini

The Tablet has published a review of two new books about Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist dictator in the 1930s and Hitler’s ally in WWII. The review by Robert Carver opens with this summary of Mussolini’s reputation in Britain before the war:

In the early 1930s, Mussolini was at the height of his prestige. In Britain, no less an authority than The Tablet called the Duce “an intellectual giant”. Pope Pius XI had a soft spot for “Catholic totalitarianism” and eulogised Mussolini as “a man providence has sent us”. Churchill, Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh, Sir John Reith of the BBC and Lord Rothermere were all among the admirers of a dictator who had saved Italy from Bolshevism, settled a concordat with the Vatican, and made the trains run on time. “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” read the headline in the Daily Mail.

Waugh’s own support for Mussolini came into focus and to public attention in the context of the Italian war against Abyssinia in 1935. Waugh thought Italy could make a better job of governing Abyssinia than the regime of Haile Selassie which he regarded, from his previous visit, as corrupt and barbarous. Waugh’s position was stated in a 1935 article in the Evening Standard (EAR, p. 162) and found support in Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail which sent him to cover the war (EAR, pp. 176 ff.) He returned to England during a lull in the fighting and, travelling via Rome, managed to secure an interview with Mussolini. This was arranged by the British Embassy with Waugh’s agreement that he would not write about it. But he made it clear to his friends that he found Mussolini “impressive…and less ridiculous” in person than he appeared in the antifascist press (Sykes, Penguin, p. 226). He wrote about the war (but not the interview) in his book Waugh in Abyssinia published in 1936. But this articulation of his support for Mussolini’s policies came out just as the Spanish Civil War took over the world’s attention and pushed the Italian Fascists off the front pages.

Waugh also stated his support for Franco over other regime choices for Spain (EAR, p. 187) but did not make himself a spokesman for that cause as he had for Mussolini. As Mussolini began moving closer to Hitler, Waugh went relatively quiet. By the time Italy declared war on Britain in June 1940 (after the fall of France), Waugh seems to have lost interest, by then on active service. He continued to inveigh against Communists in Yugoslavia, even after they became allies of the British, and never let up in his opposition to Marshall Tito. There is some consistency in Waugh’s position from the 1930s through the Cold War, even though it was not always a popular one. So far as I am aware, he never thought it necessary to apologize for or further explain his support for Mussolini in the 1930s.

The books reviewed in The Tablet are A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Rossellis and the Fight Against Mussolini by Caroline Moorehead and Claretta: Mussolini’s Last Lover by J B Bosworth. It seems unlikely that any extended discussion of Waugh’s position would appear in either volume, although the book by Moorehead does cover an element of the Italian opposition to Mussolini which was fairly open in its support for Stalin.

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