Waugh’s V-E Day

Milena Borden has forwarded the following article to commemorate the 75th anniversary of V-E Day as experienced by Evelyn Waugh:

A few days before the Victory in Europe (V-E Day), which marked the formal end of Hitler’s war, Waugh was not entirely pleased with the war’s outcome, given Communist advances in Central Europe and the Balkans and wrote in his diary in London on 13 April 1945:

“Armies monotonously victorious. Gloomy apprehensions of V Day. I hope to escape it.” (Diaries, p. 625).

He later wrote on 1 May 1945 from Chagford in Devon where he had gone to escape V-E Day as well as his family and start writing his next novel:

“…The end of the war is hourly expected. Mussolini obscenely murdered, continual rumours that Hitler’s mind has finally gone. Communism gains in France. Russia insults USA. I will now get to work on St Helena.” (Diaries, p. 627)

Waugh’s two military missions, in Crete (1941) and in Yugoslavia (1944) have generated many controversies. There is also a fair amount of generally critical talk about his declared intellectual support for General Franco during the Spanish Civil War and his hatred towards the Yugoslav partisan leader and ally of the British, Marshall Tito, has been a subject of anecdotal industry. However, one other feature of his war-time personage, which is mentioned in the above diary entry, is his interest in the Italian fascist leader Mussolini who came to power in 1922.

Under Mussolini’s leadership, Italy’s participation in the Second World War was a succession of military disasters. Waugh had met Mussolini in Rome in January 1936. He was on his way back from Abyssinia where he was a Daily Mail correspondent (1935-36). Waugh arranged to interview Mussolini on the condition that it wouldn’t be published or talked about publicly. Presumably, Waugh would have trusted Mussolini’s military competence, if it was discussed, as is reflected in his 1936 book Waugh in Abyssinia. But this would have been a misjudgement, as the Abyssinia campaign failed. Furthermore, it is unclear in what language Waugh and Mussolini would have talked to each other. There is no evidence that there was an interpreter at the meeting. Mussolini was well known as good conversationalist but he only knew limited French, German and even more basic English. It is possible that they talked in any of these languages or in a mixture of all, but it is unlikely that the conversation was deeply nuanced or long.

Waugh’s later involvement with the war took him far away from Mussolini’s Italy both physically and mentally. In 1939 the Pact of Steel sealed the alliance between Mussolini and Hitler. It eventually led Italy to catastrophe and the Duce to his death. In March 1945, Waugh stopped in occupied Rome on his way home from Yugoslavia. He lobbied successfully for an audience with the Pope Pius XII to report on the treatment of Catholics in Croatia. Mussolini was in exile in the north of Italy and on the 28 April (after Waugh’s return to England) he was executed by the partisans then dragged to Piazzale Loreto in Milan to be spat on by the Italian citizens who once admired him.

During that time Waugh was preoccupied with what he saw as the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the West to the influence of communism with Tito, Stalin and Churchill being the main actors in his mind. The war changed everything and Waugh’s interest or involvement with the Italian empire idea and Mussolini seem to have faded completely. Waugh was deeply disappointed with the political and cultural shape of the new realities, with the Soviets taking over the states in Europe east of the Elbe and driving yet another wedge into the continent.

On the eve of V-E Day he found very little to be proud of and felt perhaps more than a little guilty:

“Sunday 6 May 1945…All day there was expectation of V-E Day and finally at 9 it was announced for tomorrow…It is pleasant to end the war in plain clothes, writing. I remember at the start of it all writing to Frank Pakenham that its value for us would be to show us finally that we were not men in action. I took longer than him to learn it. I regard the greatest danger I went through that of becoming one of Churchill’s young men, of getting a medal and standing for Parliament; if things had gone, as then seem right, in the first two years, that is what I should be now. I thank God to find myself still a writer and at work on something as ‘uncontemporary’ as I am.” (Diaries, p. 627)

The foregoing is an excerpt from a more detailed article in preparation about the subject of Waugh and Italy: politics and history that is intended for a future edition of Evelyn Waugh Studies.

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