February 22, 2017

1935. "The Man the World Watches: How Does Mussolini's Mind Work?"

"An Effort to Penetrate Behind the Dictator's Mask"
Benito Mussolini poses for a photo op in 1927 (source)
This article is part of a series of posts on how newspapers covered the rise of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Italy and Germany prior to World War II.

From The New York Times, September 1, 1935:

How Does Mussolini's Mind Work? An Effort to Penetrate Behind the Dictator's Mask


Two days before the harassed representatives of a befuddled Europe met recently in an unavailing effort to put a brake on him, Benito Mussolini made a pious and peaceful pilgrimage to a primitive old farmhouse in a hill village near his birthplace. He was accompanied by his wife, the unobtrusive Donna Rachele—Italy's forgotten woman—and the two sons, Bruno and Vittorio, who as volunteers are joining the flying corps in East Africa. The object of the family pilgrimage was to unveil a tablet, on the wall of the house where the Duce's father was born, in memory of "the peasant generations of the Mussolinis" who had lived and worked on the farm for 300 years.

Romagna, Mussolini's native province, is traditionally the most contentious in Italy. In pre-Fascist days it was noted for its Socialist peasantry, a rude and rebellious people of whom not the last radical was the obstreperous village blacksmith who was Benito's father. If there was true political instinct, too, in this alignment of Mussolini, the militant expansionist, with the peasant generations who suffer most for lack of space and outlets on their poor and overcrowded farms.

In the Romagna, against the long background of fierce and tenacious plowmen, many with the same strut, the same thrust of chin, it is easier to understand Mussolini than it is in London or New York. It is easier to understand him in Rome. He is a curious combination of Caesar and peasant, neither of whom, when you come to think of it, is very far from the primeval sources of power.

Mussolini is not far from the soil; seen in the fields, he is hardly to be distinguished from any other strong Romagnole farmer. During this Summer when he has had all Europe by the ears he has spent more time than usual in the country, as if deliberately placing himself in his peasant setting. He went to his farm before the Stresa conference; he was there when the League Council met in May and in July; he has a habit of retiring to his native province on the eve of important decisions. He says himself, and the country people echo him, that he goes back to the soil when he wants to think.

•   •   •

Now it has come to pass that we have reached a point, or he has reached a point, where what this one man thinks is of the utmost concern to the world. Thirty years ago the son of the peasant Mussolinis was a discontented country school teacher "on the run" for his radical opinions. Fifteen years ago he was a fiery editor little known in his own country, hardly heard of outside. Today the obscure journalist in what was then classed as a second-rate nation is a decisive factor in the international scale. His mental processes are eventful; they disturb the most powerful governments of Europe and are of tremendous consequence in the life of two continents.

It is strange to observe how other problems have receded into the background before Mussolini's threat of war. German rearmament, the Eastern pact, the Nazi drive on the Memel and Danzig, Austrian independence—all these questions are of secondary interest. You can travel from capital to capital and hear next to nothing about the danger of European conflict or the shattered plans for collective peace. In a world sick to death of sensations and alarms, tired of headlines, tired of plans, tired of revolutions, nothing registers, nothing seems real, until it is imminent. The only new event people can bear to face is the unavoidable event immediate in prospect. If Mussolini has aspired to hold the almost undivided attention of Europe, his ambition is fulfilled. For the moment he has become the world problem, the question mark overshadowing all other questions.

This is the historic but unremembered effect of dictatorship: the dictator grows more potent than his country. When concentrated in a single will, national energy is actually more restless and more formidable than when it is frittered away in the diversions and divisions of democracy. To this extent democratic government is the surest safeguard against aggressive war. The better the dictator—and as dictator Mussolini shows genius not only in administration but in allowing no power to escape out of his own hands—the more unchecked and threatening to other nations is this personified national force.

•   •   •

The Italian dictator has reached the crisis of his astonishing career. Let no one suppose that on the chance of acquiring the first slice of an empire he does not realize that he is staking his own fate, the future of his country, the Wilsonian dream of a League of Nations. The enormous risks he takes are for something more than overlordship at Addis Ababa. The British did not see at first, did not see until they felt, that a great white colonization on the uplands of Africa must lead at last to the domination by those colonists of the whole black empire.

Mussolini is putting dictatorship itself to the supreme test. Contemporary dictators in Russia, in Germany, in Turkey, have gone further than any of their prototypes in changing and standardizing life and thought within their domains, but Mussolini is the first ruler since Napoleon by his own will, without external provocation or internal propulsion, to lead his people into a campaign of conquest. Whatever the role the Duce plays in his own country, instrument of destiny or condottiere, outside he is significant as the exemplar of the dictatorship principle as it affects world affairs. This is an aspect of one-man government which multiple-minded governments are just beginning to consider.

There would be more point in underlining all this if Mussolini did not do it for himself with superb exaggeration. He is the journalist come to power, and the tabloid headliner has nothing to teach him except that even the subway reader gets bored by daily repetitions of the same headline. Hitler is the agitator, perhaps the most successful of all agitators, crowned by the vote of his audiences. Kemal Ataturk is the soldier who fought his way to supreme command of a nation. Stalin is the type of dictator most familiar to democracies, the political boss who organizes his own machine and outwits or outlaws his rivals. Mussolini is agitator, ex-combatant, party boss, but mostly he is the phrase-maker who wrote his way to power. He did not make many speeches before he took over the government. His party was comparatively small. He rose to the top on the headlines of his own newspaper; he maintains his eminence by dictating the headlines of every newspaper in Italy.

•   •   •

What is behind the phrases? In recent months, particularly in recent weeks, it has become terribly clear that Premier Mussolini means the thunderous words he has been uttering for the last decade. These broadsides are not bombast or bluff, as many people thought. If his militant utterances were ever rhetorical, now they have the weight of facts. And as the threatening words turn into threatening facts the world is forced to take a new look at the man who boasts that Italy means to take what she wants by her own force, "with Geneva, without Geneva, or against Geneva." How does he get that way? people wonder. What forces and motives move him? Is he intoxicated by power? Living amid the echoes of his own voice, has he conjured up an Italy that does not exist? What is the true measure of this man Mussolini?

These are questions very difficult to answer. Though the Italian dictator is more accessible to foreigners than most European statesmen, nobody really knows him or how his mind works. He has been interviewed hundreds of times. His face and figure are as well known to movie audiences the world over as those of any other actor on the screen. He has expressed himself on nearly every subject under the sun. He has been described in all languages and he has written copiously himself and about himself. For all that, his personality eludes analysis. The only man in public life as easy to talk to as Mussolini is President Roosevelt, and behind the openness and charm of both lies something always fluid and unfathomable.

The best one can do, in an effort to outline the man hidden by the headlines, is to string together a few purely personal impressions, gathered over a term of years. By chance it happened that I heard Mussolini's first speech in the Chamber of Deputies, back in the Summer of 1921. It was a very green and inexperienced observer who sat through the turbulent session in which the Fascists were first represented, one small party out of twenty-six. The name Mussolini meant nothing to me, but the effect of his measured words in reducing to utter silence a noisy mob which would listen to no one else was so impressive that I drew a laugh from a seasoned journalist by asserting, on no other evidence, that Italy was hearing its master's voice.

•   •   •

I mentioned that speech to the Duce this Summer. His response was characteristic. "Was it a good speech?" he asked. In the intervening years I have had the opportunity to interview Premier Mussolini several times, and some of the interviews have been at important moments in his career. One was shortly after the Matteotti murder, when he was ill and more shaken than he has ever been since, his eyes like black holes in his thin face. Another, when the Charter of Labor was promulgated and he was busy diagramming the Corporative Sate. Again on the triumphant night of the signing of the Four-Power pact, which represents his idea of the great organization of Europe—a concert of great powers instead of the League of Nations. In the following year he was concluding the Three-Power agreement with Austria and Hungary, a poor substitute for the larger plan, which was never put into effect, but a typical and pertinent example of his readiness to accept half measures if the whole is unattainable. And now at the most critical hour of all, when he is moving with a kind of fatal momentum on Ethiopia, stiffened in his course, if anything, but the opposing winds of world opinion.

•   •   •

During these years the Duce has changed greatly, in appearance, in manner, in mode of life. He has lost his hair, his slenderness, his look of the brooding poet, much of his pose. His truculent self-confidence, dating from his earliest youth, has developed into an easy assurance in power, on the surface never calmer and more insouciant than in the present tension. Physically he is more robust.

He is mellower and more domesticated, increasingly a family man. Much of his strength up to now has derived from an almost inhuman detachment, a complete subjugation of the personal to the public life. He is still a solitary, a man without intimates, either as friends or counselors, but for the first time the family is now rather conspicuously in the public eye. This applies not only to past generations, the peasant ancestors memorialized at the old farmhouse near Predappio. The sons of the Duce have been much in the spotlight this year as the youngest aviators to earn a license, and the son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, recently elevated to the post of Minister of Propaganda, is certainly the youngest man to occupy that key position in a dictatorial regime. This emergence of the family is a new phase, observed by Italians with surprise and not a little uneasiness.

There has always been a sharp contrast between Mussolini at close range and Mussolini in the public tribune, a difference never so accentuated as at present. It is hard to believe that the fire-breathing orator exhorting the departing troops to conquer the Ethiopians and possess the whole country, "snapping his fingers" at the British, as he did at Eboli in July, is the same man who sits at his desk in Rome and discusses the subject with such an effect of reasonableness, a good temper and satiric humor. In an interview he is simple, candid and so receptive that you feel free to say things to him you might not dare say to an Under-Secretary—things it might be risky to say to any one else in Italy!

•   •   •

Of all the public characters I have interviewed, Mussolini is the only one who seems interested not only in what he says himself but in what you have to say; he appears to weigh your suggestions, solicits your opinions. Recently I had the temerity to suggest that he would have strengthened his position if he had taken the initiative in the Ethiopian dispute, demanding a League investigation of the capacity of the Negus's government to fulfill its vague obligation. He considered the idea as gravely as if it were new. "It has been in my mind," he said slowly. "Perhaps"— Nor did he evince any annoyance when I added that it was the friends of Italy, not her enemies, who were troubled by her present course.

No doubt the assumption of interest, the lively curiosity concerning the people he meets, is a flattering trick. Despite his uncanny memory for individuals, you feel that individuals exist only momentarily in Mussolini's world. You know he has no use for the opinions of women. He told me once that he detested society because it is dominated by women. He is not comfortable or at home in purely social contacts, has no small talk, little casual talk of any kind. He has never been known to attend a social function that he could avoid, and the official dinners or luncheons he feels obliged to give are rare and always given at a hotel.

•   •   •

Those who work under the Duce speak of him as temperamental, making instant decisions without explaining why to anybody and changing as quickly. He is not, however, subject to outbursts of temper, as Hitler is. A supreme opportunist, he is not impulsive, and he is so cautious in his acts that one cannot believe he has gone ahead in the present business without weighing carefully all the consequences. He boasts that he has no nerves. "What? Can't he sleep? That's bad," he said when some one told him that Dr. Ernst Hanfstaengl used to play for Hitler late at night when the Fuehrer could not sleep. "I never lose sleep. Nothing keeps me awake when I am ready to rest."

Perhaps more than any man living Mussolini has a talent for the art of government. In foreign policy he has not been happy; the successive combinations he has painfully worked out have never really clicked. At home, allowing for the limited resources and undisciplined individualism of Italy, he has weighed one interest against another with remarkable skill and success. Nevertheless, he is cloistered and somehow blunted by power.

In his guarded tower even the intelligent dictator, surrounded always by satellites and out of touch with the currents of public opinion, must be the first victim of the system. Where the press can register no opposition it is also valueless as an index of support.

Undoubtedly Mussolini has the temper of a dictator. "He's a natural!" exclaimed a well-known American entertainer after an audience. He is naturally intolerant of opposition. "You speak of unnecessary restrictions, said a distinguished Italian, wholly out of sympathy with the Fascist regime. "In reality there is no such thing as a partial dictator, in which people are half-bound and half-free. To be a successful dictator you must be a complete dictator. Mussolini understands that better than Hitler does. He keeps everything under his own hat, as we say. This is literally a one-man show. Whatever happens, this man gets full credit or full blame; he has no alibi."

In my first interview he stood at the end of the room with folded arms and beetling brow, the Strong Man of the early poses. Since, he has become progressively more genial, more at ease, more himself. Once I thought the swing and the swagger of his walk, the dilation of his eyes, which he seems able to lighten and darken at will, were posturings. Now I realize that they are part and parcel of the man, as natural to him as the jerk of his head when he laughs is characteristic of President Roosevelt.

They are of a place with his naive, almost childlike vanity. "Do you think my opinion has any value?" he has responded more than once to a question. "Do I look tired?" he asked, straightening sharply at a casual remark that he has had a hard day.

There is a table in a corner of a cafe in the town of Forli, capital of Romagna, where Mussolini used to sit at night when he was the shabby sub-editor of a little Socialist sheet, the Lotta di Classe. An old waiter recalls that he was always alone. He used to sit writing or brooding apart from the crowd. To this day almost invariably he spends his evenings alone. Only once during the Stresa conference did he join his colleagues after the daily sessions. He remained alone on the island; a guard watched him sitting solitarily at the window of his room, writing or reading until late in the night.

•   •   •

From Forli to Stresa represents a long jump, but Mussolini has played a lone hand all the way; with all his veerings and maneuverings the same hand. He is a dictator by temperament, and always has been; those who know him best say the only one able to influence him was his brother Arnaldo, in whose death he lost his best and most honest adviser. "If Arnaldo were alive," declared an admiring old friend in Milan, one of the first Fascists, "I don't believe Benito would have headed into England on the way to Ethiopia."

In the end Mussolini will probably be judged by the success or failure of the dangerous enterprise on which he is now embarking. The test of his dictatorship will be the condition in which he leaves his country. What he has accomplished will be forgotten if finally he leads the nation into disaster. It will be forgotten that he is pushed by a pressure greater than the force of his ambition, itself a symptom of that national claustrophobia for which so far the mind of the world has invented no cure of war. In the end he will probably be remembered for his personality more than for his achievements; so far, at least, it is impossible to assess one except in terms of the other.

Whatever you think of him, whatever the result of his dangerously explosive energy, Mussolini is bound to live as the most extraordinary figure of his period. Wandering about the Italy he works to remake in his image, I have often wondered what kind of subject he would be under his own dictatorship. And that is a question one might ask him—and which he'd thoroughly enjoy answering!