Certain words make you feel like you belong to another time. You think you’re at home in the present, but then you’re forced to think again. For me, one such word is ‘antifa’. For the entirety of my childhood, youth and adult life the term ‘fascist’ was the most injurious of insults: the shortened epithet – ‘fascio’ in Italian, ‘facho’ in French – recalling the similar abbreviation that gives us the word Nazi. Then, all of a sudden, ‘anti-fascist’ became a slur, repeatedly used by Donald Trump as a synonym for ‘left-wing terrorist’. My generation came of age in a ‘republic built on anti-fascism’, where – unlike today – that orientation was taken for granted. Now, the term has become a slogan for the subversive left, most commonly associated with black bloc anarchists, portrayed in the media as the specular image of the alt-right.
What remains unresolved about this word ‘fascist’, which 76 years after the deaths of Hitler and Mussolini, continues to haunt our political imaginary? When it comes to fascism (and fascists), we struggle to see beyond cinematic representations. I remember the first time I listened to a recording of Goebbels at the film archive in Göttingen: to my great surprise, he didn’t bark! His mellow, judicious tone bore little resemblance to the image of the Nazi grandees spawned by post-war Hollywood. In this century, the figure of the ‘fascist’ has become an archetype. It functions as a damnatio memoriae: a sentencing of the past without appeal, and a plenary absolution of the present. For it’s unthinkable that anyone among us might share the patent mental deficiency of most fictional Nazis and Blackshirts.
The Italian-American historian Victoria de Grazia’s new book, The Perfect Fascist, counters such commonplaces through a cathartic immersion in the past. This dive into the first half of the last century purifies us of many ills – including the idea of a ‘fascist temperament’ or ‘authoritarian personality’. De Grazia sets out to show how ‘fascists are made, not born’: how the ‘decent man’ she takes as her subject wound up leading gangs of thugs and collaborating with the SS. Her book also rids us of a deeper, more insidious conviction: that human beings are normatively average – that being ordinary consists of ‘not deviating from the norm’, rather than understanding normalcy (and mediocrity) as a sum of interacting exceptions. In unravelling these themes, the story De Grazia tells us is emblematic of a certain age, although its plot couldn’t have been dreamed up even by Hollywood’s most twisted screenwriters.
Who could possibly conceive of a story that charts the entangled lives of Attilio Teruzzi, ‘the perfect fascist’, and Lilliana Weinman, the opera diva? Teruzzi, of Milanese origin, was born in 1882. His father was a vintner and his mother’s father worked as a farmer for a family of nobles. In fin de siècle Italy, the army was the only institution that presented an opportunity for social ascent to the young Attilio, who decided to enlist, even if he lacked the means or titles to be admitted to a military academy. He was promptly dispatched to Eritrea, where he succeeded in becoming a quartermaster. His good looks and respect for his superiors earned him a place at the academy at Modena, the Italian equivalent of West Point, Sandhurst or Saint-Cyr. As an officer he participated in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 and the conquest of Libya, where he was wounded, decorated, and hailed back home as a war hero.
During the Great War he conducted himself honourably. He joined the Freemasons and became aide-de-camp to General Giuseppe Vaccari, earning himself a promotion to Major. To illustrate the prospects awaiting officers of his rank after the war – provided they survived trench warfare – it is sufficient to note that the other assistant to General Vaccari at the time was a certain Raffaele Mattioli: later a friend of the renowned economists Piero Sraffa and John Maynard Keynes, CEO of one of the largest financial institutions in Italy (Banca Commerciale), putative saviour of Gramsci’s Quaderni and, after the Second World War, the first to finance Enrico Mattei’s newly founded petroleum company, ENI.
At this point in the narrative, the ‘childhood’ of our protagonist-leader – to paraphrase the title of one of Sartre’s celebrated short stories – is already rife with contradiction. For one thing, how did a Freemason rise to the forefront of a movement, party and regime that decried a global conspiracy of ‘Judeo-Masonic’ origin? (This seems anomalous until we learn that several fascist leaders were, in fact, Freemasons: Italo Balbo, Giuseppe Bottai, Emilio De Bono, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, Roberto Farinacci and Achille Starace, to name just a few. Fascism’s relationship to Freemasonry bore a resemblance to the US military’s policy towards homosexuality: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’.)
The First World War was a turning point for Teruzzi. The Kingdom of Italy’s victory translated into defeat for Italians, whose opportunities for social mobility were drastically diminished. In this context, fascism would present itself as the only means to ‘elevate’ one’s status. Little by little, our ‘decent man’ became increasingly involved in the movement. At first, he oversaw the brutality of the squadristi against workers’ associations and parties, participating in the March on Rome as a handsome war veteran – fascism’s ‘virtuous face’ – before being implicated in the assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. It was around this time that Teruzzi met Lilliana Weinman in Milan. She was the daughter of Jews from Austrian Galicia that, after emigrating to New York, had made a fortune by ‘patenting a design for elastic trouser belts’. They reinvested their wealth in their daughter’s career: Weinman was a young woman with a burning aspiration to become an opera singer. ‘I feel I will become a great prima donna’, she writes, ‘and a great prima donna’s prerogative is to take, not to give.’
Through Weinman, de Grazia reflects on the relationship between fascism and Jewishness, confronting all the standard cliches. On the one hand, we know of many Jews who adhered to fascism up until the Racial Laws of 1938. To them it was a ‘patriotic’ movement, a check on the growing menace of Bolshevism. Some illustrious German Jewish scientists were driven out by Nazism but would have gladly continued furthering Germany’s ‘glory’ if given the chance. Equally, Italy’s National Fascist Party took an ambivalent view of Jews at least until 1937. For several years, Mussolini’s lover and muse was the Venetian art critic Margherita Sarfatti, who loved him to the point of writing a laudatory account of his life and converting from Judaism to Catholicism (though this did not exempt her from exile once the Racial Laws came into effect). Even Roberto Farinacci, who distinguished himself for his merciless antisemitism, employed and confided in his Jewish secretary Jole Foà, but neither their intimacy nor her convinced fascism could prevent her deportation and ultimate demise at Auschwitz. Weinman – who for many years declared herself a fascist – wasn’t Teruzzi’s only Jewish partner. After parting ways with her he fell in love with the Cairo-born Roman Jew Yvette Blank, with whom he had a daughter. In the final, convulsive months of the war, when the fascist regime amounted to no more than a puppet maneuvered by Kesselring, Teruzzi would do everything to save Blank from the last consignments destined for the camps. It was to the modest lodge she had opened in Procida that he would return in 1950 following his release from prison, before dying in April of that year.
Here another subtext of The Perfect Fascist becomes apparent: the symbolic violence that fascism exercised on women, thematized more thoroughly in another essential book by de Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1920-1945 (1992). A Royal Decree of 1939 outlined the specific roles in the workforce that were suitable for women: typists, telephone operators, stenographers, banknote or ticket counters, shop assistants and seamstresses. Under fascism, school fees doubled for female students and female teachers were prohibited from teaching literature, philosophy and history. But despite the open chauvinism and misogyny of the regime, many women remained unwaveringly loyal. On the eve of WWII, 3,180,000 women were enlisted in the Party’s organizations – many of them in the Fasci femminili (Women’s League). My grandmother was an out-and-out fascist, although after the war she became a professor in a discipline prohibited to women by fascism. My primary school teacher, a middle-aged Jewish lady, still identified as a fascist ten years after the war had ended (by which time her two children had emigrated to the new-born state of Israel).
A further piece of received wisdom dismantled by de Grazia’s work is the monolithic – at times granitic – conception of totalitarian regimes. As she follows Teruzzi’s journey from member of parliament to Deputy Minister of the Interior, from Governor of Cyrenaica to leader of the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party, from Inspector-General in Spain during the Civil War to Minister of the Colonies (even if these were lost by then), de Grazia sketches the intrigues of the regime’s upper echelons: Farinacci’s revolt, attempted conspiracies against the Duce, the contempt ex-generals working for the regime had for its political strategists, the party’s web of internal wiretaps (even its leaders weren’t above suspicion), and the vacillations which many people experienced between the desire to replace an aging ruling class and the thirst for its patronage.
A good portion of the work is dedicated to Africa, where Teruzzi began his military career, and where he returned on two occasions: first as a governor in Libya (1926-28), then as brigadier general of the Blackshirts in the invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. In these chapters we witness the spectacle of an opera singer from New York performing the role of colonial governess paid homage by Bedouin tribes. Africa was where colonialists could vent their lust (note the alliance of racism and machismo in one of colonial Italy’s most famous songs, Faccetta Nera: ‘Pretty black face, beautiful Abyssinian / Wait and see, for the hour is coming! / When we are with you / We shall give you another law, another king’). It was there that Italy pursued its dream of modernity, just as colonialism – in its ‘traditional’ form – was waning. Teruzzi carried out public works in Libya and built roads in Ethiopia, both of which burned through state finances in a striking exemplar of fascist imperialism’s lack of economic rationality. (To think that, at the same time, the Italians in Libya were sitting on oceanic oil reserves which were never exploited).
The abyss that separated the fascist regime’s self-image and Italy’s true position in the hierarchy of world powers is evident from the net result of the counter-insurgency campaign it waged in Libya. At its close in the early 1930s, ‘the army had killed 1,226 rebels, captured 296 rifles, killed 2,844 camels and captured 842, captured 18,070 goats and sheep and killed another 5,050, seized 172 cows and 26 horses’. Evidently, the retributory seizure of camels and goats did not amount to adequate preparation for a World War against the United States.
If the comparison is permissible, Teruzzi could be said to bear some resemblance to Julien Sorel from Stendhal’s The Red and The Black. Sorel exhibits qualities that allow him to clamber from his small town in the Jura to the salons of Paris, but the traits that lead to his rise also limit it, and ultimately contribute to his death. For Teruzzi these attributes were his military experience, his loyalty, his dependability and his mediocrity, which rendered him toothless as a potential rival (Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano considered him ‘mediocre, but loyal, very loyal’). Thanks to these, Teruzzi found a way to the top of the social ladder (the actress Anna Magnani was, for a time, a bridge partner of his). But it was this very fidelity that turned him into an executor, an unbridled accomplice of the regime’s infamies. His personal demise coincided with that of the regime. ‘At the time of the liberation’, De Grazia writes, ‘three or four, or as many as seven “Teruzzis” were lynched’: unfortunate resemblances based on his distinctive beard.
De Grazia makes clear that her story is not a biography: ‘It is a social history of a man who, as he makes his way in the complexity of his political and human relations, often captured from the vantage point of his women, shows us how Italian fascism really worked’. A social history, that is, which helps us to specify exactly what being ‘antifa’ should entail.
Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.
Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘What Is Trump?’, NLR 114.