After days of political and constitutional stalemate, Italy now has a new government, made up of two populist and controversial parties in an uneasy alliance: the Five-Star Movement and the League (formerly the Northern League). Both parties have referred to the decline of moral values in Italy. The League, in particular, has espoused some disturbing authoritarian and anti-immigrant ideas, but what is noticeable is how various non-Italian politicians and commentators appear to approve of this latest sign of rightwing ‘resurgence’ in Europe, including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
These developments have coincided with some recent research I conducted on pro-fascist sentiment in interwar Britain. The advent of fascist leader Benito Mussolini to the premiership of Italy in 1922, and his gradual conversion of the country into a full dictatorship over the course of the next 2-3 years, was watched with mixed feelings in this country. A number of commentators took the view that the Duce was very bad news for liberal parliamentary democracy, and a potential threat to wider European peace, while others appeared to strongly admire his apparent ‘rescue’ of Italy from Bolshevism and economic instability.
Those individuals who admired Mussolini and his new regime were often openly enthusiastic about the ‘new Italy’, and expressed this in terms that many of us today (I would hope) still find shocking. However, even back in the 1920s, the fans of Mussolini could often engender similar outrage and dismay. In particular, people could still be dismayed by the number of clergy who appeared to admire Mussolini’s methods, especially his apparent rejection of atheism and the seeming conversion of his country back to more ‘spiritual’ values. Contemporary historians have sometimes referred to this type of sentiment as ‘clerico-fascism’.
At local level in Kingston-on-Thames, in Surrey, a good example of such controversy occurred in June and July, 1927. In late June, 1927, the Surrey Comet carried a lengthy report entitled ‘Saviour of Italy – Brilliant Address on Mussolini’s Career’. This news item gave an account of a talk given at the 37th anniversary of the opening of the Eden Street Wesleyan Church in Kingston, a two day event. On the second day of the celebrations, the Reverend Dr. J.E.B. Kirtlan had given a lecture on ‘Mussolini and what he stands for’.
The Reverend Dr. Kirtlan ‘began by saying that he regarded Mussolini as the greatest personality alive at the present time’. Kirtlan said that he did not mean by this that Mussolini was ‘the best or the greatest’, or even that he was a good man, ‘but that he was a portent’. Dr. Kirtlan proceeded to give an outline of the history of Italy from Ancient Rome to 1860, the year when the new Kingdom of Italy was founded. He noted, however, that Italian parliamentary democracy had ‘degenerated sadly’ over the years.
He then gave the background to Mussolini’s life. After the Great War, Mussolini had, in the Reverend’s view, seen ‘the sinister hand stretched out from Moscow to seize Italy’. Mussolini had realised that Bolshevism was the ‘very incarnation of diabolism’ and if Russian Soviet ideals took hold, it was ‘the end of Italy’. Dr. Kirtlan then proceeded to show to his audience how Mussolini had ‘rescued’ Italians ‘from gross materialism, and brought them back to the foundation truth of the Christian religion – that it was only by sacrifice that the world could be saved’.
Kirtlan noted approvingly that, today, Italian churches were now crowded and, instead of selfishness, people were inspired by the ‘ideal of service’. Mussolini had brought back the cross into schools, ‘whereas the Russian Soviet taught the people to blaspheme God and to trample and spit upon the crucifix’. Bringing his talk to a close, Dr. Kirtlan claimed that ‘striking results’ had followed from Mussolini’s policies, ‘as seen in the regenerated and rejuvenated Italy of today’. He added that he did not for a moment suggest that we needed a Mussolini in England, as we were happily wedded, he said, to constitutional government, ‘but we did need to recover the belief that the ideals of service and sacrifice, as opposed to self-seeking, were the surest foundations of national well-being’. The Reverend T.H. Fenn thanked Kirtlan ‘for his brilliant address…’.
It was no surprise to find that, over the next three weeks, the Surrey Comet carried a number of letters either condemning or supporting the address given by the Reverend Dr. Kirtlan. In the June 29th issue, for example, a letter from Mr. H. Marsden, of Canbury Park Road in Kingston, said that it was ‘with some amazement’ that he had read in the newspaper details of the address delivered by Kirtlan: ‘We have all heard various accounts of the “Duce”, but it is certainly the first time I have heard of him as a kind of Saint’. Marsden added that Mussolini may have produced in Italy some form of order out of chaos, ‘but by what means has he and his blackshirt fascists accomplished it? In most instances by a ruthless reign of terror, equal to, if not surpassing that of Russia’.
A week later, the Comet carried another letter, from Mr. Lewis, of Teddington. This took a more approving stance towards Kirtlan’s views. Lewis claimed that ‘thousands of travellers’ had told us of Italy’s ‘wonderful position’ under Mussolini. According to Lewis, the country had been ‘in a sad state after the war’, with ‘extreme Socialists holding it in a vice’, and religion ‘scouted’. Mussolini, asserted Lewis, had ‘stopped the ruin. There is order out of chaos and thousands of all classes are bound together to keep Italy great’.
Similarly, the next edition of the newspaper contained another pro-Mussolini letter. Penned by Mr. Arthur Webb, a Kingston resident who now lived temporarily in Milan, the writer argued that, immediately after the war, Italy had fallen into the hands of ‘people with pronounced Bolshevistic tendencies’. Mussolini, claimed Webb, had ‘saved his country from the fate of Russia’ and created a happy people who were now ‘staunch adherents’ of fascism. The writer asserted: ‘Let all sane-minded Englishmen think of Mussolini as the Saviour of Italy’.
Clearly, there were those who took a notably pro-fascist or sympathetic view of Mussolini and his new authoritarian regime, and approved (it would appear) of the seeming ‘spiritual’ or religious aspects of fascism in Italy. Was the Reverend Dr. J.E.B. Kirtlan himself a ‘clerico-fascist’? There was arguably a strand of this in his thinking. But I have found no evidence that he was a member (either active or passive) of a fascist organisation in this country. What obviously impressed the Reverend was the image of Mussolini as a defender of Christian religion and the church. Moreover, in a markedly stereotypical way, Kirtlan shared the view of a number of other commentators that the Italian character and nation was somehow ‘weak’ and prone to disorder, and in need of the firm hand of authoritarian government. In this sense, Mussolini and his movement was a force for stability and ‘order’, a view that would continue to influence some members of the clergy during the 1930s (including towards the Spanish dictator General Franco).
One suspects that such sentiments and views of Italy are still around today. Indeed, one can detect a growing nostalgia in Italy itself for the ‘good old days’ of Mussolini, or the restoration of the values of ‘strong’ leadership. Personally, I find this very worrying.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: WikiMedia Commons)