Gigolo who tried to turn the tide of war

Mussolini's Shadow
November 17, 2000

Without in any way diminishing the horror unleashed by fascist dictators in the 1930s, considerable insight can be gained by analysing their activities in terms of the behaviour of adolescent bullies. The preening and posturing of Mussolini and Hitler are obvious enough cases. Like most playground thugs, they had a willing circle of acolytes egging them on. The lackeys of Hitler are well known to a wide Anglo-Saxon audience. Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Joachim von Ribbentrop and others having been the object of best-selling biographies in English. The same is true of more critical figures, such as Erwin Rommel, Ulrich von Hassell and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.

In contrast, Mussolini's playmates are an unknown quantity for all but the specialist. Books in English on Italian fascism tend to be concerned with the Duce himself or with broad aspects of Fascist rule - cultural life, foreign policy, the position of women and so on. There have been exceptions, such as Harry Fornari's life of the violent militia leader Roberto Farinacci and Claudio Segre's book on the Duce's aviation supremo, Italo Balbo, but neither reached a broad audience. Germany aside, the key collaborators and those who encouraged, or restrained, the misdeeds of the dictators are not well known. Outside Spain, few know the crucial role of Ramón Serrano Suñer in creating the Francoist state and handling the caudillo's relations with the Axis. Even less well known are Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, who was his right-hand man for 30 years, or Laureano López Rodó, architect of the economic development of the 1960s.

In the case of Italy, there is an alarmingly long list of crucial figures worthy of biographical study. Diplomats Dino Grandi and Filippo Anfuso, prominent Fascist Party luminaries Achille Starace and Giuseppe Bottai, and generals Rodolfo Graziani and Mario Roatta immediately come to mind.

Of infinitely greater importance, however, is one Italian Fascist, neglect of whom is puzzling, not to say shocking. Gian Galeazzo Ciano was the man who married the boss's daughter and became the Duce's right-hand man. He became foreign minister while still in his "adolescent" phase and bears responsibility for the disastrous adventurism of Mussolini's foreign policy between 1936 and 1940. In coming to terms with the consequences of that policy, he would repent, become a critic of his father-in-law and eventually die, aged 43, for trying to bring about his downfall.

He was the author of a set of vividly written diaries, which are a totally indispensable source for the history of Fascist aggression. It is hardly surprising that Ciano has been the subject of three major biographies in Italian. The first, aptly called The Mistaken Life of Galeazzo Ciano , was published in 1962 by the editor of the collected works of Mussolini, Duilio Susmel. It is steeped in deep knowledge of the personal relationships of the Fascist establishment. The second, published in 1974, is a fascinating personal memoir of the young Ciano by close friend Orio Vergani. The third, published in 1979, is a thorough and readable work of scholarship by journalist Giordano Bruno Guerri.

Given the existence of these crucial works, together with Ciano's diaries and the memoirs of many of his contemporaries, it seemed only a matter of time before an English biography would appear. In fact, two decades after the appearance of Guerri's standard work, and more than 50 years after the publication of the diaries, this long-awaited book has appeared thanks to Ray Moseley, chief European correspondent for The Chicago Tribune .

Specialists familiar with the three Italian works mentioned above and with the published diplomatic documents will find little startlingly new. However, even they will welcome Moseley's colourful, readable and deeply intuitive account of the most swaggering and adolescent of Mussolini's close cronies.

Ciano was born on March 18 1903 in Livorno. He was the son of Admiral Costanzo Ciano, a naval hero and leading Fascist whom Mussolini was to designate his successor. The admiral was strict and forced his adolescent son to wear a sailor suit to make him too embarrassed to visit whorehouses. In the words of Orio Vergani, Costanzo "encouraged him along the road to fascist virility". To his father's chagrin, Ciano's health was not good enough for him to enter the Naval Academy and after dabbling in journalism and the theatre he ended up in the diplomatic service.

In the second half of the 1920s, he served as vice-consul in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Peking. Wherever he went, the handsome playboy had plenty of sexual entanglements. It was even rumoured that in China he had had an affair with (and possibly impregnated) Wallis Warfield Spencer (later Mrs Simpson). He was recalled from China in August 1929 because Mussolini's brother, Arnoldo, who had been entrusted with finding a husband for the Duce's wild daughter, Edda, had heard that he might be eligible. Ciano and "the mad filly", as she was known, hit it off, had a whirlwind courtship and were married on April 30 1930. While Edda was attractive and intelligent in her own right, the fact of her being the Duce's daughter may well have influenced the young man's decision to abandon his life of serial liaisons.

If it was a gamble, it paid off. After the wedding, Ciano resumed his diplomatic career in China, being successively consul-general in Shanghai then minister plenipotentiary in Peking. In 1933, he returned to Rome as chief of the Duce's press office and by 1935 he was minister of press and propaganda. The process was under way whereby he would become the most influential collaborator and confidant of his father-in-law. He clinched his Fascist credentials by serving as a bomber pilot in the Ethiopian war.

By June 1936, Ciano had risen to be the Duce's foreign minister and was accomplice to some of his most spectacular misjudgements. He was an enthusiast of Italy's disastrous and costly intervention in Spain, which he followed on a map with boyish glee. He was the gushing emissary to Hitler, who took the lead in involving Italy in the fateful alliance with the Third Reich. Ciano also played a crucial part in encouraging Mussolini's decisions to attack Albania, enter the second world war and invade Greece.

Moseley recounts all this lucidly and with telling use of anecdote. He creates a likeable portrait of a man who was weak and riddled with contradictions. The affable Ciano could appear dashing but the effect was spoiled by a high-pitched nasal voice, flat-footed waddle and his misplaced efforts to mirror Mussolini's inflated chest and jutting jaw. Generous and warm-hearted, he was easily led. He was courageous but also arrogant, vain and cruel. Corrupted by his early success, frivolity often suffocated his native intelligence. Much is made by Moseley of the later redemption of the young Ciano's decadent irresponsibility.

In this elegantly ethical interpretation, Ciano is seen to "stand apart from the gaggle of ruffians, psychopaths and buffoons with whom he had been associated, for he would break with the man he had adored, struggle to keep Italy out of the war and try to stave off the catastrophic consequences he had helped to set in motion".

In the last resort, Ciano failed, but there was a certain grandeur in his attempt to correct his early mistakes. His real importance lies in the diaries and papers saved by his wife. These implacably exposed the petty jealousies and infantile point scoring that characterised the dealings of the fascist leaders. His story is worth the telling and Moseley tells it well.

Paul Preston is professor of international history, London School of Economics.

Mussolini's Shadow: The Double Life of Count Galezzzo Ciano

Author - Ray Moseley
ISBN - 0 300 07917 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 302

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