As scholars of 20th-century dictatorship know to their cost, there exists alongside the pantheon of distinguished biographies of history’s bad men a parallel literary universe, as obsessive as it is trivial, dedicated to exploring the love lives of the leading actors. “Did they or didn’t they?” is a staple of the popular literature on Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. However, the asceticism of the Führer’s lifestyle was such that authors struggle to get beyond largely pointless conjectures as to who, if anyone, his earlier girlfriends might have been.
In Benito Mussolini’s case, with his tally of five legitimate children and as many as nine illegitimate ones by up to eight lovers, by contrast, it is clear that biographers had much more to pick over. Moreover, with the survival of the diary of Claretta Petacci – the lover shot with Mussolini and suspended upside down in a Milanese square in 1945 – we have an unusually intimate insight into a dictator’s private life. Mussolini, it turns out, was rather rough in bed, and perfunctory with it: sexual congress was about his own gratification, and not that of his partner. As his long list of lovers implies, he was a man of considerable appetite, particularly in his younger years. But as the afflictions of age set in, his sexual capacities declined, and his lovers were often left dissatisfied. He sometimes struggled to sustain an erection in later years: all those military uniforms notwithstanding, it seems he that could rarely stand to attention for long when parade ground gave way to bedroom as the site of fascist performance.
Once established there, the image of Mussolini’s faltering penis is not easily dislodged from a hapless reviewer’s mind, and if a scholar wishes to insist that Il Duce’s Droop is of more than prurient interest, he needs to explain why. As R. J. B. Bosworth notes, it is too easy to explain Il Duce’s appetites as an expression of male power or as something essentially Italian, while the rivalry of the Mussolini and Petacci clans during and after 1945 has made it similarly tempting – particularly for fascist nostalgists – to cast the relationship as one of ill-fated, “star-crossed” lovers destined to die romantically together. In place of this, Bosworth offers a story of the Petaccis as a bourgeois family on the make, using Claretta’s connections to the leader to gain favour, promotion, riches and the trappings of fame for several family members; as Il Duce fell from political grace, the vicious gossip surrounding the couple provides a nice entrée into discussing the fine-grained textures of Roman haute bourgeois society.
As far as Claretta Petacci (pictured below left) herself is concerned, the diary reveals her to have been a complex blend of bourgeois, Catholic, nationalist, fascist and Roman identities. A more trenchant analysis of the central ego-document on which this book is based, drawing more explicitly on psychoanalysis, the history of sexuality and the history of the emotions, would have helped to ensure that its main female protagonist was brought fully to life as a sexual and emotional subject rather than as the object of Mussolini’s attentions. Nonetheless, Bosworth ably demonstrates how histories of amorous adventurism can be used to explore central themes of modern political history to great effect.
Neil Gregor is professor of modern European history, University of Southampton.
Claretta: Mussolini’s Last Lover
By R. J. B. Bosworth
Yale University Press, 320pp, £18.99
Published 21 February 2017