Myths of Dear Benito: Churchill’s Alleged Mussolini Complex

Myths of Dear Benito: Churchill’s Alleged Mussolini Complex

Excerpt­ed from “Churchill Always Admired and Offered Peace to Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” We nev­er spam you and your iden­ti­ty remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Lawgiver to Jackal, 1927-1940 

The art of the out-of-con­text quote is prac­ticed fre­quent­ly over Churchill’s sup­posed views of Ben­i­to Amil­care Andrea Mus­soli­ni. (“Why do you spell out all his names? He doesn’t deserve them,” a pedan­tic proof­read­er once asked me. I don’t know. In view of how he end­ed up, hang­ing upside down, it’s an irony.)

Did Win­ston Churchill admire the fas­cist dic­ta­tor? With care­ful edit­ing, one can try to sell this argu­ment. Churchill once praised Italy’s “renowned Chief, with his “Roman genius…the great­est law­giv­er among liv­ing men.” Lit­tle more than a decade lat­er, Il Duce had become a “jack­al” in Churchill’s ver­nac­u­lar. What a hyp­ocrite! Per­haps, per­haps not.  

Churchill’s ear­ly words sound damn­ing, giv­en what we know of Dear Ben­i­to in ret­ro­spect. And the crit­ics pounced. “Before the war, Churchill offered Il Duce a deal,” wrote Clive Irv­ing in the Dai­ly Beast. “After the war, British intel­li­gence tried to destroy their cor­re­spon­dence…. When Churchill became prime min­is­ter in May 1940 he tried, in a series of let­ters, to dis­suade Mus­soli­ni from join­ing the Axis pow­ers. He was ignored.”

This mix­es much that is true with much that is trite, as Arthur Bal­four once quipped: “The prob­lem is that what’s true is trite, and what’s not trite is not true.” 

Caro Benito  

One of Churchill’s respon­si­bil­i­ties as Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer (1925-29) was recoup­ing for­eign war debts. Italy owed £600 mil­lion (£30 bil­lion today). Churchill agreed to defer pay­ments until 1930. Il Duce Ben­i­to sent “the warmest expres­sions of grat­i­tude” and offered Churchill a dec­o­ra­tion. Thanks but no, said WSC.  (Imag­ine if that was among Churchill’s medals.) 

Musso’s “sim­ple gen­tle bear­ing” was more evi­dent in 1922 than lat­er on. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

In Rome in Jan­u­ary 1927, Churchill had two brief meet­ings with Mus­soli­ni. At a press con­fer­ence after­ward, Churchill told Ital­ian jour­nal­ists:    

I could not help being charmed, like so many oth­er peo­ple have been, by his gen­tle and sim­ple bear­ing and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many bur­dens. If I had been an Ital­ian, I am sure that I should have been whole-heart­ed­ly with you from start to fin­ish in your tri­umphant strug­gle against the bes­tial appetites and pas­sions of Leninism.

That remark was in part stan­dard diplo­mat­ic boil­er­plate. But—cropped after “finish”—it has been used to damn Churchill as pro-fas­cist. In con­text, he clear­ly referred to the Ital­ians, not the British. 

Also, you tend to say polite things about a for­eign leader when he has promised to pay back a lot of mon­ey. What Churchill want­ed for Italy was to stand up to Bolshevism—which in 1927 he feared more than anything. 

Rome versus Berlin? 

Churchill always thought in terms of coali­tions, so the com­ing of Hitler made him pon­der Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni as a poten­tial ally. Hitler’s plans for Aus­tria, and per­haps Tri­este, did not seem in Italy’s inter­est. The diplo­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion became trick­i­er in 1935 when Mus­soli­ni invad­ed Ethiopia (Abyssinia). On 26 Sep­tem­ber, Churchill said Britain would sup­port League of Nations sanc­tions and an arms embargo. 

But Churchill remained ambiva­lent about chal­leng­ing the Ital­ian dic­ta­tor. “I would nev­er have encour­aged Britain to make a breach with him about Abyssinia,” he wrote, “or roused the League of Nations against him unless we were pre­pared to go to war in the last extreme.” 

In May 1937 he pro­posed a Mediter­ranean pact against “fur­ther aggres­sion” by Hitler, hop­ing Mus­soli­ni might join. By then, how­ev­er, the breach was far advanced. Caro Ben­i­to would not for­give Britain’s sup­port of sanc­tions.  

Trying to hold Italy  

Was Churchill’s atti­tude toward Mus­soli­ni incon­sis­tent or real­is­tic? Italy’s aggres­sion was direct­ed far from piv­otal Europe. On that con­ti­nent, Churchill con­sid­ered Ger­many a greater men­ace than Rus­sia. Accord­ing­ly, he court­ed both Rome and Moscow, often at the same time.  It didn’t help that nei­ther liked the other.

In ear­ly 1939, Churchill offered Sovi­et Ambas­sador Ivan Maisky pro­pos­als for col­lec­tive secu­ri­ty against Hitler. Rus­sia, Maisky declared, would “not come in to any coali­tion which includes Italy…. [Rus­sia would have] no con­fi­dence in France or our­selves if [you] start flirt­ing with Italy.” 

Churchill shot back: “[T]he main ene­my is Ger­many.” It was always a mis­take, he added, “to allow one’s ene­mies to acquire even unre­li­able allies.”

As Prime Min­is­ter in May 1940, Churchill wrote his first and only let­ter to Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni. A “riv­er of blood” threat­ened to engulf Britain and Italy, he wrote. “I have nev­er been the ene­my of Ital­ian great­ness.” He was not writ­ing in a “spir­it of weak­ness,” although of course he was. Mussolini’s answer was abrupt:  

With­out going back very far in time, I remind you of the ini­tia­tive tak­en in 1935 by your Gov­ern­ment to organ­ise at Gene­va sanc­tions against Italy, engaged in secur­ing for her­self a small space in the African sun with­out caus­ing the slight­est injury to your inter­ests and ter­ri­to­ries or those of oth­ers. I remind you also of the real and actu­al state of servi­tude in which Italy finds her­self in her own sea…. the same sense of hon­or and of respect for engage­ments assumed in the Ital­ian-Ger­man Treaty guides Ital­ian pol­i­cy today and tomor­row in the face of any event whatsoever.”

Fake “peace feelers”  

On 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on France and Britain. Iron­i­cal­ly, Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni was the first major wartime fig­ure to fall. Three years lat­er the Fas­cist Grand Coun­cil repu­di­at­ed their leader of two decades. “The key­stone of the Fas­cist arch has crum­bled,” Churchill told the House of Com­mons. Long before then, Mus­soli­ni had long gone from “renowned chief” to “hye­na” in the Churchill lexicon.

Was Churchill impressed by the Mus­soli­ni of the 1920s and 1930s? Many peo­ple were, although a real­ist might con­clude that Churchill said what he did in British inter­ests. Churchill redact­ed lit­tle from his archives; researchers can pore over a mil­lion doc­u­ments search­ing for smok­ing guns. One quest involves the so-called Churchill-Mus­soli­ni “peace cor­re­spon­dence,” which has long been rumored to exist—somewhere. 

Three sup­posed let­ters from Churchill to Mus­soli­ni, with offers of sup­port pro­vid­ed Italy left the Axis, are men­tioned at least since 1954, when Gio­van­ni­no Guareschi pub­lished the pur­port­ed texts in his mag­a­zine Can­di­do. Guareschi was lat­er pros­e­cut­ed and impris­oned for pub­lish­ing forged let­ters by Alcide De Gasperi, Italy’s 1945-53 prime min­is­ter. The Churchill let­ters were also allud­ed to by Ren­zo De Felice, offi­cial his­to­ri­an of fas­cism and biog­ra­ph­er of Mus­soli­ni. De Felice died in 1996, his evi­dence unpub­lished.   

In 1985 the most cel­e­brat­ed con­spir­acist, Arri­go Petac­co, repro­duced copies of the three let­ters (two dat­ed 1940, one 1945). Ignor­ing their typos and stilt­ed Eng­lish, even the casu­al would find it dif­fi­cult to believe they are gen­uine. The Ital­ian researcher Patrizio Gian­gre­co reviewed them in 2010, prov­ing them obvi­ous fakes. (See “Fur­ther read­ing” below.) 

“La pista inglese” 

The Churchill Archives hold only one Churchill let­ter to Mussolini—that of 16 May 1940—and Mussolini’s neg­a­tive reply two days lat­er. But the con­spir­acists per­sist. “Although there would have been copies in Lon­don of the Churchill-Mus­soli­ni exchanges,” wrote Clive Irv­ing, “none has ever turned up and in April 1945, some­body in Lon­don was very anx­ious that Mussolini’s copies should nev­er see the light of day.” Ital­ian his­to­ri­ans dubbed this sce­nario La pista inglese (The Eng­lish trail).

In Sep­tem­ber 1945, the myth con­tin­ues, Churchill him­self joined the search. He trav­eled to Lake Como, an area that had been con­trolled by Il Duce’s rump Repub­lic of Salò, stay­ing at the “Vil­la Aprex­in.” A pho­to­graph was tak­en and pub­lished in R.G. Grant’s Churchill: An Illus­trat­ed Biog­ra­phy. Osten­si­bly on a paint­ing hol­i­day, Churchill’s real pur­pose was to retrieve his Mus­soli­ni let­ters. (With so many peo­ple out to steal the cor­re­spon­dence, it’s amaz­ing that none ever came up with it.)  

The prob­lem with all this, as Gian­gre­co not­ed, is that Churchill’s vil­la, where he stayed from 2 to 19 Sep­tem­ber, was “La Rosa.” The pho­to­graph of him paint­ing near­by is the one in Grant’s book. From La Rosa, Churchill went to Vil­la Pirelli near Genoa, and from there to Monte Car­lo and the French Riviera.

Conspiracies upon conspiracies  

One of the fakes, with mis­spellings, from “Chartwell” on 22 April 1940 (when Churchill was trav­el­ing from Lon­don to Paris). The past­ed sig­na­ture isn’t even lev­el. Click to enlarge. (Patrizio Giangreco)

Still the beat con­tin­ued, Clive Irv­ing fan­ning it in 2015: En route to Lake Como, Irv­ing wrote, Churchill stopped in Milan to stand bare­head­ed at Mussolini’s unmarked grave! No evi­dence is offered, nor is there any. Churchill flew from Lon­don Sep­tem­ber 2nd and arrived in Como the same day. 

Irv­ing claimed Churchill flew to Milan under the cov­er name “Colonel War­den,” which he says was the pilot’s name. Actu­al­ly that was Churchill’s code name through­out the war, derived from his title, Lord War­den of the Cinque Ports.

Churchill’s vil­la at Como, Irv­ing con­tin­ued, was “owned by none oth­er than Gui­do Done­gani…an indus­tri­al­ist and Fas­cist col­lab­o­ra­tor,” who was “inter­ro­gat­ed by British Intel­li­gence and lat­er released.” Done­gani sup­pos­ed­ly hand­ed him the incrim­i­nat­ing let­ters, papers or diaries—they are var­i­ous­ly described. 

Irv­ing claimed that offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er Mar­tin Gilbert “con­clud­ed that the cor­re­spon­dence had been retrieved and hand­ed over to Churchill, but it nev­er turned up in the Churchill archives and was nev­er seen again.”   

Mar­tin Gilbert dis­missed the whole idea of secret Mus­soli­ni cor­re­spon­dence. His account does not men­tion Done­gani, who died in 1947. If Done­gani did own Vil­la La Rosa, there is no evi­dence Churchill ever met him. The day after he arrived, Churchill wrote his wife that the vil­la belonged to “one of Mussolini’s rich com­merçants who had fled, whith­er is not known.”

“You haven’t looked hard enough”  

Churchill admit­ted in his mem­oirs that he had once expressed admi­ra­tion for Mus­soli­ni as a bul­wark against Bol­she­vism. He dis­tin­guished between dif­fer­ent types of fas­cism. Unequiv­o­cal­ly opposed to Nazism, he was also anti-fas­cist in British affairs. He was uncrit­i­cal of fas­cism in Italy—until Mus­soli­ni fell in with Hitler and declared war in June 1940. The Prime Min­is­ter who would have “no truce or par­ley” with Hitler and his “griz­zly gang” would nev­er have sup­port­ed the Ital­ian “frisk­ing up at the side of the Ger­man tiger.”

Pos­si­bly the best rejoin­der to all this is by the his­to­ri­an Andrew Roberts 

Leav­ing aside the fact that Churchill would not at that stage [1940-43] have want­ed or need­ed peace with Mus­soli­ni, one charge goes that the rel­e­vant doc­u­ments are in a water­proof bag at the bot­tom of Lake Como. So, when one takes issue with them, the con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists say “go and look.” Of course, if you don’t find any­thing, they just say, “you haven’t looked hard enough.”

Further reading

Patrizio Romano Gian­gre­co, “Review: Mis­tero Churchill by Rober­to Fes­torazzi,” 2016.

The Churchill-Mus­soli­ni Non-Let­ters,” 2015 

Mussolini’s Con­so­la­tion” (Churchill Quotes),” 2012

Cole Porter and a Van­ished Cul­ture: Brew­ster and Mus­soli­ni,” 2020

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