Mussolini’s Consolation (Churchill Quotes)

Mussolini’s Consolation (Churchill Quotes)

Mus­soli­ni and Ciano (last two uni­forms at right) with Cham­ber­lain, Dal­adier and HItler at the 1938 Munich Con­fer­ence. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Is Wikipedia right that Churchill admired Ital­ian dic­ta­tor Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni for hav­ing the “good sense to shoot his son-in-law”?

It’s a great crack, but it is not verified.

Churchill had called Mus­soli­ni every name in his book: ”whipped jackal”…”organ grinder’s monkey”…”absurd imposter.” In 1944, after Mus­soli­ni exe­cut­ed his son-in-law, for­mer Ital­ian for­eign min­is­ter Count Galeaz­zo Ciano, Churchill said in a broadcast:

 …the suc­cess­ful cam­paign in Sici­ly brought about the fall of Mus­soli­ni and the heart­felt repu­di­a­tion by the Ital­ian peo­ple of the Fas­cist creed. Mus­soli­ni indeed escaped, to eat the bread of afflic­tion at Hitler’s table, to shoot his son-in-law, and help the Ger­mans wreak vengeance upon the Ital­ian mass­es whom he had pro­fessed to love…. (Churchill By Him­self, 365)

Vic Oliv­er (1898-1964)

The Churchill son-in-law in ques­tion was Vic Oliv­er, an Aus­tri­an-born music hall come­di­an who had mar­ried Sarah Churchill in 1936, and whom her father regard­ed “as com­mon as dirt.”

Oliv­er had the infu­ri­at­ing habit of call­ing his father-in-law “Pop­sie,” and in oth­er respects he was—well—just not Churchill’s type: “A hor­ri­ble mouth: a foul Aus­tro-Yan­kee drawl. I did not offer to shake hands….”

It is some­times rep­re­sent­ed that Churchill said some­thing like this to Oliv­er him­self, when Vic asked “Pop­sie” which war leader he most admired. Churchill sup­pos­ed­ly replies, “Mus­soli­ni, because he was able to mur­der his son-in-law.”

But the only cred­i­ble ref­er­ence to the remark is news­pa­per pro­pri­etor Cecil King, who doubt­ed it was gen­uine. King’s mem­oir, With Mal­ice Toward None, con­tains this diary note from 20 July 1944:

The sto­ry going round the House [of Com­mons] this week—obviously con­coct­ed by some wag—is of Dun­can Sandys at Che­quers with the Prime Min­is­ter. Churchill’s favourite theme is of the great bur­den rest­ing on him and of the unfair­ness that any one man should have to bear so great a respon­si­bil­i­ty. He was groan­ing away on the usu­al lines, so Dun­can Sandys, to cheer him (accord­ing to the sto­ry), point­ed out that Hitler had an even greater bur­den to bear—so had Mussolini—because, after all, every­thing was going wrong for them. To which Churchill replied “Ah! but Mus­soli­ni has this con­so­la­tion, that he could shoot his son-in-law!”

Clear­ly, King thought this was a con­coct­ed quote—and no oth­er source I have plumbed among Churchill’s fam­i­ly or col­leagues states that Churchill made any such expres­sion. In 1945 Sarah and Vic divorced. Churchill had warmed a lit­tle toward Oliv­er by then and was dis­tressed over the breakup.

Win­ston Churchill did have a mem­o­ry for good cracks, and had obvi­ous­ly been think­ing of “Mussolini’s Con­so­la­tion” in his March 1944 broad­cast. But noth­ing indi­cates that he made such a remark with respect to Vic Oliv­er. If any­one can track it reli­ably, I would be glad to stand corrected.

For triv­ia fans, Vic Oliv­er was actu­al­ly the very first guest on the long-run­ning BBC pro­gramme “Desert Island Discs” in 1942. See Alex Hud­son, “The Cast­away who annoyed Churchill,” BBC News Mag­a­zine, 26 Jan­u­ary 2012.

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