Recently, on my way to catch a bus into the centre of Rome, I noticed that a building near my house in the Garbatella neighbourhood bears the date E. F. VII, which refers to the seventh year of the Era of Fascism. As the bus turned onto the Lungotevere, I noted that Anno IV is marked on the stone embankment of the Tiber River. Under Fascist rule, time in Italy was renumbered to begin at October 1922, the date of the March on Rome, and many of these markers still exist as leftovers from that past.
I walked up Via Calandrelli, which leads to a park where I used to bring my son when he was little. It was he who pointed out that the street’s manhole covers show a bundle of sticks and an axe, the symbol taken by Mussolini from ancient Rome, where it signified strength. Since Fascism was in power for such a long time, more than twenty years, the city became filled with symbols like this. Whole neighbourhoods of narrow medieval streets and houses were razed and remade with wide roads and monumental structures to reflect the ego of Il Duce.
I was going up the hill behind Trastevere and into the Gianicolo park to find the bust of Lauro de Bosis, a little-known anti-Fascist hero I had just read about in Taras Grescoe’s compelling new book. Grescoe — who has written previously about subjects as diverse as ethical fisheries, public transportation, tourism, Quebec, and expats in Shanghai — has brought to life the story of Rome in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Fascism was well established in Italy and admired elsewhere.
Most of the news to reach the outside world during this period was filtered through pro-Fascist journalists based in Italy. And because pro-Fascists also controlled the media within the country, the reporting loop was one of good news flowing both ways. Political violence was not seen to be much of an issue by anyone, so long as the country was running and the economy was humming. In fact, the positive press was so convincing that several American corporations conspired to march half a million First World War veterans on Washington, in 1934, with hopes of overthrowing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “The ‘Business Plot,’ as the press labelled it, was strenuously denied by its alleged perpetrators,” Grescoe writes. While the accused “dismissed it as ‘perfect moonshine,’ ” members of Congress who investigated the plot “concluded there was ‘definite proof’ that an American-bred Fascist putsch was ‘actually contemplated.’ ”
Set during Fascism’s glory years, Possess the Air is about resisting tyranny. It’s about the courage required to defy an autocrat even when the gains will be small. “This is the story of how, in a period of rising authoritarianism, some patriots found a way to fight for the liberty that many of their fellow citizens had come to take for granted, or even spurn,” Grescoe explains early on. “Which is what makes this — as the memory of the consequences of succumbing to the empty promises of a Strong Man appears to be fading — a story for our time.”
What would you do if you found yourself living under a Fascist government? How would you counter the propaganda and speak the truth if you lived under a Communist dictatorship? There was a period in the 1990s, and well into the 2000s, when such questions were asked only theoretically. Since political extremes had been kicked to the curb in favour of liberal democracy, we all assumed that we would be heroes. We would know right from wrong, and with the lessons of history at our backs, we would speak up, challenge corruption, and never again allow violent extremism to hold power.
Perhaps we were overly concerned with the labels of left and right, instead of paying attention to the contours of authoritarianism and violence. This blind spot of ours has made it easier for budding autocrats to dress old, repressive ideas in new clothes. It’s happened before. In fact, Benito Mussolini’s father was a Socialist politician who used to read Marx aloud to his family. By 1903, Benito, just nineteen, was referring to himself as an authoritarian communist. By the time Fascism emerged, he had blended this over here and that over there into an ideology meant to encompass a whole new set of ideas.
The Italian word fascio, which means bundle, was used during the First World War to describe the extreme left-wing subgroups that were separating themselves from the country’s Socialist Party. Mussolini gathered the fascisti together and wrote a manifesto filled with dreams of patriotism and war. He ran a paper that started out socialist; by 1919, it was extolling the virtues of capitalism.
By the end of the war, Mussolini, who was only in his late twenties, had a plan to use the fascisti and unhappy veterans to seize power. He didn’t really care if his supporters were politically right or left — so long as they were willing to subvert the established political order and back him.
It was power that mattered to Mussolini; his ideas changed with the wind. In 1919, the Fascist ideals, as he articulated them, included land for peasants, a tax on capital, and votes for women. The new party included socialists, anarchists, Christians, and Jews. (To say Mussolini’s political priorities had changed by 1943, when he was bundled off to prison, is an understatement.)
The element that would define Fascism and distinguish it from other political movements was violence. The biographer Denis Mack Smith has written that Mussolini understood how a gang of ex-soldiers willing to kill people in the streets would give him strength and help him to lead the revolution. He effectively presented violence as the path-clearing tool for the future. By 1922, when he and his army of blackshirts marched on Rome, the idea of seizing power by force must have seemed only natural.
Fascism became more than a political party; it was fused into Italian nationalism. The bundle of sticks was both a party’s symbol and a symbol of national identity. When I see it today, it reminds me of how pervasive the ideology was in the 1930s, and that to act against it would have required great strength of will.
Grescoe argues that the blatant murder of Giacomo Matteotti, a Socialist politician, began to tip the balance for some of the regime’s opponents. In 1924, he spoke in parliament about election rigging and the violence used to intimidate voters. As he himself predicted, Matteotti was kidnapped and murdered just days later.
Eventually, the poet Lauro de Bosis began a secret anti-Fascist program with his family and like-minded friends — distributing leaflets in an attempt to counter overwhelming propaganda. It was dangerous work, given the thuggish patrols of blackshirts who used extreme brutality to stop even the rumour of criticism.
De Bosis himself was an unlikely resistance hero. Yet he learned to fly a plane, and with only seven and a half hours of flying time under his belt, he flew from the South of France to Rome, where he dropped leaflets addressed to the Italian king, the military, the parents of small children, and Romans all over the city. He circled for thirty minutes and flew away — and was never seen again.
This was in October 1931, nine years into the Fascist era. Mussolini was outraged by the breach of Italian airspace and by the messages de Bosis delivered, but he was incapable of doing much about it other than demanding that people turn in any leaflets they found.
News of de Bosis’s fateful flight spread quickly. Increasingly, American expats in Rome became alarmed by the xenophobia and by the violence of the Fascist youth groups. De Bosis had prepared a text, “The Story of My Death,” to be published after his mission. It was printed widely, including in the New York Times, which was still pro-Fascist. “For many,” Grescoe writes, “it was the first time they’d heard criticism — or rather, a blistering denunciation, from a patriotic Italian — of a regime that had built an image as a benign and effective dictatorship.”
It would take the disastrous and brutal excursion by the Italian armed forces into Ethiopia in 1935 to fully disrupt the outsider’s view of Fascism, and it would take the even more disastrous entanglements during the Second World War to create enough momentum within the country to oppose Mussolini. Eventually, it became clear that violence, repression, and destruction were the whole of the Fascist movement — not simply the machine that would clear a path to the future.
Italy has been a parliamentary democracy since 1946, when it abolished the monarchy through a public referendum. Post-war politics has been dominated by extremes of left and right. Though the Fascist Party was disbanded and made illegal, there are others with Fascist elements, such as the Brothers of Italy, which recently discussed the idea of taking Roma and Sinti children away from their parents for re-education. The Northern League, now known simply as the League, began as a separatist group but is now a populist right-wing party headed by Matteo Salvini, a strongly anti-immigrant politician.
When Salvini was interior minister, he promised to deal with the large number of migrants passing through Libya, across the Mediterranean, and onto the shores of Sicily simply by closing the ports to them. That many would drown in the sea was not his concern. An alarming number of Italians accepted his plan.
Salvini’s inhumane policy was challenged last summer by a young German woman, Carola Rackete, who, as the captain of the Sea-Watch 3, had rescued fifty-three people off the coast of Libya. She felt she could not return them to Libya because of dangerous conditions, so she attempted to dock at Lampedusa, the closest island. But Salvini refused to open the port. Rackete waited and argued for two weeks, while people on board became even more desperate.
Finally, she decided to force her way into port, and Salvini had her arrested as she left the ship. She was greeted by jeers and abuse as she disembarked, and she has received death threats since then. Though her actions were rebellious, they had little effect on extreme migration policies at the time. Like that of de Bosis, Rackete’s timing with the Italian people was off.
But in early September, through a political miscalculation, Salvini lost his place in the government and his popularity fell. The Italian parliament has, for the time being, shifted to the centre left, and as a result the European Union has held discussions with lawmakers to come up with humane solutions to the migration crisis. By early October, Rackete was back on the cover of the daily La Repubblica, this time featured in an article about a standing ovation she received in Brussels.
The bust of Lauro de Bosis sits on a marble stand among leaders of Italian unification — figures with whom, ironically, Mussolini identified. Grescoe points out that the effigy is often defaced by neo-fascists, although the day I visited the park, it was clean and white. But there is a black line around the throat where de Bosis’s head has been reattached, making it clear that it has been knocked off the shoulders at least once.
“By 1935, much of the world was finally seeing what had become clear to Lauro de Bosis a decade earlier,” writes Grescoe. “The blank cheque handed to the regime, which had been credited with bringing American-style progress to the perennially undisciplined Italians, was about to be cancelled.” Of course, more time would pass before Italians would see the end of Mussolini, the end of the war, and the long process of recovery.
How much more time must pass today? The continued presence of neo-fascists in Europe and the rise of populist governments around the world make it clear that the strongman is with us yet. It was nice to imagine after the collapse of the Soviet Union that we would all know good from evil, that we would all be heroes, that we had learned the lessons of the past. But, from here in Rome, it’s looking as though there’s a lot of history in our future.