Fascism was not inevitable in Italy, perhaps not even likely. The fascists were shut out in the parliamentary election of 1919. In 1921, however, they captured 35 seats, including one for Benito Mussolini; still, they remained a decidedly minority party.
But the following year, the fascists were voting with their feet, marching on Rome, perpetrating violence elsewhere in Italy, and threatening the democratically elected government. Rather than ordering the army to put down the fledgling revolt, King Victor Emmanuel III invited Mussolini, 39, to form a new government. It was the beginning of the end of democracy in Italy for more than 20 years.
Mussolini astutely played on Italians’ fears of political and economic turmoil in the aftermath of World War I, their disappointment with Italy’s share of the spoils of war, and an exaggerated dread of communism. Business and industry leaders and right wing parties supported him.
If neither the king nor Pope Pius XI – who later would call Mussolini “the man whom Providence sent us” – nor fractious Italian political parties could stop the fascists, the burden would fall to others, prominent among them the Rosselli family of Florence.
In A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Remarkable Story of An Italian Mother and her Two Sons, and their Fight against Fascism, bestselling author Caroline Moorehead ably chronicles the struggles of Amelia Rosselli and her sons, Carlo and Nello, against the tyranny that gripped Italy from 1922 to 1943. It was an uneven fight, but one that evinced much courage, sacrifice, and drama.
Amelia was a descendant of Sephardic Jews who had been driven from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. More than 430 years later, Jews were still not safe in Europe. Amelia was a rich and formidable woman, a playwright and a feminist; when her husband had an affair, she sent him packing, much to his dismay. Her eldest son, Aldo, died fighting in World War I. She was devastated, but her sorrows were just beginning.
Born in 1899, Carlo Rosselli became one of Mussolini’s most implacable opponents and was widely thought to be a likely successor to “Il Duce” if the fascist train could be derailed. He spoke well of the Bolsheviks for a time, palavered with Trotsky (they argued), but soon settled on middle-of-the-road democratic socialism.
Carlo and Nello were pursuing academic careers in the early 1920s as the flamboyant Mussolini, who liked to ride around Rome with a lion cub by his side, was tightening his grip on power. The brutal assassination of opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 changed all that.
Soon the brothers were founding underground newspapers like Non Mollare (Do Not Give Up), spiriting opposition leaders in Mussolini’s crosshairs out of Italy, and procuring airplanes to drop political leaflets over Italian cities. Soon they would be targets themselves.
Moorehead, who grew up in Italy and speaks Italian, portrays the trials and intrigues of the Rosselli clan in intimate detail: the invisible ink, jailbreaks, coded correspondence, and spies galore. In places, the book reads like a gripping thriller. Elsewhere, the author occasionally can get lost in the weeds and assume the reader is fluent in Italian. Novelistic descriptions of minor players can be excessive, for example: “Dumini was a bland-faced young man, with neatly parted dark hairs and ears that stuck out. He had a small, tidy moustache, but no beard.”
In the main, however, Moorehead hits the mark, bringing creeping fascism, and its impact on average citizens, into sharp focus at a time when its abysmal track record is worth remembering. Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but he proceeded to bring Italy to its knees before the Italian people finally put an end to his murderous reign.
Before that bloody denouement, Mussolini seemed to many Italians like the answer to their country’s economic and social challenges. Even Winston Churchill admired his “firm hand” in 1927, when the depredations of fascism were clearly apparent. The problem, of course, is when a firm hand becomes an iron fist. The pope and Mussolini came to an accommodation. People found him useful in various ways. For some, riding the tiger seemed like a good idea, at least for a spell, until they discovered what they had to lose.
At his trial, Carlo Rosselli made what the author terms “the most moving speech, long remembered in the annals of anti-fascism:”
“I had a house: they destroyed it. I had a magazine: they suppressed it. I had a university chair: I was forced to give it up. I had, as I have today, ideas, dignity, an ideal: for these I have been sent to prison. I had teachers, friends – Amendola, Matteotti, Gobetti – they killed them.”
Carlo was given 10 months in prison, which actually was a rebuke to Mussolini. But this was fascist Italy in 1927, much admired up north by an obscure German political agitator (he actually was Austrian) named Adolf Hitler: Mussolini stepped in and gave Carlo five years of internal exile on a rocky forbidding island off the coast of Sicily.
The media and the judiciary had been intimidated into acquiescence. Mussolini had become the law. Nonetheless, the Rosselli saga does not end here.