Edda Mussolini: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe by Caroline Moorehead - review by R J B Bosworth

R J B Bosworth

Fascism in the Family

Edda Mussolini: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe


Chatto & Windus 405pp £20

Family and politics: it is quite a topic. How far should the branches of royal families spread? What about the influence of brothers, partners or children in contemporary democratic politics, as with the Johnsons and Kinnocks, the Bushes, Kennedys, Clintons and Trumps? Should a family ‘brand’ lure us to the polling booths?

What of that modern ersatz variety of monarchy called dictatorship, which, in the curious case of North Korea, is hereditary (and far more ‘totalitarian’ than Mussolini’s rule in Italy, where the word was invented)? No other states have gone quite so far. But the recent election in the Philippines of Bongbong Marcos, son of the former president Ferdinand (and his wife, Imelda), brought a son back to what from 1965 to 1986 had been his father’s seat of power, while the al-Assads, father and son, have ruled Syria since 1971.

The two most notorious European dictators of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, were not familists. Hitler was all but sexless; Stalin had three children (probably), but his real family was the party. However, what about the family of the first European dictator of modern times, Benito Mussolini? This is a question that Caroline Moorehead’s new book allows us to answer more fully and more subtly than in the past.

Mussolini had five legitimate children and, as far as can be ascertained, nine other offspring from eight different partners, though those who like to sensationalise dictatorship have made wildly higher claims. Moorehead is a popular biographer and historian, author of a score of books, most of them about interwar Europe. Here she focuses on Edda, the Duce’s eldest child, born to the then-socialist Mussolini’s partner, Rachele, on 1 September 1910. Moorehead suggests that the unusual first name was taken from Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, fitting the young Mussolini’s desire to make an intellectual splash. Edda was, and remained, the Duce’s favourite child; she was also, as Moorehead puts it, the one who was ‘most like’ him.

Edda’s story might be cast as real-life tragedy. On 24 April 1930, she married Galeazzo Ciano, a bright young man in what was by then a fully installed Fascist dictatorship. On 9 June 1936, he became the youngest foreign minister in Europe, holding that office until 6 February 1943, momentous years during which Italy joined the Axis and, from 10 June 1940, was Nazi Germany’s ‘ignoble second’ in the Second World War. After losing this position, Ciano was appointed ambassador to the Vatican City. From there, he uneasily joined Fascist Party hierarchs plotting to remove the Duce. He was among the members of the Grand Council of Fascism who, on the night of 24–25 July, voted no confidence in Mussolini. King Victor Emmanuel III ended the dictatorship the following afternoon. But their attempt to withdraw Italy from the war was botched. On 8 September, the Germans began occupying the country north of Salerno. Four days later, Mussolini was rescued by an intrepid SS glider pilot from cosy imprisonment in the mountains east of Rome. Soon, the Duce, bowing to German pressure, re-established a Fascist state, known as the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, in the northern half of the peninsula. He was left the humiliating role of puppet dictator. Despite their doubts, Ciano and Edda sought refuge with the Germans.

But the Nazis and the freshly fanatical leadership of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana demanded retribution for the events of 24–25 July. Ciano was the most obvious choice for punishment, since, over the preceding years, he had made no secret of his dislike of the German version of fascism. In fact, Mussolini was the person most to blame for the failures of the Fascist government in peace and war, and he knew it. But, with gross cowardice, he allowed his son-in-law to face a show trial at Verona and, on 11 January, execution.

As the Cianos’ eldest son, Fabrizio, emphasised in the title of his own jejune memoir of a pointless life, Quando il Nonno fece fucilare Papà, this was ‘when Grandpa had Daddy shot’. Confronted with these family disasters, Edda broke bitterly with her father and fled to Switzerland, from where she helplessly watched her father’s own humiliation and death. She lived on unhappily until 9 April 1995, half a celebrity, half not, drink often seeming to be the best solution to her problems.

It is an enthralling, if doleful, story. Moorehead tells it movingly and well. Perhaps her publishers imposed on her the subtitle ‘The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe’, with its promise of melodrama. There are quite a few books in Italian about Edda and other members of her family, some purportedly written by them (though often ghosted by tame authors). The tales they tell are more frequently false than true. But Moorehead skilfully steers past such dangers. The Edda whom she depicts fluctuated between politics and a desperate devotion to gambling for high stakes. In spite of the idealisation by the Fascist regime (and the Catholic Church) of the ‘exemplary wife and mother’, Edda enjoyed an open marriage with Galeazzo. They did little to disguise their regular affairs or counter accompanying gossip, though an attachment remained between them and Edda kept on calling him ‘Gallo’ (‘cock’).

Neither Edda nor Galeazzo was a grand enough figure to make theirs a fully tragic fate. But Moorehead makes a moving story of it. At the same time, she brilliantly sketches the background of Mussolini and his regime, along with its deservedly bathetic end. Moorehead’s readers can savour the characters of Edda and her family but also learn a great deal about the nature of Europe’s first modern dictatorship.

Will there be a coda? The Fratelli d’Italia (‘Brothers of Italy’) neo-fascist party is now riding high under its female leader, Giorgia Meloni. It has the backing of two of Mussolini’s granddaughters, Alessandra and Rachele, and one great-grandson, Caio Giulio Cesare. As we reach the centenary of the March on Rome on 28 October 2022, Fascism, for all its cruelty and failures, is not quite dead. Is Meloni about to become the ‘most dangerous woman in Europe’?

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