the most lethal gas is incense -- 9/20/18

Today's encore selection -- from The Italians by Luigi Barzini. Benito Mussolini was the leader of Italy from 1922 until ousted in 1943. His strong jaw, stern countenance, and dramatic speeches made him an icon of Fascism, but when he led Italy into war as an ally of Hitler in 1940, its economy and armed forces were weak and added little to the Axis cause. In 1945, Mussolini was caught and executed by members of the Italian communist resistance when trying to escape to Spain:

"[Italian dictator Benito Mussolini] could not help being corrupted by his own spectacle and people who surrounded him. Roman emperors all began to deteriorate the day they were raised to the imperial dignity. Many great leaders in the past, drunk with their own great importance and vast intelligence, thinking themselves infallible, surrounded by sycophants, eventually stumbled and committed a fatal mistake. At one point, they all took too big a risk. Napoleon attacked Russia and Hitler tried to fight two wars on two fronts. But Napoleon and Hitler commanded the most efficient and powerful military machines of their times, which had hitherto defeated all their enemies. They both had a reasonable chance; they both came close to winning, against heavy odds.

Benito Mussolini dressed in the fascist uniform

"Mussolini never had a chance. It is true, he thought the war was almost over when he entered it, in June 1940; he counted on the aid of his mighty ally in an emergency; he trusted his intuition and his luck. But any reasonably prudent dictator should also have been prepared for unforeseen circumstances. He was not. ... He never even suspected that practically nothing was behind his show. He never knew how really weak, disarmed and demoral­ized the country was. He honestly thought he could play a role with his ineffective army, his servile generals, his Biedermeier guns, his toy planes, his tin tanks, and his ramshackle industries. ...

"The master of make-believe could not always detect make-believe when practised by others on him. This, of course, is the heart of the matter. His resistance to deception, which was never very strong, gradually dwindled and eventually disappeared altogether. When people warned him against adula­tion, he shrugged his shoulders. In one of the first months of his government, in 1923, an old ambassador returned from Geneva, where he had represented Italy at a meeting on the control of poison gases. As the venerable gentleman entered the younger man's room, Mussolini did not look up from his desk and went on writing. Finally, after long minutes, he lifted his eyes from the paper and, jutting his chin forward, asked disdainfully: 'What are the most dangerous gases, ambassador?' The ambassador gravely answered: 'Incense is the most lethal of all, your excellency.' He was soon put on the retired list. As the years went by, Mussolini became completely addicted to the artificial paradise he had created for others. He needed bigger and bigger doses of flattery and deception each year. In the end the most sickening and improbable lies, as long as they adulated his idea of himself and confirmed his prejudices, seemed to him the plain and un­adorned expression of objective truth.

Mussolini with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, 1937

"All great personages, of course are surrounded by fawning courtiers. Flatterers are especially common in Italy, where the people have always employed such arts offensively, to gain ad­vantages, destroy rivals, and conquer power and wealth: and de­fensively, as the squid uses ink, to blind and confound powerful men, dictators and tyrants. But most great personages are aware of the danger surrounding them. All men in authority, in Italy, any kind of authority, even village mayors, know that the smiles, the praises, the gifts, the applause are not for them but for their rank. Most of them manage to protect themselves from disaster. Mussolini never learned. ...

"The technique was so smooth that it even deceived Hitler. Preparations for his visit in 1938 went on for six months. All Italy was to show the German dictator a new face. Nothing was to be left that was 'nineteenth century, homely, familiar'. The country
was transformed. Streets where the parades were to pass were re­designed and reconstructed like film sets, houses were painted and decorated along the railway line from the Brenner to Rome. The soldiers taking part in the reviews had been hand-picked. Most of them were to be blue-eyed and tall, to show the visitors that Italians, too, were Aryans. (Only the king could not be changed, to Mussolini's annoyance. He was very small and not impressive. He was, strangely enough, the only nordic one of them all, with so much Austrian and German blood in him, showing through his light blue eyes.) The parading soldiers were armed with all the weapons existing in the country. They were all dressed in brand-new uniforms."



Luigi Barzini


The Italians


Penguin Books


Copyright Luigi Barzini, 1964


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