Biographer and historian Iris Origo was born in Gloucestershire, England in 1902 to an American multi-millionaire and an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, and spent much of her adult life in Italy after her mother’s remarriage to an Italian nobleman. In 1924, she and her husband bought La Foce, a dilapidated 7,000 acre Tuscan estate they were keen to revitalise and transform into a thriving cultural and agricultural hub; it was there, during World War II and at great personal risk, that they sheltered countless refugees and Allied prisoners-of-war. Their elevated social status and connections provided them with access to a wide array of fascinating individuals and stories, and it’s these insights that run through Origo’s extensive war diaries. She wrote the following entry in July of 1939 after spending time with Carlo Senni, whose stories of Mussolini had given her an inside view of the Italian dictator.
The Diary Entry
Count Carlo Senni has just been talking about his years with Mussolini, to whom he is whole-heartedly, but not wholly uncritically, loyal. He emphasizes one trait which strikes everyone who has ever worked with Mussolini: his unbounded, almost undisguised, utterly cynical contempt for his own human instruments. Except for his brother Arnaldo (now dead) and perhaps, to a lesser extent, his daughter, there is no human being in the world whom he loves and trusts. He believes in the ability of his son-in-law; he does not trust him. A sentimentalist about “the people” en masse, he is completely cynical about all individuals, and measures them only by the use he can put them to… Yet so great is his personal ascendancy that his underlings – knowing that they themselves will be kicked away as soon as they cease to be useful – still retain their personal devotion to him.
According to Carlo Senni, one of the few people Mussolini really likes and respects is the King – and these feelings are warmly reciprocated. It’s impossible, he says, to see the two men together without feeling how much they like each other. (And this in spite of the fact that the King is said to dislike the German alliance and to have used all his influence, at every point, to avert war.) Moreover, in the last two years the Prince of Piemonte is said to have become on much better terms with Mussolini.
Two excellent volumes of Iris Origo’s diaries have been published: War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, published in 1947 by Jonathan Cape, and A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939–1940, published in 2017 by Pushkin Press. It is from the latter book that the above entry is taken, reprinted by kind permission of the Iris Origo Estate.