Show Hide image

From the NS archive: The ministry of emotion

20 April 1935: The author Stephen Potter visits Italy and sees first hand the Mussolini effect.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

In 1935, the author Stephen Potter travelled to Italy and reported on the changes wrought under Mussolini’s particular form of fascism. Potter found a new efficiency and order allied to national characteristics such as a love of music and show. The orchestrator of this change in a land always reluctant to follow laws – great or small – was of course Il Duce himself. His gift, according to the writer, was to become the conductor of the nation’s emotion and, even as Mussolini eyed north Africa, imparting to the martial mood something other than boring, inhuman, German militarism”.

***

Even from train windows, it is easy to see real signs of the new, accelerated, martial Italy. Even in the train itself, with its timetable, and the freedom of its staff from such major tricks as the stealing of luggage, or such minor tricks, common three years ago, as selling you pillows at one station, and waking you up at the next to remove them forcibly as “soiled” in the hope that you will buy new ones.

Inside and outside, the railways are efficient and clean; the foreign coal-dust has all been licked up by the new electric engines. Beyond, the fields really are cultivated to the margins. Only near Rome does waste grass appear, and one is told of this, that part is the area recently reclaimed from a 3000-year-old dynasty of swampy malarial mosquitoes, and part has been ceded to the state because its owners had failed to improve it.

On the Appian way, in Rome itself, no rubbish is allowed to collect in the corners of ancient monuments. And there are certainly soldiers, and an atmosphere of uniforms. The guard of this train has a holster at his hip. Not only officers seem able to wear cloaks with the experienced grace of Shakespearean actors, nor can these be all of them mountain troops who add 5 per cent to their height by the tremendous nailiness of their boot-soles. Ranks and uniforms are so numerous that porters, postmen and black-shirts merge into one overwhelming soldierish majority.

“Soldierish” rather than “militarist”, if there is such a distinction. For once in Italy, walking about in Rome, it is easy to observe, from these very soldiers, that there is little alteration in the Italians themselves. That there is something here which must be absolutely distinguished from the boring, inhuman, German militarism. Watch them marching. No detachment, however small, marches without a band. Often it is a band and nothing else. And there is no correct playing, elbows stiff, of toneless march music, but a gay comic opera tune, with bugles waving from left to right to balance the marcher, heads bowing in exaggerated time to the music, exactly like children playing.

It is true that foreign correspondents sometimes give a different picture. I observed on blank walls the sign “W DUCE,” which they have told us about, and knew that it meant “Long Live the Duce.” Or “W Fascismo,” I saw. And I moralised on the fact that in this country a “W RAMSAY” would not live five minutes without some rude addition, whereas in Italy the signs receive no such defacement. But my respectful interest was suddenly turned to righteous indignation when I saw next to a “W Duce” a “W GUERRA” – and then a few yards farther on the same, next to other sinister words which I could not translate.

It was only by chance that I found out that “GUERRA” did not stand for WAR, but was the name of a champion bicyclist. The Italians are still too gay, and their climate is still too sunny, for them to be fanatical very long, or very exclusively. All the more wonder, that on this unteachable race, least susceptible to logic, whose national characteristic of 1500 years has been an inability to be loyal to anything larger than a town, a race incapable of acting to rule (whether Thou shalt not kill, or Thou shalt use hand signals when driving a car), should have been imposed a new Italy logical, obedient, and unified.

The World's answer to this problem – “Mussolini” – needs some elaboration. Mussolini himself, it seems, is the most scientific of men. Critics are misled by his face, an intensification of a well-known Italian type which happens to follow rhetorical, “strong man”, lines. But he is not at all above being amused at himself, and at the fantastic extent of his power. Ministers, ambassadors, etc, are given to understand that Mussolini prefers a good joke to salaams at the end of an interview.

His personal life is much more domestic than imperial. He seems to have no thoughts of money, taking a small, unspecified, and variable allowance from the state when he wants it. His working time (as prime minister, foreign minister, war minister, etc) is beautifully organised down to five hours a day – the Italians sometimes rather unkindly contrast Ramsay MacDonald, semi-prime minister only, yet propped up by Lord Harders, King's Throat Specialists, and similar stimulants.

But one of Mussolini's specialities, indeed his most notable gift, is certainly a talent for rhetoric. As an orator, he must not be judged by English standards. Our English speakers of repute are emotional enough, but the emotion played for in this country follows the line: sound old, solid old, England after all. . . no frills . . . man to man.

In Italy, the emotional sequence follows more classical lines. It is a rhetoric of onward. . . idealism . . . forward ye peoples. Of this kind of speech, Mussolini is an academic master. However rational he may be as an explainer of policy in speeches when rhetoric is not pertinent, it is by his emotive oratory that he is known. He himself has seen to that. For Mussolini has added another to his many portfolios. He is minister of emotion. The ramifications of this office are wide, and extend far beyond speech making.

In Rome, its works are ever present. Towering above all is the Emotion headquarters, the Victor Emmanuele monument, which last week seemed to be in better form than ever, floodlit, and lined with hundreds of flickering lamps for an anniversary. In the Rome beneath, the subordinates of the department are at work. The news placard announces an Italian football victory over Austria as NEW TRIUMPH FOR FASCIST SPORT. In the movie Cleopatra (Cecil B. De Mille), which I had seen in London, it was noticeable that Caesar’s rapid, dictatorish walk was popular with an amused Roman audience. Would there be any special reaction to the assassination et tu Brute scene? It was cut out. The department will not allow the possibility of such an act to be even suggested.

But most obvious in Rome last week were the bookshops. Photographs of the Duce were obscured by maps, filling half the window. Each map showed north-east Africa, and on each the Italian possessions were painted green, looking strangely large against the uncoloured remainder. Even from the other side of the street one could see, in the Ethiopean corner, green Italian land bearing down on the pale, colourless Abyssinia, so that the hand fidgeted to paint out what looked an irritating intrusion, a sterile island holding apart two waves of fertile civilisation.

In this kind of organisation, surely, is to be found one explanation of Mussolini’s power. It certainly seems to be the explanation of his mysterious aggressiveness in Abyssinia. Mussolini, so careful to keep his relations with big powers cordial; Mussolini, whose kind of dictatorship has begun lately to seem so admirable a contrast to Hitler’s, appears to be about to perform an act of blatantly Nazi bellicosity. Common-sense reasons for such a war, whatever penetrations of Africa Germany or Japan may be contemplating, seem such as must appear to the Duce, even if his Achilles heel is a Roman mania for expansion, negligible.

But for a director of public feeling, such a war would have much to recommend it. United Italy has never, till now, been united. Difficult as we find it to imagine a time when its big-gum-boot shape was not part of the map, it is one of Europe's most recent additions. Nor, so far, has Italy ever won a war, however many times the Italian children are made to recite: “Italy won the war at the battle of Vittorio Veneto.”

More pertinently still, even the children know that at Adowa, in Abyssinia, the Italians suffered a disgraceful reverse. Now can Adowa be avenged – indeed the department have been preparing for this line of thought by maintaining that Adowa was a disaster, but not a defeat: a setback in the gradual “civilisation” of a barbaric race now at last about to be completed. One small victory is all that is required, and in the course of winning it the sending off of troop-trains, the effective use of beautiful Italian engines in the mechanised divisions, and the triumphant return of not too badly wounded war heroes, will bind the bound fascisti closer than ever.

Mussolini will know how to build his triumphal arches over the measliest little strip of semi-desert acquisition. It is all part of his daily round. For it is by giving the governing to the governors, and emotions to the people, that he has succeeded in setting up the world’s least democratic, most scientific rule (bar Russia) in the country least likely to submit to it.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Stephen Potter (1900-1969) was an author, best remembered for the Gamesmanship and One-upmanship humorous books.