By Caroline Moorhead

Chatto & Windus London 2022

ISBN: 9781784743239 (HB)  9781784743246 (TPB)

RRP: $35 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


She was cold hearted, wild in temperament, her father’s daughter and a committed fascist. But as to the label given to her by the Egyptian magazine Images in 1941, as Rome cosied up to Nazi Germany, that she was “the most dangerous woman in Europe” this is perhaps a step too far and in many ways the fate of all strong and independent minded women connected to men of power. Edda Mussolini was no Lady Macbeth, even as her father Mussolini’s enemies and rivals sought to undermine his rule by gossip and innuendo about him as the pawn of his ambitious daughter. For all that, she was a strong believer in fascism and her father’s dictatorship as Il Duce. Her support for her father wavered only at the end when Mussolini betrayed her husband Galeazzo Ciano to the Nazis for taking part in a move to oust him from his position as dictator of Italy.

In many ways, the portrait Caroline Moorhead has drawn in her biography of Edda Mussolini captures in complex ways a creature both created by the excesses and crudities of her upbringing, and one caught by that, yet one who also chose to exploit its opportunities. It is a canny mix and adroitly managed.

Edda emerges as an enigmatic combination of compliant daughter and assertive palace functionary while displaying a certain detachment from political intrigues which she said bored her. With her plebian mother Rachele showing no desire to be part of her husband’s political life, Edda became her father’s go-between on many occasions, travelling solo to London in June 1934 at just 23 to assess Britain’s friendship with Italy. While Edda may have charmed Lady Astor and others, in June 1935 UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden visiting Italy referred to Mussolini afterwards as a “complete gangster”. Edda also made visits to Germany to liaise with Goebbels and Goering. And she played hostess at political gatherings for her father and husband Ciano, as Foreign Affairs minister, in Rome that brought together international and select public figures around the so-called court of Mussolini. Yet she still could exhibit the characteristics of passive, dutiful daughter even while managing these relationships crucial to the Duce’s operations.

In Edda Mussolini – The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe, Moorehead has scripted a history of Italian fascism between the wars, as much as a portrait of the girl/woman it inspired. Moorehead’s focus on the personal and family life of the Duce, alongside the political tale of his rise and fall, helps explain not only the Italy that produced both father and daughter and their crass hunger for power but also the tragedy that engulfed Italy as well as the Axis powers. Europe after the First World War was a civilisation in decay, underpinned by loosed regional enmities going back centuries. In 1919, Italy was a social and economic ruin full of defeated and disillusioned demobbed soldiers, and one of the most vulnerable of nations, ripe for the promises of an egotistical and charismatic populist. Mussolini and his fascist followers, gathered largely from these angry men, filled the vacuum.

Mussolini came from a tradition of working class families in northern Italy inspired by new revolutionary ideas around equal rights and Maxism, in most cases a political education that was self taught and rebellious. As a child, Mussolini was an unruly boy but clever. He developed an early ability “to dazzle an audience” with his oratory. He left school with a teaching diploma but his intemperate nature made him a failure in the classroom. He also showed a libertine addiction to sex which Moorehead describes him preferring as “quick and casual, a conquest without demands”. His affairs would be legendary and Edda would grow up believing a wife should accept that in a husband as part of married life.

Mussolini married his partner Rachele when Edda, born in 1910, was almost five. In spite of Mussolini becoming a journalist and making his way up to editor of Avanti – later Il Popolo d’Italia – the family lived in ramshackle and penurious accommodation with Rachele left alone more than often with her child while Mussolini led the life of a bachelor. In spite of having served a prison sentence for dodging military service in 1902, he enlisted after the outbreak of war in 1914. In 1915, he was hospitalised with typhus as the Italian campaign against Austria deteriorated. Rachele, learning Mussolini’s mistress had given birth to a son, took Edda with her to the military hospital where the couple were married in a ceremony lasting minutes. In these chaotic personal circumstances, the young Edda was learning what counted. Her father was an indulgent narcissist who could survive, even thrive on, chaotic and anarchic circumstances while her young blonde mother looked delicate but had a constitution of steel. The amoral and the ambitious combined, expecting emotion to be overcome. Mussolini taught his children they were not allowed to indulge in fear.

Moorehead writes that her account of Edda Mussolini, and her part in life at the top of the Fascist regime Mussolini installed after his “March on Rome” in 1922, is “as close to the truth as I have been able to get”. This is in part the result of Edda being  “intrinsically bound up with her father” while never truly open or forthcoming as to her real motives in her political involvement. At times, in Moorehead’s account, she comes across as an indolent and indulged young woman thrust into the corridors of power, ready to satisfy her whims both materially and socially without constraint, but without real engagement unless she is entertained.

As his favoured and eldest child, Mussolini took Edda on his rounds as a journalist exposing her to an adult world early in life. At home, her parents shook her childhood with jealous rows. She became aware early of her father’s attraction to fashionable and clever women, some of whom helped in his advancement. Likewise, she realised her mother’s lack of education. As role models, her parents prepared her to accept that marriage was a contract of convenience, a business deal of sorts made without emotion. After just two meetings with her intended, aged 19, she accepted marriage to a husband suitable to her father. It would be her choice but also something of an arranged marriage to Galeazzo Ciano, a diplomat from a bourgeois family. As Moorehead writes, they were not “smitten” but “recognised there were possibilities”.

Within a few years, Ciano would become a powerful member of the Duce’s ministry and, with Edda’s sense of entitlement, seal her status among the upper classes of Rome. They would become the regime’s golden couple, Galeazzo as unfaithful to Edda as her father was to her mother. Meanwhile, Edda gained a reputation for affairs to match her husband, distinguishing her marital status as confirmed by the fact that, while she had affairs, she only had children with her husband. Moorehead notes that Edda enjoyed the power and admiration of being the Duce’s daughter and the wife of Ciano, but neither she nor her husband were really good fascists, nor really acceptable to the upper echelons of Rome’s society. In misogynistic fascist Italy, the gossips judged Edda as “unmaternal, thin, opinionated, a heavy drinker and a terrible housewife”.

Yet, it is Moorehead’s achievement to reveal a rounded and even at times sympathetic character in Edda, despite the very often shadowy nature of her part on the political stage and her emotional control in public that left her seeming without empathy. In 1929, a Contessa Treuberg, writing for the German language newspaper in Prague, described Edda as a “prisoner” in her role as the Duce’s eldest daughter stating: “She possesses great charm … [but] despises mankind. That is the tragedy of children of great men. They are either imitations or wretched wanderers.”

What Moorehead manages in Edda Mussolini, is a skilfully wrought picture of a young woman who is both part imitation of her father and wretched wanderer. Whatever might have been Edda’s sense of purpose, it is elusive; until the very end it is possible she had no idea of what she might have aimed for as any sort of model. Her life shows a sense of drift, filled out by the circumstances of her father’s brutish and dictatorial control of Italy, a nation he seemed to believe belonged to him personally and to act as if he was its proprietor, the grand overlord of the manor with citizens bowing before his charm and strength. In the way of a feudal lady of the manor, Edda was wilfully blind to Italy’s fascist purges and suffering citizens, prevailed upon by forces beyond her control, but forces she was content with, enjoying the material benefits and social privileges. She was a committed fascist, believing the party had been good for Italy. From where she stood, it had certainly delivered her family many benefits.

As historians have long recognised, the relationship between Italy’s fascist regime and the German Reich was never smooth. Edda’s visits, which Moorehead recounts, to Germany indicate that she was key to building trust between the Nazis and Mussolini. By the time of her visit in 1936, she had formed a friendship with Goebbels’ wife Magda. She fell for the Nazis’ flattery especially laid on when Ciano became Foreign Minister. Although she was never taken with Goering whom she described as “a kind of condottiere who had degenerated onto an extravagant satrap”. Moorehead describes Edda in Germany, aged just 25, as “an odd mixture of worldy sophistication, self-absorption and artlessness. Too much had happened to her too quickly; she had neither the self-knowledge nor, perhaps, the intellect to understand it.”

Moorehead’s account of the end of the fascist regime in Italy covers ground of other historians but with a new twist. The lives of Edda, Ciano and Mussolini are locked together in the fall of Mussolini just as closely as in his greatest moments. Ciano, having become increasingly opposed to Italy’s alliance with Germany, and having made his criticisms of Germany well-known, became part of a move to replace the Duce as the Allies easily overcame the Italians in Sicily in July 1943. The Germans, blaming the Italians for the loss of a key strategic foothold, soon had control of Rome. Given refuge in Germany, Edda and her children were safe but in a precarious position. In time, the Germans would execute Ciano who was traded by Mussolini for his own safety in northern Italy where he set up a puppet fascist government with German protection at Salo on Lake Garda.

It is in these last phases of Moorehead’s book where Edda, having managed to get her three children to safety in Switzerland, becomes something of a small time heroine by trying to rescue her husband’s diaries in order to expose secrets of the Nazi regime as well as in her condemnation, even hatred of, of her father. The story is page turning and suspenseful in the manner of wartime escapes and subterfuge. There are both heroic and tragic figures in it, even amidst the chaos and brutality of Italy’s three party conflict of the time, its reprisals and revenge. Edda comes through as partly unhinged, but also as tough as her mother and as self-contained as her father.

With it, the story of Mussolini’s end takes on new angles as part of a family story that will leave a legacy of cruelty and abandonment, of his children who were left to manage the shame and revenge their father had bequeathed them.  Some of this is symbolised in the opening of the book in Moorehead’s description of the museum still operating from Villa Carpena, the Mussolini family home in northern Italy – a museum that is downtrodden, neglected and full of dingy rooms. Within it, however, is a photo of Edda that Moorehead describes as having a “handsome, stern, quizzical look”. Edda Mussolini was never quite beaten.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.