Magazine article The Spectator

'A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940', by Iris Origo - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940', by Iris Origo - Review

Article excerpt

These days it is fashionable to claim Mussolini as a fundamentally decent fellow led astray by an opportunist alliance with Hitler. Whether this revisionism is the song and dance of a minority, or something more widespread and daft, is hard to say. Italians understandably wish to view themselves as brava gente -- good people -- so they prefer to blame Hitler for Mussolini's murderous 1938 racial laws against the Jews. The truth is, Nazi Germany never demanded an anti-Semitic campaign as the price of friendship with Italy. On the contrary, Mussolini resented the imputation that his anti-Jewish legislation was imposed on him from without.

By the time Iris Origo's Italian war diary opens in 1939, the racial laws have declared Italian Jews a contaminant akin to the Nazis's Fremdkörper, an alien within the state. The anti-Semitic propaganda was of course endorsed by the Fascist Party and the muzzled Italian press, but it was not taken seriously by the larger public, and certainly not by Origo.

Born Iris Cutting in 1902, the Anglo-American diarist and biographer was living at this time with her aristocratic Italian husband, Antonio Origo, at La Foce, a Tuscan estate in the Val d'Orcia. The region gave its name to her bestselling work, War in Val d'Orcia, a diary account of the year 1943-1944, when Hitler invaded northern Italy.

A Chill in the Air, a precursor to War in Val d'Orcia, shows Italy facing imminent catastrophe in 1939 from the 'Juggernaut of war'. The diary was not intended for publication; it was a private venting of anxieties. Antonio Origo remains cautiously loyal to Mussolini throughout, not least because the Fascist government had subsidised the renovation of La Foce and its fabulous gardens (celebrated today throughout Italy).

Iris, too, had been impressed by the Duce, who was anyway widely admired in pre-war Britain. Newspapers (notably Lord Rothmere's Daily Mail) carried flattering photographs of the dictator; Mussolini was on good terms with King George V, more-over, who in 1923 publicly congratulated him on his 'wise leadership'. For the younger Iris, the Duce was a 'very great man' (she wrote to a friend in 1930). The 'virile' alternative of Fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s appealed to Britons and Americans alike, disgruntled by an age of leftist poets, flappers and perceived Judeo-Bolshevik threats.

Later, however, Origo's views shifted. In her introduction to A Chill in the Air, Lucy Hughes-Hallett commends her as a 'kind of Mother Courage'; Brecht's cart-pulling peasant woman is not known to have worn Fortuny tea-gowns (as Iris's English mother did) or to have had a Swiss nanny to hand, yet she and Origo did share a doggedness and wariness of political authority. …

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