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The ‘Other Woman’

In response to:

Mussolini's Femme Fatale from the July 15, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

I appreciate Adrian Lyttelton’s thoughtful review of Il Duce’s Other Woman [NYR, July 15]. But I disagree over some points.

Prof. Lyttelton rejects Sarfatti’s Life of Benito Mussolini as accurate. In chapter 20 of our book, Philip Cannistraro explains to what extent the Life is trustworthy. Parts are nonsense. But our research showed that much of the Life is reliable. Accordingly, I used it selectively.

Furthermore, Gaetano Salvemini’s attacks on Sarfatti’s biography are inaccurate. Salvemini deserves great credit as an anti-Fascist polemicist but he was as subjective as Sarfatti in assessing Mussolini and less well-informed. Prof. Lyttelton also cites Gaudens Megaro, Mussolini in the Making (London, 1938), as discrediting Sarfatti’s Life. Megaro wrote a fine biography, given sources available at the time. But neither Megaro nor Salvemini enjoyed Sarfatti’s access to Mussolini’s private papers, nor to the indispensable Opera Omnia di Benito Mussolini. Despite Prof. Lyttelton’s doubts, the Opera Omnia shows that Mussolini studied Schopenauer and Pareto, and copied the latter’s debating style (sarcastic and insulting, with willingness to fight duels when his taunts provoked them).

More seriously, Prof. Lyttelton’s questions that Sarfatti inspired Mussolini’s romanità and influenced him to make the March on Rome. There were others to suggest that Mussolini associate his regime with ancient Rome. But leftist proponents of romanità were few. How many did Mussolini know and trust? Sarfatti’s journey with Mussolini from Socialism to Fascism gave her the unique ability to so educate him. Moreover, the identification of Fascism with Roman imperialism seems inevitable only retrospectively. Fascism could have remained wedded to Futurism. But then Marinetti would have become Fascism’s choreographer. This helps explain Sarfatti’s advocacy of romanità. But Sarfatti went further, urging Mussolini to play Caesar. Given his megalomania but insecurity, Mussolini needed convincing that he could carry the role. Sarfatti provided that reassurance, as no other could.

Prof. Lyttelton accepts Sarfatti as the buttress to Mussolini’s resolve to march on Rome but finds it implausible she affected the decision itself. I present my evidence in our book. But other circumstantial evidence exists. Mussolini and Sarfatti caused scandal appearing together on the eve of the March on Rome. Why would a man hoping to cast off his unsavory reputation and become prime minister brazenly attend the theater with his married lover? My belief is that Mussolini needed Sarfatti for more than hand holding. He depended on her constant advice. I think that Sarfatti exposed herself publicly, despite shame for her family, because she knew that. But more convincing indications of Sarfatti’s preeminent influence are how Sarfatti later used Mussolini’s letters, how Mussolini altered his diaries and that Sarfatti refused to reveal her part in the March on Rome.

Sarfatti’s agreement to keep Mussolini’s letters private won her freedom in 1938–1939. How? The Mussolini-Sarfatti affair was common knowledge, even among Nazi leaders. So was Sarfatti’s education of Mussolini and influence in cultural policies. These revelations would have bothered Mussolini little. Instead, I believe what Mussolini feared was knowledge of his dependence on Sarfatti’s political advice, particularly in 1919–1922. I think this is why Sarfatti’s heirs have kept the letters secret. I believe this also explains why Mussolini removed all mention of Sarfatti from his diaries in 1937 or 1938.

In her 1945 memoirs, Mussolini: Como lo conocí, Sarfatti castigates Mussolini’s timidity but does not mention the March on Rome. She had intended to title her memoirs Mea culpa but changed her mind. I suspect that she altered the title and omitted mention of the March on Rome because she could not bear to reveal how much Mussolini’s coming to power had been her fault. Only years later did she tell the story to Sergio Marzorati.

Why would Sarfatti’s political advice have swayed Mussolini? Because he loved and trusted her, and respected her intelligence. Because he recognized that, in ways, her political judgement was superior. In military terms, Mussolini was better at tactics and operations. But Sarfatti excelled at strategy. This was why Sarfatti abandoned Socialism to follow Mussolini. But it also explains her realization that, to come to power, they had to offer more than an alternative leftism.

Historians have noted Mussolini’s increasing irrationality after the death of his brother, Arnaldo, in 1931. But that corresponds with Mussolini’s break-off of relations with Sarfatti, too. That may be more significant. Sarfatti recognized the Ethiopian War’s dangerous consequences, the growing weight of American power and the insanity of the Axis alliance. Mussolini thought otherwise. I recognize Mussolini’s political gifts. But in larger matters, Sarfatti possessed superior political vision, as the differing manner of their deaths attest.

As Prof. Lyttelton notes, I misread Corrado Alvaro, Quasi una vita (Milan, 1951), p. 111. I will correct the error in future editions. As for lacking a sense of the ridiculous, don’t I deserve credit for the anecdote about Toscanini, Sarfatti and Mussolini’s violin playing?

Brian R. Sullivan
McLean, Virginia

Adrian Lyttelton replies:

Professor Sullivan writes that he used Sarfatti’s Life of Mussolini “selectively.” But he does not explain his principles of selection. Even if her book were not a consciously propagandist and myth-making exercise, it would still be an unsatisfactory source for events which took place ten or fifteen years before it was written. In Il Duce’s Other Woman Sullivan does not face up to this basic problem. There is also a point about style. Sarfatti could write effectively and well. But she could also lapse into high-flown kitsch, and I don’t think that Sullivan does either himself or her a service by reproducing her more pretentious effusions as if they were real, contemporary judgments and perceptions. I find it extraordinary that Sullivan believes Salvemini to have been “as subjective as Sarfatti in assessing Mussolini.” As Mussolini’s lover, Sarfatti may well have acquired insights which were not available to a historian, but lovers (or ex-lovers) are not noted for their objectivity. Moreover, what is at issue is not Salvemini’s general assessment of Mussolini but his specific criticism of the distortions in Sarfatti’s book.

The Mussolini who emerges from Professor Sullivan’s statement seems unable to do anything for himself. He has to learn from Pareto how to insult his opponent, and without the superior judgment of Sarfatti to guide him he has trouble formulating a political strategy. Mussolini was a man who lived, thought, and breathed politics, fifteen hours a day. Anyone who has studied the complexity of the web which he wove around his opponents in the months leading up to the March on Rome must find Sullivan’s account of Sarfatti’s role concerning the march incredible. As for Mussolini’s last-minute hesitation about the march, there is direct evidence that the decisive intervention which convinced him that he could not turn back came from the secretary of the Fascist Party, Michele Bianchi.

Margherita Sarfatti was Jewish; she was a sophisticated arts critic, and she loved Paris. This gave her a healthy set of prejudices in relation to Hitler and National Socialism. And in one particular—the appreciation of Roosevelt’s America—I am ready to concede that her vision was more accurate and better formed than Mussolini’s. But I can see no evidence that he was ever willing to defer to her judgment in political matters, and by the 1930s she had an unshakable confidence in the rightness of his intuition. To imagine that if Sarfatti had still been at his side his foreign policy would have taken a different course is altogether implausible.

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