Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, came to power in the parliamentary elections of September 2022 through the coalition of her right-wing party, the Brothers of Italy, with Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia. Although the Italian far right has always disavowed its links to Fascism, Meloni began her career in the openly neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed in 1946 by erstwhile supporters of Benito Mussolini. Her party retains the MSI logo and is happy to proclaim a slogan heard everywhere in the Mussolini era: Difenderemo Dio, patria, e famiglia (We will defend God, country, and family).
In Mussolini’s Daughter: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe, her timely biography of Mussolini’s “eccentric, clever and mercurial” eldest daughter, Edda, Caroline Moorehead shows how deeply ingrained that heritage is. The book opens with a description of the Mussolini family home outside Forlì, still a place of pilgrimage, where the gift shop sells
mugs, plates, aprons, knives and even teapots engraved with Fascist insignia; busts of the Duce in a hundred different heroic poses; replicas of the caps and hats worn by him; books and framed pictures; knives.
The knives were out a century ago, after a summer of chaos in the Italian parliament and violence in the streets. On October 24, 1922, Mussolini roused a Fascist rally in Naples by declaring, “Either the government will be given to us or we shall seize it by marching on Rome.” In the following days the government collapsed, and the Fascists descended on the capital. Edda was twelve. At home in Milan on October 27, Mussolini took her to the theater with her mother, Rachele. As they watched from their box, Mussolini kept slipping out; he was waiting for a phone call from King Victor Emmanuel III, asking him to form a government. Finally he whispered, “It’s time,” and rushed them home. Then he took the night train to Rome, arriving an hour and forty minutes late, stepped onto the platform, and announced that from then on he would make the trains run on time.
Edda never forgot that night. The father she “loved and admired,” Moorehead writes, “had gone from blacksmith’s son and political brawler to becoming, at the age of thirty-nine, the twenty-seventh and youngest prime minister in Italian history.”
A biography of Edda Mussolini is also by necessity a life of her father and an analysis of the rise and fall of Italian Fascism. This is an unexpected sidestep for Moorehead, who has built up a distinguished and moving body of work chronicling the fight against Fascism in France and Italy.* Here, by contrast, she focuses not on resistance but on the inner mechanics of power. Inevitably Mussolini often dominates the book, but this is also an engrossing portrait of a young woman forced to become a public figure. “All through the 1930s and into the war,” Moorehead writes, Edda “took her reluctant mother’s place as the image of what a true Fascist girl and woman ought to be. It was, as it turns out, a deceptive one.” The emotional tug comes from those layers of deception and from Edda’s struggles to find her own way and avoid being crushed by the father she adored—and ultimately hated.
Moorehead has a spirited turn of phrase, a keen eye for the telling detail and pungent quote, and a gift for marshaling complex material. Briskly she tracks Benito Mussolini’s progress from his childhood in the northern agricultural region of Emilia-Romagna, through his years as a fiery, committed Socialist in Italy and Switzerland, to his return to Forlì, near his home village of Predappio. As secretary of the local Socialist Party and editor of its paper, La Lotta di Classe, he swept up his pregnant girlfriend, Rachele, despite her family’s opposition: Edda was born on September 1, 1910. When she was two, they moved to Milan, where Mussolini edited the national Socialist Party’s journal Avanti.
A dramatic shift came in 1914, when he swerved from supporting the Socialists’ advocacy of neutrality during World War I to demanding “war and social revolution,” views he expressed in his own paper, Il Popolo d’Italia. By 1919, convinced that socialism was dead, he was arguing for rule by an elite, a band of warriors under a ruthless leader bold enough to revive the nation. In March of that year he launched the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento before a band of followers, “many of them Arditi, the veteran shock troops [of the Italian army], carrying daggers and staves and wearing black shirts under their military jackets.” In 1921, reconstituted as the National Fascist Party, it won thirty-five seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
Mussolini’s election as a deputy made him “ever more heroic and adventurous” to Edda. Impulsive, obstinate, and prone to sudden rages, she was already known as “‘la cavallina matta,’ the mad little horse.” “I was barefoot, wild and hungry,” she remembered, “a miserable child.” As a skinny nine-year-old, she buried herself in reading, cut her hair like a boy’s, and tried—not for the last time—to run away. Mussolini, proud of her willful independence, took her with him to his office, the theater, and cafés, but once he moved to Rome she rebelled still more. After the death of her grandmother Anna—a mediator in her fights with Rachele—she demanded to be sent to boarding school. Unsurprisingly, she hated the snobbish Catholic school her father chose, feeling stifled by the formality and scalded by the sneers of other girls: soon he was asked to take her away.
Throughout her childhood and adolescence, she also endured the violent domestic rows over Mussolini’s string of mistresses. Chief among these were the Socialist Angelica Balabanoff, the cultured Margherita Sarfatti (whose best-selling book Dux, in 1925, described him as “embodying both modernity and the grandeur of the ancient Romans”), and the demanding Ida Irene Dalser. The birth of Dalser’s son Benito and her claim to be Mussolini’s wife led Rachele finally to insist on marriage in 1915. Yet there were always other mistresses, other babies, other girls whisked into his office for “a quick coupling” on the carpet. “My sexual appetite does not allow for monogamy,” he said nonchalantly, but the impact on Edda can be judged by her own uneasy, hectic approach to sex.
Roman high society found Mussolini charming, unpredictable, untidy, with a seductive hint of danger. From the mid-1920s his reputation grew. Pope Pius XI said he was sent by Providence; Churchill admired his “victorious battle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism”; Adolf Hitler kept a bust of him in his Munich study.
In 1925, when he overcame the crisis following the murder of his opponent the Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti the year before, which had caused “a huge groundswell of revulsion” against the Fascists, Moorehead notes:
Fascism was back in control and Mussolini, with his springy, cat-like step and the mannerisms—the jutting jaw, the scowl, the large bald head thrown back, the staring eyes—that would define his long tenure, was not about to cede any corner of it. Discipline was to be just another word for dictatorship. The “fascistisation” of Italy had begun.
A tall, rangy teenager, Edda shared her father’s disconcerting stare. Praised by the press for her “grace and charm,” in reality, Moorehead tells us, she was “awkward, prickly and combative,” hiding her intelligence and skills. Mussolini let her cycle, swim, and wear trousers, but not smoke or go to dances. In 1929, when police reports arrived of the “fortune hunters, spendthrifts and drug addicts” who pursued her during family summers at Riccione on the Adriatic and of her own “apparent allergy…to suitable young men,” he packed her off on a long cruise to India to “tame” her.
Later that year he moved the family to Rome, and Edda settled into the vast Villa Torlonia with her four siblings—Vittorio, Bruno, Romano, and the baby Anna Maria—and her mother, who promptly turned the landscaped gardens over to vegetables, chickens, and pigs. In Rome, to dodge her father’s oppressive surveillance, she abruptly decided to find a husband and, after dispatching some hopefuls, settled on Count Galeazzo Ciano, whose father was a rich shipping-company owner, naval hero, and Fascist. A career diplomat who had served in Argentina, Brazil, and Beijing, Ciano was handsome and easygoing, with “a useful talent for saying nothing, while giving the appearance of saying everything.”
The decision was quick and pragmatic—“There was no mention of love”—and their wedding in 1930 was a full-scale Fascist spectacle. (Newsreels available on YouTube show lines of children marching past, with small boys saluting and girls waving flowers.) At the start of their honeymoon in Capri, Edda panicked, locked herself in the bathroom, and told Ciano that if he touched her, she would throw herself over a cliff: “‘Nothing in you surprises me,’ Ciano replied, ‘but I would like to know how you plan to get there.’ They laughed.” Much later Edda wrote, “And so began…our first married night, which, to be honest, was not much fun. I hated it all. Later, things improved, but it took time.”
Soon Ciano was sent to Shanghai, a posting that gave Edda, she said, the happiest time of her life. Moorehead brilliantly evokes Shanghai in the 1920s, with its crowded waterfronts, cafés, and clubs, where blocks of ice cooled the sweltering dancers whirling to “Ragtime, Dixieland Swing, the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear.” Edda acquired a taste for gin and high-stakes gambling, while Ciano indulged in quick affairs (including, allegedly, with Wallis Simpson). In response, Edda vowed never to be jealous like her mother but simply to regard him as a friend, and she developed a close friendship of her own with a Chinese warlord, Hsueh-liang. After a difficult labor, Edda and Ciano’s son Fabrizio was born in Shanghai on October 1, 1931, and greeted with the cry “‘Mamma mia! Quanto è brutto,’ how hideous he is.” To her fury, when she became pregnant again Mussolini summoned them home, insisting that she needed rest.
In Moorehead’s account, the public and the private intersect. The Cianos’ rocky marriage is set against the way Mussolini persuades the public “with considerable guile and stealth” to accept and even be proud of his “profoundly illiberal” regime. His program of agricultural reform and public works helped Italy weather the Great Depression, and the cult of the leader grew: “As the popular slogan put it ‘Mussolini ha sempre ragione,’ Mussolini is always right.” Unions were dismantled, press freedom curtailed, and dissent monitored by “a spider’s web of spies, informers and agents provocateurs.” Schools became indoctrination hubs, and universities were purged. In domestic life adultery was made a crime (“but only for women”), and childbearing was lauded.
Edda realized that she was to be a poster girl for these policies: “She and Ciano were to be the golden young couple of the new Fascist aristocracy, models of the ‘stile Fascista,’ dutiful, efficient, moral and fecund.” Moorehead points out that in many ways, however, they were the very opposite of the Fascist ideal of the martial, strong Italian male and his thrifty, fecund wife. “Edda was unmaternal, thin, opinionated, a heavy drinker and a terrible housewife,” while Ciano, far from being ruthless and sporty, “was soft, vain and uncertain, with expensive tastes.” And though Edda enjoyed being fussed over by rich Roman hostesses with “a shameless display of toadying,” in the words of the Duchessa di Sermoneta, her reserve put people off. Rumors swirled around her. One report described her as a nymphomaniac living a life of squalor in an alcoholic haze. Her mask, said her friend the slick, worldly journalist Curzio Malaparte, seemed “sometimes that of an assassin, at others that of a potential suicide.” Even at the apex of the Fascist regime she had a sense of dread: “‘We must deprive ourselves of nothing,’ she told a friend, ‘because we know that the guillotine awaits us.’”
On their return from China, Ciano had been made head of the Presidential Press Office, forming a virtual court around himself in Rome. In June 1934 he organized the first meeting between his father-in-law and Hitler, while in the same month Edda was dispatched to learn the British response to Mussolini’s intention to invade Ethiopia. In London she was received at court, stayed with the Astors at Cliveden, and reported back faithfully: the newspaper baron Lord Rothermere approved of Mussolini taking on “those wretched blacks,” while Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was cool but said Britain would not declare war on Italy. A second trip to London with Ciano followed in May 1935 to test British feelings again. If Edda, in her early twenties, regarded international politics merely as a poker game—“to win you needed cunning, quickness and pleasant manners”—the stage was now set for the brutal and horrifying Ethiopian war. Ciano and Edda’s brothers Vittorio and Bruno took part as bomber pilots, coming back with a clutch of medals.
Initially Mussolini had written off Hitler as a “silly little clown,” proclaiming that “now he’ll follow me wherever I want.” By 1936 he knew better. Irked by sanctions imposed by the League of Nations after the Ethiopian campaign, he turned to the Reich for support. In June he sent Edda to Germany, where news of Ciano’s appointment as foreign minister sent Nazi grandees scurrying to pay court. She lapped up the flattery, becoming friends with Magda Goebbels, finding Goering “extremely likeable” and Hitler “a veritable hero.” Ciano, who visited Germany soon afterward, thought the opposite. In November 1936 in Milan, Mussolini for the first time depicted Rome and Berlin as an “axis” around which peace-loving states could revolve.
The following September, as the culmination to a lavish state visit, he and Hitler addressed a million-strong crowd in and around Berlin’s Olympia Stadium. (With nice timing Mussolini’s claim that the two countries were “the greatest and most genuine democracies” was drowned by torrential rain and loud thunder.) Faced with the huge cost of the Ethiopian war and of supporting Franco in the Spanish Civil War, he still wavered between closeness to Germany and rapprochement with Britain and France, but the strength of Nazi influence showed in the shift from his early contempt for anti-Semitism to his adoption of a Manifesto on Race and laws excluding Jews from public life, a policy that both Ciano and Edda opposed.
Throughout these years, since Rachele shunned society gatherings, Edda acted as first lady. Yet from Moorehead’s account, she didn’t much enjoy it. Bored, she slept late, shopped, drank, gambled, and crumbled into depression. Travel helped: escapes to Venice and long stays in Capri, where she built a startling modern house and entertained smart Italian Fascists and visiting Nazi leaders. The island bristled with spies. Between retreats to Capri, she accompanied Ciano to Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Poland, and by 1939 the couple were international celebrities: he was on Newsweek’s cover in March, styled as a “Fascist missionary,” and she was on Time’s in July; the accompanying story called her “one of Europe’s most successful intriguers and string pullers” who wore the “diplomatic trousers.” These were far from glowing profiles—by 1939 any early admiration in the US for Mussolini’s reforms had dissipated—but the writers were impressed by Ciano’s mix of glamour and power and Edda’s sleek, fashionable style. A few years earlier a journalist had claimed, “Everyone knows that her father rules Italy and that Edda rules her father.” In 1940 the Egyptian magazine Images called her “the most dangerous woman in Europe.”
Moorehead takes this for her subtitle, but it’s hard, at any point in her book, to see that Edda had many intelligent ideas on politics, let alone to assess how “dangerous” she was. Moorehead herself seems baffled, asking, “Influence certainly, but actual power?” Edda and her father “spoke constantly, but just what she said, what she advised, was never written down.” Their relations were strained, however, by arguments over Mussolini’s latest mistress, Claretta Petacci, who was a year younger than Edda. As the story unfolds, Edda comes to seem more victim than perpetrator.
Ciano concluded the Pact of Steel between Germany and Italy in May 1939 but spent the subsequent months of “non-belligerency” trying desperately to keep his country out of the conflict, describing Hitler and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop as “two madmen” and telling a friend that Mussolini “wants war like a child wants the moon.” When Italy finally entered the war on June 10, 1940, he wrote, “I am sad, very sad. The adventure begins. May God help Italy.” Edda, by contrast, was delighted, having pushed her father strongly toward war and admitting later that she was “extremely bellicose and Germanophile.” She went on to work with the Italian Red Cross, nearly drowned when her ship was torpedoed, and served in hospitals on the eastern front and in Sicily.
After invading Greece, a costly debacle for which Ciano was widely blamed, Italy suffered catastrophic losses first in North Africa and then during the Russian campaign. At home, amid constant bombing and increasing hunger, the cult of the Duce foundered. The despairing Ciano, failing to pressure Mussolini to sue for peace, was now openly anti-German, and in a cabinet shuffle in February 1943, bowing to German demands, Mussolini removed him from the Foreign Office. Ciano snapped up the post of ambassador to the Vatican, which ironically gave him greater freedom to maneuver.
From this point, the political becomes grimly personal and Moorehead’s dense final chapters have an aura of Greek tragedy: toxic, incestuous, reeking of betrayal, fear, and pain. After the Allied landings in Sicily in early July 1943, against a background of military disaster and resistance at home, plots against Mussolini mushroomed. Ciano’s office at the Vatican became a center of intrigue as critics—who included the royal family and Pope Pius XII—agreed that Mussolini must go and that the country should seek an exit from the war. Finally, at a meeting of the Grand Council on July 24, Ciano joined those demanding that he hand over his military power to the king. Mussolini, who had been formally informed before the meeting, remained defiant, but the motion against him was finally passed at two in the morning. Technically the council was a consultative body and its vote was entirely legal, but it was a coup nonetheless. That afternoon the king demanded Mussolini’s resignation, amid a flurry of apologies, while pointing out that he was “the most hated man in Italy.” As soon as he left, he was arrested.
Attacks on prominent Fascists followed. In the atmosphere of fear, freed “from the long ambiguity of her position,” Edda was at last able to express her own feelings, show her strength, and act decisively—but not effectively. She organized her escape with Ciano and their children, only to find that their plane was flying not to Spain, as she thought, but to Germany, where they would be “guests” of the Führer.
After the armistice between Italy and the Allies in September 1943, German commandos rescued Mussolini, by then a haggard figure sick with stomach ulcers, and Hitler set him up in northeastern Italy as head of the puppet Repubblica Sociale Italiana, known as the “Republic of Salò” after a nearby town. At this point, Edda dashed back from Germany to Rome to find Ciano’s diaries, which compromised several German leaders, hoping she could barter them for his safety. But while she was away he was arrested and handed over to the Salò regime. Between January 8 and 10, 1944, after desperate attempts to rescue him, he was tried with five others in Verona, “a fortress town for the Nazis and the Fascists”; all were found guilty of treason. The next morning, January 11, they were tied to chairs and shot in the back by a firing squad: a German diplomat who was present said, “It was like the slaughtering of pigs.” Mussolini made no attempt to intervene.
On April 27, 1945, while trying to flee their base on Lake Como, Mussolini and Petacci were captured, and the next day they were shot by partisans. Their corpses and those of fifteen of their followers were taken to Milan and dumped in Piazzale Loreto. Mussolini’s and Petacci’s were urinated and spat on before being hung upside down from the roof of a garage. That day, April 29, the German surrender in Italy was signed.
From her refuge in a Swiss convent, Edda was handed over to the Italians and banished to the island of Lipari. Here she had a tender, escapist affair with a local man, Leonida Buongiorno. Often in Moorehead’s book Edda seems like a ghost in her own story, but at this point, perhaps because we have extracts from her letters of the time and can hear her spontaneous voice, she springs to life. The romance could not last. In the winter of 1946, aged thirty-six, she finally returned to Rome. She sold Ciano’s diaries to the Americans, and they were published in the Chicago Daily News. She never married again but lived a lonely, somber life in Rome until her death in 1995, refusing to the end to see Ciano as a traitor and asserting that “her father’s greatest mistake had been to allow himself to fall for the adulation of the Italian people.”
That adulation never entirely died, and two of Mussolini’s granddaughters have entered politics: Alessandra is a former member of both the Italian parliament and the European Parliament for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and Rachele is currently a councillor in Rome for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. His great-grandson Caio Giulio Cesare is also a Brothers of Italy supporter, standing unsuccessfully for the party in elections for the European Parliament in 2019. In an interview he said, “I will never be ashamed of my family.”
In 1957 Edda had overseen the return of Mussolini’s body to the family tomb at Predappio. “Today,” Moorehead writes,
the crypt is open only on the anniversaries of Mussolini’s birth and death, and on 28 October every year, when the faithful, those who yearn for the days when Fascism ran their lives, gather in Predappio to remember the March on Rome.
Edda Mussolini may not have been dangerous herself, but her father’s fearsome ideology, which governed her life, refuses to be buried for good.
An earlier version of this article misstated the site of Olympia Stadium and the location of the crowd gathered there.
A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France (Harper, 2011); Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (Harper Perennial , 2014); A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Remarkable Story of an Italian Mother, Her Two Sons, and Their Fight Against Fascism (Harper Perennial, 2018); A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism (Harper, 2019). ↩