King on De Grazia, 'The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini's Italy'

Author: 
Victoria De Grazia
Reviewer: 
Amy King

Victoria De Grazia. The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini's Italy. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020. 528 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-98639-8.

Reviewed by Amy King (University of Bristol) Published on H-Italy (April, 2021) Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Naples "L'Orientale")

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56465

Ordinary Fascists

A search for Attilio Teruzzi in the archive of Istituto Luce—a cinematographic propaganda organization founded in 1924—returns a large number of static and moving images. Photographs show Teruzzi, the protagonist of historian Victoria de Grazia’s The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality, in Italian East Africa by a shop selling “caffè, liquori, tabacchi,” beneath the broad wings of an airplane, or before crowds of indigenous people who greet him “joyfully.” Typical of fascist colonial propaganda, his portrait is crafted as a man of trade, technology, and benevolence. He is also captured dressed in fine woolen jackets on Italian ski slopes, in military uniform astride horses, or bowing his head in solemn respect at the foot of a newly built war monument. Teruzzi was a man of pageantry at home and abroad.

In the opening pages of this meticulously researched monograph, De Grazia outlines her approach to the study of totalitarianism, which disregards any artificial divorce between public and private life. The Perfect Fascist will, she writes, take us “behind the façade of fascist totalitarianism and into the private life and moral compromises of one of its most exemplary foot soldiers” (p. 6). Colonial governor, deputy, and militia general, Teruzzi was a ubiquitous figure throughout more than two decades of fascist rule, making him a fascinating subject for this sweeping social history of dictatorship. “Fascists are made, not born” (p. 9), De Grazia writes, and her monograph examines how.

Centered on the unlikely pairing of Attilio Teruzzi, a veteran from the lower classes of Milan, and Lilliana Weinman, a wealthy American from a Jewish family who comes to the city to become an operatic prima donna, the book follows Teruzzi as he is propelled through the party, militia, and colonial ranks. Drawing on a vast array of unseen primary sources brought to the author by Weinman’s relatives including private letters, family photographs, and diaries, the book examines the private motivations, behavior, and indiscretions of this perfect fascist.

The structure of the book is, in many ways, reminiscent of the melodramas Weinman would have performed. Beginning with a love story between rich and poor, The Perfect Fascist soon turns to jealousy, subterfuge, betrayals, bravado, revenge, and enduring loyalty (albeit to the fascist regime). The book is organized into four parts. Part 1, “Strive,” introduces the story of a frustrated veteran besotted by the charms of a wealthy American singer (and seduced by the promise of a new party). The setting of this love story is significant; their first interactions in Milan’s ostentatious Galleria, where Teruzzi would meet other uniformed veterans to denounce the failures and hypocrisies of Liberal Italy, situates the affair in the sociopolitical context of postwar Italy. The second part, “Grasp,” considers the propagandistic value of this transnational love affair and the betrothed’s decision to conduct the wedding as “an affair of the state” (p. 133). It also examines Teruzzi’s fashioning as the “good face of fascist imperial conquest” (p. 156) and the pair’s move to Benghazi following his appointment as governor of Cyrenaica. Here, De Grazia addresses broader themes including the regime’s treatment of “the native way of life as an aesthetic prop” (p. 160) and the role of fascist urban planning in imperial control.

“Overreach,” the third part, is a turning point for this suddenly inconvenient marriage as geopolitics and personal relationships interlock against a backdrop of failing empire and world war. De Grazia’s focus on Teruzzi’s romantic life returns as he begins a relationship with Yvette Blank, a Jewish woman born in Cairo to the Romanian consul in Egypt and her mother, a housewife. Half his age, Blank had powerful cultural capital at a time when fascism fetishized youth; once again, De Grazia writes, “Teruzzi’s personal life choices were being made in perfect synchronicity with the historical moment” (p. 283). Here, the author documents Teruzzi’s failed attempts to secure Italian citizenship for Blank as the regime’s race laws loom. The fourth and final part, “Fall,” documents Teruzzi’s arrest as the regime begins to collapse, his trial (he was the first major fascist hierarch to be charged with a felony), and subsequent freedom.

The Perfect Fascist sits alongside important existing works examining the mechanisms through which the regime built consensus in everyday lives, including The Politics of Everyday Life in Fascist Italy: Outside the State (2017), edited by Michael R. Ebner, Joshua Arthurs, and Kate Ferris, and Paul Corner’s The Fascist Party and Popular Opinion in Mussolini’s Italy (2012). However, The Perfect Fascist offers insight into more than popular consensus. The wealth of archival material underpinning this microhistory furthers our understanding of life under fascism through the unparalleled level of detail it provides, creating a nuanced examination of exactly how and why individuals dedicated their lives—personal, professional, and political—to the advancement of Mussolini’s regime, whatever the cost.

Notably, De Grazia’s pioneering work adds a new dimension to the study of personal and political lives under fascism through its immediately international framing, eschewing the traditional overemphasis on the Italian peninsula until the Declaration of Empire often seen in studies of fascism. With the marriage of an Italian veteran and an American star as its basis—the witnesses at their civil ceremony were Benito Mussolini and the American ambassador—the regime’s global ambition is foregrounded from the outset. The reader follows Teruzzi’s move to Cyrenaica, his visits throughout Italian East Africa, trips to meet Nazi leaders in Berlin, and his brief attempt to find refuge in Bavaria during Italy’s occupation. Continuing this international approach, De Grazia also traces how events like the Wall Street crash changed Weinman’s experience in Italy and, later, the impact of Italy’s race laws on the treatment of Yvette Blank and Teruzzi’s child.

In the introduction, De Grazia writes: “My hope is that this book will offer a new understanding of the social and affective nature of the men who are the principal players to a greater or lesser degree in all totalitarian political systems” (p. 5). Like Ruth Ben Ghiat’s Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall (2020), it examines the hypocrisies of totalitarian leaders and the contradictions inherent in the regimes they build. Both works reveal fanatical morality obscuring intimate betrayal, performative romance that masks sexual misconduct, and daily violence cloaked beneath a veil of benevolence. But though leaders typically capture the attention of historians, one of the lessons of De Grazia’s epic microhistory is that to truly understand dictatorships, we need to understand the aspirations, behaviors, and vanities of those just beneath the leaders in the hierarchy and the role they play in advancing the goals of the totalitarian state.

Citation: Amy King. Review of De Grazia, Victoria, The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini's Italy. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56465

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