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Attilio Teruzzi: “The Perfect Fascist”. Today This Could Be a Trumpist or a Putinist

Interview with Professor Victoria De Grazia, author of "The Perfect Fascist. A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy"

by Gerardo Papalia

Teruzzi in Bengazi, Libya in 1927. Photo: Courtesy of LWT Archive.

Mostly neglected by history, Teruzzi was always close to Mussolini, physically and ideologically. The enforcer of discipline among the Fascist Blackshirt militia, he played a pivotal role in the march on Rome in 1922 which brought Mussolini to power. In his private life Teruzzi would emerge as an ineffectual man in many ways, clinging to large female figures whenever he could and then cheating on them. A man created by a bella figura obsessed, parvenus petit bourgeois mammista culture.

Victoria de Grazia, Moore Collegiate Professor of History at Columbia University, has written landmark works on Fascist Italy, notably The Culture of Consent – Mass Organization of Leisure in Fascist Italy (1981), and How Fascism Ruled Women 1922-1945 (1991). In her latest book, The Perfect Fascist. A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy, Prof. de Grazia uncovers an extraordinary story of unconventional love and politics during Italy’s Fascist regime. It focuses on the political career of ex-military officer Attilio Teruzzi, who became one of Benito Mussolini’s most prominent executors. It also tells the very intimate tale of Teruzzi’s love for, and troubled marriage with, the beautiful, young and ambitious New York Jewish opera singer, Lilliana Weinman. But this is not the only obscure side to Teruzzi that de Grazia uncovers. Teruzzi’s public life has also largely escaped historical analysis despite the fact that it spanned the whole tragic arc of the regime at the highest levels.

In this interview with Victoria de Grazia we learn more about how the book came to be written, and more fascinating facts about Teruzzi. De Grazia spent twelve years piecing together both the private and public vicissitudes of Lilliana and Attilio’s relationship set against the backdrop of Fascism’s precipitous rise and ruinous fall. It is also illuminating to consider the parallels between fascism in Teruzzi’s day and its resurgence today. 

Prof. Victoria De Grazia. Photo: Courtesy of author.

Victoria, how did this book come about?

“It was one of those almost apocryphal events that is quite serendipitous: a very educated woman, a relative of Lilliana Weinman, had these bags of her papers and she was worried that they would be disposed of. So, she approached me to take a look at them, knowing that I was a historian. Initially, I was skeptical, but then I was very taken by a photograph of Mussolini taken at Lilliana’s wedding. And then there were many photographs of Libya under Italian colonial rule. The fact that Lilliana was an opera singer also intrigued me as did the several volumes of their marriage annulment proceedings. Once I latched onto that and began to ask, ‘who is this? what was this love affair with the fascist notable that she married’, the story began to unfold and it became more and more interesting as I continued the research.” 

Why do you think that Attilio Teruzzi has been so neglected by historians as a major figure in Fascist Italy? Why are you the first historian to write a book about Teruzzi?

“It is remarkable that no one has really written about Teruzzi. Sometimes greater familiarity with a person breeds contempt and you can see that in opinions regarding Achille Starace (Secretary of the Fascist National Party from 1931-1939) who was always in the public view and is often treated like a clown by historians. Historians have preferred to focus on outstanding Fascist leaders like Italo Balbo (Minister of the Air Force 1929-1933 and Governor General of Libya 1934-1940) who was dashing and impertinent, or the pro-Nazi Roberto Farinacci (Secretary of the Fascist National Party 1935-1936), who left a lot of papers, because he had his own newspaper and a great amount of correspondence.

Then we have the diaries of Galeazzo Ciano (Minister of Foreign Affairs 1936-1943), Mussolini’s son in law, which are also highly important. Historians also haven’t been able to access some very important sources, which would have made Teruzzi a more central figure. For one, the Fascist Blackshirt militia records have been lost.

Mussolini’s Milizia 1933. Photo: Author’s Collection.

Secondly, only recently has the German Historical Institute of Rome digitized Mussolini’s Appointment Calendar from 1923–1943. Until now biographers of Mussolini have not been able to document who visited him every day: we know now that Teruzzi was a regular presence. The immense photographic archives of the Istituto Luce reveal just how prominent Teruzzi was. He’s always standing straight and close to Mussolini. There’s a lot of physical proximity between them.” 

What sort of man was Teruzzi?

“Attilio Teruzzi was born in Milan in 1882 into a relatively modest lower middle class family. After losing his father at a young age he opted for a military career. He served in Eritrea, at the time an Italian colony, and later attended Italy’s version of West Point, the Military Academy of Modena. Teruzzi’s subsequent success in his career was largely due to intelligence and merit. He fought in Italy’s war to make Libya a colony in 1911-1914 and subsequently in the First World War, distinguishing himself and winning medals for bravery under fire. After demobilization he joined the Fascist movement in its early stages, enforcing discipline among the Fascist Blackshirt militia and playing a pivotal role in the march on Rome in 1922 which brought Mussolini to power.”

How competent was Teruzzi as a political leader? 

“In his military life Teruzzi was a very good battalion major and in another era he would excelled in a big bureaucracy such as a railroad company. Fascist Italy took him to another level. Even so, he acquitted himself quite well. In Cyrenaica he could be considered a brilliant choice: he was one of the very few competent colonial men of the regime. Between 1929 and 1935 he was the head of the Fascist Blackshirt Militia, a 350,000 strong force that reported directly to the Duce, making his position one of the highest in the fascist political hierarchy.

This entrusted him with what was becoming the most important mission of the regime, to transform the armed guard of the Fascist revolution, the Blackshirts, into a formidable fighting force. During the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, for example, he successfully led a Blackshirt Division tasked with making roads: not a glamorous role, but a fundamental one in a country that had little infrastructure. Teruzzi’s time in service was probably the longest of anybody’s. He survived various calls for him to resign because of corruption. And Teruzzi certainly messed around: he was a libertine. He gave lots of gifts to people. He was a man of the Empire, who seemed to be luxuriating in coffee, you know? He was such a perfect target for melodrama, and there was always melodrama. So Teruzzi was targeted in disproportion because he got some things done and not others.” 

Teruzzi and Lilliana in Benghazi in 1928. Photo: Courtesy of LWT Archive.

Let’s look at his personal relationship with Lilliana. When did he meet her and what sort of woman was she?

“In 1924 Teruzzi became a parliamentary deputy for the Fascist Party and in 1925 was appointed Undersecretary for the Ministry of the Interior. It was at this point that he began to court a young opera singer freshly arrived from New York: Lilliana Weinman. She was an aspiring opera diva from a prosperous New York Jewish family. A physically imposing woman, she was attractive, ambitious and much younger than Teruzzi. After an assiduous courtship she and Teruzzi married in 1926. Mussolini was the witness. Lilliana abandoned her promising opera career and dedicated herself to her husband’s career, which included a stint in Italy’s Libyan province of Cyrenaica between 1926 and 1928. In the book I cite her cousin who stated: “Lilliana liked the red carpet, she didn’t like to look under it.” And by this, I mean that there is no trace of her expressing misgivings about the politics of regime, including its colonial wars. This was despite the fact that she ended up embroiled in the intricacies of Italy’s hypocritical marital laws after Teruzzi suddenly and unilaterally decided to annul their marriage.”

 Did Teruzzi manage to have his marriage to Lilliana annulled?

“Well, the fact that she strenuously and definitively blocked the annulment of her marriage, which was regulated by Church law at the time, gives you some indication of what a formidable character she was. And she never stopped using her husband’s surname. When people addressed her as Contessa Teruzzi, she never corrected them! In the book I muse on whether Lilliana could be considered the heroine of the story. But in many ways, she could also be considered the heroine manquée of this saga.”

How would you characterize Teruzzi as a person rather than as a politician? 

“We can get a glimpse at his character from his reaction when he was appointed head of the Fascist militia in 1928: he starts crying and gets very sick because he was forced to leave his beloved Libya. If they had made a film on his life some time ago it would have to be played splendidly by Marcello Mastroianni or Vittorio Gassman. Or in a more recent rendition he would have been an ideal subject for a Lina Wertmüller film played by Giancarlo Giannini with his liquid and tearful eyes. Teruzzi would emerge as an ineffectual man in many aspects of his private life, clinging to large female figures whenever he could and then cheating on them. A man created by a bella figura obsessed, parvenus petit bourgeois mammista culture.”

Attilio Teruzzi. Photo: Author’s Collection.

In 1912 the famous Italian historian-philosopher, Benedetto Croce, theorized that, ‘All History is Contemporary History’. How does this relate to your book?

“I started this research when Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media tycoon who became the Prime Minister of Italy, was still around. He exemplified a run of new political types that came to the fore as party systems broke down in the wake of 1989. Before that time a kind of equilibrium existed between center-right and center-left. We began to see the denouement of this breakdown some 15-20 or even 25 years later with the rise of the early 21st century strongmen such as Vladimir Putin. At the time I was thinking: ‘It would be so wonderful to drive a stake through the political heart of Berlusconi.’ Subsequently, I thought my research would lead me to some sort of transcendent truth about how these strong men act and cocoon themselves in privilege. Their entitlement, guaranteed by the state apparatus, shows them up as weak men who rely on retinues, privileges and policing to stay in power. This dynamic applies even to smaller bureaucracies such as universities. So, leaders often let things go at the same time as they aggrandize the capacities needed to do their jobs.”

Today the term ‘Fascist’ is bandied around quite a bit, even on social media. You’re a scholar specializing in the fascist period, so what are your thoughts on the current use of the term?

“Very commonly you hear right leaning people being called fascist from the left. And there’s also a sense that the liberal global order is cracking or has cracked apart and that we have got new movements that seem as terrifying or disorienting as we think Fascism was in the 1920s. So, you get many people who work with typologies, historians, political scientists who say: ‘Look if we understand such and such then we can decide whether this is a real Fascism or this is something else.’ I don’t find that interesting at all. I don’t think they have any predictive models, and I don’t think they know very much history either with rare exceptions like Robert Paxton, whose typology is actually very flexible and really is an account over time. This approach underscores the opportunism of fascist movements that are changing all the time. In Italy Fascism was neo-liberal in the 1920s, then mercantalist, only to become an Autarchic imperialist warmongering regime in the 1930s. In these extreme times, I think that we need to get people to think about how a movement that wants power legitimates itself and then acts. You can see over time certain political actors at work. And basically, you’re saying: ‘Wow, I’m now more informed because I’ve seen how it was active then. They were called fascists, and I could see how they were acting.’ They could be called Putinists, or Orbanists or whatever. They could be like the current head of the National Party in France, a woman who believes in the French national welfare state. But we shouldn’t get caught up by saying: ‘Wow, this is Fascism.’ Then we’ll be able to identify fascists today or from what we see today. We will have some predictive understanding of today and tomorrow by looking back onto the past.” 

Why did you choose the title The Perfect Fascist?

“I titled the book The Perfect Fascist because you could say every era has its perfect fascist. But you don’t have to call anyone a perfect fascist. One could call them a perfect Trumpist a perfect Putinist, the perfect whatever. You can understand this mechanism of total power, this effort to exercise a totalizing kind of power which is good for the leader and for the leader’s followers. Power which they say is absolutely paramount to keep the nation on keel. So that that’s pretty much where I stand here, I don’t think we should be drawing lessons from that, rather we should be drawing a kind of sensitization in thinking about politics. I do think you can get that from my book. But not a catechism.”

 

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