WELCOME to history as midnight movie: monsters and the women who love them, and what they did in bed. It’s true Mussolini was a frantic brute, half an hour from first “Ciao, bella” to the lady’s discreet exit from his life, and nothing like as elegant or loving as – say – the Creature From the Black Lagoon. And Hitler was a pill-popping, clean-freak vegetarian prude and not an honest, randy carnivore like Dracula. The mix, however, is the same: power, menace, secrets, gossip, horror and (very probably) sex.
If the mixture seems too rich, add one more factor: that staple of chic novels, the unreliable narrator. There is a worldwide trade in fake diaries from Mussolini and Hitler, and even very slightly plausible memorabilia has a cash value – underground for Hitler, in the flea markets of Tuscany for Musso. That should be a warning. Most known witnesses, speaking on the record, are telling lies; or at least it’s never safe to assume they are telling the literal truth.
People want to believe what they believe and when you’re following Superman, you don’t want surprises. SS officer Reinhard Spitzy was horrified to meet Eva Braun and find that Hitler, married to the nation, “exalted above love and lust” had “taken unto himself an ordinary female”. Then there’s the question of guilt. Of course nobody discussed politics around Hitler because, if they did and they survived, they’d be accomplices. So Albert Speer saw nothing, said nothing, knew nothing even when he was in charge of building Hitler’s brick, stone and marble fantasies; and he survived to write memoirs, which is more than others did.
There are two quite different ways to tackle this. Heike Görtemaker interrogates the record, such as it is, of the life that Eva Braun, riotous, athletic photo shop assistant, shared with Adolf Hitler, the Führer. She hasn’t much to work with, but she works it with forensic dash and she never forgets the tiny clues that Eva had influence, Eva kept Hitler going and maybe kept him from suicide until the end. Eva isn’t so trivial she can be dismissed.
So Eva can’t plead, as did so many women who lived with Nazis, that obviously they were innocent because women never talked politics before 1945. This was always an odd defence: that women couldn’t be guilty because they didn’t matter. Eva stuck around so long, we have to assume she didn’t fundamentally disagree with, for example, invasions or genocide, and looking at every scrap of evidence about her also starts the sketch of a bigger book, about the inner, intimate circle of Hitler and not just the woman who always went upstairs with the Führer at the end of the night. They were as edgy, suspicious, as jealous and mean as any court: puzzled acolytes to a murderous and self- appointed god.
As for Hitler and Eva Braun, their shadow relationship starts to make some sense. Here’s Hitler who fancied himself bohemian, anti-bourgeois, and who seems to have needed a break from being god; Eva was the one person, ever, who could tell him to shut up. He couldn’t possibly have a wife, but he married her at the very end; and she was so perfectly identified with him that she went back to the ruins of Berlin to die with him. Görtemaker is no apologist, and she knows the dangers of emphasising what’s human about a genocidal tyrant like Hitler, but her meticulous work uncovers something disconcerting – a love story that would be moving if it was all we knew.
Roberto Olla is doing something quite different. Görtemaker analyses; Olla writes the screenplay. His book comes wrapped in a pastiche of the dark cover of Margarita Sarfatti’s image-making 1920s biography of Musso – Dux, the book which implied Mussolini had thought about what he was doing – but it adds “the women” because there are so many newly available sources of assorted value and most of them are about Il Duce’s hectic, seemingly mostly meaningless, sex life.
It also adds, to be fair, the likes of Sarfatti – who stuck around for decades, infected Mussolini with her obsessive passion for ancient Rome and Roman-ness, invented the semi-mystical ceremony of Fascism but also tried to make sense of his ever-changing political notions and imply that his Fascism was something more than bullying on a national scale. She made him dress properly, which is a woman’s role in a macho society, but she also made him seem to think properly. She wasn’t acknowledged. In the end, when she was sixtyish and reminded Musso of his own age, he didn’t bother to tell her their relationship was over; he got his valet to slam the door in her face.
The others, with early Leftie exceptions, did much less: they are not part of the main story of Il Duce. “I must admit,” the old lecher said to the last and most significant mistress, Claretta Petacci, the woman with whom he died, “I now regret wasting my energies on all the women I slept with … I should just have had a single woman I loved.” Ageing persons do tend to say that kind of thing to much younger, and slightly reluctant lovers, but Mussolini’s record was so blatant he also had to go on. “I’m not a professional lecher,” he said. “I’m not an old lecher.”
He was lying. Sex, or at least virility, was the heart of the Mussolini myth; at the autopsy on his body, it’s said people crowded round to photograph his private parts. Sex was like horse-riding (he wasn’t very good) or duels with swords (he didn’t win, but he kept going), flying a plane (the real pilots had to be smuggled in like a conjuring trick) or getting in the harvest (he was photographed half-naked in the fields, looking vague) or keeping a pet lion (he walked it through Rome on a leash and nobody dared giggle); it was physical prowess that made him leader.
It started with the ex-servicemen who gave their black shirts to the Fascists, whose violence intimidated people into line. It continued with a reminder: a strong man is truly strong in body, which is what matters. The fact that it made him ridiculous – Hitler said so – couldn’t bother him. Olla reckons his use of a kind of pre-war Viagra was what ruined Italy in the second war: it kept Musso feeling strong. “The masses love strong men,” he once said. “The masses are female.”
Aside from all the posing and preening, it’s hard to integrate the man’s actual sex life with the bigger picture; but then the man was never very consistent. He was ridiculously sensitive to smells but rubbed himself all over, every day, with eau de cologne. He gassed Ethiopia and ordered the slaughter of prisoners, built a regime on arbitrary, disconcerting violence and pretending he was the only man who could control it. But he also put on the vast desk in his World Map Room a sentimental little model heart and cottage with the words “Home is where the heart is.”
The heart was the one organ that stayed home. Women wrote in for a quickie with the Duce, the Duce decided who he fancied, security checked them and they were summoned to that same World Map Room. There was no conversation, no tea, no coffee and precious little time for preliminaries; for regulars, Musso used the floor, but newbies were taken to the cushioned window seats. From the moment the woman arrived to the moment she left, clothes and hair neatly organised again, took no more than a half-hour.
His various children went mostly unacknowledged, and the mother of one ended up beaten in a madhouse; but they were a closet source of pride – until the children started having children. No Duce can afford to admit being a grandfather. His marriage was a background affair: he had threatened to shoot Rachele Guidi if she didn’t wed him, and was most unhappy when she decided, after years of his priapic wanderings, it was time to have gentleman callers.
Some of this story is as arousing as a card catalogue, some of it rests all too heavily on the great de Felice biography of Mussolini, some of it is a good, brisk summary of Mussolini’s rise to power, but the book has a problem: the best evidence for Mussolini’s life with one particular woman, and her influence, is the rather airy, insubstantial diaries of Claretta Petacci (the good bits are appearing in very heavily reduced chunks – we are up to 1940; you get a lot of half-remembered rhetoric and awful over-writing about the majesty of the body of the pill-hopped Il Duce.) And Olla stops in 1936, before Claretta was established.
Mussolini was always, ostentatiously, the big man; he was constantly at it, so he said, dependent on people believing him. Goebbels reckoned the Führer, rather astonishingly “has no luck with women because he’s too soft”. He went away from sexual comforts for months at a time when there was a world to conquer, or at least wreck. “I have another bride: Germany,” he said. “I am married to the German people and their fate.”
Now we know Mussolini taught Hitler the use of of arbitrary violence to get power; just how bloody a tyrant needs to be from the moment he starts out. Maybe he accidentally taught another lesson with all his absurdities, his cocking about, his perpetual, almost addictive needs: by contrast, he taught Hitler not to waste his time.
That is, in itself, a perfectly dreadful indictment.
• Il Duce and his Women: Mussolini’s Rise to Power, by Roberto Olla Alma Books , 486pp, £25. Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, by Heike B Görtemaker, Allen Lane, 324pp, £25. Verso il Disastro: Diari 1939-1940, by Claretta Petacci, Rizzoli, 465pp, e21.50