Noelle Turtur, review of Victoria de Grazia’s “The Perfect Fascist”

Victoria de Grazia. The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020. 528 PP. Cloth $35.00. ISBN: 9780674986398.

Victoria de Grazia’s The Perfect Fascist opens with the improbable marriage between the Fascist gerarca Attilio Teruzzi and the Jewish-American diva Lilliana Weinman. The witnesses to their 1926 wedding included none other than Benito Mussolini, the American Ambassador in Rome, General Vaccari, and Tullio Serafin, the director of La Scala in Milan and, later, a major conductor at the New York Metropolitan Opera (2). Echoing the announcement in the New York Times, de Grazia calls it the first “Fascist Wedding.” It was perfectly planned and choreographed to illustrate how the regime’s rising “New Men” accommodated themselves with the traditional Italian elite, formed heteronormative bourgeoisie families in accordance with the rites of the ancient Catholic Church and the Fascist State’s new civil code, and married their politics and moral sentiments (1-2, 7-8, 133-138).

The uncomfortable marriage of totalitarian politics and moral sentiments is the center of de Grazia’s narrative. Political philosophers from Plato to Arendt have argued that totalitarian tyranny stifles the human capacity to love. Instead, people focus all of their adoration and affection on the tyrant, and are incapable feeling for one another.[i] There could be no better case study to test this contention than self-proclaimed totalitarian Fascist Italy with its cult of the Duce. And that is exactly what de Grazia explores with her detailed study of the men at the regime’s apex, their wives, lovers, mothers, and children, all of whom twisted and turned to keep a pace with the regime’s shifting politics and mores, often at great risk to their intimate family sanctuaries (6-9).

Drawing on the history of emotions, de Grazia argues that Fascist Italy was “full of heart,” full of melodrama, and positively overflowing with its own contorted, perverse morality (6). Fascism’s moral center and object of adoration – the Duce – was “relentlessly contradictory” and a “patchwork” (7). Studying “love” and “morality” in Mussolini’s Italy, de Grazia investigates what ultimately holds fast – and what does not – in the face of the pummeling, churning politics and policies of the fascist regime. Do love and family hold strong when opposed by political intriguers and racial persecution? Did love of the Duce necessarily supersede all other forms of love? Could the ancient Catholic Church’s highest court – the sacra rota – undermine canonical law to accommodate fascist gerarchi and endorse crass blood libel and racialized antisemitism, even after the Catholic Church had disavowed it? How many traditional bourgeoisie families and jurists would happily ingratiate themselves with the uncouth fascist newcomers and participate in farcical trials?

Obviously, it depended on the individuals, their social environment, and the political winds. De Grazia weaves the Teruzzi family saga to reveal the moral contradictions in Fascist Italy: Mussolini’s most loyal soldier, Attilio Teruzzi, was Minister of Italian Africa, where the racial laws were acutely enforced; he was also the husband to a Jewish wife he could not divorce, partnered with a foreign-born Jewish woman he could not marry, and by 1938 father to a Jewish daughter he could not legally recognize. Ever loyal to his daughter and Mussolini, Teruzzi ultimately took his vulnerable family with him all the way to the puppet Republic of Salò, placing his partner and daughter at risk for deportation to the concentration camps. While Teruzzi’s family miraculously survived the final days of the war, de Grazia illustrates that no amount of loyalty to Mussolini was enough to secure one’s family. This unpredictably – this lack of a moral center – is ultimately what made Italian Fascism so deadly: even insiders did not know when to confess their loyalty and plead for forgiveness and when to run (333, 367–368).[ii]

For anyone familiar with the fascist regime, Attilio Teruzzi is omnipresent from the squadrista skirmishes in Milan to the Republic of Salò. His mustachioed face would have been familiar to his contemporaries; yet, prior to de Grazia, no historian had deemed him important enough to fill in his biographical details. In fact, one prominent historian dismissed Teruzzi as “the rutting bull of the empire” (307). Teruzzi was ever the imperial quartermaster from working-class Milan, a squadrista who could not become a ras, a man notably without political imagination, and a rake with a regular bridge game with the starlets of Cinecittà. In the end, Teruzzi’s only notable attributes were his ability to unquestionably follow orders, to organize men with his quartermaster’s discipline, and his loyalty to Mussolini. These latter attributes eventually made him one of Mussolini’s trusted gerarchi, an Army General and the Minister of Italian Africa. De Grazia concludes that fascism made Teruzzi (9). And Teruzzi became one of fascism’s many “miserable minor tyrants,” a phrase de Grazia borrows from the Florentine jurist and politician Piero Calamandrei (424).

Lilliana Teruzzi neé Weinmann, stage name Lilliana Lorma, was a Jewish-American, whose family fortunes seemed to harken back to a time when the American dream was attainable. Lilliana was born in Rzeszów in Austrian Galicia (present-day Poland) and emigrated to the United States to join her father in New York when she was a small child. Her father’s elastics factory was a booming success, and Lilliana lived a life of privilege. She was able to dictate the family finances in order to pursue her aspiration of becoming an opera singer. After studying in New York and Milan, she was thoroughly on her way to achieving her dream of opening at the Metropolitan Opera. De Grazia rightly surmises that Teruzzi had much to find appealing in this young, strong-willed, wealthy American diva. Lilliana’s attraction to Teruzzi is more puzzling. Perhaps, de Grazia suggests, Lilliana was excited by the possibility of acting on a larger, public stage as the wife to a prominent politician in new political movement that brought together soft power and operatic spectacle with brute force (131-132). Then again, de Grazia thinks that Lilliana never fully understood Italian Fascism (271, 422-423).

Indeed, newly-wed Lilliana was positively giddy to play the part of the Vicereine of Benghazi, opposite to her Viceroy Teruzzi. Benghazi was the Teruzzi’s first taste of real power, though not of colonial life. Teruzzi’s military career began in Eritrea, where he was stationed before fighting in the Alps in the First World War. At the end of the war, he was appointed the garrison commander at Darnah in Libya. He was familiar with the Sanusiyya, the Obeidats, and how Italian authorities made deals and pay-offs to keep its control of the coastline, in a strategy similar to trasformismo in Italy or, “indirect rule” in the British Empire.[iii] When he reached Benghazi in 1927, Attilio Teruzzi was finally in charge (155).

Both Teruzzi and Rome had big plans for Benghazi. The Fascist regime cast itself as the heir to the Roman Empire, tasked with dominating the Mediterranean with its centuries-old olive groves, “monochromatic light,” and kindred cultural practices. Such ideas made it easy for the Italians to elide the intervening centuries, and allowed the Italians to simultaneously condemn the British imperial expansion and justify their own empire building.[iv] The regime imagined dominating not only Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, but also Tunisia, Ethiopia, Egypt and the entire Red Sea coastline from Port Said to Kismaayo.[v] This Fascist Roman Empire would control production, traffic and trade from the eastern Mediterranean to the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Cyrenaica, with Benghazi as its capital and port, was to be the empire’s breadbasket. The only problem was that the Italians did not control Cyrenaica; it was controlled by the Sanusiyya. Rather than negotiating with the Sanusiyya, Federzoni declared Cyrenaica “‘terra nullius, abandoned to the anarchy of barbarian tribes’” and called for a “‘total reconquest,’” implying that the Italians were taking back the lands lost with the fall of the Roman Empire (Federzoni qtd, 152).

As Viceroy, Teruzzi aimed to make “mousy” Benghazi a worthy capital of the Libyan breadbasket, eventually hiring Guido Ferrazza, to redesign the city (148). Italian imperial architecture sought to reinforce the solidity, the modernity, and the continuity of Italian rule, or at least the façade, with its imposing “Mediterranean modern.”[vi] While Ferrazza set about remaking the city to reflect its imagined future importance, Teruzzi and Lilliana sought to establish their own status. They threw fabulous parties for fascist and foreign dignitaries. Teruzzi amicably negotiated with Benghazi’s imam, rabbi, bishop, its merchants, fishermen, and precocious young women (157-159, 179-180). Teruzzi and Lilliana even marched out to meet with the Obeidat chieftains with great ceremony, as the conflict between the Sanusiyya resistance and the Italian occupation forces escalated (168-170).

According to de Grazia, Teruzzi’s viceregency failed in two ways. In the first place, fascist imperial policy intractably demanded the impossible. They sought to squeeze as much as possible out of the land and local people, through sheer domination and demands, rather than by negotiating with the local elites, adapting to the local economy and environment, and/or undertaking the necessary work in infrastructure, education, and the other pillars of imperial development which over time would increase production and/or change what was produced (164-166). While a neo-colonial policy would have probably been more profitable, neo-colonialism did not appeal to fascists the same way that imperial domination did. This was Teruzzi’s second failing. He was not astute enough of a political operator to understand the transformation in fascist imperial politics. Thus, he thought a transformista peace deal could be brokered to avoid war. He even successfully negotiated one. But by 1928, the regime did not want peace, but military domination (172-176). Teruzzi was politically humiliated; General Graziani – “the butcher” – was unleashed in Cyrenaica and the Fezzan; and the Libyan people were bombed with poison gas, their homes and religious centers destroyed, their property expropriated, and eventually, they were deported to concentration camps and forbidden from returning to their homes in the verdant Gebel.[vii] Teruzzi returned to Rome to become the head of the Fascist Militia (MVSN) and demand a divorce from his wife Lilliana.

Lilliana did not concede and Teruzzi was never granted an annulment. Among all of the proceedings, the most shocking episode is Teruzzi’s February 1935 case summation. In this document, Teruzzi asserted that Lilliana as a Jew could not contract a binding marriage because, as a Galician Jew, Lilliana had been taught to lie to Gentiles, to even “‘say ‘I love you,’ to swindle a goy’” (Teruzzi annulment qtd, 254). De Grazia tracks this claim back to Roberto Farinacci, the ras of Cremona, a violent man who plagiarized his thesis to obtain his law degree, and perhaps the most manipulative and wily gerarca.[viii] De Grazia does not place the blame at the feet of Farinacci and his minions alone, but with the Church tribunal, Teruzzi, and the whole lot for their complicity in perpetrating antisemitic libel. This antisemitic trope was issued months before the Nuremburg Laws, while Mussolini still publicly opposed Nazi Germany’s “Nordic racism” and “negative eugenics.” It “was exclusively a fabrication of Fascist Italy,” de Grazia asserts (257).

De Grazia situates the Teruzzi annulment proceedings within the regime’s turn to ever more virulent racism between 1933 and 1935. Most historians consider these years a turning point in the regime’s racial discourse, but emphasize different events and people in this trajectory.[ix] Antisemitism was diffuse among the elites of the Fascist regime, Italian society, and the ranks of the Catholic Church. While Farinacci, Italo Balbo, and even Mussolini did not in the early years of the regime object to individual Jews such as Lilliana, Margherita Sarfatti, or Jole Foà (Farinacci’s secretary), especially when they were considered “assimilated” and useful, they certainly understood how to mobilize antisemitism to link fascist Italy’s myriad enemies, including anti-fascist torinese intellectuals, menacing Bolsheviks, fickle international financial capital, the League of Nations, and Zionist ambitions supported by the British in the Mediterranean (259). Indeed, Zionism, Judaism, and race became explanatory devices and interrogatory concepts to identify and hunt down the regime’s opponents.[x] Promoting antisemitism thus aided the regime in justifying its tightening grip within its borders – on education, marriage, reproduction and childrearing, migration, and employment – and expanding its empire through settler colonialism and genocidal violence.

The regime needed the Vatican to support its imperial and domestic agenda, and this included its use of antisemitism. In this context, the Teruzzi annulment proceedings should be seen as one of many attempts that the fascists made to gain support for antisemitism within the Church, including legal legitimacy in canonical law. Ultimately, the tribunal dismissed Teruzzi’s claims against Lilliana, but somehow managed to wholly ignore the claim’s antisemitic basis (270). Lilliana, however, was exceptional. Her tenacity and financial means granted her access to and support from numerous clerical and liberal elites who had accommodated themselves – with varying degrees of comfort – with the fascist regime. The ruling indicates that the Vatican was not willing to condemn antisemitism in itself, but rather was anxious to uphold the authority of the Catholic Church over marriage and over Jewish converts to Catholicism. It does not seem coincidental that Father Tacchi Venturi, the Vatican’s negotiator with the Fascist regime, likely took an interest in the case on Lilliana’s behalf, and would later advocate to modify 1938 Racial Laws, so that the Church retained its power over marriage and its right to confer “Aryan” status to Jewish converts (257).[xi] In sum, de Grazia painstakingly illustrates that the Vatican’s support of Lilliana – and indeed, Lilliana’s various liberal, political, and Vatican supporters in Italy – had nothing to do with her Jewishness or personal sympathy, but rather saw her case as an opportunity to assert their power before the aspiring totalitarianism of the Fascist regime.

The moral contradictions of Fascist Italy – particularly with regards to racial politics and family politics – are fully displayed in the following years of Teruzzi’s life. While attempting to nullify his marriage to Lilliana, Teruzzi began a relationship with Yvette Blank, who he likely met through Anna Magnani. Yvette was born in Cairo, held a Romanian passport, and self-identified as the daughter of a Copt. Upon closer inspection, Yvette was Jewish, but luckily for Teruzzi and Yvette, the secret police did not bother to look more closely for several years (280-283, 328-329). In September 1938, Teruzzi and Yvette had a daughter (de Grazia, 286). De Grazia deduces that Teruzzi planned to marry Yvette as soon as his annulment was granted – which he expected every day at this time – and to solidify his status as the legal parent of their daughter. Thus, Teruzzi was finally becoming a proper fascist family man, just as he became Minister of Italian Africa (296, 299).

In Italian East Africa (AOI), Teruzzi was thoroughly disliked. To the imperial elite, he was uncouth and impolitic with his gaudy collection of imperial tribute, prostitutes, and occasional accusations of pedophilia (307).[xii] To the working-class Italian migrants, he was the epitome of imperial corruption, collecting a hefty salary as president of CITAO – the transportation monopoly in AOI – while CITAO’s contracted truckers were paid less and late, if at all (304).[xiii] Teruzzi was a fascist family man in Italy and in the empire, and yet he could satisfy his insatiable sexual appetite with whatever pleased him, while working-class Italian migrants “were economically dependent on the families of their concubines, cuckolded by native men, and not even able to have their mixed-race offspring recognized as Italian” (308). One has to ask if Teruzzi recognized the hypocrisy of legally invalidating other families as he struggled to legally construct his own.

Indeed, one wishes that de Grazia had managed to explain further the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Africanism in fascist racial thought, as it was the same 1938 law (RDL 1728/1938) that forbade marriages between “Aryan” Italians and people of other “races.” This relationship has been a major topic of research in the past decade, leading many historians to probe more deeply the long history of racial thought, racial laws, and racism in the peninsula and the Italian colonies.[xiv] De Grazia’s account contributes to both our knowledge of a key figure at the center of the fascist regime and how he as an individual and the regime as a whole navigated their own hypocrisies and moral contradictions. De Grazia concludes by harkening back to Claudio Pavone’s two-faces of fascism: one face was the use of violence to break the legal, political and moral order; and the other face was the unabashed declaration of their moral and political authority to reimpose a new order (425). Setting de Grazia’s new work in light of the recent work on the long history of racism in Italy raises interesting questions about how historians have framed the relationship between fascist Italy’s moral order and the prior moral order of liberal Italy. Fascist Italy certainly revisited and revised much more of liberal Italy’s law, culture, men, and perhaps even morals, than Mussolini would ever admit.

De Grazia’s The Perfect Fascist is a masterful narrative that sweeps across the ventennio. It reads like a novel, but has the thorough research, detail, and expert knowledge of a remarkable historian. Moreover, de Grazia illustrates a true historian’s commitment to her historical subjects. She must have run down every possible lead in order to excavate these truly personal experiences and the private emotions of people in Mussolini’s Italy.

[i] Plato, Republic, ed. C.D.C. Reeve, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co., 1992), bk. IX; Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe (Roma: Newton Compton Editori, 2013), chap. XVII; Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Gerald Bevan (London: Penguin, 2003), 591; Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harvest-Harcourt, c1979), 473–74.
[ii] Michael R. Ebner, Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Mussolini used violence, threats, and imprisonment to politically, physically, and psychologically break down his opponents. Many political prisoners could plead their case directly to Mussolini. In their petitions to the Duce, they profess their loyalty to him, to Italy, and to Fascism. Mussolini would often personally intervene in such cases to grant amnesty. De Grazia illustrates this kind of dependency on Mussolini through the tragic fate of Farinacci’s ever-loyal Jewish secretary, Jole Foà, and even to some extent, through Teruzzi himself.
[iii] See, Eileen Ryan, Religion as Resistance: Negotiating Authority in Italian Libya (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018).
[iv] Fernand Braudel, Il mediterraneo: lo spazio la storia gli uomini le tradizioni, trans. Elena de Angeli (Milano: Bompiani, 1997); Lucette Valensi, On the Eve of Colonialism : North Africa before the French Conquest (New York: Africana Pub. Co, 1977); E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963); J. Davis, People of the Mediterranean: An Essay in Comparative Social Anthropology (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1977); Alessandro Pes, “An Empire for a Kingdom: Monarchy and Fascism in Italian Colonies,” in European Monarchies and Overseas Empires, ed. Robert Aldrich and Cindy McCreery (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2016), 251; Roberta Pergher, Mussolini’s Nation-Empire (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 39; Joshua Arthurs, Excavating Modernity : The Roman Past in Fascist Italy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). Braudel is obviously my most direct reference, but the idea “timeless” Mediterranean was well-publicized decades before Braudel. In Italy, this literature exploded immediately prior to and during the ventennio. Prominent proponents included Giuseppe Sergi, the famous anthropologist, and Luigi Federzoni.
[v] These plans litter the archives. De Grazia cites the work of Federzoni.
[vi] Mia Fuller, Moderns Abroad: Architecture, Cities and Italian Imperialism (New York: Routledge, 2007).
[vii] Federico Cresti, Non desiderare la terra d’altri: La colonizzazione italiana in Libia (Roma: Carocci, 2011), chap. 4.
[viii] Giuseppe Sircana, “Farinacci, Roberto,” in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, 1995, Online. Accessed Mar. 12, 2021.
[ix] E.g., compare the accounts of racism and fascism in Michele Sarfatti, Gli ebrei nell’Italia fascista : vicende, identità, persecuzione (Torino: G. Einaudi, c2000); Renzo de Felice, Storia degli ebrei italiani sotto il fascismo (Torino: Einaudi, 1961); David I. Kertzer, The Popes against the Jews : The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001); Giulia Barrera, “Mussolini’s Colonial Race Laws and State-Settler Relations in Africa Orientale Italiana (1935-41),” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 8, no. 3 (January 1, 2003): 425–43,; Olindo De Napoli, “Race and Empire: The Legitimation of Italian Colonialism in Juridical Thought,” The Journal of Modern History 85, no. 4 (2013): 801–32,
[x] Sarfatti, Gli ebrei nell’Italia fascista, 92. See esp. chaps. III and IV.
[xi] Kertzer, The Popes against the Jews : The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, 284–89.
[xii] Italian men in AOI frequently engaged in pedophilia, particularly with African women. In addition to the extensive historiography, particularly the work of Giulia Barrera, see as well the on-going debates over the legacy and statute of Indro Montanelli. See: Giulia Barrera, Dangerous Liaisons: Colonial Concubinage in Eritrea, 1890-1941 (Program of African Studies, Northwestern University, 1996); Barrera, “Mussolini’s Colonial Race Laws and State-Settler Relations in Africa Orientale Italiana (1935-41)”; Giulia Barrera, “Patrinerità, razza e identità: L’educazione degli italo-eritrei durante il colonialismo italiano (1885-1934),” Quaderni storici 37, no. 109 (1) (2002): 21–53; Francesca Locatelli, “La comunità italiana di Asmara negli anni trenta tra propaganda, leggi razziali e realtà sociale,” in L’impero fascista : Italia ed Etiopia, 1935-1941, ed. Ricardo Bottoni (Bologna: Il mulino, c2008), 369–91.
[xiii] Please see my forthcoming presentation at AHA 2022 entitled “Profiteers and Padroncini: Organizing the Transportation Industry in Italian East Africa, 1934-1940,” which is an excerpt of a chapter from my dissertation.
[xiv] E.g., see the special edition of Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 24:1, published in February 2019, dedicated to the anniversary of the 1938 Racial Laws. There are many other similar scholarly initiatives on this topic.

Noelle TurturNoelle Turtur
is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Columbia University. She received her B.A. in history from the University of Chicago. Her research interests include comparative settler colonialism, the sociology and history of families, and political economy. Her dissertation – Making the ‘Empire of Work’: Italian Enterprises, Labor, and Everyday Life in Fascist-occupied Ethiopia, 1935-1943 – examines how Italian migrants lived and worked in key economic sectors of Fascist occupied-Ethiopia in order to explore their lives, consciousness, and relationships to Ethiopians and the regime’s imperial project. She is currently a Core Preceptor for Columbia’s “Contemporary Civilizations” course.

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