World War II: Fascinating Behind-the-Scenes Facts

I’m delighted to have Maryka Biaggio, author of the just-released novel The Model Spy, on the blog today with some intriguing facts about WWII Italy. Dictators beware!

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As authors of historical fiction know well, writers always do more research than they can possibly depict in their novels. In the process of researching my most recently released novel, The Model Spy, I learned some surprising things about the time and setting. The novel takes place mostly in World War II Italy, and there simply hasn’t been as much fiction or scholarship about war-time Italy as, for instance, France and England. 

The Complicated Dance Between Mussolini and Hitler

Benito Mussolini took control of Italy in the 1920s, and Hitler greatly admired Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome—when thousands of Fascist supporters strode into the Italian capital, setting the stage for Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister. In fact, Hitler tried to emulate this strategy in his Munich putsch, and Hitler even acknowledged that Italian Fascism was the elder brother of Nazism. Then, when Hitler came to power in 1933, Mussolini publicly praised his takeover. 

So, it was natural that the two fascist leaders would eventually meet and become allies. But their first meeting in Venice in June 1934 was rife with tension and disappointment. Neither had good things to say about each other after that meeting: Mussolini described Mein Kampf as boring and found Hitler’s ranting monologues annoying; Hitler complained that Mussolini lacked military know-how. Mussolini believed that Italy was superior to Germany in its cultural heritage (think The Holy Roman Empire), while Hitler considered Italy far behind Germany in military and technical prowess (which was true). 

Although the two became allies, this was more a marriage of convenience than a meeting of minds. Mussolini surmised that Hitler was poised for military expansion and victory, and he wanted Italy to share in the spoils. Hitler used Italy as a pawn in his military schemes. He misled Mussolini about the timing of his war plans and pushed Italy into military action before the country had adequately prepared for war. As a result, Italy’s military was ill equipped for the battles they undertook and Italy crumpled when, in July 1943, the Allies invaded Italy, which Churchill considered “the soft underbelly” of the Axis. From then on, Mussolini was on the run.

Galeazzo Ciano—Italy’s Doomed Foreign Minister

In 1930, Galeazzo Ciano married Benito Mussolini’s daughter Edda. Whether this was a love match and/or a play for power isn’t clear, but the marriage obviously brought Ciano into Mussolini’s orbit. Ciano was considered a hero of Italy’s Ethiopian campaign and, upon his return from the battlefield in 1936, Mussolini appointed him Foreign Minister. Ciano went on to serve as Il Duce’s emissary in numerous meetings with Hitler and his German counterpart, Joachim vonRibbentrop. Ciano began keeping a secret diary about this time, and this diary, which survived the war, provides a fascinating glimpse into the Mussolini regime, Axis war strategies, and Il Duce and Ciano’s meetings with Hitler and Ribbentrop.

Ciano did not see eye to eye with Mussolini on many matters. He was highly skeptical of Mussolini’s military plans and understood, better than Mussolini, that Italy was ill prepared for war. This put him in the unenviable position of trying to advise Il Duce against the expansionist dreams he harbored. Ciano even leaked intelligence to Belgium about the impending invasion by Hitler. While Mussolini followed in Hitler’s footsteps and took action against Italy’s Jews, Ciano tried to forestall official government actions against the country’s Jews. Increasingly at odds with Il Duce, he was removed from his post as Foreign Minister in 1943. Ciano, along with his wife and their three children, fled to Germany. But the Nazis returned Ciano to Mussolini’s clutches and, against the entreaties of his daughter Edda, Mussolini charged him with treason and had him executed. His last words were “Long live Italy.”

The Muddled Italian Resistance

Much is known about the French resistance movement, which sprang into action during Germany’s occupation of France. The French resistance was united in its opposition to the Nazis. But the Italian resistance predated the war and consisted of numerous and varied political factions opposed to Mussolini’s fascist government. 

While many Italians admired Mussolini’s charisma and promises of peace and prosperity, by the 1930s many had grown disenchanted with him. Mussolini ruled with an iron fist, and, once he embarked on his foreign wars in Ethiopia and Albania, life for the average Italian became increasingly difficult, mostly due to food shortages. Shopkeepers and factory and government workers were forced to sign party membership cards and sometimes bused to Mussolini’s rallies and expected to cheer him on. People became secretive and kept their feelings about Mussolini to themselves, knowing that disloyalty could well lead to the castor oil treatment administered by Mussolini’s thugs, the Blackshirts.

One anti-fascist movement, Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), achieved such prominence that two of its leaders, brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli were assassinated in 1937 in France, where they had set up their anti-fascist operation. Galeazzo Ciano was allegedly involved in plotting the murders.

By the end of the war, Italians were tired of the hardships and military defeats they’d been subjected to, and in April 1945 partisans hunted down Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci as they tried to flee to Switzerland. They were shot, and Mussolini’s corpse was kicked and disfigured. They were hung by their feet in a square in Milan. In the end, the people of Italy had their revenge. 

Two days later Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, and the Allies took control of Europe. Italians suffered great hardship during Mussolini’s dictatorship and his ill-fated entry into the war. After the war there was a short-lived campaign to purge the country of fascists. In 1946 Italy’s weak king, Victor Emmanuel III, abdicated and the country voted by referendum to establish the republic that persists to this day.

With this as a background to The Model Spy, readers are bound to be fascinated with your latest novel, Maryka! It’s definitely on my TBR list. Wishing you great success.

The Model Spy by Maryka Biaggio ~~ Celebrated model Toto Koopman had beauty, brains, and fame. Born to a Dutch father and Indonesian mother, she took up the life of a bon vivant in 1920s Paris and modeled for Vogue magazine and Coco Chanel. But modeling didn’t satisfy her. Fluent in six languages, she was adventurous and fascinated by world politics.

In London she attracted the attention of Lord Beaverbrook, the William Randolph Hearst of England. She soon became his confidante, companion, and translator, traversing the Continent and finding herself caught in the winds of impending war. Beaverbrook introduced her to influential people, including a director at the British Intelligence Service, who schooled her in espionage.

When Germany invaded Poland, Toto came face to face with reality: either fight the Axis powers or lose the world she loved. She moved to Florence, joined the Italian resistance, and began sending intelligence to London. But Mussolini’s Blackshirts and the Nazi’s military intelligence had her in their crosshairs and, as they pursued her, her courage was tested to the limit.

Maryka Biaggio is also the author of The Point of Vanishing, Parlor Games, and Eden Waits. Her novels bring remarkable people to life.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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4 Responses

  1. What a wonderful summary, Ms. Biaggio! The “world history” I learned in grade school lacked so much detail that Mussolini was portrayed as more of a warm up band to Hitler’s main act. Recently I came upon two diaries by Iris Origo: War in Val D’Orica (1984) and A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939–1940 (2017). The second was discovered and published after Origo’s death and relates the lived experience of upper class Italians who had access to inside information on government activities. Thanks so much for your concise exploration of the Hitler-Mussolini relationship.

  2. Hi Chris, I also discovered Iris Origo’s diaries while I was researching The Model Spy. They offer a fascinating glimpse into the life of Italians during Mussolini’s reign. Thanks for your comment!

  3. “…there simply hasn’t been as much fiction or scholarship about war-time Italy as, for instance, France and England.” So true, Ms. Biaggio. It’s why I was driven to write my debut novel about Piemonte between 1918 and 1946, inspired by little-known stories shared with me by a vanishing generation–even more a reason to write as the eyewitnesses to the horrors of those decades leave this existence. The region’s wines are famous across the world, but little has been written in the English language about the stories behind the labels. I began working on the book in April 2020, just after Liberation Day on the 25th. The biggest challenge, of course, was sitting here isolated in the Rockies, far from Piemonte with the interlibrary loan system shutdown. Fortunately, I had a plethora of interviews and stories I’d written down over the last 22 years, wine producers with time on their hands on the other end of cyberspace who helped when needed, and the internet (particularly JSTOR.org). One book that proved to be a Godsend on the subject of the partisans in Turin and the mountains to the west was published in January 2020–“A House in the Mountains” by Caroline Moorehead. That book led me to Ada Gobetti’s memoir “Partisan Diary: A Woman’s Life in the Italian Resistance.” I highly recommend both books. Hopefully more about that era will emerge. And now I am happy to add your books to my must-read list.

    1. Thanks, Suzanne, for your comments. I have read both Moorehead’s and Gobetti’s books and found them helpful. Your novel also sounds interesting! And I too love Italian wines!

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