AS WE ALL HUNKERED DOWN in our respective abodes to socially distance at the dawning of the age of COVID-19, some of us learned how to make sourdough bread, others picked up knitting, and still others turned to Animal Crossing. I tried all these and I failed at all. So I am a COVID-19 hobby failure. Except I did become an expert in Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and other streaming platforms. I have watched just about every sappy Korean teen soap opera out there. But one genre has fascinated us above all others, and it’s not a virus-generated interest: the first season of American Crime Story, the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and the trial of football legend O. J. Simpson. And then we devoured the second season when we witnessed Andrew Cunanan murdering five people, including fashion designer Gianni Versace, in 1997. Add to that the new Netflix documentary on Jeffrey Epstein and the popular award-winning Making a Murderer series that documented the story of Steven Avery that led to a petition to the White House for an official pardon (something the president could not do as he could not intervene in a state criminal offense) signed by over 500,000 people. Clearly, the American public has a fixation on understanding the minds of criminals, murderers, and others featured in the infamous rogues’ gallery.
So it should come as no surprise that Victoria de Grazia’s captivating investigation into the trials and tribulations of Attilio Teruzzi — one of Benito Mussolini’s most trusted high-ranking officials, who suffered the tensions of a convenient and then utterly inconvenient marriage, loyalty to il Duce and the fascist dictates, and then an utter failure to adhere to them in matters of the heart — should thrill this reader who had become perhaps too much an expert in crime and psychological thrillers. Of course, The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy is not an intellectual’s Italian Crime Story or Making a Fascist: this is a work of serious historical research by one of the great historians of Italian history. And, as de Grazia reminds us, the book is no simple biography. It is a microhistory of one man’s journey, one man’s decisions as he navigated the complicated, chaotic, confusing, sometimes nonsensical, often racist, misogynist, nativist, populist, oft-changing agendas and alliances of the fascist regime. The book illuminates not just the much broader dictatorial, ultra-nationalistic systems in place in Italy during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, but also the very human and individual characteristics of the players and the victims — all agents in this theater — that rendered Italian fascism so impactful.
Atillio was in line to be “the perfect fascist”: the “archetypal virtuous warrior of the imperial West [who] invites us to consider how individuals, in their lusts and longing, in their dreams and prejudices and petty quarrels, are swept up and reshaped by the course of history.” As de Grazia explains, her book is “a social history of a man who as he makes his way, in the complexity of his political and human relations, often captured from the vantage point of his women, shows us how Italian fascism really worked.” Attilio’s story is nothing if not complex. Even for a member of the decision-making elite, the ground was constantly shifting, and his standing in the Partito Nazionale Fascista vulnerable. The Perfect Fascist contextualizes the personal — the sordid, the intimate — within the political framework of the grounding of the Fascist Party: its authoritarian, yet completely legal takeover of the Italian political systems, and its aggressions in World War II. But the story is so juicy, the affairs so unexpected, the narrative so rich, the analysis so intricate, that, with all its historical rigor, it reads — as Eddie Izzard describes the druids in Dressed to Kill — in an “interesting night-time telly sort of way.”
Italy’s reckoning with its fascist past is complicated. The brava gente (“good people”) trope went a long way in stopping substantive conversations about antisemitism, racism, nativism, ultra-nationalism, and state terrorism. “Well, we were fascists, but we weren’t Nazis. We were brava gente,” became the pseudo-battle cry when Italians were asked to explain their part in the Nazi persecution and ultimate annihilation of European Jews. So how do we negotiate the trajectory of a person like Attilio, who became a lieutenant general and inspector general of the Blackshirts during the Spanish Civil War after having served in Italy’s army during its quest for empire in the 1911 Libya campaign? For some, the brava gente mythology applied just as well to fascism as it did to defuse the well-documented brutality of the Italian imperial campaigns in Eritrea, Libya, and Ethiopia. We cannot help but wonder: Did someone like Attilio carry his membership in the brava gente from 1937 to 1939, when he served as undersecretary in the Ministry of Italian Africa, and when he was promoted to minister from 1939 to 1943? Does ambition lessen his complicity in the teleology of racism, imperialism, and fascism?
When I first began my studies on race, nation, and the “Southern question” (the historic cultural, social, economic, and perceived racial divide between Northern and Southern Italy) as a graduate student, I was admonished by a senior faculty member to “study my own skin.” (I am, for the record, a proud Chinese American scholar of Italian history.) Then, later, when I was a graduate student on my first Fulbright, I visited one of the foremost scholars of Italian Unification. After hearing my dissertation three-minute elevator pitch about my work on the use of the racialized “Southern question” metaphor to describe other notions of difference, he asked me if I really needed to “travel all the way to Italy to study racism when it was so rampant in [my] own country.” We should not pretend, then, that the brava gente myth is anything other than a myth. Race is not a secondary theme to the more strident and forceful strains of the fascist refrain. It has been, and always will be, the underlying chord that defines nativism and authoritarianism. While de Grazia skillfully teases out the man, the soldier, the officer, the husband, the lover, the lothario, the ambitious politician who climbed the vicious ladder of the fascist patriarchy, she never shies away from the more difficult conversations about the ruthlessness of the populist regime: its xenophobia, misogyny, racism, and antisemitism, the use of propaganda and misinformation, the preying on fear of the other, of change, and the empowering of those who felt vulnerable, unheard, disrespected, disenfranchised in the post–World War I era.
And yet, even as de Grazia traces the choices of Attilio the politician, what anchors the book is an intimate, personal story. It is not unlike the popular thrillers on Netflix in its suspense and surprises, but this story is told with a scholar’s eye in reading, analyzing, and interpreting archival documents, and a historian’s experience in placing it all within the context of Mussolini’s Italy.
When Attilio chose, in 1926, to marry a woman whom we might call an early 20th-century “influencer” — a beautiful American opera singer, Lilliana Weinman, the daughter of a wealthy family of Polish Jewish origin — it looked as though both his professional and his love life was off to a promising start. Benito Mussolini himself attended the festivities, and celebrated the promessi sposi (à la Alessandro Manzoni and his 19th-century germinal novel) when they became simply sposi (married). To top it all off, il Duce stood front and center in the Teruzzi marriage portrait, right smack between the Jewish mother-of-the-bride and the Jewish bride herself. Eerie and perhaps ominous when you consider that just three years later, in 1929, Attilio would seek an annulment. In 1939, 10 years after the annulment was filed, Mussolini would sign the Pact of Steel, sealing the military-political alliance between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany on the eve of the World War II. Thus, while the annulment would wind its ways through the Catholic Church for two decades, the antisemitic policies of Italy would allow Attilio to use Lilliana’s Jewish origins and then her American citizenship (the entry of the United States in the war made them enemies of the Italian state) as reasons for the separation. Some Italians may argue that it was the alliance with Germany that brought the rhetoric of racism to the peninsula, but make no mistake: race and racial origin were already very much a part of the fascist discourse. Even before the racial laws of 1938, official Italian bureaucratic documents often asked about the race of the person filling out the forms. The correct answer for Italians was simple: Aryan. While Lilliana herself had never known her husband to hold antisemitic beliefs, he was not below falling along party lines if it might help with the adjudication of his request for annulment.
De Grazia began this research at the behest of the Weinman family, who wanted to understand how Lilliana, a rising star in the opera world (a world she would remain connected to by sponsoring the $2,500 Teruzzi Award in the 1960s, and then presenting the awards to winners of the Metropolitan Opera competition from 1965 to 1969), with a forthright and bold voice, operatic and otherwise, from a proud Polish Jewish family, would choose to abandon her career and marry a rising fascist with a big, bushy beard (the beard will play a role in the popular attempts to have Teruzzi meet his ultimate demise).
De Grazia quickly grasped that Lilliana might be pivotal not only in revealing the inner workings of the heart, but in understanding the motivations of a fascist who marries a Jewish woman, annuls that marriage, and then goes on to have an affair with a second Jewish woman. This second woman, whom Attilio met in late 1936, was Egyptian-born Yvette Maria Blank. De Grazia describes her as a “Levantine” beauty with “something racially exotic about her sweet, animated face, strong nose, intense eyes, and thick cap of dark, wavy hair […] Was she Turkish? Levantine? Egyptian? Some combination of the above?” Or was she, as the spies and informers who did the background checks for Attilio concluded, a Romanian woman, but one who spoke no Romanian and was a Coptic Christian to boot? Her father had identified as Jewish until he converted upon marriage. De Grazia points out that Yvette’s mother, Corine Schmill, was an implausible Coptic Christian. She was a mysterious woman of mysterious origins, and surely the question of her Jewishness must have raised some eyebrows. None of this mattered for the besotted Attilio. By January 1938, Yvette was pregnant and would, in September of that year, give birth to a much-loved daughter whose birth certificate would list the father as “Unknown” (because Attilio was still legally married to Lilliana), and would carry her mother’s surname Blank rather than Teruzzi.
De Grazia’s coup de grâce is to have weaved together into one coherent whole so many narrative threads: the story of the long longed-for annulment from an American opera singer of Jewish Polish origins, the story of this second, ill-fated love affair with a “foreign,” “Other-ed” Jewish mother of his child, the attempts to eradicate and then conceal and then adopt and then make Italian his daughter, all unfolding within, without, informing, and informed by the rise and fall of the fascist regime. Lilliana, the opera singer, may have got more than she had ever bargained for: she found herself in the middle of an Italian lyrical opera with all its drama, illnesses, deaths, misunderstandings, concealed identities, and family secrets. This story has all the elements of a thriller — the psychological drama that reveals the inner workings of fascist criminal minds — with all the soap opera twists and turns: an annulment process that lasts two decades, an escape to America from Nazi persecution, the selling of one’s soul to the fascist devil to advance professionally, two wives — one legal, the other of the heart, a disowned then recognized “bastard” daughter, detention and concentration camps, blackmail, intrigue, lynchings. When Mussolini was executed (and his body lost and then found and then strung up by his feet at a gas station for the Italian public to stone), the crowd mistook the heavily bearded man hanging next to him for Teruzzi. They were wrong that time, just as they would be wrong many more times as several unfortunate big-bearded men were lynched at the end of the war in cases of mistaken identity. And did I mention sex? There is lots of it in the story. It’s the Kardashians, The Godfather, fascism, Nazis, a little Jersey Shore, and Vatican shenanigans all rolled into one.
We likely have many more months of COVID-19 ahead of us, and depending on what happens in the November elections, a few more months or several more years of anti-intellectualism and, as Tom Nichols coins it, the death of expertise. Victoria de Grazia has offered us a historical escape, one that speaks directly to pandemic hobbies. You are being warned, as you turn page after page of her book, of the price we pay when ambition outweighs conscience, when ego eclipses community, when fascism and populist authoritarianism disguise themselves as originalist democracy, when private wealth is privileged over public good. We are reminded, as we read this tale of the perfect fascist who faced the imperfections of his own heart and his party, that Mussolini came to power legally in an appointment by the then-king of Italy, and that that legality allowed people like Attilio to support and even idolize the man-who-would-become-dictator with an alleged clear conscience. And we are warned that we are not reading or watching or chilling “in an interesting night-time telly sort of way.” If we do not vote, if we do not dissent, if we do not resist, if we do not persist, we are the ones who will be living this hellscape reality show that will last far beyond 2020.
Aliza Wong is interim dean of the Honors College at Texas Tech University. She is the director of The Texas Liberator Project: Witness to the Holocaust, a multimedia educational project that includes an app, web resource, book, and museum exhibit, as well as the executive producer and producer of the documentary film, Narratives of Modern Genocide.