The assassin and the admirer

County View

County View
John Healy

There was an interesting symmetry between two events during the past fortnight – one in Dublin, the other in Rome.
In Dublin, the City Council unveiled a plaque on the childhood home of Violet Gibson, the aristocratic daughter of Lord Ashbourne, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who attempted to assassinate the Italian dictator, Mussolini, in 1926.
In Rome, Giorgia Meloni, a woman who is an unabashed admirer of Mussolini, was sworn into office as prime minister. She leads a party – the Brothers of Italy – that proudly traces its roots back to fascism, whose logo is a neo-fascist symbol, and whose allegiance is to the legacy of Mussolini.
Violet Gibson, at first glance, would hardly be a candidate for inclusion in the list of the world’s history makers, much less for the heated debate on Liveline where callers condemned the plaque unveiling as ‘glorifying criminality’. After her botched attempt to kill off Il Duce, she told interrogators that an angel had been sent by God to keep her arm steady. (The angel hardly did a good job – the first bullet missed, the second grazed the dictator’s nose so that, after applying a hasty sticking plaster, Mussolini was able to continue his walkabout through the crowds. The incident itself also merely served to increase his popularity.)
Some days later, Ms Gibson’s brother, the second Lord Ashbourne, sent a telegram of sympathy to Mussolini, expressing his apologies and regret.
Back then to Ms Meloni and the Brothers of Italy, and history’s remarkable facility for coming full circle. Deposed and despised, the fallen Mussolini and his mistress had been shot dead in a small village in northern Italy by local partisans as his ill-fated alliance with Hitler reached its final days in 1945. Their bodies were hung upside down from a metal girder in a suburban square in Milan, where the remains were insulted and abused, and a once-cowed population vented its revenge.
But all that has changed again. Younger generations are apt to ignore the pains of the past, and there is a new indulgent perception of the fascist regime which ruled the country though fear for 20 years. Ms Meloni comes to power with the aid of Silvio Berlusconi – himself the great escapologist – who offered the view in media interviews that Mussolini was a benign figure who ‘killed nobody’. There is a commonly held view among the supporters of the Brothers of Italy that Mussolini did many good things, barring that one mistake – that mistake being to align himself with Hitler. Were it not for that minor misdemeanour, the revisionists now claim, the Mussolini regime would have been next to blameless.
All of that is to deny the reign of terror that fascism unleashed on Italy and its people. It was jackboot rule under which thousands of victims of the Blackshirt militias lost their lives. Almost every aspect of an individual’s life was subject to the whim of the ruling fascists – suitability for a job, entitlement to medicine, for a work permit, for a pension, was decided at the discretion of the local fascist official.
Those suspected of dissent were constantly monitored by a network of informers. Two secret police forces – as ruthless as any that would come later in communist countries – ensured that the malcontents were summarily dealt with.
There is a new generation of Italians who prefer not to revisit history, and for whom the past is in the past. For others, there is the explanation that the horrors of Italian fascism were far less evil than those inflicted by Hitler or Stalin.
The sins of the past somehow seem less egregious with the passage of time.