Staging the Fascist War

The Ministry of Popular Culture and Italian Propaganda on the Home Front, 1938–1943

by Luigi Petrella (Author)
©2016 Monographs X, 259 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 26


Historians regard the Italian home front during the Second World War as an observation post from which to study the relationship between Fascism and society during the years of the collapse of the Mussolini regime. Yet the role of propaganda in influencing that relationship has received little attention. The media played a crucial role in setting the stage for the regime’s image under the intense pressures of wartime. The Ministry of Popular Culture, under Mussolini’s supervision, maintained control not only over the press, but also over radio, cinema, theatre, the arts and all forms of popular culture. When this Fascist media narrative was confronted by the sense of vulnerability among civilians following the first enemy air raids in June 1940, it fell apart like a house of cards.
Drawing on largely unexplored sources such as government papers, personal memoirs, censored letters and confidential reports, Staging the Fascist War analyses the crisis of the regime in the years from 1938 to 1943 through the perspective of a propaganda programme that failed to bolster Fascist myths at a time of total war.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Towards Total War: Propaganda, the Media and Public Opinion, 1938–1939
  • Chapter 2: From Non-Belligerence to the First Air Raids
  • Chapter 3: Adjusting to Reality: Home Front and Air War
  • Chapter 4: Cracking Italian Morale
  • Chapter 5: Propaganda, the Media and Social Control
  • Chapter 6: Area Bombing and the Definitive Breakup of the Home Front
  • Chapter 7: The Collapse of the Regime
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix: The Italian Press
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many people, although naturally the responsibility for what I have written is mine alone. I am beholden first of all to Claudia Baldoli, who supervised the doctoral research upon which this book is based, for her dedicated and friendly advice. Tim Kirk was kind enough to follow my work with patient solicitude and invaluable suggestions. Matt Perry and Perry Willson read my manuscript and made extremely helpful comments. Megan Trudell’s assistance was critical in facilitating my English writing.

I am grateful to Robert Gordon and Pierpaolo Antonello for accepting the book for their series and for helping me improve it. My thanks are also due to the three anonymous reviewers who read my book on behalf of the publisher and provided fruitful suggestions. Hannah Godfrey, Alessandra Anzani and the whole team at Peter Lang, Oxford, have been a pleasure to work with.

During my research I benefitted from the kind cooperation of librarians and archivists in Italy and Britain. I am especially obliged to those from the following institutions: the Archivio Centrale dello Stato and the Archivio Storico dell’Aeronautica Militare in Rome; the National Archives at Kew, London; the Biblioteca della Casa della Memoria e della Storia, the Biblioteca della Fondazione Lelio e Lisli Basso-Issoco, the Biblioteca di Storia Moderna e Contemporanea, the Biblioteca Militare Centrale, the Biblioteca Luigi Chiarini at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the Biblioteca Statale Antonio Baldini, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale and the Biblioteca della Camera dei Deputati in Rome; the Robinson Library at Newcastle University, the Durham University Library; and, finally, both the British Library and the LSE Library in London. I am particularly indebted to Renata Giannella and the staff at the Biblioteca del Senato Giovanni Spadolini in Rome for their generous and knowledgeable assistance with the special collections of Italian newspapers.

Finally, I wish to thank M. for her unfailing encouragement and forbearance. ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →


← x | 1 →


Benito Mussolini, rather paradoxically for a dictator whose rule was marked by his mission to imprint onto modern Italians the martial spirit of a glorious past, took the unusual part of peace broker and procrastinator in the looming European crisis of the late 1930s. Returning to Italy from Munich in September 1938, he was greeted as the man who had forced Germany, Britain and France into a peaceful solution to the Czech crisis. Nearly one year later, when Hitler’s invasion of Poland led the British and French to declare war, the Duce kept his country out of the war as a result of military unpreparedness and reports of widespread anti-war and anti-German feeling among the Italian people. For almost 20 years, Fascism had boasted of its fighting credentials and, since 1922 when Mussolini had come to power, the regime had sought military confrontation with the democratic European powers – emerging almost unscathed from the aggression of Ethiopia in 1935 and from backing Franco’s rebel troops against Spain’s legitimate government in 1936–1939. Yet, when he finally decided to join Hitler in June 1940 – betting on the swift Axis submission of Allied forces – Mussolini took the nation into the first real ‘total war’ of its history. Like defenceless Ethiopians killed by the mustard gas bombs dropped by Italian aircraft in 1936 or the people slaughtered in the Basque town of Guernica by a Nazi-Fascist air raid on 26 April 1937, civilians in Italy suddenly came within the range of Allied bombers. The home front was no longer a place where fear and death rebounded only on bereaved soldiers’ families, as had happened in the Great War. Vulnerability, insecurity and a sense of impending danger came to homes and factories, unsettling everyday life.

A war that involved civilians on a previously unknown scale was the litmus test for Fascism’s ‘public ethic’, described by Emilio Gentile as a compound of discipline, virility, comradeship, ‘warrior spirit’ and ‘total ← 1 | 2 → dedication to the national community’.1 For fifteen years Italians had been swamped by a colossal drill of collective self-deception that camouflaged with myths and parades the lack of real organisation and technical progress. Indeed, when Italy entered the war almost nothing that both civilian and military authorities had discussed over previous decades in terms of infrastructure and anti-aircraft and civil defence measures had been accomplished. The fact that the government and the party had staged wide-ranging campaigns to alert the public to the danger of air war through meetings, courses in schools, pamphlets and posters, led many Italians to a realisation that the tests and experiments in which they had taken part since 1935 were ineffective, ostentatious and ritualistic. Besides, propaganda work was constrained by two conflicting needs – to mobilise citizens without arousing widespread panic.2 However, the novel aspects of modern war and their daunting implications for civilians were clearly perceived as early as September 1939, when confidential reports from party informers described widespread anxiety about the likely employment of air forces against Italy.3

Knowing his compatriots were lukewarm about the prospect of war, Mussolini committed Fascist propaganda ‘to raise by degrees the temperature of the Italian people’.4 The MCP translated the Duce’s will in directives to the media that, despite a formal posture of neutrality, aimed at acclimatising the public to wartime precautions and restrictions and, crucially, to the struggle alongside Nazi Germany against the European democracies. ← 2 | 3 → The dictator’s resolution to enter the war did not imply that Italians had suddenly become a nation of warriors, and the need to influence the population through an uninterrupted fictional account remained. While the role of propaganda and the media in Fascist Italy has been carefully studied, less attention has been focused on its impact during the years in which the regime was most significantly tested, and even less on the representation of the home front and civilians as victims of total war.5 The gap between what the media reported and the facts has been recorded in scholarly studies that have over the last decade taken the impact of bombing in the Second World War, and specifically the bombing of Italy, beyond the boundaries of military history to disentangle its political, social and cultural facets.6 This work details how such a gap developed and widened, despite the regime professing frankness in its communication policies since 1940.

In particular, the aim of this research is to consider the Italian media representation of the home front under enemy bombing and of Italian air force activity during the Second World War until Mussolini’s fall in 1943 against the propaganda that had, since Mussolini’s ascent to power, been orchestrated to strengthen the founding ideological tenets of Fascism – first ← 3 | 4 → of all the theory of the ‘new man’, and Italy’s primacy in the ‘domain of the air’. When the regime faced the test of total war, both of these tenets turned out to be groundless myths. In order to provide a wide spectrum of that representation, the analysis of the ‘media’ in this research has included not only the press, radio, newsreels and documentaries, but also the most widespread forms of popular culture, such as cinema, theatre and songs. Control over all media was centralised under the MCP which grew increasingly into a vast and complex bureaucracy drawn mostly from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Interior. Any kind of material intended for information or propaganda purposes – articles in the press, photographs, films, documentaries, posters, leaflets, booklets, songs, shows, plays – came within its reach.

By the end of the 1930s in Italy the process of full control over the media was complete. In 1926 a law had ended the freedom of the press and from 1927 it was forbidden to establish new titles. The Fascist Party directly controlled many newspapers. The Duce or his hierarchs owned other dailies, for example Il Popolo d’Italia in Milan (Mussolini), Il Regime Fascista in Cremona (Roberto Farinacci), Il Resto del Carlino in Bologna (Dino Grandi) and Il Telegrafo in Leghorn (Costanzo and Galeazzo Ciano). As for the nominally independent press, Mussolini arranged for publishers, industrialists or financiers close to the regime to acquire or maintain ownership, as in the case of the two major newspapers of pre-Fascist Italy, Corriere della Sera and La Stampa. Also, the Duce had the last say when a new editor was to be appointed. As a consequence of this process, the distinction between information and propaganda, which had been extremely thin since the second half of the 1920s, became almost invisible in wartime Italy.7

Periodic meetings (usually weekly) of the MCP or its chief of staff with representatives of the press emphasised topics to be dealt with and events which were not to be reported.8 These instructions were summarised, ← 4 | 5 → updated and disseminated every day to newsrooms and to prefects in the Italian provinces.9 This book shows how the inner workings of the MCP during the Second World War were affected by the coexistence of a high level of personalization (the Duce and his Minister made all important decisions, even on trivial details) with an hypertrophic bureaucracy staffed mostly by civil servants coming from other departments and journalists who could not find a job in the press. A continuous flow of detailed instructions, more than general directives based on a firm policy, inundated prefects and editors in chiefs, who had in turn to instruct their subordinates. Orders often did not arrive on time or lost their original intent. From the end of 1942 only self-censorship prevented newsrooms from divulging information about military defeats and the disastrous state of the home front. Moreover, forms of centralised and empirical (almost case-by-case) screening – as was the case with the theatrical censorship exercised by Leopoldo Zurlo examined in Chapter 5 – seemed to produce a better outcome than a professed ideological control.

Fascist authorities boasted that the press – unlike cinema, theatre and books – was not subject to preventive censorship but, as a matter of fact, newspapers had to comply scrupulously with the MCP’s orders on pain of suspension from publication for one or more days. The directives were often meticulous, repetitive and prone to campaigns in which serious issues – for example the prohibition of mentioning Jewish or American authors and film directors in newspapers – mixed with erratic fixations like the obsession with the proper pronoun for addressing strangers. Although it is mostly from this angle that MCP orders have been anthologised and looked at in studies of the media under Italian fascism, these do convey an idea of the censors’ working style and procedures.10 Yet, it is the less folkloric and ← 5 | 6 → picturesque stream of instructions coming from the MCP which show how the regime became estranged from its people in its last years.

The instructions of the MCP, as Mario Isnenghi has observed, did not just contain lies, but entailed a constant work of rewriting facts, transforming them into a ‘surreal world’ that aimed at forcibly replacing people’s everyday lived experience.11 Gaetano Silvano Spinetti, a young MCP press officer at the time, wrote in his diaries that the atmosphere during the conferences at the Ministry was like a classroom, as journalists showed ‘no critical thinking’, were quarrelsome with each other and always nodded when taking instructions. ‘I was appalled’, he recalled, ‘that men who had been active in democratic journalism were so tame at receiving such meticulous orders’.12 Editors seldom voiced disagreements with the Ministry’s instructions. On 30 October 1942, for example, the editor of Corriere della Sera, Aldo Borelli, wrote to Alessandro Pavolini, Minister of propaganda from 1939 to 1943, to protest that the censors had vetoed five articles in a row, despite the fact that ‘they did not report anything dangerous’.13

War propaganda had only one chief – the Duce himself, who frequently summoned the Minister of Popular Culture. The actual work of control and censorship was rarely negotiated with other centres of power – mostly with those essential in wartime, like the military authorities, whose approval was requested before journalistic material was published from the fronts, or the Fascist Party, which supervised the work of civilian assistance. The fact that there was no institutional check from outside appeared to be an advantage over the enemy, whose propaganda policies had to endure a more complex route from government to parliament, from media to its audiences: the British Prime Minister and his government had to answer questions in parliament while newspapers and the BBC had to balance the imperatives of a country at war with the freedom of the press to which Britons had been long accustomed. Therefore, Italian propaganda appeared ← 6 | 7 → to have an organisational advantage, as its modus operandi seemed swift and undiscussed, but the enemy’s output was unburdened by the most invasive government pressures.

Some aspects of Fascist activities from the Ethiopian campaign onwards borrowed from techniques adopted in Liberal Italy during the Great War when, for the first time, cinema, theatre, sports events, exhibitions and conferences of intellectuals and journalists became the vehicles of mass propaganda, and when secret funds managed by the Ministry of Interior were employed to pay collaborators, informers and journalists. These techniques were perfected during the Second World War by the MCP, which in 1943 alone spent 200 million lire on press contributors and conference speakers.14 During the Ethiopian war the press had learned how to get information from the official bulletins that, suitably doctored, served to conceal inconvenient facts whilst reporting a ‘heroic and transformed war’.15 In addition the activity of the Istituto LUCE, which produced photographic and filmed material mostly focusing on the battlefront, was based on the same organisational experiences from the Ethiopian and Spanish campaigns.16 What Italian propaganda had to learn from scratch in the Second World War was how to deal with a domestic front that had been sheltered until then – except for a few areas in the North targeted by enemy air raids in the First World War – by direct blows from the enemy.

The MCP’s organisational model followed the pattern of German propaganda and its master, Joseph Goebbels. Pavolini, the most ‘political’ and long-lasting of the Fascist ministers of propaganda, imitated his Nazi opposite number in institutionalising a personal and regular contact with ← 7 | 8 → newspaper editors.17 A secret protocol of the Pact of Steel signed on 23 May 1939 decreed a permanent collaboration between Italy and Germany in the fields of press, propaganda and information, whereas the Istituto LUCE and Universal Film Aktiengesellschaft (Germany’s largest film company, under government control from 1933) had an agreement over the exchange of newsreels and documentaries as early as 1929.18 Yet, cooperation between the two was no idyll. The Germans, for example, could not stand the way that, in spite of rigid controls, the Italian press leaked news that Berlin treated as military secrets. Goebbels’ people rechristened the Italian bulletins spaghetti-Berichten because they were, according to them, long and unsubstantial. As for Pavolini, he tried to preserve Italian press correspondents in Berlin from bribery and pressures granting them a higher salary than their colleagues at home.19 Also, the Italian minister of propaganda made an effort to impose more discipline on the machine, which was particularly prone to rumours and leaks. In November 1941, for example, when he realised that secret instructions from the Ministry to the media were being leaked to foreign embassies in Rome, he ordered an enquiry and set out new rules to achieve greater confidentiality.20

Beneath the surface, comparing the minutes of Goebbels’ conferences to Pavolini’s, it is possible to find – alongside a few things in common, such as a tendency to patronise audiences with long monologues regarding their close relationships to their respective bosses – many differences in terms of effectiveness and the power of persuasion towards the public.21 Also, the disparity in the available technology and propaganda means was huge. ← 8 | 9 → Germany, for example, had a much larger film industry and a far broader radio network than its ally. The cost of receivers and widespread poverty limited the impact of state-controlled radio in Italy, where in 1939 there were 1.2 million subscriptions in comparison with 13 million in Germany. Fragmentation and rival power centres were also a constraint on Italian propaganda in comparison with Germany.22 Unlike the Nazi machine and Goebbels’ unrestrained hegemony, which was only partially undermined by his personal rivalry with the Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentropp, in Italy the relationship between the media and its controllers faced behind-the-scenes interference. In theory, the Ministry had concentrated extensive powers, stretching across all forms of propaganda, but in practice it had to maintain good terms with government members, the Party, Fascist hardliners and other bodies such as the office for press and propaganda established by the military supreme command. As a central institution, the MCP was also obliged to rely on local bureaucracies. Instructions to the press were sent by telegraph twice a day in code to the provincial prefects where the newspapers were published.23 Those were typical processes in Fascist institutions, where a nominal concentration of powers did not prevent the multiplication and overlap of competences.24 From the first year of the war, for example, tensions had mounted between the MCP and the military, as the latter wanted exclusive power to authorise or censor anything to be published in Italy about the war. A compromise was only reached in May 1942, when Pavolini and General Ugo Cavallero agreed that the supreme command could approve any material concerning the military aspects of war. 25 ← 9 | 10 →

The BBC Italian service and the messages disseminated in Italian cities by Allied aircraft were powerful counterweights to Fascist propaganda on the home front. The intensive use of air-borne leaflets and radio counter-information – two new elements which had been absent in the Great War – overcame physical distance and allowed for the targeting of civilians in enemy countries.26 Leaflets quickly proved effective. As early as August 1940, police informants suggested that these reflected the true feelings of Italian people toward the war and Germany much better than did ‘articles in our newspapers’.27 The increasing numbers of people who listened to Radio Londra, as the BBC Italian service was popularly called in Italy, knew (and circulated among relations, neighbours and friends, which the regime was most concerned about) what Italian media distorted or did not report at all. On the eve of Mussolini’s decision to enter war Italian authorities attempted to jam the BBC bulletins, as Colonel Stevens, a former British military attaché to Rome, had begun his news commentaries to Italy on 22 December 1939. For a little while in April 1940, Radio Londra employed Carlo Maria Franzero, an Italian writer who worked in Britain as a journalist.28


X, 259
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
Second World War Italian home front Mussolini regime Fascist media
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. X, 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Luigi Petrella (Author)

Luigi Petrella holds a PhD in history from Newcastle University, where he is a teaching assistant. He previously worked as a journalist in Italy for twenty-five years.


Title: Staging the Fascist War
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