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Staging the Fascist War

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


Luigi Petrella

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.


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Chapter 2. From Non-Belligerence to the First Air Raids


Chapter 2 From Non-Belligerence to the First Air Raids With Europe on the brink of a new war in September 1939, most Italians were still under the influence of the jingoistic complacency that followed the Ethiopian and Spanish campaigns. The spectre of a future, total, war was still confined to fiction or to initiates in the military or academia. Yet beyond the propagandistic curtain, people feared Hitler and did not want alliance with Germany. Open dissent did not exist, but Mussolini was con- stantly informed in police and party reports that his country, which since coming to power he had been seeking to transform into a nation of ‘citizen soldiers’, was not ready for war, and neither was the military machine. ‘The Italian race’, he told Ciano in January 1940, ‘is a race of sheep. Eighteen years are not enough to change it’.1 Yet Mussolini was adamant in supporting Hitler and in giving both the Germans and the democratic powers the impression that Italy could join the fight at any moment. To achieve this aim, he needed a propaganda and media narrative that could compensate for what the country lacked in substance. Hence the frequent press and radio reports on successful exer- cises and displays of discipline among civilians. The mcp, under the Duce’s supervision, was in charge of staging that narrative, maintaining control over not only the press, but also cinema, theatre, the arts and all forms of popular culture. The promotion of Alessandro Pavolini in autumn 1939 to...

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