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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 1: Towards Total War: Propaganda, the Media and Public Opinion, 1938–1939


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Towards Total War: Propaganda, the Media and Public Opinion, 1938–1939

Italians who went to the cinema in the spring of 1938 to see the British film Things to Come, based on a script by H. G. Wells and set in a fictional city hit by a sudden air raid, knew that thousands of their compatriots were fighting in Spain to help Francisco Franco overthrow the Republican government and that a few years earlier Italian soldiers had fought in Africa to conquer Ethiopia and bestow on King Vittorio Emanuele III the title of Emperor. They probably were not aware – since the Italian media was prone to portray troops and airmen as chivalrous – that in both wars the Italian army had employed powerful tools of destruction to curb the enemy’s resistance: during that spring Mussolini’s and Hitler’s aircraft were bombing Spanish cities in order to terrorise civilian populations and subdue their confidence and morale. A number of Italians also remembered that enemy aircraft had bombed northern Italian cities during the Great War.1 What most Italians did not imagine ← 17 | 18 → was that such weapons would be used against them in their own country and on an unprecedented scale within a few months; they were led to view the catastrophic air raids portrayed in the British film as pure science fiction. Comments in the press considered Things to Come as being completely out of touch with reality. ‘If such a script’, one...

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