Commonwealth and Foreign
[To the Editor of THE SPECTATOR.] SIR,—May I be allowed to give, as a true and old friend of Italy for a round thirty years, my impressions of Fascism today? My qualifications are derived from the fact that I have had rather exceptional opportunities of seeing the system at work off the beaten track. For years I lived in the country proper, with, as far as I was aware, no Englishman within 5o to 6o miles, the sort of small place that came alive with sudden interest if you happened to see G.B. on the tail of a car.
Thousands of your readers will have known pre-War Italy, then the difficult times after the War, and then their culmination in the Fascist State. Which of these three phases I prefer has nothing to do with it, but there is a great deal more to learn about the last of the three than is gener- ally known. British champions of Fascism, and there are plenty of them, will refer you to fine new roads, buildings, trains that run more or less to time, and many other things that you necessarily cannot help noticing. They will supplement this by telling you that Italy is too per cent. Fascist, that it will never go back again to Constitutional Government, that it never lived before Mussolini came on the scene. They have seen all these things and they know : every year they have rented a villa on the Riviera or at Florence, or a flat in Rome, &c., &c., or they have simply gone regularly as tourists, either by train or by car. It does not matter what they did, they all belong to that valuable " invisible export " which is now at such a low ebb, and they have no reason to inquire into what may or may not be the troubles of Italians themselves.
Let me mention a few cases which I have myself witnessed. Take elections to start with. There are many people, I believe, who imagine that Mussolini is in power through the undivided will of his countrymen, and that all deputies are elected by the free choice of the people. The last election I saw took place thus. There were three candidates for the part of the country I lived in. These names came from Rome, and the two to be elected were decided upon long before election-day. People had to record their vote, and if they did not vote they got fined. I know of a man who was expecting his son home on holiday from France at that time, and the son wrote to say he would be just in time to vote in this " comic " election. His letter was opened, and on his arrival he was put into prison for an offensive statement. I do not imagine actually that there is much difference between an Italian election and the polling which gave Stalin his smashing victory the other day.
The power of Prefects and other local officials is another point worth examining. I know extremely well an hotel in a small town of some 25,000 inhabitants. The proprietor had a wife and five children, and to try to give an adequate idea of the work these people put into that business would be no easy matter.
I knew that he was having the greatest trouble to keep his head above water, and he told me many times that he was afraid he would be obliged to close down, chiefly—indeed, solely—because he could not collect money owing from Fascist officials, who found his table good, and therefore used it regularly. I suggested that he applied to higher quarters, but he told me if he did that he would have his hotel closed in twenty-four hours, and a good beating into the bargain. He failed shortly afterwards, with something like 25,000 lire owing to him. The last I heard of the poor fellow was that he had a small waiter's job in another town, and that his family was in the worst kind of trouble. I tried to get on their track but failed. Take another case. A textile mill that I knew well had just been taken over by new owners, the third time it had changed hands in five years. It is very intelligible, obviously, that when a mill is restarted only a skeleton staff can be taken on to begin with, and it is equally natural to take on former employees who know the job and the machines. I could understand therefore my friend's anger when he told me one evening that he had been visited by a member of the Labour Office, with a list of some twenty names representing people that he had to find jobs for. The position was aggravated by the fact that none of the names put forward belonged to anyone with knowledge of the industry in question, the list being made up of unemployed, who were making it worth the officials' while to find them a job. The owner of the mill astonished everyone by saying that if this kind of pressure was put on him he would not open at all. He ultimately got working, but gave it up within twelve months owing to interference and graft.
One more case. There was a farmer near me who had his land taken away by the local authorities, on the plea that he was not working it to advantage. The order came from an official of the province who, until he got this job, held a minor post in a small newspaper office. I never heard of any increased production from the farm in question, but I have heard that it was a pleasant place to spend an evening in after a hot summer's day. The same official came one evening to a café where I was sitting. Tables were placed in front of the doors, and when he sat down he clapped his hands for the proprietor, and asked him why there was no orchestra. " I simply cannot afford it, Excellency," he replied. " Well, get one within a week." The orchestra turned up all right (and very good it was too, by the way) but the café went broke. Another case of the operation being successful except that the patient died.
Instances like this are common, and there is no getting away from the fact that there is a vast amount of abuse of power on the part of minor officials throughout the country, well away from the control of Rome. I will go as far as to say, knowing that I am completely right in my statement, that there are millions of Italians in Italy today who loathe and detest the methods of the present re'gime. From the very beginning it has been a question of force and blackmail. A man is told that he is expected to take up so much loan. It does not matter which loan, as they are all tarred with the same brush,—a very high rate of interest, and scrip that is unsaleable and only useful for bank loans at perhaps 25 per cent. of its face value. You are not allowed to own a cent of stock outside the country, for if you are caught holding it, they first pinch you, then your stock, and throw you into prison. You own land, and they make you sell what your land yields at a heavy loss, but they also tax you cruelly for ever having been a landowner. You have a bit of money and they bring out a capital levy ; you are a bachelor and they tax you. You express an opinion which is objected to by some official, and they beat you, or kill you.
As to the system itself, a great deal of its strength comes from the fact that a large proportion of the officials in the Fascist Party would be incapable of earning an adequate living in the open market ; they must therefore stick to their posts at all costs. Propaganda talk about co-operation and unity sounds well, but what matters is the reality behind the talk.
As I hope to return to a country for which in itself I have a warm affection I must be content to sign myself simply