Friday, August 11, 2023

Margherita Sarfatti: the Woman Who Destroyed Mussolini

A ghostly image of Margherita Sarfatti (1880-1961), a remarkably interesting Italian intellectual, known mostly because she was the lover of the Duce, Benito Mussolini, at the beginning of his career. She might have been much more than just a lover, and she may have played an important part both in Mussolini's successes and in his eventual downfall. Margherita Sarfatti makes a cameo appearance in my novel "The Etruscan Quest" and, here, I expand my interpretation of her role in history by proposing that she may have been one of the causes, perhaps the main one, of the doom of her former lover. Of course, I cannot prove this interpretation, but I can at least say that it cannot be disproven, either. As for many things in history, truth is now with the ghosts who lived the events that we read about. So, why not try to ask them?

Italian Version

Ah.... sorry, Ugo, I didn't want to scare you.

No... no, I am not scared. Just a little surprised. Who are you? 

Don't you recognize me? I know that I am all white and a little transparent, but maybe you can.

Hmmm.... not sure. Did we ever meet before?

In a way, yes. I am a character in your novel, "The Etruscan Quest" Actually, not just a character. But I do appear in your story.

Now that I look at you, well, maybe yes.  You look like... a lot like.... a portrait I saw. Are you Margherita Sarfatti?

Yes! That was very good, Ugo!  

Well, as I said, I am surprised, but I do recognize you. It is a pleasure to meet you, Donna Margherita. 

You don't have to call me 'Donna Margherita.' Just Margherita is fine. Where I am now, certain things are not important.

I imagine not. But I hope you were not displeased by what I wrote about you in my book.

Not displeased, Ugo. I liked what you wrote. So, I thought I could pay you a visit.

Ah... thanks, Margherita. It was a pleasure to write about you. Although, of course, it was just a cameo role in my novel. 

I know. Yes, but it was nice of you. You wrote good things about me. Though, I think you were missing something. 

Mmm.... maybe I understand. But I didn't know if I had the right answer to the questions I had. 

Well, now you can ask me. Wouldn't you?

Yes, it is a remarkable chance. Even though I guess you are just a mental projection of mine. 

Maybe. Or maybe I am a real ghost; how can you tell?

Whatever you are, Margherita, there is this nagging question that I have had in mind for a long time. And I think I can ask you about it. What happened to Mussolini that made him change so much in the 1930s? I mean, from a shrewd leader to a stumbling boor? How did he get involved in this mad idea of rebuilding the Roman Empire? 

And, Ugo, if you are asking me, I think you believe I have the answer, right?

Well, yes. After all, you were placed in a position where you could know things nobody else knew. The lover of the Duce; you had access to the highest ranks of the government. And you were even received by President Roosevelt in 1934..... 

But if I am just a projection of your mind.....

You are teasing me, Margherita. 

Ah, sorry, Ugo. Well, after all, it doesn't matter if I am a ghost or just part of your mind. You never know what the boundaries of one's mind are. And in Hades, we may know things that living people can't know. So, let me see if I can answer your question. For that, I have to start from the beginning. And, please understand that this story is still painful for me. So far, I never told it completely to anyone. 

It is an honor, Margherita. I appreciate it. 

Thanks, Ugo. I know that you do. So, you know that I was Mussolini’s mistress for more than 20 years; from when he was an unknown journalist up to when he became the "Duce degli Italiani". He changed so much in those 20 years. And then he dumped me for a younger woman. I think it was in 1932 that he met her, Claretta Petacci was her name. See? Even as a ghost, you can be upset. That is why ghosts are said to howl in desolate places, clank chains, and things like that. I am not doing anything like that, but if I remember this story.... well. Think about how many things I did for Benito. I found money for him, invented slogans for him, taught him how to deal with powerful people, even table manners. And do you know who invented the term "Duce"?

But wasn't it invented by Gabriele D'Annunzio? 

Yes, D'Annunzio used it. But the idea that Benito should use it as a title was mine. And it was so successful! Incredibly so. By the 1930s, everyone was using it in Italy. And that was bad for several reasons. Anyhow, let me go back to your question. Yes, Mussolini was a shrew leader when he became Prime Minister in 1922. Everything he touched seemed to be a success. And then, everything changed. But to explain how it happened, I must tell you a few things about earlier times. First of all, do you know that Mussolini was a shill for the British Secret Service?

It is known. Historians agree that he was paid by the British as a propagandist to push Italy into the war against the Central Empires.

Yes, he did. And have you ever wondered why the British came to choose him?

Good point, Margherita. I hadn't thought about this. 

Well, you should have. The story is that in 1912 I met Benito for the first time when he was the director of the "Popolo d'Italia." He was a fascinating man; he had an inner force; unusual. I have to tell you that I fell in love with him. Desperately in love, it happens. But I also thought that all that force could be directed to something useful. So, in 1914, when the Services contacted me....

The British Secret Service? But why you, Margherita?

Shouldn't it be obvious? Don't you know that I can speak five languages?

Yes, I knew that, but....

My family. They were international bankers, industrialists, traders... We had connections everywhere. And you also know that we were a Jewish family. 

I knew that, too. 

Well, so, no surprise that I had many connections. In business, and also in politics. So, you could say that I was a shill for the British, too. But don't misunderstand me. I am Italian; I did what I did because I thought that it could help Italy -- but also Britain. Britain and Italy were sister countries at that time. I saw nothing wrong with helping the British get a little help from Italy in their fight against Germany. And so I told them of this young journalist, a smart man, a person who could help them.

I see.... this is not written in the history books. 

Of course not. But if you ask yourself the right questions, you can find good answers. Benito spoke no English; he wasn't known at all outside Italy. He was, by all means, a small player in the great game. There had to be a good reason why the Services looked for him. 

And that was you, Margherita. I am amazed, but it sounds true. 

Indeed, Ugo, indeed. Benito accepted to work for the British. He did that for the money, but it was also a shrewd decision for him. He knew that he could use the support of the Services to make a political career in Italy. Shrewd and lucky at the same time. You know that he was drafted into the army in 1915, right?

I know, yes. He wrote a diary of his experience in the war. 

The army treated him as a useful asset -- they didn't want him to die. So, they sent him to a quiet area of the front. But it was still dangerous, and he was lucky enough that he was wounded by an Italian gun that exploded near him. It gave him the fame of a war hero. Shrewd and lucky, as I said. 

Yes. Lucky, but only up to a certain point. 

Ah, in life, it is not such a good thing to be lucky. If you are, you arrive to think that you deserve to be lucky.... and that's what happened to Benito. But let me go in order. You know what happened after the war was over, right?

Of course I know. The years of civil strife, then the March on Rome. Mussolini taking power....

Yes. And the Services played a role in that, too. Obviously, they didn't want Italy to fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, and they didn't want it to collapse again into statelets. We arrived close to that. So, they helped Benito to take over. It was part of my task, too. You know, my family was rich, but still I needed money. And the Services were not stingy. They understood that Benito badly needed me to set up his plan.

You won't find that written in the history books. 

No, of course not. But there are many things not written in history books that are true, nevertheless. But let me continue. The March on Rome was a success; the King of Italy made Benito Prime Minister, then he gradually gained more and more power. Things were going well. Italy was recovering from the disaster of the Great War, the economy was expanding, the civil strife had disappeared, and many good things were done by the Fascist government. Yes, they had not been light-handed when they took power, but it could have been much worse. I had no official position in the government, but as the Duce's lover, I had a lot of influence in many things. And I could indulge in my passion: art. I was collecting artwork, setting up a coterie of top-level artists; I could say that life for me was fine in the best of words, or almost so. And I was still in love with Benito. Yet, I could see that something was not so well. Dark clouds at the horizon, if I am to use the imagery I read in your novel. 

Oh... sure, in my novel, there is a discussion on the haruspices being able to interpret the signs in the sky. 

Yes. I could say that I was seeing ominous signs in the sky. At some point, I started thinking that there was something wrong with the whole story. Simply said, Benito was gathering too much power. There was this idea that "Mussolini is Always Right" -- it started as a joke, but then people started believing in it for real. And then there were the elections of 1929, where there was only one party you could vote for, and there was a "yes" already printed on the ballot. No wonder the Fascists won with more than 99% of the votes. But that wasn't the way to go. It was a dangerous road, too much power in the hands of a single person. I tried to tell Benito, but he won't listen to me. By this time, he was already changing. He had always been.... how to say, "strong-willed," maybe. By then, he was simply stubborn and believing only in himself. 

The way he is often described....

He had not always been like that, Ugo. But yes, things were going down a slippery road. In parallel, there was that odious man, Adolf Hitler, who was taking power in Germany. And the British were starting to understand that, with Mussolini, they had created a golem that they couldn't control anymore. Do you know the story of the Golem, right?

Of course. The monster created by the Rabbi of Prague. 

So it is. When people have power, they tend to create monsters that they can't control. Maybe I had that power when I created the Duce...

Margherita, I do think you did that with good intentions....

.... and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Anyway, let me continue with the story. In 1932, I turned 50, and I discovered that I had become too old for Benito. He was three years younger than me. He met that woman, Clara Petacci, and he wasn't interested in me any longer. But that wasn't the worst thing. I was losing him -- sometimes he was still listening to me, but mostly he would just do what he wanted. Any idiocy that came to his mind was immediately hailed by his coterie as a great strategic insight. And he was fascinated by that other golem in Germany, Hitler. At that time, I met my contacts in the Services, and they told me about their plan. Just like the Rabbi of Prague destroyed his golem, the British had concocted a plan to destroy the golem called Benito Mussolini. 

Ah... Margherita, that sounds fascinating. And what was the plan?

It was simple, but well thought out. These people, you could say that they were evil, but you can't say they are not smart. So, they started with the fact that Italy had a small colony in the Horn of Africa, Somalia; they had conquered it in the 19th century. But the region also had a British colony and a French one. And the only African land that was not in European hands, Ethiopia, was right there, at the border with Somalia. It was still ruled by the king of kings, the Negus Neghesti. Italy had tried, once, to expand in Ethiopia, but they had been defeated at the battle of Adua, back in 1886.

I know this story. I guess the Italians wanted revenge for that defeat, right?

Yes, there was this idea of getting revenge, but it wasn't considered an important thing. Ethiopia had never been part of the propaganda baggage of the Fascist party. Benito barely knew it existed, and he had never mentioned the story of Adua in his writings. It was something dormant. I would call it a dormant evil. But the British had focused on that. I think they specialize in evil. See, the idea was to convince Benito to seek revenge for the defeat of Adua. 

And how would that be useful to them?

Simple, as I said. The idea was to push the Duce to attack Ethiopia. And for that, he would have had to assemble a large force: men, equipment, and resources committed to a remote land. Then, of course, the Ethiopians would resist, and Italy would be forced to commit even more resources to the task. And, while the fight was going on, the British would intervene with a naval blockade. They could do that easily; the British rule the waves, don't they? No way for the Italian navy to contest that. And, without the possibility of resupplying the army in Ethiopia, the Italians would have had to surrender. Maybe the British would have graciously intervened to save the poor Italians from being exterminated by the angry Ethiopians. And that was the basic idea: the Duce would lose face; then, he would have had to resign. Job done.

The Perfidious Albion; as they say about Britain. 

Indeed, perfidious. But that's the way they operate. There is a reason why Britain has been ruling the waves for so long. There are things I know that you can know only from this side.... But I think it is better if I don't tell you. Anyway, let me continue with this story. I thought the plan was elegant. It implied some bloodshed, of course, but it might have prevented a much worse disaster later on. So, I enthusiastically accepted to cooperate. And you may ask now who had this idea of the new Roman Empire that would be created by the conquest of Ethiopia. 

I can guess that, Margherita.....

Yes. I concocted this absurd idea that Italy could rebuild the Roman Empire by conquering a country that had never been part of the Roman Empire. I thought of it mostly as a joke, but people believed it! It was all over the place.  Everyone was saying that, and everyone was convinced of that. You have that thing you call "Ngrams," don't you? 

We have that. I am surprised that you know about that, Margherita.

Why surprised? We ghost know a lot of things. But never mind that. You can use Ngrams to see how certain ideas penetrate the public consciousness. And if you look up the word "Ethiopia," you'll see how it picked up interest all of a sudden around 1932. At my time, I didn't need Ngrams. I was one of the sources of this propaganda operation and I could see how things were moving. I had the Italian secret service passing to me their reports. They were going to the Duce, too, but he wouldn't read them, and if he did, he didn't care so much. But I did. The idea of attacking Ethiopia truly exploded with the public. You have a term for this kind of thing, right?

Yes, we call them "psyops." 

That is a nice term. We didn't have it, but we knew how to set certain things in motion. I was not the only one working at that, of course. The British government did a good job by signing a memorandum of understanding with the Italians, where they said that if Italy attacked Ethiopia, Britain wouldn't move a finger to help the Ethiopians. The Perfidious Albion, indeed. Anyway, I do think I played a role in convincing Benito that conquering Ethiopia was a good idea. I even hinted that he could become the new Roman Emperor. 'Benito Caesar,' or something like that. And I think he believed me! How silly men can be! I wrote a lot of propaganda to favor the intervention; you can still find what I wrote. You have this thing you call "The Web."

Yes, Margherita. I read something you wrote about Ethiopia. I commented by saying that it was the best piece of propaganda ever written. 

That was kind of you. 

No.... you were really great. Although I would say....

.... a little evil, maybe?

I wouldn't say exactly that, but....

Ah... Ugo, I am ashamed of some of the things I wrote. But I did believe that I was acting for a good purpose. Anyway, I was heavily engaged in this propaganda operation. In a sense, it was fun: these things get you engrossed. I even went to meet President Roosevelt in 1934. You may have wondered how it was that he received me as if I were a head of state, even though I had no official role in the Italian Government. It was because of the plan. In 1934, it was in full swing, and Roosevelt wanted to know about it from me. Not that I was the only source of information for him. But he asked me a lot of things, and I understood that there were things that I had not been told about the plan. Much darker things than what I knew. But Roosevelt didn't tell me much. I was dismissed, and I went back to Italy. I went to see Benito, and he was suspicious about me, about the British, about the Americans, about everyone. It was a critical moment... 

Maybe you could have told him about the plan?

Sure: the perfect way to have me shot by a firing squad as a traitoress. But I could have done that if I thought he would have believed me. But, no. He has already arrived at the stage where he would believe only the things he wanted to believe. I found that my propaganda operation had gone so well that it had affected him, too. He was convinced that Italy could become an Empire again by conquering Ethiopia. Fully convinced. He had swallowed that, as they say in Britain, "lock, stock, and barrel." In a sense, it was a success for me. But it was one of those successes that count as defeats. That day, I saw myself as a relic. Whatever I had done was done; from then on, there was nothing anymore I could do. I remember I left Benito's Palace, "Palazzo Venezia," thinking I would never set foot there again. And I didn't. I came to know that he had instructed the guards at the entrance to deny me entrance if I were to appear. 

Again, Margherita, a fascinating story. But the plan didn't work as it was supposed to work, right?

No, it worked exactly the way it was supposed to work. Just not the way I was told it would. In 1935, Italy attacked Ethiopia, and the war started. I was expecting -- hoping -- that the British navy would start the blockade, but I knew that the plan was more devilish than that. The British did nothing to help the Ethiopians, but they enacted economic sanctions against Italy. It had no effect on the war, but it was as if they wanted Italians to get mad at them. And they succeeded at that: The Italians were raving mad at the British. You should have been there to understand. 

I read something about that, yes. 

Then, Ethiopia surrendered in 1936, and the king of Italy became "Emperor of Ethiopia," and no one found that silly. It was an incredible success for Benito. He was loved, adored, nearly worshipped. People really believed that Italy had become an Empire again. And that Italians were going to trash those decadent plutocracies of Northern Europe, including their Jewish masters. 

It was hard on you, right?

Yes, even though I had converted to Christianity, I was still considered a Jew. Even by Benito himself. You know what he wrote about me? That I was smelling bad because I was a Jewess.... that kind of man, he was. 

I am sorry about that, Margherita. 

You don't have to be sorry, Ugo. It is the way things went. Anyway, the naval blockade of Ethiopia was still part of the plan; it was just postponed. It was enacted in 1941, after  Italy declared war on France and Britain. And things went as planned. Italy had 250,000 troops in Ethiopia, they couldn't be resupplied from the mainland. They soon surrendered; what else could they have done? An easy victory for the British, and a terrible loss for Italy. Those troops could have changed how the war went if they had been available in Europe. 

So, it was a plan.... I hadn't thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense. It was a truly devilish plan by the Perfidious Albion.

Yes, you see, they didn't just want to get rid of Mussolini. They wanted to destroy him and make sure that Italy was thoroughly destroyed, too. No more a threat to the British Empire. It worked incredibly well. Of course, it was possible only because Benito was so dumb. But it was not just him. You see, propaganda is a beast that's nearly impossible to control. You sell dreams to people, and people become enamored with their dreams. And every attempt to wake them up fails or, worse, makes them angry at you. 

I know. You risked your life in 1938.

Yes, it was very hard for me. With the racial laws, I was targeted directly as a Jew. Fortunately, I could run away from Italy fast enough. And you may wonder how I could do that.

Your friends in the British Secret Service, right?

Yes. They helped me run away to France and from there to Argentina. They gave me a pension, and the agreement was that I shouldn't tell anything to anyone about the plan. The Italians agreed that that was the best way to get rid of me. Better than a bullet into my head -- it could have raised suspicions. And it was fine for me, too. Even if I had told the story of the plan, who would have believed me? I can do that only now, when I am a ghost. I was lucky, most of the Italian Jews were not so lucky. My sister Nella was deported to Auschwitz in Germany, and she was killed there. 

I am sorry about that. But can I ask you a question, Margherita?

Of course, you can.

Did you really believe in what you were doing, Margherita? I mean, propaganda? Or was it because you were....

.... paid?

Yes, I mean, I don't want to offend you, but....

Let me answer you with another question, Ugo. I know that your career was as a scientist, right?


And you were paid to be a scientist, right? 

Of course, yes. 

But you believed in science, right?

I still do, Margherita..... Even though....

I understand. I know something about what's happening in your world. Yes, and I am sorry for the people like you who believed in science and were so badly betrayed by it. It was the same for me with Benito and the Fascist party. But, in the beginning, I believed in him. I deeply believed that Italy needed a man like him. How things change! He changed so much. It was as if a cancer devoured him from the inside. Yet, something of the old Benito remained. And, in a way, I can understand how that woman, Petacci, loved him to the point of following him to the end. A sad story; she didn't have to. I am sorry for her. But so things are. Sooner or later, everyone ends up where I am, in Hades. 

Yes, you know, Margherita. I was wondering. It is not often that I see ghosts... are you some kind of....

You make me laugh, Ugo. No, I am not a psychopomp. I am not announcing your death!

Ah... that's nice to know! 

I am happy to see that you are relieved! Anyway, it was a pleasure to speak with you. I understand that you are writing another novel, right?

Yes, it is about Mata Hari. 

Oh, such a nice woman. I met her a few times here in Hades. 

The way you say it, it seems that Hades is a nice place. 

Not really, You'll find it boring, I think. 

Well, so things are, I guess. 

So things are. And have nice writing, Ugo. Maybe Mata Hari will come to visit you as a ghost, too. Let me disappear the way ghosts know how to do.......


Ugo Bardi's novel, "The Etruscan Quest," was published in 2023 by "Lu::Ce Edizioni". The story told in the novel takes place during the time of Fascism in Italy, and it touches many of the elements of madness that overcame the country at that time. Margherita Sarfatti, a real historical figure, makes a cameo appearance in the novel. 

Here is Sarfatti's text that I described as "The Best Piece of Propaganda Ever Written"

More details about the Italian adventure in Ethiopia can be found in this post and this one

This post was in part inspired by a conversation with Anastassia Makarieva



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)