Wednesday, May 19, 2010
The Woman Who Shot Musollini by Frances Stonor Saunders
Honorable Violet Gibson ( 1876-1956), daughter of the Anglo-Irish Lord Chancellor of Ireland, as a young woman, the consort of Royalty. Never-the-less, her education was circumscribed by domestic intent, to be passive helpmate of her prospective husband and bearer of many children; her upbringing conducted in the blaring light of Victorian social convention in which she was presumed to have no legitimate, private thoughts or ambitions of her own. Her thoughts on the matter in diaries and letters reflected the feelings of many women of the era, most notably Virginia Woolf. Rebelling from the Christian Science orientation of her immediate family, Violet turned to Theosophy, Anthroposophy, associated with various international women's suffrage alliances but eventually converted to Roman Catholicism and the veneration of self-mortifying female saints. This did not deter her from a keen and personal interest in public affairs and the progress of political and social reform in Ireland, England and Europe in general. In 1926 God told her to assassinate the dictator Benito Mussolini , who at that time was the toast of her own government - “just the person to set Italy right”- and The New York Times as well.
Her first shot glanced off the bridge of Mussolini's nose, her second shot misfired. Her ammunition was old. Acquitted on the grounds of insanity she was eventually deported and confined to St. Andrew's Hospital for Mental Diseases for the rest of her life, not an uncommon fate for 'disturbed' and 'difficult' individuals in those times including the daughter of James Joyce and, incredibly, several members of the Royal Family itself, some of who lived for decades after having been officially declared dead.
By midafternoon, just as the first interview with Violet was being concluded, Mussolini was back in his Lancia, still wearing the big plaster across his nose, heading for Palazzo Littorio, her designated assassination site. As scheduled, he appeared at the presentation of the provincial secretaries to the new directorate of the National Fascist Party, where he told them, “The Party must fascistize the nation from top to bottom and from bottom to top.”
Facistizzare- the clunking awfulness of the verb, the hissing sibilants pitched to a menace. What exactly does it mean? Does meaning matter, when Mussolini's every word is set to detonate euphoria, when a mere flick of his hand is enough to redesign the whole composition of the crowd? Wooing and winning. The applause tumbles like falling masonry. Il Duce lives, God save Il Duce! God preserve Italy's glittering destiny.
“The crowd loves strong men”, Mussolini once said. “The crowd is like a woman... Everything turns upon one's ability to control it.” Much of his crowd theory derived from the French writer Gustave Le Bon's Pychologie des foules (1865), which argued that crowds do not like kindly masters, but tyrants who oppress them; they trample down despots only when those despots have lost their strength and no longer inspire fear. Crowds, according to Le Bon, have conservative instincts, a fetish-like respect for traditions, and an unconscious horror of novelties that could change their way of life. They are not influenced by reason and their arguments are always of an inferior order.
Le Bon's theory has not survived the scorn of sociologists, but in 1921 Freud devoted several pages to it and called it a “brilliant” description of the collective mind (Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego). “Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act,” explains Umberto Eco, 'they are only called upon to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”
When later that evening a crowd assembles outside Mussolini office at Palazzo Chigi, he emerges onto a balcony to address them. He wishes to show them, he says, that the ring of his voice has not changed one atom, and that the beat of his heart has not quickened. He thanks them for their spontaneous displays of enthusiasm and calls them to maintain discipline in the true fascist style. “No danger threatens the regime,” he bellows. Cries of “The foreigner! The foreigner!” rise up from below. “This danger, too, we shall face,” he replies. “I am one of your generation. That means that I am the newest sort of Italian, one who is never thrown by events, but rather always proceeds straight down the road assigned by destiny.” In a dramatic peroration, soon adopted as one of the slogans of the regime, he urges the need for all to “live dangerously. Indeed, I say to you like an old soldier: 'If I advance, follow me.” There was a second part to this lapidary sentence - “If I retreat, kill me”- which would come to pass in due time. Then, “If I die, avenge me.” “La forca, la forca!” ( the gallows, the gallows!) comes the answer.... For those involved- Il Duce and the people- the experience was not one of stand-up comedy but of sacramental Union.
Back at the Mantellate prison, Violet is taken to a cell, consisting of an iron bedstead, clothes stand, chamber pot, table, aluminum plate, a cup, wooden cutlery, a jug of drinking water, and a washbasin. “It is better not to lay up possessions,” she had written in her notebook, and her only request is for a crucifix, before which she prays on her knees for several hours. She then eats a meal and falls into a deep sleep, according to the nuns who have been instructed to watch her all night.
All over Italy, God is thanked. In the churches Te Deum ceremonies are held to celebrate Mussolini's miraculous escape. In Venice, the bells of St. Mark's are rung in sign of thanksgiving. The fact that he has shed his blood on the most ancient of Roman sites does not interfere with an interpretation of the event as a contemporary Calvary. From the Vatican, Pius XI has dispatched Cardinal Merry del Val to tell Mussolini in person that he is “clearly protected by God.” A strange God, this, who tells Violet Gibson to shoot Mussolini and then instructs the bullet not to kill him.
In Rome, expressions of worshipful adoration pour forth. A letter from Clara Petacci, aged fourteen, 8 April, 1926:
“Duce, my most beloved Duce, our life, our hope, our glory- how can there be a soul so wicked to try to deprive our beautiful Italy of her glittering destiny? Oh Duce, why wasn't I there? Why wasn't
I able to strangle that woman assassin who wounded our Divine being... Duce, I would so love to rest my head on your chest, so that I might hear the living beats of Your great heart ...When I heard the news, I thought I would die because I love you deeply, like a little Fascist of the first hour...me, a small but ardent Fascist, with my favorite motto which sums up the love that my young feels for you: Duce, I offer my life to you!”
Unlike most schoolgirls, Clara Petacci will experience the realization of her heart-swelling fantasy. Six years after writing this letter, when she was just twenty, she will become Il Duce's lover. A decade later – after the premature deaths of one million Italians- on 28 April 1943, she offers up her life for him: slammed against a wall and shot. Her corpse is transported alongside her lover's to the Esso gas station at Paizzale Loreto in Milan- his head resting on her breast- before being strung up by the heels. Clara Petacci, the little Fascist, hanging like a prosciutto.
Violet Gibson died, 2 May, 1956, at 12:45 a.m. “She did not have much suffering and her passing was a peaceful one' Dr. Tennent wrote to the new Lord Ashbourne who had assumed the role of legal petitioner for her continued confinement at St. Andrews. There were, he added, “no matters outstanding with the accounting department.” When the National Health Service agreed to assume the financial burden of her care several years previously, she had lost the privilege of a private room and moved to a public ward. But even in death, her wishes- the disposal of her estate, her body, and her memory- were denied. Violet left money for a Requiem Mass at the Catholic cathedral of Northhampton but it was given in the far humbler surroundings of St. Gregory's, a local Catholic Church. She requested to be buried in the Catholic party of the Cemetery at St. Andrew's “with all the rights of the Catholic Mass." She was in fact interred at Kingsthorpe Cemetery, a dreary expanse of flatland butting up against a noisy through street of Northhampton.
There was no public announcement of Violet's death. There was no friend, no member of the family present at the burial. In her will, Violet set had set aside one hundred pounds for the erection of a gravestone. In this, as in everything else, she was short-changed. Above her grave, plot number 12411, is a bland cross in cheap gray quarry stone. It's inscription- “Violet Gibson, 1876-1956” is equally parsimonious: the punctuation is highly unusual, the result of the stonecutter following Ashbourne's text, which was communicated by telegram. Nothing follows the comma on Violet's gravestone, except the dates of her birth and death. Full Stop. Set in Stone. Her extraordinary story lies between the comma and the period.
The Honorable Violet Gibson deserved better.