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Friday, December 25, 2009

How Mussolini Almost Stole Christmas

It was December 1941, and Italy's dictator, Benito Mussolini--the Duce--was in a foul mood. He had taken his poorly prepared country into an ill-advised war as an ally of Japan and Nazi Germany, the latter a nation and people he and most Italians despised. The Americans had entered the war on the 7th; the vaunted German army faced surprising resistance on the Eastern front; and the Italians were getting beat up by the British in Libya (about all that remained of their empire).

There were a great many things to worry about, and one of them, the Duce decided, was Christmas. "Mussolini has again attacked Christmas," wrote his son-in-law and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano in his remarkable diary. Mussolini had always hated the bourgeoisie--Italy's monied middle class of merchants and businessmen--for its self-interest and lack of grit, and he must have thought that Christmas was a bourgeois holiday, all about things.

But it was more than that. Although Italy was a profoundly Catholic country--the Pope's residence, after all, was just across the Tevere--and God can be very popular in the midst of war, Mussolini hated religion in general and the Papacy in particular. "He is surprised," Ciano wrote, "that the Germans have not yet abolished this holiday, which 'reminds one [what follows is Ciano's recollection of the Duce's words] only of the birth of a Jew who gave to the world debilitating and devitalizing theories, and who especially contrived to trick Italy through the disintegrating power of the Popes."

He did not ban Christmas (as if one could). But he did prohibit newspapers from mentioning it. And on Christmas day, with the churches full, he purposefully scheduled an unusually large number of appointments. "Christmas is nothing more than the twenty-fifth of December," he announced on that day. "I am the man who in all this world feels least these religious anniversaries."

And that's how Mussolini almost stole Christmas. Bill

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