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ITALY: Kill the Duce!

6 minute read

Benito Mussolini strode pompously into the Italian Chamber and sat down with folded arms last week. Il Duce did not, however, assume his celebrated frown, for this was going to be fun, and he was being carefully watched through a monocle by the French Ambassador, extremely potent M. Andre Frangois-Poncet, today the No. 1 Continental diplomat.

“TUN-E-E-E-SIA!” The elegant, bemonocled French Ambassador feigned not to understand what was meant in the Chamber when all the Deputies without exception jumped to their feet and, encouraged by two eminent Fascist scream-leaders, screamed in frenzied Italian unison : “Tunisia! Tunisia!! TUN-E-E-E-SIA!”

The scream-leaders were His Excellency Grand Councilor Achille Starace (“The Panther Man”), Secretary General of the Fascist Party since 1932, and His Excellency Roberto Farinacci (“Italian Jew Baiter No. 1”), who that very day had been promoted to Councilor of State.* The screams of all Italian Deputies meant of course that Italy was asking France to give her Tunisia as the Reich was given the Sudetenland, without a fight.

The hubbub was now indescribable, for in the gallery of the Chamber of Deputies women were screaming not only “TUN-E-E-E-SIA!!!” (the Deputies screamed nothing else), but also the names of three other French places: “Corsica!” “Nice!” “Savoy!”

M. Frangois-Poncet was kept nailed to his cushioned tribune, smiling, by the protocol which required him to remain until after the Foreign Minister ” Son-in-Law Count Galeazzo Ciano had finished a chesty speech.

This speech did not ask France to give Italy anything. It just happened to get interrupted by the whole Chamber, led by the two well-chosen scream-leaders. When screaming and speech were finished, the French Ambassador put on his top hat, adjusted his elegant monocle, and, smiling, drove away.

Frowns, Roars. Wearing his best frown, the French Ambassador, 48 hours later, called upon Son-in-Law and demanded verbal explanations—but only verbal, nothing in writing. Son-in-Law roared right back for 45 minutes, then announced to the world: “The Italian Royal and Imperial Government infinitely regrets this wholly irresponsible and uncontrollable burst of enthusiasm!”

In Paris, same day, French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet and the new Italian Ambassador, Raffaele Guariglia, gave each other a high twitting, nothing in writing.

Meanwhile the Italian press in effect screamed “TUN-E-E-E-SIA!” with one regimented voice; and owners of French newspapers each screamed his individualistic brand of outrage.

Optimum. There was reason to think that Italy, far from imagining that France can be bluffed into handing over Tunisia without a fight, much less into handing over Corsica, or Nice or Savoy, is trying mainly to get or keep other things. Il Duce in the past few weeks has already got France and Britain to recognize his conquest of Ethiopia. That is in the bag, and it was a big part of the original Hoare-Laval Deal (TIME, Dec. 16, 1935, et seq.). There are also the beautiful Spanish Isles, Majorca and Iviza, now effectively occupied by Mussolini’s airmen. And there was also a now almost forgotten Mussolini-Laval Deal (TIME, Jan. 14, 1935).

Much of this was about Tunisia, where the population is 2,400,000 natives, 94,000 Italians and 108,000 French. Mussolini promised to agitate no more over Tunisia. The gist of what Laval promised Mussolini about Tunisia was that certain special rights enjoyed by Italians for many years in this French protectorate, will be guaranteed at least until 1965. As soon as the Cabinet of Premier Leon (“French New Deal”) Blum was formed, Italians began receiving ever stronger impressions that these rights would be taken away.

Tunisia, less than 70 years ago, was a region over which the Turkish Sultans ruled through a viceroy. It went bankrupt, was refinanced by the Great Powers, who installed British, French and Italian “comptrollers.” In 1881 a French force invaded Tunisia to chastise the independent Khmir tribes. In the Bardo Palace at Tunis the Turkish viceroy signed over to Paris acknowledgement that Tunisia was a protectorate of France. This protectorate Italy did not “recognize” until 1896, and Turkey did not recognize it until 1920. Italians in 1881, were more numerous in Tunisia than were the French, and if nose-counting, or race is the standard of justice, then Italy has almost as good a claim as France. That Italy would like to press that claim was evident last week when Count Ciano told the French Ambassador that as far as Italy was concerned the 1935 Laval-Mussolini agreement was dead.

Whatever stir Dictator Mussolini thought was going to result from this latest of dictator-manufactured crises, French citizenry in Tunisia and Corsica and French officialdom in Paris responded by getting good and mad. In Tunis an angry mob, forming spontaneously, serpentined through the narrow streets shouting “Down with Italy!” and “Long Live France!” Forcing stray Italians caught in the crowd to remove their Fascist insignia, the paraders wrecked an Italian bookstore, flinging newspapers and books into the streets, raided the offices of the Italian Line, broke into the plant of the Italian newsorgan Fascista Unione. Reinforced police squads narrowly prevented a mob attack on the Italian Consulate, while an Arab anti-Italian demonstration before the Consulate was averted only by strong, official, French persuasion.

In Ajaccio, capital of Corsica, 30,000 demonstrators cried “Long Live France, Kill the Duce!” also before the Italian Consulate. Singing the Marseillaise as they paraded in an organized demonstration, war veterans massed in front of Corsica’s imposing monument at Bastia to World War soldiers while their chief read to veterans and citizens alike an oath of allegiance to France: “With all our soul, we swear, on our glories and on the graves of our dead, to live and die French!” As one man they echoed back: “We swear it!”

The wrath with which all France denounced what Frenchmen considered an outlandish Italian campaign suggested that 40,000,000 Frenchmen, almost hopelessly torn between Left and Right on internal questions, could really unite again when it came to defending La Patrie. Between Left, Right and Centre there is no outstanding difference of opinion about one thing—the incomparable French Army.

That Paris was prepared for “trouble in Tunisia” and that the Army was ready to fight there might well be deduced from the fact that just a few weeks ago old General Maurice Gamelin, Chief of the French General Staff, carefully inspected the defenses of Tunisia, and particularly her fortified frontier with Italian Libya,

*La Squilla (The Scream) was an Italian Socialist newspaper directed by Roberto Farinacci before the War, but after he gave up his original profession as a railway station “baggage-smasher” and stationmaster. After the War, he and a certain Mussolini were known as two of the several “Fathers of Fascism.” Of the five Secretaries-General which the Party has had (1923-38), Farinacci was the second (1924-26). He was kicked out after getting mixed up in the Cremona bank scandals, resumed editorship in Cremona of his newspaper Il Regime Fascista (The Fascist Regime).

Mussolini took him back, made him a Grand Councilor in 1935. Next year, Farinacci lost his right hand in the Ethiopian war, in 1937 went to Spain as liaison between Mussolini and Franco, boasts: “I unified the Spanish Fascist Falange Party machine!” Like Hitler, passionately fond of music and indifferent to women, No. 1 Italian Jew-Baiter Farinacci attended the pre-Czecho-slovak Crisis session of the Nürnberg Nazi Party Congress as head of the Italian Delegation.

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