Waugh and Victory in Europe Day

A few days before the Victory in Europe (VE Day), which marked the formal end of Hitler’s war, Waugh wrote in his diary from Chagford in Devon: “Tuesday 1 May 1945…The end of the war is hourly expected. Mussolini obscenely murdered, continual rumours that Hitler’s mind has finally gone. Communism gains in France. Russia insults USA. I will now get to work on St Helena.”[1]

Waugh’s two military missions, in Crete (1941) and in Yugoslavia (1944) have generated many controversies. There is also a fair amount of generally critical talk about his declared intellectual support for General Franco during the Spanish Civil War and his hate towards the Yugoslav partisan leader and ally of the British, Marshall Tito has been a subject of anecdotal industry. However, one other feature of his war-time personage, which is mentioned in the above diary entry is his interest in the Italian fascist leader Mussolini who came to power in 1922. Under his leadership Italy’s participation in the Second World War was a succession of military disasters.

Waugh met Mussolini in Rome in January 1936. He was on his way back from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) where he was a Daily Mail correspondent (1935-36). Waugh arranged the interview on the condition that it wouldn’t be published or talked about publicly. This presents a real problem for biographers and researchers as nobody can know what did Waugh really think about Mussolini. However, we could make certain assumptions on three accounts in the context of other relevant facts and ideas he entertained. Firstly, in 1936 Mussolini was at the height of his popularity as a fascist leader riding on the promise that he who would put Italy on the world map by incorporating Abyssinia into his new Italian Empire. Italians generally supported the invasion and Waugh certainly was in favor of the invasion. He thought about it primarily as a part of the civilising mission of the western Roman civilisation represented by Italy in Africa. From this point of view, we could assume that Waugh would have naturally sympathised with il Duce. Secondly, we know directly from his writings that Waugh thought highly of Mussolini’s General Rudolfo Graziani who was in charge of the campaign and who Waugh met in Abyssinia. Presumably Waugh would have trusted Mussolini’s military competence if it was discussed.[2] But this would have been a misjudgement as the campaign failed. Further on, it is unclear in what language would have Waugh and Mussolini talked to each other. There is no evidence that there was an interpreter at the meeting. Mussolini was well known as good conversationalist but he only knew limited French, German and even more basic English. It is possible that they talked in any of these languages or in a mixture of all but it is unlikely that the conversation was deeply nuanced or long.

Last but not the least comes Waugh’s later involvement with the war, which took him far away from Mussolini’s Italy both physically and mentally. In 1939 the Pact of Steel sealed the alliance between Mussolini and Hitler. It eventually led Italy to catastrophe and the Duce to his death. A month after it was signed, Waugh completed and published Robbery Under Law and was getting ready to serve in the British Army. Italy was an enemy state to Britain and during the war Waugh returned there only in his capacity as a British soldier. In March 1945, he stayed in occupied Rome to lobby for an audience with the Pope Pius XII for his report on the treatment of Catholics in Croatia. Mussolini was in exile in the north of Italy and on the 28 April he was executed by the partisans then dragged to Piazzale Loreto in Milan to be spat on by the Italian citizens who once admired him. During that time Waugh was preoccupied with what he saw as the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the West to the influence of communism with Tito, Stalin and Churchill being the main actors in this act in his mind. The war changed everything and Waugh’s interest or involvement with the Italian empire idea and Mussolini seem to have faded completely. Waugh was deeply disappointed with the political and cultural shape of the new realities with the Soviets taking over the states in Europe east of the Elbe and driving yet another wedge into the continent. On the eve of “Victory in Europe’ Day he found very little to be proud of and perhaps more than a little guilty:

“Sunday 6 May 1945…All day there was expectation of VE Day and finally at 9 it was announced for tomorrow…It is pleasant to end the war in plain clothes, writing. I remember at the start of it all writing to Frank Pakenham that its value for us would be to show us finally that we were not men in action. I took longer than him to learn it. I regard the greatest danger I went through that of becoming one of Churchill’s young men, of getting a medal and standing for Parliament; if things had gone, as then seem right, in the first two years, that is what I should be now. I thank God to find myself still a writer and at work on something as ‘uncontemporary’ as I am.”

[1] The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Ed. Michael Davie, London 1976, p. 627

[2] Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia, 1936.