Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Benito Mussolini was MI5's man in Italy

Historians in Cambridge have uncovered details of a lucrative deal struck between a young Benito Mussolini and MI5 in 1917. For at least a year, the young socialist was paid £100 a week by the UK government — around £6,000 today — to write pro-war propaganda for his newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia, one of the slickest media machines the country, and keep Italian troops fighting at the front.

“Mussolini wasn’t exactly house-trained,” said Dr Peter Martland, the Cambridge historian who made the discovery. It was unlikely that the young Il Duce was saving for aid packages to the front. “We know he was a womaniser par excellence,” said Dr Martland. “There’s the potential that a lot of money was spent on that.”

The deal was brokered by MP Sir Samuel Hoare, who would almost two decades later become Foreign Secretary but in the autumn of 1917 was acting as MI5’s man in Italy. The hope was that Mussolini’s newsprint would reach the disgruntled masses of industrialised workers, halt the strikes and overturn pacifism: propaganda might stiffen Italy’s resolve and banish the Bolsheviks.

It is unlikely that the man and Il Duce ever met, but Dr Martland estimates that the overinflated wage was small beer for British budgets, from which the war was leeching £4m every day.

“This is not some Mickey Mouse back-of-an-envelope job. But what the hell do you do if you’re losing a war? You keep your enemies going and £100 is nothing.”

The two men went their separate ways after the armistice: Mussolini to establish a bloody fascist dictatorship, and Hoare to work his way through the ranks of government. The two came together again in 1935 when the British foreign secretary signed the Hoare-Laval Pact, and gave his old payee control of Abyssinia.

Dr Martland made the discovery studying a huge cache of Sir Samuel’s papers. Running to more than 40,000 documents and 12 years in studying, they constitute one of the biggest political collections in the world. He says though the Mussolini-Hoare pact had been known for decades, the size of the pay package wasn’t.

“It’s not because it’s a secret. It’s not been a secret for decades.” he said. “It’s just that no one’s bothered looking.”


No comments: