She Was Called Mussolini’s “Jewish Mistress”, But She Was Much More Than That

This is based on “Il Duce’s Other Woman: The Untold Story of Margherita Sarfatti, Benito Mussolini’s Jewish Mistress, and How She Helped Him Come to Power”, written by Philip V. Cannistraro and Brian R. Sullivan, and published by William Morrow and Company in 1993.  If you are interested in Italy (or more broadly, Europe, or even more broadly, the world) during the first half of the 20th century, this book is one to read.

First, it is true that Sarfatti and Mussolini had a close relationship, which included a sexual relationship, for about 2o years, and that their post-sexual relationship continued after that, with some ups and many more downs, until Mussolini’s capture and death in 1945.  Sarfatti lived another 15 years, dying in October 1961.

But one should not view their relationship as based on sex.  Much more was involved, as we shall see.  And, of course, Mussolini is renown for his sexual appetite.  Although he remained married to one woman from 1915 until his death (and had five children with her), he had at least three other serious, long term sexual relationships:  (1) Ida Dalser, with whom he was involved before he met Rachele, and with whom he had a child, (2) Sarfatti, and (3) Clara Petacci, a young woman who took Sarfatti’s place as a favorite of the dictator and who was killed along with him in 1945, when she was only 33.  More than that, Mussolini was known for his “one day stands”; he apparently had a young woman brought to him most afternoons after lunch either while he was in his Rome office other on the road elsewhere in the country.  (A perk, I suppose, of being a dictator.)

But all of that is simply an aside.  For the role played by Sarfatti (with whom, by the way, Mussolini clearly had a deep emotional, as well as physical, relationship), went far beyond sex and company.

And, yes, Margherita Sarfatti was Jewish, although she herself was non-religious, and she converted to Catholicism in 1928 (she was 48 at the time), becoming a non-observant Catholic, rather than a non-observant Jew.  This was after he husband, Cesare Sarfatti, a Jewish lawyer more committed to the religion than his wife, had passed away.

Not only was Sarfatti Jewish, but she was born to one of the wealthiest Jewish families in Venice, where one of her grandfathers had been the mayor (the first Jewish mayor of the city) and the other a businessman who, with his associates, was responsible for developing the Venice Lido as a beach resort.  Her family lived sequentially in two large palazzi in Venice, and she never lacked for money, position or culture.

But she was a rebel, and a very smart one, from an early age, and she and her husband, also from a prominent Jewish family, became radical socialists around the turn of the century, engaging in journalistic efforts, the labor movement and (in Cesare’s position) as a supporter for the legal rights of the working and peasant classes.  It was in this way that she met the young Benito Mussolini (3 years her junior), who was at the time also a radical socialist.  They worked closely together on many projects and, as Mussolini remained married to Rachele after their affair started, so she remained attached to Cesare until his death, with whom she had three children.

Turn of the century socialists were, of course, universalists.  They knew no national or ethnic boundaries in their goal to establish a just society world (or at least Europe) wide.  But the test came with the first World War, as socialist parties throughout Europe became nationalist socialist parties, their members finding themselves opposing each other in the trenches.  Universalism became quickly a thing of the past.

In the meantime, Italian politics, never smooth, became rougher.  What should Italy’s role be in Europe.  On which side of the war should it be fighting?  What should be the basis of Italian political decision making?  How participatory should Italian democracy (if it was ever that) be?  Why should one think that the peasants would vote in the best people?  What should be the relationship between the Catholic church and the state? What should be the boundaries of Italy (there were questions about the Alpine boundary with Austria, and thoughts that Trieste and Fiume on the Adriatic should end up in an expanded Italy, not a new Yugoslavia)?

And then there was the tragedy and the empowerment of the war.  The war took the life of Sarfatti’s oldest son, Roberto, at age 17, a tragedy she never imagined could happen, and one she never forgot. The war gave Mussolini a chance to demonstrate his charismatic leadership, something he obviously never forgot.

Throughout this long difficult period, there were three Sarfattis.  There was Margherita Sarfatti the regular sexual companion of Mussolini.  There was Margherita Sarfatti, the polemic journalist who wrote both under her own name and as a ghost writer for Mussolini, and who was the author of a best selling biography of Mussolini, which helped bring him to national and world-wide attention.  And then there was, strange as it may seem, the Margherita Sarfatti, who more than anything loved art and art history, and who wrote widely on the subject, becoming one of the most prominent experts on Italian art of all ages, including Renaissance art, and Italian modernist art.

Throughout this time, and until the mid-1930s, Italian Jews (a relatively small community, but a very old community with many prominent members in business, professional, intellectual and artistic pursuits) were considered as Italian as Italian Catholics. The country was proudly anti-anti-Semitic.  Thus, Mussolini’s dalliances with a Jewish lover was not itself of interest.

Italian politics got more confusing after the war ended.  For those who had thought the war would bring an extension to Italian territory, the Versailles arrangements were a major disappointment.  The Italians, looking to increase their European prominence, were frustrated. The working class, looking for improving economic and work conditions, were dissatisfied.  And the problems were increasingly blamed on the government (or the series of governments).  During this time, the prominence of Mussolini, no longer a pure socialist, but now the creator of a new quasi-socialist “fascist” conception of government, where the leaders would not be chosen democratically (because this is not a way to insure strong leadership) but where the government would reach into the depths of society to insure a better life for all, not shying away from violence where necessary for the good of the country. And eventually, Mussolini, with Sarfatti still by his side as adviser, ghost writer, diplomat (she got along with everyone) and polemicist, was asked to try to form a government.  And he did.

It was then that everything began to fall apart.  Clearly, power went to Mussolini’s head, in the most destructive of ways.  When he entered office, for example, he was militantly anti-German power, anti-Hitler, whom he thought a maniac.  But he was also afraid of Britain and France, and of course bitterly opposed to the Bolsheviks.  He felt he needed to play off one against the other.  The first opportunity came during the Spanish Civil War, when Italy decided to help arm the Spanish fascists of Franco sending in thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft.  Now, suddenly, Italy was allied with Germany, and the first hints of Mussolini’s anti-semitism crept in.  He began to talk about the Jews as a distinct group, keeping to themselves, refusing to assimilate, hungry for power.

Of course, eventually Italy and Hitler’s Germany found themselves full blown allies, and in the mid-1930s Italy issued laws limiting Jewish participation in the professions, abolishing marriage or employment relationships between Christians and Jews, and so forth.  Sure, they never set up concentration camps, or created modern ghettos, and the Italian government did not participate in the “Final Solution”.  But the Italians who happened to be Jewish were no longer considered as full blown Italians.  And, as Margherita found out, conversion did not change her status.

It was during this period that the Sarfatti-Mussolini personal relationship deteriorated, and their sexual relationship ended.  Would this have happened anyway, or did Sarfatti’s Jewish background play the major role?  It is hard to answer this question, but Sarfatti for the first time found it difficult to meet with Mussolini, found that his support of her art work (including her support for young artists and her curating of large scale art exhibitions around the country) ending, and learned that he no longer wanted her to write her articles about the positives of the fascist movement, which she had been doing for a large number of periodicals, including American ones, under her own name and under the nameof Mussolini.

She still seemed to feel something for her former lover, but she was violently opposed to the turns he had taken politically – his support of Franco in Spain, his invasion of Ethiopia to prove Italy was a major colonial power, and of course his alliance with Nazi Germany.  He obviously no longer wanted her advice, he sometimes denied they ever had a relationship, and she found that many of her former friends and allies in the power circles of Italian government and culture were no longer friends.  She began to worry about her own safety, and that of her family.

Eventually, Sarfatti traveled extensively in the United States, and left Italy altogether (along with her one living son and his family – her daughter and family remained in Rome during the war), living for a while in Paris and then splitting her time between her children and grandchildren in Montevideo and the large Italian community in Buenos Aires. After the war, she returned to Italy, living a more private life and writing about art and art history, until she died at age 80.

It’s an interesting story of a brilliant and socially dedicated woman, who reached the pinnacles of power and saw them disappear from her grasp, as the man she knew and the country she knew seemed to change so rapidly.  I have only touched upon the details in this brief report.  I suggest you read the book for more.

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