The Woman Who Shot Mussolini
By Frances Stonor Saunders
Faber and Faber, 2010
375 pages, $32.99 (pb)
The Honourable Violet Gibson was not like the other women of the Anglo-Irish elite when it came to Benito Mussolini, the leader of Italy's fascists.
While Lady Asquith (wife of the former prime minister) was delighted by Mussolini, and Clementine Churchill (wife of the future prime minister) was awestruck by “one of the most wonderful men of our times”, Violet Gibson aimed a revolver at the fascist dictator in Italy in April 1926 and shot him in the nose.
Frances Saunders' book on the woman who shot Mussolini recounts Gibson's birth in 1876 in Dublin, her frustration at her passive existence as a "decorative ornament", and her turn to various mystical philosophies before settling on a life of “charity and prayer” as a reform-minded Catholic.
A pacifist opposed to World War I, Gibson watched with mounting distaste the rise of Mussolini's fascists in Rome, her spiritual centre.
Mussolini, backed by landowners and business, had grabbed power in 1922 through the slaughter of 3000 political opponents "designed to break the working class movement".
Mussolini, and the silence of the Vatican, were, to Gibson, "assaults on both God and Liberty" and she set out to kill the dictator, believing it was God's divine mission.
Since 1917, when British Treasury money had funded Mussolini's pro-war and anti-socialist newspaper, "Mussolini basked in the approval" of the British political aristocracy.
The British ambassador to Italy called him a “great man and a friend worth having”. The foreign secretary had “pleasant impressions” of Mussolini, who was “easy to work with” ― unlike Italy's troublesome socialists.
Winston Churchill told Italian reporters in 1927 that, if he were an Italian, “I would have been wholeheartedly with you from start to finish in your triumphal struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism”.
The conservative press agreed ― during Britain's 1926 general strike, the Morning Post celebrated the halting of communism in Italy by “trim, handsome, black-shirted lads”.
The Times was slightly uneasy with Mussolini's “village ruffians”, but acknowledged that they served a higher good ― “economic freedom”, as the British High Commissioner to Egypt put it while in Italy.
Gibson's bullets, however, posed a dilemma for all concerned.
Mussolini did not want to jeopardise relations with Britain, whose political support had brought him legitimacy and connivance for his acquisition of empire (in places such as Ethiopia, Libya and Somalia). London did not want to upset its good diplomatic relations, or its ideological rapport, with the Italian bulwark against socialism.
As a result, Britain's foreign office, Gibson's aristocratic family and Mussolini's fascists agreed to treat Gibson as mentally disturbed, not a political assassin. Deported to England, Gibson was, against her will, permanently incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital where she died, forgotten, in 1956.
Saunders concludes that Gibson was "both mentally unstable and highly motivated to act on deeply-held political convictions". She "must be considered mad, at least some of the time, but this does not mean that the whole of her life should be rewritten to fit this conclusion".
What, poses Saunders, is madness? After Mussolini had outstayed his political welcome with the British ruling class, Gibson's attempted assassination would have been applauded as a brave act of resistance, not an act of madness.
Compared to Mussolini, whose dictatorship "must have sent early to the grave at least a million people", Violet Gibson, the woman who shot Mussolini, is the height of sanity.