If There Is Much In The Window There Should Be More In The Room

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

Genre: History
Author:Frances Stonor Saunders

The astonishing untold story of a woman who tried to stop the rise of Fascism and change the course of history

At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, April 7, 1926, a woman stepped out of the crowd on Rome’s Campidoglio Square, a 50-year-old Violet Gibson, wearing a shiny old black dress, carried a revolver wrapped in a black veil. Less than a foot in front of her stood Benito Mussolini. As he raised his arm to give the Fascist salute, the woman raised hers and shot him at point-blank range.

Mussolini escaped virtually unscathed, cheered on by practically the whole world. Violet Gibson, who expected to be thanked for her action, was arrested, labeled a “crazy Irish spinster” and a “half-mad mystic”—and promptly forgotten.

Now, in an elegant work of reconstruction, Frances Stonor Saunders retrieves this remarkable figure from the lost historical record. She examines Gibson’s aristocratic childhood in the Dublin elite, with its debutante balls and presentations at court; her engagement with the critical ideas of the era—pacifism, mysticism, and socialism; her completely overlooked role in the unfolding drama of Fascism and the cult of Mussolini; and her response to a new and dangerous age when anything seemed possible but everything was at stake.

Mussolini was aghast at being shot. “Fancy, a woman!” he’s reported to have said.
He was ready, he said, for “a beautiful death”, but Violet, one of the “old ugly repulsive women who come from abroad in groups”, was not the kind of person he wanted to be killed by.

There was also an article by Lucy Hughes-Hallett on the story of the woman who tried to kill Mussolini, The Hon Violet Gibson, whose father was Lord Chancellor of Ireland. In 1926, Hughes-Hallett explains, at the time of their “bathetic encounter,”

Mussolini was a splendid figure of a man who liked to display his muscled torso shirtless. Violet was tiny, emaciated and not much loved. She was 50 years old but looked 60, and was odd enough in her behavior to have been twice admitted to sanatoria for the mentally ill.

After her attempt on his life, Violet was again admitted, this time for 20 years. Once that time had passed, Hughes-Hallett says, “history might have endorsed [Violet's] political judgment,” the Duce having been defeated and lynched in his turn, but …

… two decades in an asylum had done nothing for her sanity. She belabored fellow patients with a broom handle. She believed her moods created the weather. She never came out."

Frances Stonor Saunders points out in her superb new book, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, or that between 1922 and 1943 Il Duce sent at least a million people to an early grave. He remained, for a very long time, the darling statesman of the conservative press and the fashionable fascists of Europe, although they conceded that he might be a bit hasty and brutal.

Still and all, according to the British ambassador to Italy, Mussolini was "like any other gentleman." The King of England decorated him with the Order of the Bath, and Austen Chamberlain, the British foreign secretary (whose half-brother was Neville, future prime minister and champion of the Munich accord), considered Mussolini a sincere, charming patriot, and certainly preferable to any other "Italian."

Not so the epigraph in Saunders's new book: "There is such a thing as a moral atmosphere." Those are the words of Violet Gibson, who happens to be the woman who shot Il Duce in 1926. Indeed, a moral atmosphere pervades Saunders's often poignant tale of the Irishwoman, labeled mad, who possessed both gumption and a pistol, which she tried to use to change the course of history.

*original post Dec.23, 2010