Mussolini, MI-5 and the Question of Permanence

Recently new archival material has been uncovered that sheds light on a previously unsubstantiated rumor. Mussolini-also known as Il Duce-was for a short period of time in the employment of British MI-5. According to Cambridge historian Peter Martland, who discovered details of the deal struck with the future dictator, said: “Britain’s least reliable ally in the war at the time was Italy after revolutionary Russia’s pullout from the conflict. Mussolini was paid £100 a week from the autumn of 1917 for at least a year to keep up the pro-war campaigning – equivalent to about £6,000 a week today.” The payments according to the Guardian were authorized by Sir Samuel Hoare, an MP and MI-5’s man in Rome, who ran a staff of 100 British intelligence officers in Italy during this period. At the time, Mussolini ran a right-wing newspaper, the Il Popolo d’Italia, which made him an attractive “asset” to western intelligence agencies. Along with his “literary talents,” Mussolini had a penchant for giving political opponents “offers they couldn’t refuse,”  Mussolini made available to Hoare and MI-5, Italian army veterans who beat up peace protesters in Milan (a possible preview to his fascist black shirt units) as a way to enlist continued Italian support for the war.

While the above story is fascinating, with features of skullduggery and subterfuge, what really interests us are the story’s archival nuances. The context of this event, revolve around Cambridge historian Peter Martland and his discovery of payment references proving Hoare’s (and MI-5’s) complicity with Mussolini. But more than that is the fact that Hoare kept the references and mentioned it in his memoirs, published in 1954. Why the story never took off when it was first told decades ago is not known (no actual documentation?) but the largely ignored story  has obtained new life with the recent find in Hoare’s papers (except in Italy). The act of creating and keeping the references by Hoare is interesting in of itself because it proves that the operation followed some type of protocol and that Hoare was not freelancing, or so it would seem. Consequently, this operation possibly might have been known by higher-ups at MI-5 because if it was not, why would he have created and kept the references to the payoffs, for historical purposes…I doubt it. It more than likely seems that Hoare wanted to create a paper trail to either protect himself or the possibly more mundane act of just keeping good accounting records (go figure).

Another area of archival concern implied within the article is preservation. The question to pose about this event is, would Hoare have kept the records if they could have been disseminated electronically at the point of creation and would Martland have discovered them years later if they would have been created within an ephemeral electronic environment, especially one with an automated records destruction cycle? I don’t have the answers to these questions but they do hang over us like the Sword of Damocles. How do we preserve electronic records but more importantly can we get to records that can shape or change history? It would seem that the ability to create and store in an analog environment but more importantly to keep such documentation private are one of the attributes that make paper so inviting to the records creator. Would people be so quick to create documentation in a more widely accessible medium, if they believed it would incriminate them in nefarious activities or would such previously recorded acts move to a more “private recording sphere?”

One final point to discuss is the authenticity of the documents. Some people might question these records as fraudulent but I would contest those charges with a couple of points. First, why would Hoare have referred to the event in question in his memoirs, if it was not true and what possible advantage would certain personnel in British Intelligence have in admitting to being associated with a known thug? By 1944 being associated with fascism was seen unfavorably, after all this was not 1938 when Hitler was chosen as Time “Man of the Year,” when the world was still enamored with Fascism. So, I cannot see there being any reason for the fraud but one never completely knows.

This story did not end well for all of the characters involved, both protagonists, Mussolini and Hoare, would meet again but not before Mussolini had turned many of his Italian WWI veterans into the elite Black Shirt shock troops (MI-5 money helped) and used them to march on Rome. After taking control of Italy, Mussolini quickly turned his ambitions to recreating the Roman Empire which brought him back into contact with his old paymaster. It was under the auspices of the Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea) conflict in which then British foreign secretary, Hoare signed the Hoare-Laval pact, which gave Mussolini control over Abyssinia and sowed the seeds for the eventual war in Saharan Africa. As history tells us, Mussolini would end his conquering days swinging from the gallows, while Hoare would be made Peerage as Viscount Templewood, of Chelsea in the County of Middlesex after serving as ambassador to Spain during WWII.