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British Identity in Fascist Italy

by Konstantin Wertelecki

Konstantin Wertelecki is an MPhil student in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge.

In June 1940, British citizens Mr. and Mrs. Waterfield drove to the Florence railway station, just in time to catch the last train to France before Italy declared war on Britain. Bizarrely, this was their second escape from Italy; they previously fled Tuscany in 1939. But after concluding that the Italians posed no threat, they decided to return. As their daughter Kinta Beevor recalled, this was a common attitude among British expatriates: ‘Although Florence was plastered with virulently anti-British posters, few [Anglo]Florentines seemed to take them seriously.’[1] So in the face of danger, why did British citizens stay in Fascist Italy? While there are several reasons to this, among the most prominent was British expatriates’ tenacious grip on their British identity.


For expatriate British citizens in Fascist Italy, retaining their ‘Britishness’ proved to be detrimental: firstly, British citizens refused to shed their British preconception of superiority and secondly, British citizens remained culturally isolated. This created a sense of false security for them as they ignored Italy’s wave of nationalism and anti-foreign rhetoric that ensued during the Interwar period.

British expatriates held the attitude of British or English superiority in relation to Italy. As a result, British citizens largely ignored the actions of Mussolini and the Fascist party deeming them as non-threatening. For example, when British citizen Anne Greene and her daughter visited Florence in 1935, they commented on the impressive display of Blackshirts marching around the Piazza della Repubblica. In regard to Fascism, they merely concluded that the political situation as ‘a trifle sad.’ Pro-Fascist Diana Mosely found no difference to pre and post Mussolini Rome, despite much redevelopment: Although in some ways less chaotic than of old, Rome was essentially unchanged.’[2]

British expatriates also tenaciously held their British identity by isolating themselves from the Italians, unwary of the severity of changes happening around them. Kinta Beevor, one the few British citizens who did integrate with Italian society recounted the lifestyle of expatriates who kept with them their British routine: ‘the via Tornabuoni still provided a shopping centre for fashionable British tourists and Anglo-Florentines. […]Vieusseux’s Circulation Library provided reading matter, with everything from Jane Austen to Ruskin and Dorothy Sayers. Robert’s British Pharmacy, still known today as the Profumeria Inglese, sold boxes of quinine pills […] for those who disliked apricot jam for breakfast, there was of course Signor Carlo’s stock of Oxford marmalade.’ [3] Some British citizens physically isolated themselves as well, such as Alice Keppel whose large villa outside of Florence lay within a British community surrounded by high stone walls. [4]

These practices of retaining British identity to the extent that British citizens severed themselves from Italian political and cultural life under-prepared the British for consequences of remaining in Fascist Italy. In 1940, over 700 British civilians residing in Italy were placed in internment camps, until the majority were repatriated between the years 1941 and 1943. The study of British citizens in interwar Italy is significant because their perspectives serve as an under-researched comparative marker for analysing the extremity of Mussolini’s regime. As inhabitants in a Fascist nation, their memories contributed to ‘the feelings that ordinary people articulated in Mussolini’s Italy, and what these feelings might tell us about the appeal or otherwise of the regime’.[5]

Works Cited:
[1] Kinta Beevor, A Tuscan Childhood (New York: Vintage, 2000), p 180.
[2] Diana Mosely, Loved Ones: Pen Portraits, (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1985), p. 118.
[3] Kinta Beevor, A Tuscan Childhood, (New York: Vintage, 2000) p.150.
[4] Diana Souhami, Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter, (London : Harper Collins Publisher, 1996), p. 234
[5]Christopher Duggan, Fascist Voices (London: The Bodley Head, 2012), p.ii.

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