After the conclusion of the Lateran Pacts, in 1929, many English Catholics began to consider the regime of Benito Mussolini as a possible model of successful synthesis between politics and religion. Fascism especially attracted the sympathies of the more conservative fringes of the British “papist” world. For example, Hilaire Belloc, the great essayist friend of G. K. Chesterton, showed an admiration for il Duce that remained substantially unchanged throughout his life (Chesterton, by contrast, was more cautious). More generally, several British politicians and intellectuals evaluated positively the work of the Italian dictator. In 1932 Oswald Mosley went as far as to found the British Union of Fascists (BUF), a party that was clearly inspired by Mussolini’s thinking.
In addition to Mrs Wilfrid Ward, author of The Shadow of Mussolini (1927), one of the first Catholic writers who considered “Mediterranean fascism” a possible model for British politics was James Strachey Barnes (1890-1955) who, after the First World War, settled in Italy, a country which, according to him, symbolically represented universal values and Faith in the Church. Having become a member of the Partito Nazionale Fascista and a friend of Mussolini, Barnes wrote an essay on fascist ideology, The Universal Aspects of Fascism, which was published in 1928. Three years later Fascism, a small volume prepared for the Home University Library, was released. The two books achieved widespread public success and were reprinted several times. Barnes – Florentine by adoption – also signed numerous articles in favour of the regime that appeared in various international newspapers.
Following the ideas of distributism, Barnes preached a wider distribution of wealth, aspired to social peace and hoped for the disintegration of the great capitalist monopolies. Fascism, for him, meant a return to that Christian Middle Ages which, unfortunately, had been swept away by the moral corruption of the Renaissance. Mussolini’s regime had managed to restore order to a chaotic country, giving the Italians a renewed moral strength: Britain also had to take that path.
By the early 1930s, many other Catholic politicians and writers shared Barnes’s position. The most important were those that gravitated around the historian Sir Charles Petrie and the magazine English Review, edited at that time by Douglas Francis Jerrold.
Petrie was an Irish baronet who in 1931 had written a volume entitled Mussolini, published by Jerrold for Eyre and Spottiswoode. His admiration for il Duce lasted well beyond the war. According to the historian, in fact, fascism had achieved two important objectives: the creation of a corporate state and the solution of the long-standing “Roman question” (Petrie did not, however, ignore the selfish gains that had led Fascism to sign the important agreement).
Jerrold, on the other hand, embodied the anti-capitalist spirit of a certain British conservatism. He was convinced that the only serious attack on this system, rotten and corrupt to the core, had been carried out by the reactionary regimes of the continent and by those Catholics who, in England, had had the courage to make their voices heard. Among these were the names of Bernard Wall, Robert McNair Wilson, Douglas Woodruff, Count Michael de la Bédoyère and Christopher Hollis, author of a book, Italy in Africa, which justified the “civilizing mission” of fascism in the black continent (with tones generally more emphatic than those employed by Evelyn Waugh in In Abyssinia). Jerrold was an enthusiast of the corporatist system and his novel Storm Over Europe (1930), set in the fictional state of Cisalpania, was a distillation of pro-Mussolini propaganda.
Few Catholics joined the Mosley BUF, but other European groups, such as the Rexist movement in Belgium or the Action Française, were able to arouse greater enthusiasm.
A diametrically opposite conduct was instead adopted towards Nazism, which received condemnations from all sides for its brutal methods, racist ideology and ostentatious neo-paganism. Chesterton wrote enlightening pages on the subject, while Belloc, on his part, never ceased to deplore the Munich agreement of 1938 and the alliance between Mussolini and Hitler. Only the Catholic Herald of de la Bédoyère, albeit timidly, tried to justify the German regime in some way by presenting it to its readers as the only bulwark against the Bolshevik danger.
Mussolini and Italian Fascism therefore aroused a lot of enthusiasm among the British faithful to the Church of Rome. Many intellectuals poured out words of praise for a dictatorship which, at least before the introduction of racial laws and the Second World War, seemed to have all the credentials to set an example for those in Europe who dreamed of a return to a Christian order. However, no one could have imagined that, a mere handful of years later, only the smouldering embers of that ideal would remain.