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William Deakin and Josip Broz ('Tito') in Jajce, 1943

One of Finds’ happiest projects in this the first quarter of 2011 is the reissue of three brilliant works by Sir William (‘F.W.D.’ / ‘Bill’) Deakin, historian, WWII veteran and founding warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford.
Deakin was born in 1913, educated at Westminster and Oxford, and gained his apprenticeship in the business of writing history as research assistant to Winston Churchill on his celebrated life of the Duke of Marlborough. With the outbreak of World War II Deakin joined up, was seconded to the War Office’s Special Operations unit, and in May 1943 was parachuted into Montenegro on a perilous mission to make contact with and assessment of the Yugoslav Partisans led by Josip Broz (‘Tito’) – a mission that would come to influence British policy on Yugoslavia decisively.
In the 1950s Deakin settled as principal of the new St Antony’s College and in the 1960s began to publish his histories. Recently made available in Finds is The Case of Richard Sorge (1965, co-written with G.R. Storry), which tells the story of the Tokyo-based German Communist who alerted Stalin to Operation Barbarossa. Next month we will offer The Embattled Mountain (1971), Deakin’s personal account of his mission in Yugoslavia (named for Mount Durmitor, over which he and Tito’s Partisans were pursued by German/Italian forces.)
But our January offering is The Brutal Friendship, Deakin’s account of the Hitler-Mussolini alliance and German-Italian relations during the Second World War. I am delighted to offer here an appreciation of The Brutal Friendship specially composed for Finds by Adrian Lyttelton, Senior Adjunct Professor of European Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University (Bologna Center), and the author of, inter alia, The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919–1929.

Almost fifty years after its first publication, The Brutal Friendship remains an indispensable point of reference for all studies of the decline and fall of Fascism. Neither the English title nor the title of the first Italian edition fully indicate the scope of Deakin’s work. Indeed the Italian title—Storia della Repubblica di Salòwas positively misleading, as only the third and final part deals with this theme. If we put the two titles together, however, we can better see where the true originality of Deakin’s work lies.

Few studies of any period of Fascism based on extensive primary research have so skilfully combined the study of foreign policy with that of the internal policy and nature of the Fascist regime. The second chapter, on the structure and characteristics of Mussolini’s “personal government” remains a masterpiece of compressed analysis, and until the appearance of Lutz Klinkhammer’s fine study of the German occupation of Italy (1993) no other work has explored with such subtlety and realism the relationship between the fragile and divided Salò Republic of 1943-5 and the Nazi occupiers.

Deakin had an almost ascetic conception of the role of the contemporary historian. At a time when the vast documentation available to historians of the Fascist regime and its short-lived heir was almost unexplored, he felt that the first duty of the historian was to give as extensive a view as possible of the documents, particularly those of German origin. His judgements are often implicit, or reserved for brief asides. One should not imagine, however, that this makes for difficult reading. The book has a strong narrative structure, and the tragic drama of the last years of Fascism emerges vividly from the documents themselves.

The “brutal friendship” between the dictators, if it is not the whole book, is certainly at its heart. What peculiarly interesting about the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini is that at the outset the admiration was all on Hitler’s side. But his belief in Mussolini’s project of remaking a people whom he regarded as naturally inferior and unreliable was eroded by what he saw as Mussolini’s excessive caution in dealing with the monarchy and other remnants of the old Italy. Italy’s disastrous military performance did the rest, and already before Mussolini’s first fall from power on 25 July 1943 Hitler had remarked that Mussolini seemed like a broken man. Nevertheless he kept enough regard for a man whom he regarded as his only precursor to make his rescue a top priority, although undoubtedly a realistic appreciation of Mussolini’s value as a figurehead was a crucial consideration.

Unlike some authors who have written about Mussolini’s final years, Deakin does not trivialize his subject. He does not ignore the lurid personal intrigues around Mussolini’s mistress Claretta Petacci, his son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, and other members of the dictator’s “court”, but he does not give them excessive importance. The tragedy of Mussolini’s relationship with Hitler was rooted both in their mutual recognition of the ideological affinity (not identity) of Nazism and Fascism, and in the huge disparity of power between the two nations.

The other Italian participants in the story—King Victor Emanuel III, the generals, the leaders of the Fascist party – do not come well out of the story, to say the least. It might be thought that Deakin’s vision reflects unconsciously the harsh judgements of his Nazi sources. But Allied judgements (and those of anti-fascist Italians) were not very different. Some Italian critics have complained that Deakin does not give enough importance to the anti-fascist Resistance. But I think that this criticism is misplaced. Quite simply, this was not part of the story that Deakin has told with such skill and completeness, that of the fatal embrace between two dictators and their regimes.

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Tito with John F Kennedy, October 1963

It has been gratifying to note the level of interest in Finds’ edition of Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia by Richard West, first published in 1995 (i.e. at a time when interest, for the grimmest of reasons, could not have been higher). Evidently, readers and scholars are still keen to reflect on the twentieth-century story of how a state of ethnoculturally diverse Slavs was made and then unmade in the western Balkans. Richard West’s study of Tito is, naturally, much preoccupied by the question of whether Tito can really be evaluated as the great unifier, the paternal statesman who kept a lid on Yugoslavia’s ‘nationalities problem’ with a firm and steady hand. On the whole West is well disposed to Tito. 15 years later, though, it’s a matter of debate whether Tito’s efforts are even remembered, never mind celebrated.
In his review of West’s book for the New York Review of Books in November 1995, Michael Ignatieff drew an evocative picture of what had been Tito’s stature at home:

“The ruin of all he stood for makes it easy to forget that he was probably the only leader of a Communist system who ever seemed to enjoy genuine popularity, and whose cult depended on something more than terror and propaganda, although it certainly depended on them as well. Years after his death, his photograph was still everywhere: taped to the cash register of a pasticceria in a Dalmatian resort; stuck beside a plastic Orthodox cross on the dashboard of a Belgrade bus; in a plastic wood frame over the mantelpiece of a tin-roofed cottage in central Bosnia…”

 That said, Aleksa Djilas, reviewing for Foreign Affairs, was much more struck by that ‘ruin’ to which Ignatieff referred:

“On May 4, 1995, the 15th anniversary of Tito’s death, there were no official commemorations in any part of the former Yugoslavia. The media made few comments, almost all of which were negative and sarcastic. Up to 1990, around 14 million people had visited Tito’s mausoleum. But for the anniversary only family members, representatives of the small and politically marginal League of Communists, and a few others came to his grave, which is no longer protected by the presidential guard of honor. The myth of Tito had vanished…”

Did Tito foster a system of government that at least tried to encourage Yugoslavs to bury their historical nationalist antagonisms? Or was it more the case that he barred a gate which was torn down and trampled underfoot once he was gone? Richard West’s contribution to the argument is clearly still of considerable interest.

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