Life & Culture

Book review: Sisters in Resistance - The dictator’s daughter’s double life

Tilar J Mazzeo’s account of an Italian war story races along at a pace as relentless as that of actual events


Sisters in Resistance
by Tilar J. Masseo
Scribe £20

The title of this fascinating account of an Italian war story could be somewhat misleading. These three Sisters in Resistance are emphatically not among the partigiani forming the Italian counterpart to the French résistance.

Nor are there simply three of them, for alongside Edda Ciano (née Mussolini, wife of her father’s foreign minister and heir apparent, Galeazzo Ciano); Frances de Chollet (a wealthy American socialite, married to a French baron); and Hilde Beetz (a German spy, her Nazi allegiance compromised by her affair with Edda’s husband and, later, by one with Edda’s lover Emilio Pucci), there is a network of women friends and co-conspirators.

Often wed to bankers and/or aristocrats, they proved more than willing to trade the role of socialites for that of a spy and conspirator, apparently captivated by the notion of becoming part of an ongoing thriller with a fiendishly complex plot, in which extramarital affairs could play as influential a part as politics.

The politics of the day were, of course, fascism. By 1941, at issue was divergence between the German and Italian branches, uneasy allies in the Axis.

By 1943 Ciano, son of a founder of the Italian Fascists, was increasingly disillusioned by his father-in-law. At a fateful meeting of the Fascist Grand Council in July, he voted down Mussolini, to strip him of dictatorial powers. Fleeing to Bavaria, Ciano was captured by the Nazis and returned to the new Italian “social republic”, based in the northern town of Salo, with Mussolini as puppet leader.

The women’s common cause, born in Edda and Hilde’s instance of their common love for Ciano and their growing — if unlikely — friendship, was to save Ciano’s life. Their secret weapon?

The diaries kept by Ciano of top-level ministerial meetings held between 1939-43 which contained evidence of the criticism and ridicule to which Goering and Goebbels, Ribbentrop (Ciano’s counterpart foreign minister) — even Hitler — had exposed themselves. Here German and Italian Fascists concurred: the diaries were dynamite.

Yet Mussolini openly defied his daughter’s wishes. In January 1944 Ciano was subjected to a show trial in Verona at which he was charged with treason.

The same day he was put before the firing squad and shot, together with five fellow anti-Mussolini Fascist leaders. A moment before his death he disobeyed orders for the last time, tearing off his blindfold and turning to stare at his executioners.

The diaries now changed function. Once they could no longer be used to free Ciano, Edda and Hilde set about involving those they could trust within Frances’s ample social circle to rescue his reputation and condemn the Nazis.

The women repeatedly risked their lives by smuggling volumes of diaries underneath pregnancy smocks in midnight flights across national borders, and taking risks with unsavoury co-conspirators such as the sinister priest, Guido Pancino, engaged in playing both sides.

While some copies disappeared, others survived being moved between hiding places — including a mental asylum and a rose garden — in three countries and were delivered to the Allies to provide evidence against the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials in 1945.

Edda and Hilde in particular may have initially been united by passion than by political allegiance, yet the significance of their actions could hardly be over-estimated: after the war the Allies praised and protected Edda and Hilde for their courage and commitment.

It’s a story too good not to tell. The cast, which also included Susanna Agnelli, heiress to the Fiat fortunes and Emilio Pucci, a Neapolitan aristocrat, playboy and a post-war fashion guru, is tempting media material, and Tilar J Mazzeo’s account races along at a pace as relentless as that of actual events.

A prolific and best-selling author of historical biographies, Mazzeo captures the alternating elation and despair of the cliff-hanging quest, and the solidarity of the largely female network of women opposed to Mussolini’s version of Fascism.

Mazzeo handles her formidable quantity of material with expertise, backed by copious notes and sources. If ever there were a case for proving how history can be stranger than fiction, this story is it.

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