Totalitarian Leaders, Urban Legends and Motorbikes March 29, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
Totalitarian states put their leaders at the very heart of civic life as symbol and reality of fascism/Nazism/communism (or whatever other nightmare a country has fallen into). One of the consequences of the popular focus on the duce/fuhrer/stalin is that the individual citizen comes to feel a special warmth for the head that they might not feel for the regime as a whole. Indeed, very often citizens exempt the dear leader from criticism while raving about the unfortunate activities of the local party: something akin took place in medieval societies where the king was never to blame, it was always the barons… How often did Italian fascists mutter ‘if only the duce knew’, sentiments that were more typically pluperfect in Germany after the war ‘if only the Fuhrer had known’. This much is commonly understood, of course. What is not appreciated, perhaps, is that sometimes these convictions seem to have created fantasy sightings of the leaders. Doris Lessing made light of this in her exceptionally fine novel, The Golden Notebook. In that work she describes how western communists would dream of going to the USSR and being called out of their hotels in the middle of the night for an intimate and honest conversation with Stalin, who wanted to know how the average English or Scottish or American communist really felt about the latest five year plan. (Ho, ho, ho!) DL was talking about fantasy in terms of deliberate acts of the imagination. But I’ve recently run into some very curious Italian equivalents about Mussolini that are closer to fairy sightings than to political wet dreams. Consider this one taken from the pages of the best recent work on the Italian pre-war period Christopher Duggan’s brilliant Fascist Voices (223). Rosina Menin was 11 when the man on the motorbike showed up in the drained marshes near Rome, a subsequent Fascist stronghold.
[Mussolini] was passing our house and coming in, and for a time we really couldn’t work out who it was, because he was dressed, it seemed, so as not to be recognized. He asked my father two or three questions… I was small and wasn’t very interested in what he was saying… and then he suddenly disappeared… He left when he saw that he must have been recognized. He had his motorbike. And he also went on his motorbike to Malconsiglio [a placename meaing Bad Advice!] when there were workers there. And he stopped to ask the workers how things were going and if their companies were paying them well and if they were happy. Then they recognized him and knew who it was: ‘It’s Benito Mussolini!!!’ And he sped off on his motorbike. That’s what the workers said…
Mussolini was not riding up and down the Pontine Marshes unaccompanied but it is fascinating that there were these widespread legends doing the rounds. Mussolini frequently took it upon himself to intervene in the affairs of ‘his’ people: being shown to rescue poor but deserving families, with massive attendant publicity in the papers. Any other totalitarian leaders who became urban legends and were seen descending from silver spaceships etc: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
31 March2014: Southern Man ‘perhaps not quite the same thing but a related phenomenon is the hagiography about the dreadful Kims. From one of the best books on the subject, Demick Nothing to Envy: Broadcasters would speak of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il breathlessly, in the manner of Pentecostal preachers. North Korean newspapers carried tales of supernatural phenomena. Stormy seas were said to be calmed when sailors clinging to a sinking ship sang songs in praise of Kim Il-sung. When Kim Jong-il went to the DMZ, a mysterious fog descended to protect him from lurking South Korean snipers. He caused trees to bloom and snow to melt. If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jong-il was the son of God. Like Jesus Christ, Kim Jong-il’s birth was said to have been heralded by a radiant star in the sky and the appearance of a beautiful double rainbow. A swallow descended from heaven to sing of the birth of a ‘general who will rule the world.’I just want to go on record and say that you have been surprisingly remiss in not giving more space to the glorious Kims.’ Thanks Southern Man!