Thursday, September 22, 2022

Who Controls Those who Control Us? Why a Lone man at the top is the Most Dangerous Thing in the World

In the game of chess, you win when you eliminate your opponent's king. In the real world, instead, killing the enemy leader is a much less effective strategy in comparison to being able to influence his choices in ways that harm his side. Here, I am examining the case of Benito Mussolini in Italy. Could it be that Mussolini was influenced, if not controlled, by the British secret services? It may have been one of the first cases of "one-man psyops" designed with the purpose of taking control of the mind of an enemy leader. Maybe something similar can explain some of the horribly bad decisions that our leaders are taking nowadays.

It never was a secret that Benito Mussolini started his political career as a shill for the British secret services. His task was pushing Italy to join the allies in World War One. Recent data show that, in 1917, he was still being paid by the British M15 to the tune of 100 pounds per week, a respectable sum at that time. 

We don't know what role the British Services had in Italy in the events after the end of WW1, but it is likely that they continued to support Mussolini, directly or indirectly. The British wanted a stable Italy that they saw as a staunch ally and a barrier against the ambitions of rival powers in the Mediterranean sea. Italy had played that role from when it had been created as a unified state, in 1861, with the help and financing of the British.

Italy was friendly to Britain, yes, but not a disinterested friend. Italians wanted something in exchange for their friendship, and they had it in the form of coal. Italy had no significant coal reserves, it was fully dependent on imports. It was British coal that had created the Italian industrial economy, from the early 1800s onward. That created a relationship between the two countries that many defined as a true brotherhood (fratellanza). But things changed in 1913, when Britain went through its "peak coal." Production stopped increasing and was disrupted by strikes and social unrest. 

Britain still had enough coal for its internal needs, but exports were affected. This was especially bad for Italy, which saw a precipitous drop in coal imports after the end of WWI. At that time, the change of mood toward the British in Italy was palpable. D. H. Lawrence reports in his "Sea and Sardinia," published in 1921, how insulting the "English" was a common subject of conversation among Italians. 

Now, put yourself in the shoes of someone who managed the British secret services in the early 1930s. It must have been clear to them that there was a problem with Italy. An enormous problem. Germany's coal production was still increasing and Germany could easily supply 100% of Italy's needs. Then, Italy and Germany were natural allies. Germany had no direct strategic interests in the Mediterranean sea, while Italy could use Germany's support to become the leading Mediterranean power. By taking control of the Suez Canal, Italy could effectively kick Britain out of the Mediterranean: truly a disaster for the British Empire. (Italy actually tried to do exactly that in 1940).

And then, Mussolini himself: another headache for the British who were discovering that they had created a golem they couldn't control. In 1933-34 two more things happened that made the situation critical. First, in 1933 Adolf Hitler took power in Germany. Then, in 1934, Mussolini held a referendum that gave him a majority of 99.84% percent of the votes. The two dictators shared views and methods, and the road was now open to the Rome-Berlin "Axis." It would be formalized in 1936.

Again, let's see the situation from the viewpoint of the British. Facing a confrontation with Germany, it was vital for them to do something to remove Italy from the game or, at least, to weaken it considerably. But how? Directly toppling Mussolini was unthinkable. But it may well be that the British still had some direct communication channels with him (and, by the way, Mussolini could speak English). So, when you have to deal with someone who is too powerful to attack directly, you use indirect means. Find his weak spot, and set up a trap. And Mussolini did have a weak spot: his dream of rebuilding the Roman Empire. 

Up to 1934, the Imperial dreams of Mussolini had been mostly for show: people dressed like ancient Romans parading in the streets, the ubiquitous "fascio" symbol, and the outstretched arm in the "Roman Salute," even though the Romans had never saluted each other in that way. And then, suddenly, there came the idea that, by attacking Ethiopia, Italy would recreate the Roman Empire. It had a certain perverse logic: since the King of Ethiopia had the title of Negusa Nagast (king of kings) he could be defined as an "emperor," Then, by defeating him, the King of Italy could take his title and become emperor. Never mind that the ancient Romans never had Ethiopia as a colony, they barely knew it existed. It was a recipe for an "instant empire."  

Italy had two colonies on the border with Ethiopia, and also an old grudge against Ethiopia, having been defeated by the Ethiopians at the battle of Adwa in 1896. But, up to 1934, nothing in the propaganda arsenal of the Fascist regime had identified Ethiopia as an important enemy or a target to be attacked. I went to examine the archives of one of the national newspapers, "La Stampa." I found that, before 1934, there was basically nothing about Ethiopia, except a few articles about local folklore. I also re-read D.H. Lawrence's "Etruscan Places" (written in the late 20s). It was, in many ways, a strong accusation against the Fascist regime, but Lawrence never mentions that Italy had Imperial dreams in Ethiopia. 

Then, on 5 December 1934, there came the "Walwal incident." Italian and Ethiopian troops clashed at the border of Ethiopia and Somaliland, with losses on both sides. From that moment, the Italian press started a campaign of accusations against the Ethiopians said to be attacking the Italian possessions in Eritrea. There started to appear the idea of the "civilizing" mission of Italy in that barbarous country and, finally, the whole soup was sparkled with references to the glory of the Roman Empire that Fascist Italy was going to recreate. And, yes, also young Ethiopian women were part of the deal for the conquerors. 

Less than one year after the Walwal incident, Italy invaded Ethiopia with a force of nearly 700,000 men, an enormous effort for a relatively poor country like Italy. After about 8 months of fighting, Ethiopia surrendered and the King of Italy happily (presumably) took upon himself the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia." The enthusiasm in Italy was beyond what anyone could have imagined: true enthusiasm, not just propaganda. How this mad idea could be swallowed so easily by most Italians is one of the greatest mysteries I encountered in my life. Apart from raping Ethiopian women (which was surely done on a large scale) what did they think exactly to accomplish? But let me not harp on that. 

Just consider the story from the viewpoint of the British. For them, it was an incredible success. First of all, they had been able to deflect the Italian strategic effort toward an objective that, for the British, had little importance. Second, they were forcing Italy to keep a large military force in a region where they had no direct connection with the mainland: it could be resupplied by sea, and only as long as the British allowed it. More than that, the costs of the military campaign and of maintaining the occupation of a land that remained hostile were a tremendous burden. The British then proceeded to further cripple the Italian economy by imposing economic sanctions and zeroing coal exports to Italy. The reaction in Italy was expressed with the slogan "noi tireremo diritto" ("we'll keep going onward"). But it was a devastating blow. Remarkably, the Italians had inflicted all the damage on themselves by themselves. 

A few years later, when World War Two started, the Italians were woefully unprepared. Their military equipment was obsolete, their economy weak, their troops insufficient. At the start of the war, the British proceeded to mop up the Italian forces in Ethiopia: an easy task since the Italians rapidly ran out of supplies. In the meantime, the Italian attempt to march on Suez in 1940 was a major catastrophe. But imagine that they had been able to deploy in Egypt the 120,000 fully equipped troops stranded in Ethiopia. Then, maybe history would have been different. But so it goes. 

Now, the big question: how did the British accomplish this miracle of deception? It may not have been so difficult. The secret of propaganda is no secret at all: just repeat the same thing over and over, letting no contrasting voices appear. Then, you can dominate minds. You saw how well it worked during the past two years with so many good people swayed just because they heard the same things over and over on TV, and they had no contrasting sources of information.

Dictators are not necessarily better than ordinary people at eschewing the destructive action of propaganda. They may, actually, be an even easier target, being often isolated in a knowledge bubble that admits no contrasting voice. We know that, by the 1930s, Mussolini was a lone man at the top, surrounded by yes-men, sycophants, and profiteers. He had no friends who could tell him things that he was not happy to hear, so he was the perfect target for a one-man psyop (using a modern term). Already in 1925, Britain had agreed to sign a treaty known as the "Anglo-Italian Agreement" that said, essentially, "if you want to invade Ethiopia, go ahead, we won't move a finger to stop you." Mussolini may have thought that the British were afraid of him and that they were trying to appease him with concessions. In any case, he waited to be strong enough before acting on this treaty, but eventually he acted the way the British probably were expecting he would. Perhaps, there were other factors (*), but we'll never know for sure. 

The story of Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia is an example of a deception technology that consists in convincing an enemy leader to engage in an attack that he believes will be a cakewalk. Then, sitting back and enjoying the fireworks before intervening for the killing blow. It may have been used against Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein. And it may have been used in recent times. Note that I don't mean that a leader who squanders his country's resources in a senseless military campaign shares the evil qualities of Benito Mussolini (a racist, bloodthirsty psychopath). It is just that all strong leaders are potential victims of this kind of "one-man psyops." As you know, history rhymes and one of these rhymes goes, "a lone man at the top is one of the most dangerous things in the world."

I already examined the fateful years when Benito Mussolini led Italy to utter defeat in World War 2. My previous posts can be found at these links

(*) We may speculate about the role of a specific person in convincing Mussolini that attacking Ethiopia was a good idea. Margherita Sarfatti (1880-1961) was his lover, confident, and mentor from when they met in Milano in 1911. Sarfatti was a Jewish intellectual, an artist, and a writer, sometimes credited with having "created" Mussolini's public image. But she was three years older than him and, with time, her influence on him started to fade. In that fateful year, 1933, Mussolini took another woman as mistress, Claretta Petacci, 28 years younger than him. In the same year, Sarfatti also saw the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, and she couldn't have missed what it meant for her and for the European Jews in general. It was only in 1938 that Sarfatti was forced into exile, but we may imagine that in 1933 she still had a chance to influence Mussolini and deal a deadly blow to him. Did she titillate his vanity by telling him that he could really become the Emperor of a newly created Roman Empire? Was she influenced by the British secret services in order to do that? We shall never know, but one thing is sure: Sarfatti understood perfectly the mechanisms of political power and she was a master propagandist. As an example, here is a piece she wrote -- it seems -- while the Ethiopian invasion was ongoing. I do not hesitate in classing it as one of the best pieces of propaganda ever written. Read and savor it in all its details: it is truly a masterpiece if you remember that propaganda is aimed at simple minds using simple concepts. 




When the Abyssinians came upon us treacherously at Uol-Uol, the Duce curbed his anger and said: "in Geneva in Switzerland, there is the league of nations that we Italians also founded, so that justice and good agreement between the peoples may be created. Let's hear what they think to do in Geneva to give us satisfaction "

Instead, Geneva washed her hands in her lake: "I don't know anything, the rifles may have fired by themselves". "Oh yes?" said The Duce. "Is this your way of understanding justice? It is no longer the time to make fun of Italy, now we are in the 15th year of the Fascist era".

And he called all the generals of land and air, and the men of the sea, and said, "We must settle old and new accounts with that land of wild slaves. This is the coast of Africa, march down from the North and up from the South, and go and get me all of Ethiopia, with the capital Addis Abeba. I will take care to provide you with men, weapons, ships, orders, and food".

"All right," said the admirals and the land and air generals. "It will be done. Long Live The Duce! Long Live The King!" And all the young men of Italy ran under the tricolor flag with the insignia of the Fascio Littorio, to volunteer in Africa for Italy.

Margherita Sarfatti




Quando gli abissini ci vennero addosso a tradimento a Uol-Uol, i Duce frenò la collera e disse: «A Ginevra nella Svizzera, vi è la Società delle Nazioni che abbiamo fondato anche noi italiani, perchè metta la giustizia e il buon accordo fra i popoli. Sentiamo cosa pensano di fare a Ginevra per darci soddisfazione »

Invece Ginevra si lavò le mani nel suo lago: «lo non so niente, i fucili avranno magari sparato da soli». «Ah si?» disse il Duce. «È questa la maniera vostra di intendere la giustizia? Non è più il tempo di prendere in giro l'ltalia, adesso siamo nell'anno XV dell'era fascista». 

E chiamò tutti i generali di terra e d'aria, e gli ammiragli del mare, e disse: «Bisogna regolare i conti vecchi e nuovi con quel paese di schiavi selvaggi. Questa è la costa dell'Africa, Marciate in giù dal nord e in su dal sud, e andate a prendermi tutta l'Etiopia, con la capitale Addis Abeba. A darvi gli uomini, le armi, le navi, gi ordini e i viveri penso io».

«Va bene», dissero gli ammiragli e i generali di terra e d'aria. «Sarà fatto. Viva il Duce! Viva il Re!» E tutta lo gioventù d'Italia correva sotto la bandiera tricolore con l'insegna del Fascio Littorio, a battersi volontaria in Africa per l'Italia.

Margherita Sarfatti



  1. Bonjour Ugo,

    Mussolini speaking in English, who knew?! Not I, though he more looks like he's talking from a teleprompter (that surely did not yet exist?). Il Duce even makes a passing reference to 'making America great' (again!? surely an anachronism)...

    Regarding Mussolini's desire to invade Ethiopia, I find it surprising you do not mention the Battle of Adwa in 1896, a stinging defeat suffered on the part of the Italians, that the latter had long dreamed of erasing from memory. As to ravishing the honour of the maidens of Ethiopia, although I have read up a fair bit on the war, and there were many reprehensible and bloody acts (the use of combat gases, the Addis Ababa and Debre Libanos massacres, to name just three well-known ones), I don't think sexual crimes featured on a large scale in this conflict at all. (on the other hand, the Italians freely mixed in the country, and there are still many mixed Ethiopian-Italian families to this day, many of whom arrived at the time of the second world war (there is a good Italian book about this, called something like the insabbiare...the mémoirs of Hugo Pratt are entertaining on the subject too).


    1. Bonjour Yeves-Marie. I didn't mention Adwa because I am concentrating in this post on the Imperial dreams of the Duce -- Adwa was a sore spot for Italians, yes, but it was rarely mentioned in the propaganda campaign of 1934-35. I think they wanted to emphasize the positive story of empire building. It would have been somewhat diminished if the campaign had been reduced to a revenge for an old battle. And, well, about the "mixing" with Ethiopians I have some stories even in my family. An uncle of my wife had taken an Ethiopian wife, but he never even dreamed to take her to Italy. He had a daughter from her, but he never wanted to take her to Italy, either. It was not a violent rape, but in some ways I think it was even worse. But so things were. And, yes, there is a book by Hugo Pratt on Ethiopia. I have to have it somewhere. BTW, I bought your book and I read it. I was planning to comment on it one of these days. I hope I'll find the right moment.

    2. But you are right. I added to the tet a short note about the Adwa battle

    3. Bonjour Ugo,

      All is fair in love and war, as they say. Growing up in France my family was friendly with a man of Italian origin in the south of France. I also came to know his mother, but it is only many years later (upon moving to Ethiopia), that I came to understand that our Italian friend's mother was the daughter of just such a war time marriage, between an Italian soldier and an Ethiopian/Eritrean woman. But in this case, the Italian soldier (officer?), had brought his daughter back to Italy, to send her to school and she had become fully Italian, never returning to the Horn of Africa. These stories of 'forced' marriage, and of communities blending in to Ethiopia, are truly fascinating (we can add to the mix the Italians the Armenians, the Greeks, the Yemenis... all communities I have met countless mixed families of). You make reference to my book, and one of the things I tried to portray was the uniquely Ethiopian character of, well, Ethiopia!
      Marriage in Ethiopia was very much a transaction, and 'forced' or otherwise monetised pairings, very much the norm (for example, until very recently, single men would hire maids who would also provide sexual services, for a fixed time frame. There is even a word for it in Amharic: a 'thigh servant'... but surely this practise will have died out in our enlightened times...).

      In making reference to Italian war crimes in Ethiopia (killings, forced marriages or others), it's always tempting to forget that much worse transpired before (that has been completely forgotten), and much more since, or even currently: the internecine war raging in the last two years has without a shade of doubt saw more massacres, more sexual violence and more deaths by famine, than the Italians were ever able to muster... and yet this is of very little interest to the world today (and the war rages on, having resumed last week). Let's call it the Original Sin view of history...


      Ps: Also of interest is Amadeo Guillet's book on his war campaign in Italy (he also took a local 'bride'). And Arthur Rimbaud did the same in the 19th century, 'purchasing/hiring' one Myriam...which just also happens to be the name of the 'Amhara' girl Hugo Pratt claimed to have lost his virginity with.

    4. It is, indeed, a series of fascinating stories. You are right that in many society, including the Ethiopian one, marriage was a form of monetised pairing. And that gave to the Italian invaders a chance to get Ethiopian women exploiting their monetary advantage over the local men. Most of the "marriages" between Italians and Ethiopians were of this kind -- you might call it a "soft rape." There was a well known Italian journalist, Indro Montanelli, who never denied that while staying in Ethiopia, shortly after the end of the invasion, he had married a 12-year old local girl. By our modern standards, it is heinous, but he always maintained that it was correct and accepted for the time and the place. I think the real crime, overall, was not so much this behavior, but the very fact of having invaded a neutral country and massacred its defenders. That was the true rape. Not a soft rape by any means.

    5. Fair point Ugo (child marriage is still very common in today's Ethiopia).

      It may well be that the most lasting impact of the Italian adventures in the Horn, was the eventual creation of the modern state of Eritrea... which resulted in decades of warfare, first in the war of independence, later in the 1999-2000 war with Ethiopia, and today in the 'civil war' in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, to which Eritrea is a main party (and both Eritrea and Ethiopia, to a lesser extent, are one man regimes, with one man at the top calling all the shots). To reiterate my previous comment, the past two years of 'civil war' have seen more death in Ethiopia, as well as more rape, than during the whole Italian period, and yet this elicits at best a muted response.

      Ps: Here is a fictional take on Hugo Pratt's 'Life in Abyssinia:

    6. Hugo Pratt was an enlightened man. He loved depicting non-Europeans as human beings, worth of respect. That was not the case for most Italians. The way they behaved in Ethiopia was simply abominable. The Italian idea of gaining "a place in the sun" ("un posto al sole") was exactly equivalent to the Nazi idea of "Lebensraum" (living space). The Nazis were planning the extermination of tens of millions of slavs in the lands they had conquered in Eastern Europe. Would the Italians have exterminated the Ethiopians if they could have maintained their occupation of Ethiopia? Difficult to say, but what was done in terms of exterminations was horrible enough even though it lasted just a few years. In Addis Abeba, in 1937, the fascists killed about 20% of the population, women and children included. And we cannot forget the massacre of the monks of the Monastery of Debre Libanos, truly a heinous crime. Those Italians who committed these crimes were extremely lucky that there was no Norimberga trial in Italy. In a sense, as I say in a recent post, the barbarous killing of Mussolini was a sort of ritual sacrifice that led to the atonement for all the crimes that the fascist party committed. History keeps moving along...

    7. See also this

  2. When a highest top secret authority is so successful controlling the whole World - turning it no less than a Cockfight for Gambling - that needs 17+ million barrels of oil to go to China everyday - or the Cockfight stops - then it is no successful authority - but rather an embarrassingly foolish and childish gathering...

    When energy supplies burned in organising the World - a Cockfight - is finite and running out by the hour - then it is an ultimate stupidity - burning that little remaining Energy - in Cockfights...

    Organising the world in a choreographed reality - but sponsoring that reality with finite, one-off and severely depleting Energy supplies - is no triumph but rather a historic failure of an unprecedented magnitude - that no Civilisation in history has managed to do its affair this bad..

    "This is not the way camels are watered" - an old saying in the Middle East - indicating how so wrong and stupid is somebody - who he doesn't even understand and manage bringing camels to water.

    This is not the way Top Elite Secret Societies work - but rather - this is how very poor people badly manage - when winning a lottery - ending up poor again - in no time

    A real Top Secret Society would never sponsor the scene where it works inside - with the little remaining finite Energy supplies...

    ... as when the supplies dry out soon - running the Cockfights - everyone inside the scene would go back its way - governed by the laws of physics and geography.

    The World then would stop being coerced into the Cockfight - and Energy supplies are no more - too.

    If our top secret society has managed to send Napoleon Bonaparte to Russia, Mussolini to Ethiopia, Hitler to Russia, Soviet Union to Afghanistan, Saddam to Kuwait, Putin to Ukraine - then this is no longer the right way to behave when crude oil reserves are severely diminishing - from now on...

    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most"


  3. Hi Ugo. As a diaspora Italian with not enough knowledge of the ways of thinking of those back in the homeland, can you tell me why you think Italians allow endless corruption and chaos and if it will it ever change? I find it very interesting that Roberto Saviano said (if I remember correctly) something like Italy and the UK are the 2 most corrupt states in Europe. Current events in the UK and my decades there enable me to confirm that it's true, it used to be just a different style until Boris the clown could have been copying Berlusconi. The electoral system there is also completely broken.

    1. It is difficult to say whether Italy is more corrupt than other countries. Saviano may have been right, but my personal impression is that, right now, the US is perhaps the most corrupt country in the world. The problem is not so much who is the most corrupt of the lot, but that corruption is by now so pervasive and entrenched that it is destroying the Western society from within. And there is little that can be done about that. It is not a bug of the system, it is a feature!

    2. Hello. In the USA we seem to elect either criminally incompetents or competent criminals . The present administration is following an exceptionally bad example, but we generally vote for the lesser evil, not for a candidate we believe in. That's a relatively recent change during the last few decades, I think.

      But really the (best and brightest) people
      can make far more money and far less hassle to their family life at a multinational corporation than in politics. So the system selects for poor quality candidates.

    3. Vote for Satan himself: why choose the lesser evil?

    4. The above comment about "criminals and incompetents " was by me, Art Deco, and the real value of this post to me was the reference to the old Cassandra's Legacy post hidden behind the words peak coal. Can't say that I like comparing the peak coal era to the recent era, but ... the rhyme is there.

    5. It seems that Germany could give the US a good run for the title of most corrupt country. Read this truly astounding report on the funding of the WHO's Covid response by the German state, and the same German state's interest in...the vaccines (BioNTech/Pfizer):

      "In 2021, BioNTech’s revenues went from roughly zero to $19 billion, making the company a major driver of German growth. BioNTech earned over $15 billion in profits on those $19 billion in revenues, giving the company a whopping pre-tax profit margin of nearly 80%! BioNTech paid nearly one third of those profits in corporate tax, thus, in effect, making the German federal government and the city of Mainz (where the company pays local taxes) the main stakeholders in the company."

  4. I once read Chomsky almost praising for corruption.
    I’ll try to explain his point.
    Chomsky is an anarchist who doesn’t really think representative democracy is a system that could bring good results for society. Given that we are into it, with economic powers moving the strings of almost puppet public state structures, what’s the most desirable kind of governs we would like to have?
    Well, in his opinion (as I recall, I may be taking some shortcuts and own interpretations) corrupt politicians are weak, flexible, easier to counterweight, worse planners, more impulsive, prone to errors, etc. In that interview he made a list of politicians that were, in his opinion, whether obsessed with sex, luxury, fame… which made them less dangerous people than, for example, someone who is just obsessed with power and who plans his live in top of it.
    On the other hand, I saw him very worried with Trump in the white house, who seems to be a good example of the list of big defaults a good politician should have. So he might have changed his opinion.
    I don’t have a personal opinion in that matter but I thought Chomsky’s is an interesting one. Is a corrupt administration worse than a not-corrupt one for people’s good? Or there are other factors with a bigger effect?

  5. This was a good little diversion this morning from the headlines. Had Italy just remained neutral in WW2-which Hitler much preferred- He would likely have died in power and his legacy much different. It's not well known or much discussed but northern Italy became an industrial powerhouse as a result of the war. Also, the Stresa Front is important to recall. And for such a fanatically anti-communist power, Italian firms were designing warships for the Soviet Union.

  6. Ugo, did it ever occur to you that the lone man at the top may refer to Vladimir Putin?

    1. Are you saying that this whole post is nothing but a thinly disguised criticism of Vladimir Putin, without ever mentioning his name? Ah.... how could you think of such a thing?

  7. Sr. Bardi, please could you comment on the Italian invasion of Greece in Oct. 1940. How does that fit with your thesis?

    Second, if Mussolini was indeed being paid 100 Sterling / week , this was a phenomenal, even outrageous, sum at a time when middle class families with one servant lived comfortably on 300 pounds/year. To compare, in 1978 in London my husband's salary was 600 pounds/m as a young architect with 3 years experience: an entirely normal salary.

    1. I wrote a few posts on the subject of Mussolini attack on Greece on the Cassandra blog. You can look them up at My interpretation is that in 1939 Mussolini was already gone bonkers and that the British didn't need to do much more than let him loose to maximize the damage he could do to Italy.

      About the 100 pounds/week, yes, it was serious money. As I understand the story, it was not given to Mussolini personally: it was supposed to finance his newspaper, "Il Popolo d'Italia" for whatever purpose the British wanted it to support.