I’m trying to move on, I really am. Best of intentions. Something current in mind. But then, when it’s time to sit down to write, it is the old material that finds its way to the top of the pile. Perhaps it is the urge to trace some intellectual and historical personal origins. Perhaps I am trying to tell you who I am.
My mother was born in 1931, which means she must have enrolled at primary school in 1937. That’s when she learned those basic skills: to count and to form letters and to put down her thoughts in writing. Although her parents could speak Italian (her father more so than her mother), this is also the time when she would have been first exposed to the national language for sustained periods of time, rather than the Mantuan dialect spoken at home and in the rest of the village.
Having started school in 1937, my mother would have been given one of these.
The book for the first grade, produced by the official state publishing house. The primer used by every first grader in the country. On the cover, a boy and a girl dressed as a Balilla and a Piccola italiana, for starting school also meant being initiated into Fascist life and taught a series of progressively more militaristic values. ‘Book and musket make the perfect Balilla’, the boys were told, and that getting an education – in a country that at the time of Papini’s invective against public schools had one of the worst rates of adult illiteracy in Europe – was of the utmost importance.
Those who learn to read acquire an extra pair of eyes.
An education is half a profession.
Book and musket make the perfect Balilla.
These were the twin and indivisible aims of the reform drafted in 1923 by neoidealist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, and that Mussolini called ‘the most Fascist of all reforms’: to impart to all children the basic academic skills and, at the same time, to inculcate the values of Fascism in every Italian youth.
The process began right away, and so the first graders would have been made to copy pages such as this one:
Mario is a man.
To Rome! Heroes, to Rome!
Girls, for their part, had to pore over instructional stories like the following:
Here they come, here they come, the Piccole italiane, those pretty Italian swallows.
The lively band marches at a sure and swift pace, and a happy song spreads through the air
Life marches on, it marches on…
Dear Piccole italiane, life will indeed be merry for you. Be good and be strong like your brothers, the Balillas; you will become true Italian women, spirited and proud: it is the promise you made to Mussolini.
Fascism was the actual, the only subject of our public school, especially in the early years, and to learn about Fascism, to learn to be a Fascist, meant to learn to love il Duce. For did he not love the children?
loves children very much.
And Italy’s children love
Il Duce very much.
LONG LIVE IL DUCE!
Hail to il Duce!
Hurrah to us!
Here is a story about summer holidays included in the readings for second graders in 1938.
THE HOME OF IL DUCE
After school Cherubino and Sergio, having to walk together part of the way, started telling each other where they had spent their holidays: and whilst Cherubino, putting on airs of a great traveller, boasted that he had been first to Anzio then to Montecompatri, and to he had visited palaces and castles, Sergio replied, in a sober and modest tone:
– I have been to the house where il Duce was born.
These are, by and large, positive stories, and from the available excerpts it seems that the primers steered clear of overt declarations of supremacism or invectives against the enemies of Fascism, both foreign and domestic. For those, the children had to turn to other materials the circulated at the time, the most astonishing of which was perhaps this:
The Adventures and Punitive Expedition of Fascist Pinocchio, a book that recasts the anti-authoritarian, mischievous creature imagined by anarchist Carlo Collodi as a black shirt intent on administering the humiliating punishment reserved to communists, socialists and other dissenters: a robust dose of castor oil, after the subject has been physically subdued and most likely beaten. Such grotesquely violent messages, whilst not officially sanctioned by the publisher of the state primers, were also part of the teachings, and of the texture of everyday life under Fascism.
But looking at these materials what strikes me most of all, even more than the whitewashing of history, or the clumsy, pompous cult of the leader, or the elision of social differences in the fictional Italy portrayed by these books, is the extraordinary extent of that interpenetration, the depth at which those values where embedded in the curriculum. You learned to write your first words, and it was the vocabulary of the regime. You learnt to put words together, and they formed Fascist slogans. In maths you’d encounter problems like this: ‘The battleship Vittorio Veneto is armed with three heavy cannons, 12 pieces of medium artillery, 12 pieces of small artillery and 20 machine-guns. How many weapons are there on this powerful ship?’ The laws of orthography, of syntax, of grammar, of arithmetic hadn’t been reformed, but like in an Orwellian premonition, those children might well have felt that in that language and with those numbers you could only express Fascist ideas.
We know that this isn’t so, that this isn’t how grammar or arithmetic works, that there has never been and likely can never be such a thing as Newspeak. We know also of the failure of that school to make a generation of Italians forever loyal to il Duce. We may take some comfort from that, as I do from the fact that my mother used the ability to read and write that she acquired under the regime to read and write very different things, and later graduate – one of only a handful of women from that primary school – and later still endeavour to teach another generation of pupils what Fascism had been.
The majority of the images in this post are taken from Dietro la lavagna and from the beautifully curated website of the Lissone branch of the The National association of the Italian Partisans (ANPI).
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!