Book Review: Growing Up in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy: The Story of Andrea Marcello Meloni
The start of a new year brings new hopes and goals of reading more for many of us, as bedside book stacks grow taller, library websites are revisited, and “to read” lists are refreshed. Those interested in historical nonfiction and stories of the Second World War will find a worthy reading list addition in Growing Up in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy: The Story of Andrea Marcello Meloni, a recent book published by Christine Foster Meloni, longtime contributor to The Norwegian American.
Growing Up in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy chronicles the childhood of Foster Meloni’s late husband, Andrea, in Rome in the years leading up to the Second World War. Andrea was born in 1928, six years after Mussolini became prime minister of Italy, in the small town of Acuto, southeast of Rome. He moved to Rome at the age of 5 to live with his aunt and uncle, and there, he witnessed the widespread militarization of Roman society by the fascist government. His adolescent years in Rome were saturated with fascist youth education and activities against the backdrop of the escalating tensions across the continent of Europe. During the early years of the war, Andrea was passionately involved with his high school’s military trainings and events. However, he became increasingly disillusioned with and resistant to fascism after the armistice with the Allies in September of 1943 and the Nazi occupation of Rome between 1943 and 1944.
The book is part memoir part historical survey, as Foster Meloni weaves excerpts from Andrea’s memoir together with a concise overview of Italian history from Mussolini’s rise to power in the early 1920s to the early aftermath of the Second World War in 1946. She describes the emergence and growth of fascism, Italy’s involvement in the war, the civil war that plagued the country between the summers of 1943 and 1944, and the Nazi occupation. Her penultimate chapter discusses the impact of growing up under Mussolini’s fascist regime on her husband throughout his life, from his intense interest in the subject of the Second World War to his fierce commitment to freedom and peace.
The two most captivating features of the book are Andrea’s childhood perspective of fascist Italy and the interweaving of the personal and historical. While a fair amount of popular attention has been paid to the experiences of youth in Nazi Germany, especially in the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls, there is relatively little about the equivalent programs in Italy. Foster Meloni’s explanation of the programs Andrea participated in as a young child deepens and enhances the history of fascist Italy she tells throughout the book.
Perhaps the most powerful knitting together of personal and historical narrative comes in the third chapter through Foster Meloni’s description of the Nazi occupation. She relies heavily on quotes from Andrea’s memoir to tell the story of what Romans had to endure under Nazi rule, including shortages of food, water, gasoline, and electricity, as well as resistance against occupying forces. In one particularly striking story, Andrea told of being stopped by a pro-German “little Republican soldier” after attending a secret mass memorializing the victims in a massacre by the Nazi occupying forces. He emerged unharmed, thanks to the help of some other students who were nearby, and though he described palpable fear he also noted how influential the experience was for him: “we young people, for the first time in our brief existence, began to feel like actors and not spectators…This experience taught me to love freedom, especially freedom of thought and of the word, and to hate every kind of oppression.”
Though the book centers on Andrea and the history of fascist Italy, Norway does make a brief appearance. Foster Meloni notes that English historian Iris Origo, who was living in Italy during the war, believed that the Nazi occupation of Norway beginning in April 1940 was a critical reason for Italy’s entrance into the conflict and military alliance with Germany. Origo wrote in her diary, “If the Norwegian campaign has not increased the Italians’ liking for Germany, it has certainly increased their respect and fear.” Foster Meloni offers this explanation together with Andrea’s assessment that German victories in Poland and in France encouraged Mussolini to formally join Hitler.
The book is relatively short, but it is most certainly an engaging read. Foster Meloni writes with both personal investment in the story of her husband’s childhood and an objective historical eye in her account of early 20th century Italy. Those looking for a quick and fascinating read about Italy before and during the Second World War, especially those who prefer personal stories rather than distant or impersonal historical narratives, are sure to enjoy this book.
Growing Up in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy: The Story of Andrea Marcello Meloni was published by XLibris and can be ordered through their online bookstore. XLibris offers free shipping if one chooses delivery by USPS. Additionally, it is available for purchase at all major online booksellers, including Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, and Amazon. It is also now available in Italian and French.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.