SAY WHAT you like about Mussolini, he made the trains run on time. That was the famous last excuse for Fascism, conveying the idea that while dictatorship might not be very nice, at least it got things done.
It is an argument we may hear again following the election triumph of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and its allies, who include neo-Fascists. After all those years of chaotic politics and corruption, perhaps what the country needs is the smack of firm government. Mr Berlusconi, people may be tempted to say, could be just the man to instil punctuality in those recalcitrant Italian train drivers.
But did Mussolini really do it? Did Il Duce, in his 20 years of absolute power, really manage to make the railway service meet its timetable? The answer is no.
Like almost all the supposed achievements of Fascism, the timely trains are a myth, nurtured and propagated by a leader with a journalist's flair for symbolism, verbal trickery and illusion.
In 1936 the American journalist George Seldes complained that when his fellow-countrymen returned home from holidays in Italy they seemed to cry in unison: 'Great is the Duce; the trains now run on time]' And no matter how often they were told about Fascist oppression, injustice and cruelty, they always said the same thing: 'But the trains run on time.'
'It is true,' wrote Seldes, 'that the majority of big expresses, those carrying eye-witnessing tourists, are usually put through to time, but on the smaller lines rail and road-bed conditions frequently cause delays.'
And there is no shortage of witnesses to testify that even the tourist trains were often late. A Belgian foreign minister wrote: 'The time is no more when Italian trains run to time. We always were kept waiting for more than a quarter of an hour at the level-crossings because the trains were never there at the times they should have been passing.' The British journalist Elizabeth Wiskemann, likewise, dismissed 'the myth about the punctual trains'. 'I travelled in a number that were late,' she wrote.
The notion that the trains were running on time was none the less vigorously put about by the Fascist propaganda machine. 'Official press agents and official philosophers . . . explained to the world that the running of trains was the symbol of the restoration of law and order,' wrote Seldes. It helped that foreign correspondents in Rome were very carefully controlled and that the reporting of all railway accidents or delays was banned.
Il Duce himself never missed an opportunity to be associated with great public works, and railways were among his favourites. Whenever a big rail bridge, or a station or a new line was opened, he was there to take the credit. In 1934, with a triumphant fanfare, he opened the direct Florence-Bologna line which included 'the world's longest double-track tunnel'. He failed to point out that the project had been initiated by another government, long before he took power.
Typically, he fell victim to his own propaganda. Mussolini's biographer, Denis Mack Smith, points out that Italy usually imported its coal by sea, but after the Second World War broke out this was no longer possible and it had to come overland. The Duce's railway system, however, was not up to the job.
'Only two of the nine railroads through the Alps had been provided with double tracks and their capacity was estimated as equal to little more than a quarter of Italy's peacetime needs,' writes Mack Smith.
'As the trains running on time had become one of the accepted myths of Fascism, and as Mussolini had never charged anyone with the task of planning communications in the event of war, the matter had gone by default.'
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