Ever been stuck on a train station platform, waiting and waiting for a train that was supposed to arrive half an hour ago? It’s a pain. What’s also a pain is hearing (over and over again) one of the most common historical myths that prompted me to start this podcast years ago. That is, the story that the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, “made the trains run on time.”
This claim is uttered either by folks trying to prove that dictatorships have some merit, or by frustrated users of public transportation when they encounter delays. Its use would make “Il Duce” himself very happy, since the fact that it’s still repeated proves the success of the propaganda he used to hype his “dynamic rule” as Prime Minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943.
By the early 20th century, Italy’s railroad system had been suffering for generations from organizational chaos, alternating between public and private ownership. Service, which was never very reliable, reached its lowest point during World War I, and so had nowhere to go but up in the 1920s, when Mussolini’s “iron prefecture” began.
The years 1922 to 1939 brought extensive construction to Italy’s railways. This increased speeds and reduced travel times on some lines, specifically those most frequently used by foreigner travelers.
Mussolini was a master of propaganda. Once in power, he created the illusion of a free press while actually controlling the content of all information reported in newspapers. An article that appeared in the Prescott, Arizona Evening Courier in 1923 reads like a public-relations report issued straight from Rome:
PUNCTUALITY MARKS ITALIAN TRAIN SERVICE.
The spirit of discipline which the Mussolini government brought in with it is no more concretely illustrated than on the railroads … Italian trains now run on time the advent of Italy’s young dictator to power. The Italian crack trains on the main trunk lines cover their distances with minute precision and according to schedule. The Rome-Naples trains are equally on schedule, while the service between Genoa and Trieste, through Milan and Venice, also records the same punctuality.
Special policemen do service on all the lines and are present on all trains to prevent theft or disorder.
Cue the creepy soundtrack! Those “special policemen” were the Blackshirts charged by Mussolini with bringing “peace and quiet, work and calm” to Italy by force, if necessary.
It’s easy to forget that, prior to the horrors of World War II, Fascism was embraced––or at least applauded––by many people who should have known better.
The American journalist George Seldes complained at the time that “no matter how many times were told about Fascist oppression, injustice, and cruelty, they always said the same thing: ‘But the trains run on time!’” That made the phrase a byword indicating that efficiency trumped freedom.
“It is true,” Seldes conceded, “that the majority of big expresses, those carrying eye-witnessing tourists, are usually put through to time, but on the smaller lines, rail and roadbed conditions frequently cause delays.” Seldes––who, incidentally, lived to the incredible age of 104––was a journalist of great integrity and a man after Professor Buzzkill’s heart, who co-founded a weekly newsletter subtitled “An Antidote to Falsehoods in the Daily Press.” He was expelled from Italy for implicating Mussolini in his coverage of the murder of a political rival.
In addition to Seldes, numerous other people who lived in fascist Italy debunked the myth of superior service. 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.
But Mussolini, who was never a stickler for the truth, was quick to exploit any circumstance to his own benefit, and portrayed the popular perception of punctuality as a “battle” he had won. Other battles that produced dubious results included the Battle for Births to increase population, which actually went down in number; the Battle for Grain to strengthen the economy, but caused hunger among the poor; and the Battle for the Lira (the basic unit of Italian currency), which increased unemployment.
Because these claims and lies (the “big lies”) were issued publicly and repeated often, the common people that Mussolini actually deplored eventually accepted it as fact.
OK, big deal. “Mussolini made the trains run on time” is a myth. Why does it matter?
It matters because we hear this story repeated when there’s an election looming during difficult times. When things in a country seem to be inefficient or, worse, falling apart; when it seems like only a strong person (a former military officer, a prominent business innovator with a best-selling “how I built my world-beating business” book, an extremist with a big following, and even, nowadays, a celebrity with enough bluster to tell a convincing story of their ability to fix everything); then some people are willing to overlook (or not even bother finding out about) that person’s failings, total inexperience in actual governing, and, most dangerously, the likelihood of that person is a single-minded zealot with no patience for the subtleties and messiness of running a modern democracy.
They leap for the easy solution of choosing someone who can “clean house,” “drain the swamp,” or bring much-needed efficiency to the messy business of governing democratically. And we can worry about whether they’re a Fascist some other time, once the country is fixed.
People often make extremely important decisions (such as for whom to vote) based on simple-minded thinking and cheap phrases like “well, at least Mussolini made the trains run on time.” These lazy and dangerous rationalizations lead people to make what they think are necessary compromises, and be comforted by them, at least in the short term.
It’s not true that Mussolini made the trains run on time. More importantly, it _is_ true that Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and other fascists and totalitarians were evil and threatened the very existence of what we think of as humanity.
I’d rather my train be late.
Talk to you next time.
10 January 2022
Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce Paperback – July 22, 2008
by Christopher Hibbert
With his signature insight and compelling style, Christopher Hibbert explains the extraordinary complexities and contradictions that characterized Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was born on a Sunday afternoon in 1883 in a village in central Italy. On a Saturday afternoon in 1945 he was shot by Communist partisans on the shores of Lake Como. In the sixty-two years in between those two fateful afternoons Mussolini lived one of the most dramatic lives in modern history. Hibbert traces Mussolini’s unstoppable rise to power and details the nuances of his facist ideology. This book examines Mussolini’s legacy and reveals why he continues to be both revered and reviled by the Italian people.