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Witnessing the Rise of Fascism in Italy

A CHILL IN THE AIR
An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940
By Iris Origo
192 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $15.95.

Iris Origo’s early life sounds like something out of a Henry James novel. Her father, Bayard Cutting, who came from an extremely wealthy American family, traveled the globe in search of relief from the symptoms of the tuberculosis that would kill him at age 29. Before he died in 1910, he wrote to his wife, Sibyl, a British aristocrat, that he wanted their young daughter, Iris, to grow up in Italy, “free from all this national feeling which makes people so unhappy. Bring her up somewhere where she does not belong.”

Origo’s father was to prove remarkably prescient, given that Europe would soon be consumed by World War I, followed by the rise of fascism — the apotheosis of nationalism — whose fever broke only with its catastrophic defeat in 1945. Raised among the British expatriate community in Florence and married to an Italian, Origo was in a perfect position to observe the unfolding events of World War II. Her journal of those years, “War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944,” became an instant success when it was published in 1947. It described the unusual war experiences of Origo and her husband, Antonio Origo, observing the denouement of the war from the vantage point of southern Tuscany, which became a major theater of operations with the Germans occupying Italy in September 1943 and the Allied armies inching their way up the Italian peninsula. Shortly after their marriage in 1924 (when Iris was 22), the Origos bought a large, rundown estate of some 7,000 acres in the Val d’Orcia; it included numerous old ruined buildings and some 57 farms. As the fighting approached their area, the plucky Marchesa Origo took in war orphans, hid fleeing Italian partisans and Allied paratroopers, and negotiated with the German military units that patrolled the area.

Origo’s diary offered an image of wartime Italy that the world was eager to embrace: a country that was fundamentally anti-Fascist, that welcomed the Anglo-American troops and that, through its partisan resistance, helped defeat the Nazis. Now we are fortunate to have an earlier diary, “A Chill in the Air,” that Origo kept but never published, recounting her experiences from mid-1939 to the summer of 1940, after Italy had entered the war on the side of Nazi Germany. Here she demonstrates the same keen eye for telling detail: paunchy middle-aged Fascists squeezed into their old black-shirt uniforms for an anniversary celebration that has the air of a college reunion; a young expectant mother who prays to have a girl so the child will not be dragged off to war; the blank expressionless look of the local peasants, men who have mastered the art of hiding their feelings, as they listen to Mussolini’s declaration of war.

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