Learning to Love the Bomb: On Aviation, Futurism and Fascism
by Julian Cosma
If you were born to walk the ground,
Remain there; do not fool around.
In Julian Barnes’ exploration of loss, or more appositely, the loss of his wife Pat Kavanagh, Levels of Life (2014), he counter-intuitively begins with the opening of a new frontier of human experience: our presence in the skies. As he details, the first balloonists were not struck down from on high by their insolence and hubris. Quite the opposite. In fact, the public were entreated to the rather prosaic idea that men and women could fly, therefore they could, if only fleetingly, domesticate heaven (and maybe even squeeze a profit). However, as Robert Wohl recounts in his engrossing study of aviation and its cultural or imaginative birth, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 (1994), the airplane was neither universally loved, nor even tolerated.
One interesting aspect that Wohl elucidates at length is the link between enthusiasm for aviation and the rise of nationalism. France was, at least initially, the most enthusiastic. In 1909, Louis Blériot made the first cross channel flight to England. There was much gloire and pomp, not least because it showed the British how exposed their previously unforeseen flank really was. By 1918, the RAF was the largest air force in the world and an integral part of British military strategy. While France thought that the mundane Wright Brothers were far too American to represent the flying classes, Italy saw flight as the possible path to an exalted, though frustratingly elusive irredenta.
The Italian general Giulio Douhet occupied a place at the core of this skyward push, and at one of the central though often neglected nodes that connect Gabriele D’Annunzio, Futurism and Fascism. Douhet was variously a close friend of D’Annunzio and an inspirational force behind both Marinetti’s unquestionably political ‘novel of free verse’ entitled Le Monoplan du Pape (1912) as well as the entire corpus of Futurist aeropittura. Although one cannot very easily, if at all, disentangle the aesthetic and political programs of Futurism itself, Douhet unquestionably had a concrete influence on the military planning of the nascent Fascist regime. He made great steps to further the creation of the ultimately haphazard and ineffective Regia Aeronautic Italiana. Which when founded in 1923 had its sole redeeming value in its incipient size (second only to the RAF).
Douhet appealed to the idea of airpower as a totalising force; the power to bomb and strafe would revolutionise warfare. In this he was surely correct, and it is quite obvious why such a theory of ‘shock and awe’, as Emily Braun christens it in her incisive essay on the topic of air power and Futurism – one a number of punchy excursions down the various arcades in Futurism: Reconstructing the Universe, the companion catalogue to the Guggenheim’s recent exhibition, Futurism, 1909-1944. The second part of Douhet’s appeal was his insistence that Italy was to be the nation to marshal this power. This claim, though far more dubious, at helped endear him to an ever more vocal and pugilistic section of Italian public life.
One could not count on planes and pilots alone to make the nation ‘air ready’ – just as one could not solely rely on censorship and police intimidation to change public opinion. Just as important to Douhet was the training of the people. The general sentiment he wished to instill – one of ceasing to worry and loving the bomb – predated Kubrick’s pithy post-nuclear satire. According to Douhet, Italians must lose all fear of the skies as well as their manifold gifts: bombs, bullets, bodies, etc. Some of this would come through training, but mostly it was thought to arise from the Italian national spirit, if only the dank and archaic manacles of history could be thrown off. Like much of fascist thinking, it is the elisions and contradictions that speak most boldly: the destruction of the enemy is all but unquestionable; the invincibility of the homeland is beyond doubt; Italians were brave, willing to mount the dizzying heights of human suffering for their nation; the enemy (the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was a particularly dark bête noire of both post-Risorgimento and First World War Italy) would disperse like a pile of dust on a windy day; and so on.
Even if the Mediterranean spirit would inevitably triumph, airpower became an idée fixe, for both the Futurist movement and D’Annunzio. By the 1930s, Futurism in Italy (and to a lesser extend Russia, where the Futurist poet Vasily Kamensky traded the pen for the propeller (then traded Futurism for Stalinism) presented aeropittura as its aesthetic and political keystone. Giacomo Balla painted airborne squadrons and created the modern bowtie, modelled on the beauty of the plane’s propeller. Tato, the leading photographer of the movement depicted a flight making ever-larger concentric circles around the coliseum. Marinetti’s indomitable wife, Benedetta, both signed the Manifesto of Aeropittura and created a series of haunting murals depicting the various forms of communication being transmitted (most of it was through the air). Speed, violent force, the imbrication of man and machine, Italy’s return to glory through the force of modern technology: airpower had it all.
D’Annunzio himself never learned to fly, but nonetheless loved taking flight; whether it was for the first time at the Brescia Air Show of 1909 (with both Franz Kafka and Max Brod in the crowd that neared 50,000 onlookers) or to drop bombs and pamphlets over enemies in World War One, he couldn’t get enough. The sky was a place of national and personal invigoration, and expansion of the unfairly occluded borders of Europe, borders that so unceremoniously consigned Italy and D’Annunzio (he would have increasing difficulty separating the two) to an inferior position.
About nine months before D’Annunzio’s inaugural flight, another radical departure nearly underway. FT Marinetti was on the verge of publishing the Futurist Manifesto, which sought nothing less than to ‘purge the world of its forms and sentimentalities.’ The foundations would be broken down and the house would have to be built anew (a major part of the Futurist programme, which, like much else would be expediently abandoned, was the demolition of all museums and academies). Marinetti’s instincts were, at least on this point, rather reliable; the European avant-garde, from Ezra Pound to Walter Benjamin, weighed in, Benjamin remarking that in Futurism, mankind’s self-alienation had reached ‘such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.’
There was only one problem though it weighed heavily on Marinetti. About a week before the intended publication date, a catastrophic earthquake killed nearly 70,000 people in Sicily. Obviously, a more propitious date would need to be set. Marinetti relied on a publicist’s instinct nearly for his entire life, as did much of the Futurist movement. He used his inherited wealth and family connections to get the manifesto on the front page of Paris’s Le Figaro, the largest daily newspaper in the cultural capital of Europe. He was not above writing dispatches of various interventions he called serates, which were theatrical events where, say, the Italian flag was grandly unfurled over the stage of a play or the enemies flag, usually Austrian, was set alight. Physical fights were the rule rather than the exception, and were actively encouraged by Marinetti. While these events were hard to miss, Marinetti made sure that everyone from London to Ljubljana was kept in the loop.
The importance of World War I for both the Futurists and D’Annunzio cannot be overstated. D’Annunzio, if it were not for the First World War, would probably be remembered quite differently. As Lucy Hughes-Hallet relays in her fascinating and impressionistic biography of D’Annunzio, he was something of a dandy poet, and a very talented one at that. He was on the other side of the mountain, poetically, from the Futurists, especially from Marinetti’s ‘words-in-freedom’ poems, such as ‘Zang Tumb Tumb’, which made a point of eschewing the adjective, adverb and punctuation and importing the signs and symbols of mathematics and geometry. D’Annunzio’s verse was a close, heavily descriptive rendering of rural Italy, an evocation of sylvan beauty and the pleasures of rainfall on the Mediterranean coast. These poems are intensely local, as is their appreciation; they retain a predominately Italian readership.
D’Annunzio took Wilde’s dictum to put one’s genius into one’s life rather than one’s work to mean something like fashioning himself into fiercely nationalist Italian Byron (Byron, in stark contrast, died bearing nothing but distain for Britain, to the point of requesting that he body not be interred in England). But it must be said that only part of his burgeoning international celebrity can be attributed his massive, lifelong campaign of seduction and decadence. He rented castles, fucked everyone from Ida Rubenstein to Sarah Bernhardt – for whom he also composed a now-forgotten play – took cocaine with increasing and ponderous regularity, and acquired menageries of animals that he took with him on his travels. The chronological order of these indulgences were variable, though they all reinforced image of a rather fantastical dilettante (Croce, according to Hughes-Hallet, described him as possessing ‘a cold-blooded dilettantism’).
Let us stick with the cold-bloodedness for a moment. Just to get it out of the way, let it be said that, yes, D’Annunzio kept a tendentious reading of Nietzsche’s superman close to the breast. He also was rather keen (as was Marinetti) on the revolutionary syndicalism of Georges Sorel, or at least the bit where the revolutionary catalyst should be the violent, mythmaking act that binds a people together. There are hints of the Übermensch, and keenness on celebrating fatherland and national glory in early D’Annunzio; however, these were tiles that fit amongst many others. It took the intense magnification of World War I to make this war-lust D’Annunzio’s entire rasion d’etre. It transubstantiated both him and his public image: he began to give more voluble public perorations, rousing crowds into a reverie. They returned the favour, for the most part, by affirming his suspicion that he should lead the nation. It was not for nothing that, he garnered the appellation ‘John the Baptist of Fascism’.
It must be said that both D’Annunzio and the Futurists, were not content to vociferate from the sidelines, so to speak. D’Annunzio returned from France and made a name shooting (usually harmless) torpedoes at Austrian bases on the Dalmatian coast. His plane crashed and while convalescing, he wrote a memoir, without the aid of his eyes. In 1915, the painters Boccioni and Sant’Elia joined the Battalion of Cyclist Volunteers, and were both to die within the next two years. The indelible remark, from the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, that war was the hygiene of the world was to be taken as a serious injunction, even a call to action.
Near the end of World War I, the Russian Foreign Minister was reported to have said something to the effect that ‘the Italians are clamouring for more territory … they have lost another battle’. This may have been an insult, but there was undoubtedly a bit of truth to it. There was a real sense of exclusion, and it persisted even after 1918. In fact, the post-war settlements, amongst much of the population, were seen as a grave offence to Italian ‘territorial integrity’. This feeling reached all the way back into the middle of the previous century at least. In the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, as Adrian Lyttleton records in his outstanding introduction to the political and social dimensions of the Futurist movement, Italy’s defeat was ascribed to its backwardness and lack of military cohesion. Italy was, at that point, yet to experience the dislocating process of industrialisation – this would be rectified at the turn of the 20th century, when Italy’s rapid, centripetal processes of urbanisation and industrialisation probably did much to fuel the intensity of Futurism.
It was in 1919, near the time of the Russian minister’s comment, that the Futurist (and Futurist fascists) caught a true glimmer of hope. As the negotiations at Versailles were making eminently clear, Britain, under the pressure of Woodrow Wilson, was going to quietly rescind the furtive gift of the Dalmatian coast that they had made to Italy in return for their assistance. D’Annunzio was quite happy to take up this opportunity to unite both the left and right wing forces that were lamenting the perceived loss.
D’Annunzio was never a professional soldier, he was not in the chain of command. Nevertheless, many soldiers not only respected his manqué warrior image, but were exhilarated by the romantic freedom that he seemed to embody: he was poetic, virile, and accountable to no one but himself and Italy. It was this heady irredentist atmosphere that permitted D’Annunzio to congeal, under his command, a band of fighting irregulars. Their purpose: to reclaim the city of Rijeka, or, as they called it, Fiume.
There was but one problem with the reclamation of Fiume. It was, according to the Allied Powers, an occupied territory, its fate to be determined by future negotiations. This was quite too much for D’Annunzio, whom marched against his own country’s orders (though with some group’s tacit and instrumental support) and redeemed the city. He hastened to the town square, proceeding to unfurl the Banner of Randaccio and commanded the American, French and British Forces to leave. The allies, fearing that Italy was in the throes of an impending civil war, consented. While the economic and social reality of Fiume was disorganised, cocaine-fuelled, pernicious and in a large part subsistent on blatant piracy, it did not stop it from becoming a model for both Mussolini and Marinetti.
Marinetti saw it as the culmination of his vision: the poet was leading the army in the service of national glory. Ironically, it was this vision that would die on the rocks of true Fascism. In the end, Futurism was, for all of its faults too idiosyncratic, too contemptuous of tradition, in a word (or two), too avant-garde. Despite Marinetti’s best efforts to adapt, the Futurist movement was not able to survive Mussolini’s endorsement of gaudy neo-classicism. Marinetti, ever the survivor, stayed with the regime till the end, and was given the honor of one of the last official Fascist state funerals. Mussolini’s march on Rome was in fact based on the march on Fiume: the stiff salute, the black shirts, and the claim to represent not the left or the right but a fusion of the two, fighting for the true interests of Italy. As Hughes-Hallet adroitly notes, D’Annunzio may not have been a fascist, but fascism was D’Annunzian. D’Annunzio himself, was forced out of Fiume, and spent the remainder of his days in his sprawling converted farmhouse, christened, Il Vittoriale, or The Triumphal. There was a moment of potential struggle between him and Mussolini, but in the end Il Duce was able to placate D’Annunzio with evermore resplendent gifts; in his final years he maintained a strict diet of cocaine and prostitutes until his death, aged 75.
In the end, Mussolini was able to take, à la carte, what he liked best from both the Futurists and D’Annunzio. He was able to tap into the strata of post-World War I discontent, the perceived failures of the Risorgimento, the feeling that what most saw as a minatory catastrophe was really a cloaked opportunity, if only those present were willing to grasp the sceptre. This feeling sprang up under various guises across the checkerboard of post-World War I Europe. The idea began to take hold that there was a moment of heroism to be regained, if only the bloodletting could begin afresh. From the Balkans to Madrid, over the next two decades, this impulse would take its bloody form.