The famous poet’s years at the service of fascism.
Perhaps modernism’s most recognizable American poet, Ezra Pound, became a leading propagandist for fascism – both during WWII and since. Given the shining poetic achievements of Robert Frost, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath and many others, the first contention will long remain debatable. Yet on the second point there can be little debate – as extensively shown by my recent book with Palgrave, Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935-1945. Reading like a Who’s Who of revolutionary nationalism and vicious anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s, Pound corresponded with a wide array of fascist elites in Britain, Italy and even Nazi Germany, all the while penning propaganda strategies, speeches and slogans targeting the western democracies and the USSR.
Liberty Is Not a Right
Pound had lived in Fascist Italy for nearly a decade – since 1924, increasingly impressed by the “continuing revolution” under Mussolini beginning with the October 1922 “March on Rome.” Yet it was Pound’s one and only meeting with Il Duce that cemented his conversion to what scholars term the “political faith” of fascism. This short meeting with “the Boss” was quickly immortalized in “Canto 41” of Pound’s life-work, The Cantos, itself started during WWI and still unfinished by the time of Woodstock. Following his audience with Mussolini on the ominous date of 30 January, 1933, Pound spent the next 10 days enchantedly writing Jefferson and/or Mussolini – tellingly subtitled L’Ideal Statale As I have Seen it – which viewed Il Duces’s political genius and will toward order as equivalent to that of Thomas Jefferson.
Thus, the distortions of ideological fanaticism were already taking effect: for Jefferson the exercise of liberty was a supreme political virtue; for Mussolini, the precise opposite obtained. For the latter’s was clearly not extremism in the defense of liberty, but unprecedented political violence in Italy defending a violent dictatorship. When it came to liberty, in fact, in the two plus years from writing to publishing Jefferson and/or Mussolini, Pound made Mussolini’s favored slogan on the matter his own: “Liberty is not a right, but a duty.” If that was scarcely a Jeffersonian sentiment, that was nothing compared what came next.
Fascist Italy’s rapacious invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935 provided the initial context. In defense of what Pound fancifully compared to Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase, he declared in the overseas Fascist organ in London, the British-Italian Bulletin: “No man living has preserved the Peace of Europe as often as has Benito Mussolini.” This was penned even before the poison gas had settled in East Africa, in a double-sized Christmas special trumpeting his contribution across a banner on the front cover. A further 25 pro bono comment pieces were to follow over the ensuing months, until the journal folded – just shy of a year’s Fascist propaganda directed weekly at Britain – making the famous poet a leading contributor to this short-lived propaganda organ.
If October 1936 witnessed the closure of Pound’s earliest explicit propaganda for fascist ideology, it also saw the onset of his work for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). The latter had recently changed its emblem to an encircled lightning flash, had changed its stance on Jews to open anti-Semitism, and had changed its name revealingly, to the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists (still shorthanded BUF). Prior to these changes, in fact, Pound had regarded the movement as too conservative, clarified across 16 letters to the BUF’s “Leader” between 1934 and 1940.
This too was notably consistent: Pound was typically in touch with key leaders in European and American fascist movements, typically urging greater radicalization. Added to the 26 texts for the British-Italian Bulletin from the preceding year, his first text for The Fascist Quarterly in October 1936 heralded nearly 40 more texts for the BUF in as many months – until, that is, the group’s leadership was interned following the Third Reich’s invasion of western Europe in May 1940.
During this time Pound continued to march in lockstep with BUF policy, as he had done with Fascist Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, and as he would shortly do with the Axis war effort. His influence on BUF propaganda during the second half of the 1930s, moreover, was striking: his books were reviewed in their press, his economic views were adopted wholesale by the BUF, and some of Pound’s disciples even published with the movement’s journals and newspapers. To be sure, this cut both ways: in keeping with British and, after mid-1938, Italian fascists, Pound now unashamedly advanced a rabid form of biological anti-Semitism.
He offered unqualified praise for National Socialism in Germany, and even termed the turgid Mein Kampf a work “genius” – although it would be another four years before he read anything more than second-hand excerpts of Hitler’s autobiography. Yet there could be little doubt by this time: Pound was a devotee of the Axis on the eve of the most destructive war in history. Underscoring this fact were the appearance of swastikas concluding some of his more provocative letters by the late 1930s. It was an ominous sign of things to come.
During WWII, Ezra Pound used his best weapon, his words, to fight the Allies as a radio propagandist for Fascist Italy. In doing so, he all but suspended the composition of his epic poem, The Cantos, after 71 justly-celebrated sequences. Upon the Fascist regime’s belated entry into the European theatre of war in June 1940, Pound – who had now been resident in Italy for a generation – swiftly sought to aid the Axis war effort. Despite keeping him at arm’s length for several months, the Ministry of Popular Culture (Minculpop) finally acceded to his repeated requests. He was given the microphone to read his own scripts.
Pound started slowly in 1941, broadcasting only a handful of propaganda speeches – criticizing a Britain that he believed, along with other Axis propagandists, had fallen under Jewish control. It was the standard anti-Semitic line; one he would adhere to in an increasingly rapacious way. He likewise targeted American audiences, warning them to keep “the Jews” from pushing the country into the war. By the time of Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941 – Pound was appearing roughly every week for Anglophone audiences.
Over the next two years this would double, even triple. While academics have located several hundred radio items to date, the true number is, incredibly, actually closer to several thousand. The scale is as staggering as the content, and makes him amongst the most prolific wartime broadcasters in history. Thus, as Nazi Germany’s “turn toward the East” to wipe out the “Judeo-Bolshevik enemy” swiftly turned into a “war of annihilation,” Pound’s ideological commitment and the Axis need use of his talents both increased markedly.
Nor did Pound’s devotion flag with the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – a bombing he later termed a “pyrotechnic display.” In keeping with the unsatisfactory accounts of Pound’s wartime activities more broadly, a scholarly consensus has held that he “retired” from radio broadcasting at this time, in order to reconsider his options, given that his adoptive country was at war with the country of his birth.
In reality, no such thing occurred. Pound had no doubts about which side of the “ideological war, as he put it, between democracy and fascism he was serving. Yet he was canny enough to recognize that continuing his broadcasts placed him in jeopardy of treason charges. Accordingly, even before the official American entry into the European theatre of war on 10 December, Pound was recommending to his handlers that his broadcasts and speechwriting continue – only anonymized. This allowed him to actually redouble his activities for the Axis, virtually uninterrupted, during the remainder of WWII.
All this activity was surprising enough. Yet Pound’s resolve hardened as the Italian war effort weakened noticeably during later 1941 and the first half of 1942. Aiding in his recommitment, quite remarkably, was Pound’s reading of Hitler’s “Propaganda and Organization” chapter from Mein Kampf in spring 1942. It is clear from his manuscripts and correspondence across the middle of 1942 that Pound responded enthusiastically to what Hitler called a “radical and exciting,” or “lively and combative” approach to propaganda.
Reading Mein Kampf also led, directly it seems, to Pound’s move toward forcefully recommending strategies for propaganda to Radio Rome – and indeed, Fascism’s Minculpop more generally – that seemed to channel many of Hitler’s ideas. These effectively deployed Hitler’s well-known theorem that emotion, especially hatred, proved of far greater propaganda effect than reason, balance, or probity.
With these attacks now squarely turned toward the US during 1942, the wartime government there moved to indict Pound (alongside seven other Americans broadcasting for the Axis) for “radio treason.” Underscoring the gravity of this decision, Department of Justice records indicate that no less a figure than President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated these proceedings on October 1, 1942 (this is contained in the first part of six freely-available, online files also containing telling extracts from Pound’s by-now FCC transcribed broadcast talks).
A day after Mussolini was deposed by the Fascist Grand Council, Pound was officially indicted by a specially empanelled Federal Grand Jury in Washington, D.C.– in absentia of course – on 26 July 1943. In the weeks to come, Rome was in chaos, and Mussolini in prison; for his part, Pound continued broadcasting for the Axis through the summer. With the Nazi occupation of northern Italy imminent, the Third Reich itself testified to the importance placed upon Pound’s broadcasting; a passport was apparently forged for him in an attempt to spirit him to Germany.
The Final Solution
Yet the final chapter in Pound’s wartime narrative would be written in occupied northern Italy, not Nazi Germany. The Duce was broken out of his mountaintop prison by SS commandos, and installed as the head of the collaborationist Salò Republic. This had prompted Pound to cross the frontlines out of Rome and head north with little else but a knapsack and his unflinching belief in the fascist cause. He joined the Fascist government, now reconstituted as the Italian Social Republic (RSI), in the autumn of 1943. It was at the same time that deportations of Italian Jews began. More than 90% of these Holocaust victims – more than 8,500 – were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where all but a few were gassed upon arrival.
While he was unlikely to have known about the Nazis’ poorly-kept secret for Judeocide, the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” Pound clearly knew about the deportations from Rome and other transit centres; including, for example, some 300 Jews deported from Genoa, only 15 miles from his home in Rapallo. Far from rethinking his Axis activism, Pound’s response was to write to yet another leading functionary Alessandro Pavolini, a bloodthirsty radical and by then head of the Republican Fascist Party – and in the next year, also head of the murderous Black Brigades – recommending a law mandating booksellers in the Salò Republic to stock the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
In the remaining 18 months of war and genocide in northern Italy, Pound continued to speak over the radio in Milan, extending his broadcasting languages to German and Italian as well as English, the latter for a program entitled “Jerry’s Front Calling” (Jerry being slang for the German army). He continued high-level contacts with RSI decision-makers during this last period of fanatical propaganda – whether to Mussolini, Pavolini or other elites, or ministries like the Office of Race and the re-founded Minculpop, operating from the shores of Lake Garda. He also returned to the Cantos, with his only two sequences written directly in Italian for the RSI. They were nakedly propagandistic, and published in some of the last regime newspapers to continue publishing by 1945.
In keeping with the emasculation of Fascist authority as the war drew to a close, Pound was simultaneously sending his radio speeches to authorities at the German consulate based in Milan. It seems this carried on until the second half of April 1945 – less than a fortnight until he was captured and interrogated by American FBI agents dispatched to war-torn Italy for that express purpose. After days of being held incommunicado, uncertain if he would be executed outright, Pound’s initial statements were unapologetic and, in his own words, voluntary. In a sad irony, his recorded assertions helped seal Pound’s incarceration for the next 13 years (thanks to his successful insanity plea), on the very day Europe had been liberated from Axis tyranny:“ Hitler and Mussolini were simple men from the country. I think that Hitler was a Saint, and wanted nothing for himself. I think that he was fooled into anti-Semitism and it ruined him. That was his mistake. When you see the “mess” that Italy gets into by “bumping off” Mussolini, you will see why someone could believe in some of his efforts.”
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