Just about the greatest myth peddled about Winston Churchill is that he led a great anti-fascist crusade against the Axis power during World War II - his finest hour. What utter baloney. The man welcomed the coming to power of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler - viewing them as valuable bulwarks against communism. Churchill only became ‘anti-fascist’ when he felt that the British empire was threatened by the expanding ambitions of these rivals. Defending British imperial interests, not fighting a democratic crusade against fascism, was his aim during World War II.
Previously, Churchill had praised Mussolini to the skies - the man could do no wrong. Il Duce had “rendered a service to the whole world” by showing the “way to combat subversive forces”. In fact, Churchill thought, Mussolini was the “Roman genius” - the “greatest lawgiver among men”. Speaking in Rome in 1927, he told Italy’s Fascist Party: “If I had been an Italian, I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”
He heaped similar praise upon Hitler too. After the Nazis came to power, Churchill proclaimed in a 1935 article that if Britain was defeated like Germany had been in 1918, he hoped “we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations”. While all manner of “formidable transformations” were occurring in Europe, Churchill continued, corporal Hitler was “fighting his long, wearing battle for the German heart” - the story of that struggle “cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance and the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate or overcome all the authorities or resistances which barred his path”. If only things had been different, Britain could have done a deal with fascist Italy and Germany against the common enemy - ie, ‘international Bolshevism’.
There’s a crazy story behind 93, it was named for Italy by Enrico Fermi. But his science was wrong, and when his Nobel came along, he snuck off to the States to be free.
Confused? Well, the full story behind element 93 is a fascinating tale of bad PR, fascism, and laboratory screw-ups.
Uranium, element number 92, is the largest element (in terms of number of protons) found in nature. Every element above 92, a club known as the transuranium elements, is unstable, decaying into smaller elements and subatomic particles. In the mid-1930’s, element-hungry scientists knew that the transuraniums theoretically could exist, but didn’t have a way to make them.
Enrico Fermi, then working in Rome, figured that pummeling uranium atoms with slow-moving neutrons might birth elements 93+ thanks to a process called β- decay, where the new neutron enters the nucleus, converts into a proton, releasing an electron and antineutrino in return. The result? Uranium+1 or Uranium+2, or elements 93 and 94… theoretically, at least.
In 1934, Fermi shot some neutrons at some uranium, saw the beta decay he was looking for, and figured he had done it! Elements 93 and 94, in the proverbial bag. Time to pack his bags for Stockholm, right?
Like a cold neutrino pudding, the plot thickened. At the time of Fermi’s experiment, Italy was under the control of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Sensing a good PR opportunity for “Italian science” and “fascist cultural supremacy”, Mussolini’s government widely publicized the finding, much to Fermi’s chagrin, who wanted to, you know, check his work and stuff.
The first name proposed for Fermi’s #93 was Mussolinium (can you imagine if that had been approved?!) but since the element was short-lived, it was thought that Il Duce would take offense to its frailty. Instead they proposed that the new names for 93 and 94 honor ancient and poetic names for Italy: Ausonium and Hesperium.
In 1938, as these names were being considered, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery. Scientific national pride swelled in pre-WWII fascist Italy. But there was just one catch. Enrico Fermi was wrong.
Soon after his Nobel, it was shown that Fermi instead split uranium by nailing it with neutrons, which produced beta decay and energy, but resulted in lighter elements, not heavier. So did Fermi get credit for discovering fission? Nope. That honor goes to Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, who split uranium (on purpose) in 1938.
So Fermi not only lost out on discovering what would be named neptunium (thanks to Edwin Macmillan and Philp Abelson’s work in 1940), but he also missed out on discovering fission, because he didn’t know that he did it.
After his 1938 Nobel Prize ceremony (for the faux-discovery), fearing for his family’s safety in Mussolini’s Italy, Fermi emigrated directly from Stockholm to the United States, where he worked on the Manhattan Project, using his prize money to set up a new life in a new home.
Fermi had many scientific accomplishments and many successes, but the story of elements 93 and 94 show that there’s a whole lot of history, humanity, and drama behind those little boxes on the periodic table.
The day Mussolini defeated an antifascist in a swordfight
it is known that Mussolini loved swordfights (illegal in those times), and it was tradition for him to accept challenges from socio-political figures such as the journalist Mario Missiroli, socialist deputy Francesco Ciccotti Scozzese, the anarchic Libero Merlino,major Cristoforo Baseggio and even his master Vittorino Maselli (where Adolf Hitler was present with other fascist and natsoc high rankers), everyone without a single loss, inspiring many of his comrades such as Ciano and Curzio Malaparte.
Claudio Treves, notorious antifascist journalist known for usage of aggressive and offensive terms in his articles against Benito or his ideals, challenged the Duce on 29 March 1915 in a swordfight; Benito obviously accepted. Eyewitnesses talked about a bloody furious fight, 25 minutes divided in 8 consecutive assaults, no holds barred: Treves accused multiple cuts on the forehead, arm, armpit and contusions all over his chest, while Benito got his ear scarred.
This and many other sports performed by the Duce were propagandised with efforts to push citizens into physical activities.