Photo: Janis Jean/Courtesy of the author
Tilar J. Mazzeo tells the story of three women who preserved a crucial part of Nazi history in “Sisters in Resistance”
In an excerpt, she explains how those who risked their lives to rescue the infamous Ciano Diaries also saved themselves / BY Nathalie Atkinson / June 24th, 2022
A few years ago I was in France on board the Orient Express, and one of our fashionable stops was Maison Veuve Clicquot in Reims, the unofficial capital of the Champagne wine-growing region. I wouldn’t have fully appreciated the monogram of a woman on the circa-1772 front gate, except that a decade before I had read The Widow Clicquot by American-Canadian author Tilar J. Mazzeo. The bestselling business biography details how a visionary young widow, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, not only built an empire, but created the modern Champagne industry. It’s a sweeping history that illuminates the milieu and extraordinary business acumen of the 19th-century woman behind the signature yellow Veuve Clicquot label.
Similarly, I keep a copy of The Secret of Chanel No. 5 at hand because, while billed as the “unauthorized biography of a scent,” Mazzeo uses the history of the world’s most famous perfume to explore the life of fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, beyond the glamour and in all her contradictions, including a slippery invented backstory.
The author, a wine writer and associate professor at the Université de Montreal who lives on Vancouver Island, has previously turned her biographical lens (and appetite for meticulous research) on Alexander Hamilton’s wife Eliza, the history of Paris’s Ritz Hotel against the backdrop of the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War and the life of Irena Sendler, the “female Oskar Schindler,” who saved 2,500 children from death and deportation in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Mazzeo’s latest deep dive into fascinating, complicated women is Sisters in Resistance: How a German Spy, a Banker’s Wife, and Mussolini’s Daughter Outwitted the Nazis. It concerns the infamously indiscreet Ciano Diaries, written by Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, which documented and condemned the Third Reich and its leaders. The book is less about the man who wrote them than three women whose brave machinations preserved the manuscripts for posterity.
On paper, it might sound as interesting as tracking a delayed UPS package, but this account involves bravery, duplicity and double agents. It’s a gripping novelistic history lesson that reads like a plot plucked from a Ken Follett or Alan Furst spy novel – except it all happened.
In the following excerpt from the measured preface, Mazzeo begins with a quote from Inferno, the first section of 14th-century Italian writer Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, and adds context to her writing about the controversial allegiance.
In the middle of the road of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
Where the straight path forward had been lost.
It is hard to talk of what it was like.
The forest was so wild and harsh and thick
That even the thought of it now frightens me!
It is so bitter, too, that a little more would be the bitterness of death;
But to be faithful to the good that I found there,
I will speak of those things too.
– Dante, The Inferno, I
This is a book about the moral thicket, about a group of people – and a group of nations – lost in darkness.
I have spent a career now writing the stories of women and resistance and war, and sometimes I have written books about inspirational people, people like the Polish heroine Irena Sendler or the French-American wartime partisan Blanche Rubenstein Auzello, who both saw the path of righteousness with a blinding clarity and simply acted. This is not that story, and, apart from the notable exception of a banker’s wife – a socialite living in a failing marriage who found at midlife something so important that nothing that came after mattered – these are not those people.
But this is a story of courage. It is the story of how people who, finding themselves on the wrong path in the middle of their life’s journey, discover the courage to change and to wrestle with the darkness and with the reckoning that follows. A Nazi spy. Mussolini’s daughter. A fascist diplomat.
At the story’s heart is Mussolini’s son-in-law, a flawed man, a playboy and Italy’s foreign minister, who found the strength to repudiate fascism and stare down his executioners. It is also the story about his candid wartime diaries and the men and, especially, the women who risked their lives and their families to preserve the truth about the crimes recorded in those papers.
His diaries – known to history as the Ciano Diaries – were written during his time as Benito Mussolini’s second-in-command and part of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle. As “the most important single political document concerning recent Italian foreign affairs in existence,” they record a journey so wild and tangled that even he became horrified with it. Galeazzo Ciano, for all his sins, acted, however belatedly, on that self-knowledge when it came to him mid-war. So did the women who saved some part of his papers from Nazi destruction. The manuscripts they preserved served after the Second World War as crucial evidence at Nuremberg and remain among the most significant historical records of the Third Reich and the intentions of its leaders.
These were men and women who, for the most part, defy neat, polarizing categories. There is a great temptation when writing of the period from 1939 to 1945 to speak of good versus evil, of categories of white and black, clarity and moral darkness. The trouble is that most history, including the history of the human heart, takes place in the shades of gray and among the shadows. You must tread carefully here. How do you tell the story of the courage of a Nazi spy or a dictator’s daughter without making her a heroine, without dishonoring either the six million whom fascism targeted or the forty million civilians who perished? What does it mean, in writing of fascism and Nazism, to be, as Dante imagined of his descent into hell, faithful to the good things, as well as to the horrors? To the moments when those guilty of crimes and grave sins choose a different path forward?
]This is not a book that asks for forgiveness for them. Forgiveness belongs only to their victims. But this book does ask us to consider the honest and essential human drama of how people – and, Galeazzo Ciano argued, nations – can recognize and repudiate their errors and attempt some reparation. The race to save the Ciano Diaries is, by any measure, the story of an astonishing rescue mission, worthy of any spy thriller, but it is also the story of how these men and women, in trying to save a set of papers documenting crimes that called out for justice, rescued themselves first and foremost.
Excerpted from Sisters In Resistance by Tilar J. Mazzeo. Copyright © 2022 by Tilar J. Mazzeo. Reprinted by arrangement with Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.