August 2010

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Joe Lyons & Benito Mussolini

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Herr Hitler was busy in the Rhineland so Joseph Aloysius Lyons decided to pay a visit to Signor Mussolini instead. It was 1935 and collecting dictators was de rigueur for Australian politicians on visits to Europe.

‘Honest Joe’, then in his second term as prime minister, was returning home from imperial talks in London. A defector from Labor, he headed a conservative coalition. Popular, uncomplicated and widely admired, he was anti-conscription and anti-war. The slaughter of the Great War was a fresh memory and appeasement not yet a dirty word. From the war cemeteries of the Western Front, the “tame Tasmanian” embarked for Italy.

Il Duce, poised to attack Abyssinia, believed that Britain’s far-flung dominions bred “uncivilised barbari”, beneath the intellectual level of Europeans. They offered, however, a useful side door into British imperial diplomacy. He greeted Lyons’s arrival with an aeroplane escort and orchids for wife, Enid. Impressed with fascism, while regarding it unsuitable for Anglo-Saxons, the Catholic couple headed first to the Vatican for an audience with the Pope, then to the Foreign Ministry, where Joe spent 20 minutes with Mussolini. To his amazement, the “genial” supremo spoke faultless English. He offered the Lyonses free passage to New York on an Italian liner. Relishers of official travel, they accepted. In New York, they sang his praises.

Two years later, Joe was back. This time, the meeting took place in Mussolini’s grandiose office in the Palazzo Venezia. And this time, it was more than a mere courtesy call. The League of Nations was falling apart and general war was looming. Mussolini needed someone to champion the idea of an Anglo–Italian détente at upcoming talks in London, and Lyons was convinced that he was just the man to broker a breakthrough. Who better than a dominion statesman, a practitioner of consensus politics, to play go-between in European affairs?

Il Duce dominated the conversation. Lyons, often depicted in the Australian press as a plump and genial koala, was no match for his “massive intelligence” and the “completeness of his knowledge”. His final words to Lyons were a message for Chamberlain. “Tell the British government I want peace.”

Even as the armies of fascism were mobilising, Lyons continued to believe that his personal relationship with Mussolini might help avert the inevitable. Events proved otherwise. On 7 April 1939, Italy invaded Albania. The very same day, Lyons expired of a coronary occlusion, the first Australian PM to die in office.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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