Wednesday, July 29, 2009

DBTL 23: Show and Tell

Belgrade, Serbian Devo, Kingdom of Yugoslavia
16 August 1945

Ivan Mestrovic, sometime sculptor and current Prime Minister of Yugoslavia, was rather puzzled by Benito Mussolini's invitation. For one thing, Mussolini and his delegation had been given quarters in the royal palace, yet the invitation had been issued by the Italian Embassy. For another, since Mussolini was a guest of the Yugoslav government, he ought to be receiving invitations rather than giving them. For a third, the invitation was quite vague, stating only that Mussolini wished to discuss "matters of mutual interest".

So it was that Mestrovic found himself transported to the Italian Embassy to meet a man who should have been at the royal palace, but wasn't. As he walked through the iron gate into the grounds of the Embassy, Mestrovic's unease was profound. There was something going on, and Mestrovic was already certain that when he found out what it was, he wasn't going to like it. When an iron gate slams shut behind you, it's natural to feel a bit spooked. Mestrovic felt like he was entering a prison to serve a capital sentence.

Mestrovic's first sight of Mussolini was even more disquieting. Ever since the Ethiopian fiasco of five years before, Mussolini had taken to wearing civilian clothing in public. He had in fact been wearing a smartly tailored suit and a bowler hat (which had been removed and passed to an aide of course) during his reception with King Alexander the day before.

Here in the sanctum of the Italian Embassy, Mussolini was decked out in his Fascist uniform. The Duce was smiling, but it was not the sort of smile to inspire confidence.

"Signore Mestovic," Mussolini said effusively, "it pleases me beyond measure to meet with you tonight. This will be an evening, I am sure, which will be long remembered by both our nations."

"If I may be so bold, Signore Mussolini," Mestrovic replied in fluent Italian, "what is it that you wish to discuss with me? Your invitation was, if you will pardon my saying so, most unspecific."

"The time for discussions will come soon enough," said Mussolini. "First, I would like to present you with a demonstration. The Kingdom of Italy has recently succeeded in advancing the frontiers of science, and I wish for you to be the first to learn of our new triumph." So saying, the Duce led Mestrovic into an otherwise empty room containing several chairs, a portable movie screen, and a film projector. After dimming the lights, Mussolini pushed a switch on the projector, and a beam of light sprang up to project images on the screen.

"What you see before you," Mussolini narrated, "is a thirty-meter tower which was constructed near the Murzuq oasis in Tripolitania last March. That object you see being hoisted to the top contains several kilograms of a mineral known to scientists as uranium two-thirty-five. Now, this next scene was filmed several hours later, after night had fallen. The camera which filmed it was located two miles distant, behind a thick sheet of leaded glass." Mussolini fell silent while the film continued to roll. The projection room had become dark after the film switched to the evening scene. Now it quickly grew light again.

Mussolini resumed his narration. "I remind you that the camera was two miles distant. The scientists who monitored this . . . event . . . tell me that an amount of energy equal to the ignition of twenty thousand tons of TNT was released in less than a second. Now we move ahead to the following morning. As you can see, the hill upon which the tower was built is now a large depression. You can't tell from the black-and-white film, but that glass is said to have a distinctly greenish tinge to it." The screen became white as the film ran out. Mestrovic watched the film spin around and around on the takeup reel while Mussolini walked over to the wall and brought the lights back up.

Returning to the projector, Mussolini began to fiddle with the film. The projector was soon whirring as the film was rewound, and Mussolini was saying, "For some time now, I have been concerned about the growing chaos within Yugoslavia's Slovenian Devo." Mestrovic was about to ask, what chaos?, but the Duce continued. "It is naturally a matter of great interest to the Kingdom of Italy to have such instability taking place within a region with which we share a border. King Victor Emmanuel and I feel that it would be in the best interests of both our nations if these disturbances were put down, and to that end, I am here to offer the services of the Italian Army to aid you in your efforts to restore order in Slovenia."

The whirring ended as the film was restored to its original reel. Mussolini continued to speak in a distracted way as he rethreaded the film through the projector. "I believe that two divisions of Italian troops stationed in Ljubljana ought, for the time being, to be sufficient to help you to maintain control in Slovenia. Though of course, that could change depending on the course of events there."

Straightening up, Mussolini said, "Now then, do we have an agreement? Or would you like me to show you the film again?"

No comments: