Play #9 in the Dictator’s Playbook: Governing is a Family Affair


For many of us, the idea of spending every day working with our parents seems like a recipe for disaster. However, when your parent or sibling is a Dictator, family has a rather different role. In order to gain power Dictators engage in some pretty underhanded tactics. In order to conceal what they’re doing, they have to rely on people they can trust implicitly. Many choose to rely on their family, particularly on family who are otherwise unqualified to fill their positions. It makes sense, right? If my Dad is making me his adviser, I’m going to gain experience and prestige I would never otherwise be able to get, and I’m going to stay on that gravy train. However, Dictatorship is not a short term plan, and over time, involving family in the business of government can backfire. This play was the unmaking of one well known Italian gentleman by the name of Benito Mussolini, because he ran afoul of the same problem many autocrats have before and since: family members can exercise their own judgment.

Mussolini relied on his daughter and son and law

Benito Mussolini favored his daughter, Edda, even though she was uncharacteristically independent. She was outspoken, and was the first woman in Italy to wear pants and drive a car, in a time when Italian women didn’t have many rights. When it came time for her to marry, she picked a Count called Galeazzo Ciano, and when they married in 1930, Mussolini threw them a princely (princessly?) wedding. Mussolini’s favor did not end in the personal realm. Both Edda and Galeazzo were committed fascists, and Edda admired Hitler from an early age. Edda acted as an adviser to her father throughout the 1930s, and Mussolini gave Galeazzo the position of Foreign Minister, where he reputedly had at least two anti-fascist activists murdered, presumably at Mussolini’s behest.

Until they disagreed with him

However, keeping his family close only worked when they depended on him and agreed with him. Galeazzo was in government throughout the 30s, and he was an established figure by the time WWII broke out. When Italy went to war in support of Germany, Galeazzo believed Italy was unprepared. His concern grew as the war went on, and in 1943, right before the American invasion of Sicily, he voted against his father in law in a cabinet meeting that led to Mussolini’s arrest and the fall of fascism in Italy. Subsequently, the German military freed Mussolini and set up a puppet republic in northern Italy. They had Galeazzo arrested and imprisoned, awaiting execution. Edda pleaded with her father to release her husband and even appealed to Hitler for clemency, but her requests fell on deaf ears. Her father had her husband executed, and she disavowed him. For the rest of her life, she insisted on being known as Ciano, not Mussolini, and never reconciled with her mother.

Even family can’t be silenced forever

Mussolini’s undoing wasn’t his reliance on family, it was that in a Dictatorship, neither family nor anyone else can successfully advocate their views if the Dictator doesn’t want to listen. The fact that Dictatorial family members initially lack the credentials to serve in government may bind them more closely to the Dictator at first. However, the longer a family member remains in government, the more he has an independent reputation and power base, and the more able he is to oppose his patron. Any medieval monarch could tell you, it might seem like a good idea to elevate your brother, but he might have a henchman strangle your kids down the line. Game of Thrones isn’t so much fantasy as a toned down version of Britain in the 15th century. Any would-be Dictator can see that history is littered with the corpses of autocrats who thought they could use family to cover up their dirty tricks. Yet many of them have made the same mistake because they lacked one realization: anyone an autocrat trusts has his own opinions and his own conscience, and the more power he is granted, the more the opposition will appeal to the better angels of his nature.