The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Three Layers of Ambiguity: Homosexual Spies and International Intrigue in Fascist Italy

Benedetta Carnaghi
Cornell University

This article delves into the stories of two foreign queer spies in Fascist Italy, the Swiss Roberto Hodel and the German Gerhard Dobbert. The Fascist regime cultivated a dual relationship with homosexuals: it exploited them for their contacts, but persecuted them as “enemies of the new man” who undermined the Fascist understanding of morality. This article aims at illustrating this relationship, by focusing on these two cases and ultimately proving that the Fascist surveillance—like any other—is doomed to fail, because these double agents are “imperfect” tools. Spies live in a gray zone of blurred agencies and conflicting incentives. As in fiction, where characters play a deceitful role, the archival documents analyzed in this essay replicate that deception in three layers of ambiguity. Just as spy novels become open-ended trajectories of several stages of suspicion, these layers of ambiguity are multiplied in the spies’ surveillance reports, where the distrust of the foreign alien is combined with the rejection of homosexuality to designate an extremely ambiguous “other” that the Fascists both reject and exploit. 

Keywords:  surveillance / homosexuality / Fascist Italy / ambiguity / totalitarianism / ideology


To Corporal BERTOLDI Carlo —Filettino—

Dearest love,

It’s Sunday afternoon; I am alone alone, I read once more your letters, which are immensely dear to me. How I desire you and how big will be the joy of our reunion. When? I would so gladly chat with you about this...MASSIMO went to Paris today, AUGUSTO goes to Switzerland this week, so I will be alone, if I don’t get the Austrian to come for two weeks.

Destroy this letter and write as soon as possible, with a thousand kisses your


There is probably no less fitting place than a cold, dusty folder of the Fascist Ministry of Popular Culture for letters of anguished love, yet here they are, zealously collected by the Fascist police. Their author, Roberto Hodel, was a Swiss journalist resident in Italy and had been nominated president of the Foreign Press Association in 1926. He also happens to be a perfect example of how Fascist Italy can shape our understanding of espionage, along with the place of homosexuals as outsiders in that historical context. 

Lorenzo Benadusi, in his study of homosexuality in Fascist Italy, states that “Hodel’s ‘homosexual tendencies’ were extremely well known” (267). The Fascist regime offered him immunity from prosecution if he became a spy: “Hodel carried out the delicate task of steering the foreign press toward pro-Fascist positions and had the secret charge of supplying confidential information to the Ministry of Popular Culture” (Benadusi 267). The Fascist secret police, OVRA, turned a blind eye to Hodel’s activities, but kept close tabs on all his movements. The name OVRA is still an enigma. Often presented as an acronym for Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell’Antifascismo (“Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism”), Opera Volontaria per la Repressione dell’Antifascismo (“Voluntary Work for the Repression of Anti-Fascism”) or Organo di Vigilanza dei Reati Antistatali (“Organ for the Vigilance of Anti-State Crimes”) it has been subject to numerous interpretations. Guido Leto, second head of the OVRA, wrote in his book that the name was not an acronym, but a sort of “psychological bluff” and had explicitly been chosen by Benito Mussolini to raise questions and create a sense of terror (52). And terror is central to the story of Roberto Hodel, who is but one of the many agents who carried out the bidding of the Fascist regime, sometimes enforcing, other times disrupting its repression. A study of the police informers allows us to look at totalitarianism from the bottom up, showing terror as an everyday experience. By looking at police spies as both targets and actors of the repression, this article seeks to undo the traditional dichotomy between popular dictatorship and repressive totalitarianism, showing that these two sides actually came together in the spies’ lives.

The Fascist treatment of homosexuality gives us insight into the inner contradictions of the repression enacted by the regime. The police force cultivated a dual relationship with homosexuals: it exploited them for their contacts, but persecuted them as “enemies of the new man” who undermined Fascist morality. My article aims at illustrating this relationship, by focusing on the cases of two prominent foreign police informers: Roberto Hodel and Gerhard Dobbert. The relationship is important because these individuals linger in a space of ambiguity—an essential feature of espionage. As Allan Hepburn explained when defining his theory of intrigue, “the spy’s appeal is his ambiguity, his articulation of doubts, violence, and mixed motives” (13). The spy novels and movies that Hepburn analyzes seem to mirror the archival documents in that the ambiguity lies not only in the spy’s motives, but also in his allegiance to a particular state and its hierarchical structure: “Secret agents work inside and outside hierarchical structures at the same time....Because authority is dispersed throughout the hierarchy, no one controls all details of intelligence” (Hepburn 34). And just as the spy “never sees the full picture” and espionage narratives do “not have to announce for whom the agent works” (Hepburn 34), historians who read these documents are sometimes left to speculate in order to resolve doubts. Giving only a one-sided answer to some of the questions that the archival cases elicit would be too reductive, because a nuanced study of surveillance—by the very nature of its object—needs observant eyes and a complex set of analytic lenses. I will therefore attempt to offer a multi-layered answer.

Archival documents are not spy fiction, but they share the ambiguity of the genre and raise questions for fictional representations of espionage. Spies live in a gray zone of blurred agencies and conflicting incentives. Just as in fiction spy characters play a deceitful role, so these archival documents offer us what the Fascist spies—often homosexual themselves—reported about these queer police informers. The historian is therefore confronted with a complex ramification of deceit, where those doing the spying are also spied upon. The challenge lies in the equally deceitful medium: the historian gets to know these police informers through the eyes of those who were watching them, to the point that these informers have no voice of their own in the sources and sometimes seem to be stripped of their agency. Scholars who deal with this documentation finds themselves confronted with a problem of methodology: Where does the truth stand? Do we ever really penetrate the universe of the watched through the perspective of the watchers or are we left with speculation? These questions are particularly important for a historian, whose first task is always to question the reliability of the sources—and this has never become more apparent than when dealing with espionage.

The archival documents are also emblematic of the conflicting relationship that spying has with loyalty. As Erin Carlston has pointed out, “Not all spies are traitors to their own nations, but in one sense all are treacherous; they are supposed to lie and deceive, to perform loyalties that they do not actually feel” (4). So a foreign spy is both useful and dangerous, since the country that employs him or her never has the certainty that the spy is not working as a double agent, in the interests of a foreign power. Carlston is, furthermore, excellent at underlining the connection between queer sexuality and spying: both seem to require a condition of secrecy, so that one could argue that queer characters make the perfect spies. Although not criminalized in Fascist Italy, homosexuality was demonized, which made queer individuals vulnerable to blackmail and the perfect targets of the Fascist quest for informers. One questions, however, the extent to which a spy can be loyal to the regime, when the latter has coerced him or her into undertaking the job.

Indeed, is a spy ever loyal? No one is better than John le Carré at capturing the troubled essence of the “cold” life of a spy: never a moment of true relief or honesty; a conflicted sense of identity and belonging; a never-ending struggle with suspicion. If the “practice of deception” is for the spy “a matter of experience, a professional expertise,” it is hard for the secret agent to simply “return from his performance” like an actor, go back to regular life when the job is done (Spy 120). In the character of Alec Leamas “the spy and the man are also so thoroughly entangled as to be inseparable” (Lassner 205). Being a spy is ultimately the only “true” identity a spy has: “Leamas may not be able to come in from the cold because the cold is who he is” (Lassner 205). And when deception becomes the price to pay for immunity, the spy seems to reach a point of no return: being spied upon soon translates into becoming a spy out of self-preservation.

Such is the case of the two queer foreign nationals in Fascist Italy who are the subject of this essay. If in works of fiction, the condition of the spy is very often connected to that of the foreign alien (see, for example, Eric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger), the archival documents are symptomatic of the same issues. Just as spy novels become open-ended trajectories of several stages of suspicion, these layers of ambiguity are multiplied in the surveillance reports that I read. But in these documents the distrust of the foreign alien is combined with the rejection of homosexuality.

Queer foreign aliens are the ultimate stranger, the ultimate “other.” Their condition can be compared to that of the Jews, defined by Hannah Arendt as “pariahs”: stateless people, who never achieve the juridical or political status of citizens or are explicitly excluded from any form of citizenship (Origins 22; Jewish 275). Arendt furthermore links the condition of the stateless refugee to that of the exile in her reflections on the demolition of the right to asylum: “Arendt situates the stateless exile in an imprisoning no man’s land where there is no negotiation for an acceptable identity” (Lassner 7). Queer spies are construed as “pariahs,” but they are neither “stateless” nor “unconditionally loyal to the state,” a totalitarian state that both condemns and takes advantage of their “otherness.” They occupy an ambiguous position, with their shifting identity and complicated relationship with citizenship and belonging to a specific state. As Hepburn puts it: “In effect, a spy belongs nowhere” (11). And spy fiction and the historical documents I analyzed are comparable in the way they highlight the inextricable connection between spy and exile, or spy and other: “Frightening and threatening to others and even to themselves” (Lassner 9). Spies, Jews, and homosexuals all share one feature: “Invisible Others passing as the Same, they could act like, and on behalf of, both the ‘us’ within the nation and the ‘them’ outside it” (Carlston 5).

The queer spies that are the object of this essay pose an additional challenge. While it may be incorrect to apply the lexicon of genocide—that of “victims” and “perpetrators”—to them, it is nevertheless true that these homosexual spies seemed to ambiguously occupy both of those roles: threatened by the Fascist regime, they accepted becoming its accomplices, participating in its crimes.2 I would therefore like to stress three layers of ambiguity that emerge from the analysis of the archival documents: First, the extent of these spies’ loyalty to the Italian government was questionable, and yet, they had been specifically recruited by the Fascist regime in response to concerns about the possibility of international intrigues and a diminished view of Italy in the foreign public opinion—an opinion that Hodel was specifically tasked to redress in his capacity as president of the foreign press association. Second, as I previously mentioned, the spies swung between the roles of victims and accomplices of the regime; they were persecuted, but, in turn, became the persecutors’ accomplices or persecutors themselves when they agreed to serve as informers. Third, it is true that both the police and their informers adopted the language of moral opprobrium to describe the gay men on whom they spied. However, they were in the end more interested in using these individuals than in actually containing them for their “inappropriate” behavior; the instrumental use prevailed over the principles of Fascist ideology. I will first establish the framework of the Fascist treatment of homosexuality and then address these layers of ambiguity through Dobbert’s and Hodel’s stories.

A Legal Vacuum Conducive to Terror

In Ettore Scola’s 1977 film A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare), Marcello Mastroianni plays the role of Gabriele, a gay radio broadcaster who has been dismissed from his job and is about to be deported to confinement (confino) because of his homosexuality. Sociologist Erving Goffman describes confino as one of the “total institutions”: “Places where ‘a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life’” (qtd. in Benadusi 113–14). This was the solution that Fascism chose in the absence of a formal criminalization of homosexuality.

The Fascist Minister of Justice, Alfredo Rocco, started drafting a new Penal Code in 1925. Among its goals was “strengthen[ing] the protection of the family and public morality” and “protect[ing] the integrity and the future of the race” (Benadusi 96–7). In his initial draft of the code, there was a specific article, number 528, against homosexual relationships:

Article 528—Homosexual Relationships: Anyone who...performs libidinous acts on persons of the same sex, or consents to such acts, is punishable by imprisonment from six months to three years if the events cause public scandal. The penalty is imprisonment from one to five years: 1) if the person guilty is over twenty-one years old and commits the act on a person under eighteen years of age; 2) if the act is performed habitually, or for profit. (Rocco 206)

However, after a long discussion, the article was eliminated from the code, on the grounds that such measures were not necessary “because fortunately Italy can proudly say that this abominable vice is not so widespread among us as to justify legislative intervention” (Benadusi 104). Benadusi contends that “direct legal action against homosexuality was effectively substituted by its demonization, while virility was exalted and protected through repressive measures of control” (110). Like “harmful viruses or infectiously sick people,” individuals who were problematic for the regime’s official narrative, such as homosexuals, were simply removed from circulation: “The Duce himself said that confino was ‘social hygiene, a national preventive treatment. These individuals are removed from circulation just like a doctor isolates an infectious person’” (Benadusi 114).

While I do not deny that such demonization occurred, I would argue that it was especially the lack of a binding legal reference that allowed the Fascist police to take advantage of influential homosexuals to gain information. In this respect, Dobbert’s and Hodel’s cases are particularly illuminating. Had there been a specific measure in the legal code, the police would not have had such carte blanche. Totalitarian regimes often take advantage of similar legal vacuums, structuring themselves as permanent states of emergency, where immediate action is more important than the law.3 Dobbert’s and Hodel’s stories also provide insights into the Fascist regime’s ambiguous definition of “morality,” quickly and comfortably forgotten in the name of more pressing political needs.

The official narrative advertised the Fascist “new man”: a “monument” of masculinity, exuberant of virile strength, “energetic, courageous, and fervently agonistic” (Benadusi 20). He was the opposite of the bourgeois man: he was a man of action and not a man of thought. And he was a man committed to the greatest action of all, war: “War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it” (Mussolini 41). The Fascist “new men” were obviously very similar to the Nazi Volksgenossen, Hitler’s “racial comrades”: part of the Volksgemeinschaft or “national community,” they were supposed to symbolize “the transcending of class, denominational, and political divisions through a new ethnic unity based on ‘true’ German values” (Kershaw 172). The precursors of the ‘racial comrades’ were the Freikorps, with their values of male bonding and brotherhood (Theweleit, vol. 1, 169).4 But there is one essential difference: while the Freikorps essentially avoided erotic women, and seemed to fear them (Theweleit, vol. 1, 227), the Fascist “new man” was also the opposite of the gay man, because there was no Fascist without a woman at his side—a woman, however, “depicted as wife and mother and subjugated to male supremacy and vigorously devoted to the ‘political’ function of producing children for the Fascist state” (Benadusi xv). In A Special Day, this woman is perfectly portrayed by Sofia Loren’s ill-educated and overworked Antonietta, married to an arrogant and rude Fascist “new man,” whose life goal, despite his infidelity, seems to be to procreate their seventh child and finally obtain the prize that the regime awarded to large families. Fascism rewarded procreative zeal and bashed “non-men” like Mastroianni’s Gabriele with a “singles tax.” And Loren’s Antonietta is proof that this narrative was powerful: before she meets Gabriele and he opens her eyes to the hypocrisy of the regime, she idolizes Mussolini. She spends her scarce free time making portraits of Il Duce with buttons or collecting press clippings and pictures of his adventures in an album, where she also writes some Fascist slogans that perfectly summarize Mussolini’s views on the “new man”: “A man must be a husband, a father, and a soldier” (“L’uomo deve essere marito, padre e soldato”) and “Incompatible with female physiology and psychology, genius is only male” (“Inconciliabile con la fisiologia e la psicologia femminile, il genio è soltanto maschio”).

And yet, this was but the official narrative. Analysis of the archival documents shows that the “moral” scandals of which the Fascist police took advantage, to turn homosexuals into spies for the regime, came in handy. The regime heavily relied on surveillance, on “the practice of gathering information on influential figures, at times using it in their favor, at others against them” (Benadusi 214). By capitalizing on those scandals, the regime could turn people against each other and build a network of informers. Nobody felt safe in such an atmosphere: The Fascist government suspected both Dobbert and Hodel of being spies for their respective foreign governments, but they were also spied upon by and turned into spies for the Fascist regime. Their cases are proof that the line between their persecution by and their collusion with the regime is difficult to draw. If Dobbert’s agency is more ephemeral than Hodel’s, they both underscore a relationship to the universe of terror that totalitarian regimes carefully built. In such a universe, submission to terror was an element of normality. Police spies first submitted to terror as victims of the regimes, but their later actions helped to uphold the very system that oppressed them. By looking at them as the ambiguous enabling wheels of this universe of terror, one ultimately understands where totalitarian regimes first succeeded and then failed: at keeping a hold on their people.

The First Layer: Untrustworthy Spies

Dobbert’s file in the Polizia Politica tells us that he was a German “professor of political economy, scientist of great value” (“Appunto,” no author, date). He was famous for a book he had published on the Soviet economy. He was a member of the National Socialist party, but “since 1931,” says the unsigned note, “his activity has taken place exclusively in Italy” (“Appunto”). At the bottom of the page, however, the unknown author of the note brings the first serious accusation:

Dr. Dobbert is very well known and appreciated in the milieu of foreign journalists, in the Germanic community and, especially, in the German Embassy. According to what has been reported by a reliable ‘fiduciary’ source [a paid informer], Dr. Dobbert, in addition to being a collaborator of German newspapers, is suspected of being the informer of the German Foreign Office on the Italian financial and industrial questions. (“Appunto”)

Dobbert was thus accused of industrial espionage. When questioned by the police, he asserted that he was “a convinced admirer of Il Duce, a fervent supporter of His politics, and a cult follower of the corporate discipline” (“Appunto”), alluding to his publications, which included a book titled Economia fascista (“Fascist Economy”), in which he openly praised corporatism.

The accusations against Hodel, who was subject to more than a decade of surveillance, were even more substantial. The police took advantage of homosexuals to spy on other homosexuals. In fact, Vittorio Terracini, a “Jewish tradesman from Turin” considered to be a “well-known and incorrigible pederast,” was one of the authors of the reports on Hodel (Benadusi 219). According to Terracini’s report of December 19, 1936, Hodel had employed his “friend” (a certain Silvio Gasparrini, who had been living with him in Rome) and his nephew Max Boesch in an antiquarian’s shop that he opened in their name. Terracini pointed out that the shop, located in Via della Vite, “was the landing and exchange place for all international inverts, the place of ‘exchange’ and ‘restock’ in the broadest and most obscene sense that can be understood in this particular case” (Terracini, report, 19 December 1936, Divisione Polizia Politica, hereinafter DPP, Hodel’s file). Hodel was also in close contact with other prominent homosexual informers, such as the journalist Italo Tavolato, who “had actively taken part in the futurist movement and was famous for his articles against traditional morality in Lacerba” (Benadusi 223). A prefect’s report in Hodel’s file states that Tavolato “is another amoral pervert, and as for politics, his sentiments are absolutely not straightforward and sincere” (3 December 1929, DPP, Hodel’s file). Tavolato was dismissed from the newspaper Tevere, for which he had been a correspondent, for “reasons of morality” and now collaborated with Hodel and Fritz Kusen, also “struck off the journalists’ register for his immoral conduct by the federation of the German press following the discovery of his love affair with Tavolato” (Benadusi 224). Tavolato is particularly interesting because, thanks to “his knowledge of Nazism, he was even authorized [by the Fascists] to accept secret assignments from the Gestapo and to immediately refer what he discovered about its organization and agents” (Benadusi 223).

The informers accused Hodel of being a duplicitous spy: the accusations ranged from spreading calumnies against the Fascist regime to being an antifascist. An unsigned report dated December 8, 1936, accuses him of having initiated a defamatory campaign against Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Foreign Minister of Fascist Italy (DPP, Hodel’s file). Terracini’s report of December 19, 1936, hints that the purpose of the antiquarian’s shop was also to find a “discreet and safe environment” to pursue his antifascist activities (DPP, Hodel’s file). Another anonymous report, dated March 8, 1937, claims that Hodel “continuously tries to diminish the value of Italian foreign politics and to ridicule all the internal provisions of the Fascist government, not hesitating to offend the very person of the Head of the Government, Mussolini,” whom he even referred to with the scornful German expression “diesen Burschen” [hence dismissing him as “this guy”] (DPP, Hodel’s file).

Thus, the archives present us with this first layer of ambiguity: could Dobbert and Hodel, the prominent professor of political economy and the outspoken president of the Foreign Press Association, be loyal spies for the Italian government, or was the first one working for Germany and the second really acting as an antifascist at every opportunity? These files underscore my argument that the spies’ allegiance is ultimately deceptive and their loyalty essentially ambiguous. But if Dobbert’s and Hodel’s foreign nationalities hint at possibilities of international intrigue, their charges of “immorality” further complicate the picture. They are not only outsiders because they are foreigners in Fascist Italy: their main crime—which makes them the ideal target of the Fascist threats—is their failure to conform to the gold standard of the Fascist “new man.”

The Second Layer: Victims or Accomplices?

The second page of the note on Dobbert details the nature of his “immorality”:  "Our trustee services, in charge of the surveillance on Dobbert, discovered a dark side of his personality, a side that does not absolutely bring him honor. Dobbert, although married and with a son, has homosexual tendencies with a special fondness for young boys" (“Appunto”). In Milan, Dobbert became acquainted with a procurer, who offered him the services of a young boy, “evidently already educated in such dubious matters” (“Appunto”). The boy entered Dobbert’s room where he “played a pitiful comedy, with tears and scenes of sorrow” (“Appunto”). The report claims that Dobbert surrendered to the procurer’s offer, but given the young boy’s behavior, he sent him away. But what the informer writing the report defines as a “comedy” quickly turned out to be an extortion and continued as the young boy came back to Dobbert’s room later, accompanied by a “little more than eight-year-old” kid. Dobbert sent them away, but the whole scheme had been organized by the procurer to put himself in the position of blackmailing the professor (“Appunto”).

The report states that “the comedy turned into a tragedy” when the boy’s parent sued the procurer for “kidnapping of a minor for purpose of lust” and Dobbert was accused of complicity (“Appunto”). Dobbert was arrested on February 6, 1935, released 19 days later, and awaited trial for April 6, 1935. We learn that Dobbert justified the presence of the boy in his room to the Magistrate as some sort of “inquiry of social character” that he was conducting. The informer cynically comments: “An argument which between Germans, maniacs of Kultur, could work, but among us [Italians] has a very limited value” (“Appunto”). So Dobbert found himself at the mercy of the police chief, who offered him help in exchange for his services as an informer. Being afraid of the consequences that the trial could have on his career, he agreed to be a spy for the Fascists, pledging to the usual contract on March 22, 1935, and taking on the pseudonym of “Gustavo” (Canali 156). Here we really see the previously described dynamic at play:  threatened by the Fascist regime, Dobbert accepted to become its accomplice, its spy.

The Fascists exerted a similar pressure on Hodel, as he, too, got caught in a “shameful” accident. In 1936 two grenadiers, Carlo Bertoldi and Pietro Vienna, guilty of exchanging letters (including the one in the introduction) and engaging in inappropriate relationships with Hodel, were arrested and interrogated by the Fascist police. The anonymous informer notes that the Foreign Press president, despite being a spy, had no fear of being exposed: “Hodel, because of the simple fact that he serves the Regime (not even without pay, on the contrary!), believes that he benefits from an absolute impunity” (Ministry of Popular Culture, Gabinetto, Hodel’s file). Evidently the same protection did not apply to his partners. Two French citizens, Émile Jacques Lang and René Germain, with whom Hodel, Bertoldi, and Vienna also had relationships, as well as Hodel’s nephew Max Boesch, were involved in the scandal. While Vienna did not admit anything in his interrogation, Bertoldi was quite candid and admitted having intercourse with Hodel to receive money (Questionnaire presented to the Corporal Major Bertoldi Carlo, Ministry of Popular Culture, Hodel’s file). Whereas both Vienna and Bertoldi were assigned to “a specific correctional squad for pederasty,” Hodel “came into possession of some compromising documents concerning his person” thanks to his connections and avoided his and his nephew’s direct involvement in the affair (Benadusi 268). However, Dino Alfieri, who was the secretary of Popular Culture at the time, and Galeazzo Ciano persuaded him “not to nominate himself for the post of Foreign Press president again” (268). Thus, in 1937 he left the position. Once again, Dobbert and Hodel appear to be both targets and actors of the Fascist repression: they ought to be persecuted “others,” and yet their collaboration is sought by the regime, until the regime determines that Hodel is more of a threat than a resource and wants to get rid of his uncomfortable presence.

Dobbert did not deal so well with the consequences of his actions. His spy career was tragically cut short:

Rome, April 5, 1935

Regarding the sudden and mysterious death of Dobbert, occurring on March 29 [1935] in Milan, we learn now from a German journalist, who received a letter from Dobbert’s wife, that [Dobbert] opened his veins and died of loss of blood. The 19 days he spent in Milan’s prison shook his nerves too much. (Letter to the police, unknown author, Dobbert’s file)

Shocked by the days spent in prison, upset by the potential consequences of his agreement with the Fascist police, he felt trapped and took his own life. His outsider status was ultimately the greatest factor in his demise. One cannot help but think about Leamas climbing back down the eastern side of the wall at the end of le Carré’s novel, after Liz has been shot, to be shot and killed too. Is dying the only way of “coming in from the cold” and ending the spy’s job? Leamas had tried to erase Liz. He did not succeed: “Liz returns as a catalyst of catastrophe. She exposes Leamas’s ruse and causes his death” (Hepburn 169). It is not possible to definitively erase memory or personal feelings: “The willful eradication of memory in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold results in dehumanization until too late when recognition of self-deceit leads to tragedy” (Lassner 207). In a similar way, Dobbert had deceived himself into thinking that he could spy for the Fascists, but ultimately could not lie to himself anymore.

Hodel, in contrast, had more leeway. An anonymous report of August 19, 1937, states that if when he was Foreign Press president he maintained, at least in public, a certain favorable attitude towards Fascism, now that he did not occupy that position anymore, he dropped the mask at last. The ambiguity of his allegiance to the Fascist regime emerges again from the report. The informer claims that “he generally speaks about the ‘facts’ but avoids naming people.” Lately, however, driven by his resentment against minister Alfieri for the consequences of the scandal we discussed before, he had accused Alfieri of being “not only one of the major cretins of Italy, but also one of the greediest profiteers” (Report, 19 August 1937, DDP, Hodel’s file). Not a very subtle move for a spy—maybe a deliberate attack to the regime? The Fascists also accused Hodel, who was also the correspondent for the Swiss daily newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, of damaging the regime in his articles. In November 1938, another anonymous report accuses him of defeatism: he criticized Mussolini’s autarchic politics on grounds that the future generation had to pay its price, “unless a war made Italy the most miserable and poorest country on earth,” and then claimed that Italy would never take part in a European war because Fascism’s days were numbered (Anonymous report, 25 November 1938, DPP, Hodel’s file). As Benadusi remarked, some of Hodel’s friends claim that “he became anti-Fascist when Italy joined forces with Germany and the Axis; and that his hatred of Germany derived from the fact that Hitler and Himmler persecuted pederasts” (Benadusi 269). He appeared to some to be increasingly critical of the regime, while simultaneously spying for the Fascists and pretending to others to be loyal to the regime. And yet, it is only fitting that Hodel, as an outsider, escapes our categories: neither a Fascist nor an antifascist—but certainly, not ideologically close to the regime.

In February 1939, the notes mention a potential expulsion of Hodel from Italy (20 February 1939, DPP, Hodel’s file). Hodel’s situation becomes even more precarious in the extreme tension preceding Italy’s declaration of war, when the regime needed the Italians’ trust and could therefore not accept a critical voice. Nevertheless, better connected and more resourceful than Dobbert, he managed to have the measure of expulsion revoked, and in 1941, after a trip to Switzerland, was authorized to return to Italy. Tavolato continued to keep tabs on him, but he remained unscathed. At the end, we are left with the implications of Hodel’s ambiguous outsider status: his only allegiance seems to be to himself and to his survival.

Are Dobbert and Hodel victims or accomplices of the regime? Dobbert was already a member of the Nazi party before being threatened into becoming a spy for the Fascists, but what was the extent of his collusion with Nazi politics? Was he really a spy for the Germans or was he simply a party member for convenience? Does the tragic end of his spy career make him a victim? And what about Hodel—was he forced to work for the Fascists or did he gain real benefits from his position as president of the foreign press association and his life in Italy? Was he really committed to criticizing the regime, while keeping up the pretense of steering the foreign press towards pro-Fascist positions? These questions matter because, as stated before, these outsiders—these imperfect spies—ultimately appear to be the ambiguous enabling wheels of the universe of terror that the Fascist regime sought to create. They are proof that, in the Fascist totalitarianism, repression was not totally and perfectly enforced.

The Third Layer: Bending “Moral” Values to Political Needs

The issue of Dobbert’s dubious “culpability” in the scandal he was involved in is explicitly discussed by the informer who wrote the report: "As a whole, Dobbert’s responsibility in such a dubious business is very relative: without doubt he, in the first instance, attracted by the procurer’s offer, wanted to take advantage of it, but when he understood the boy’s game he returned to his senses and certainly gave up any aim. Thus we are only in the field of intentions" (“Appunto,” Dobbert’s file).  It seems as if the author of the report is trying to find a mitigating circumstance for Dobbert, although that would not erase the previously noted “dark” side of his personality. The ambiguity of Dobbert’s agency is mirrored by the ambiguous description of his apparent change of heart.   

Hodel’s more voluminous files in the Divisione Polizia Politica are heavy with observations about his morality: his moral vices are sometimes mixed with his political ones. The first report, dated April 3, 1928, focuses on his homosexual circle. The attorney Agostino Mormino— himself a homosexual and former assistant editor of Il Popolo, a newspaper close to the Italian People’s Party led by the Catholic priest Luigi Sturzo—is identified as Hodel’s procurer, who furnished him with the “boys” for his “orgies” (Hodel’s file). Their “acts of depravation” are detailed in several notes. The informers paint an increasingly gloomy picture of Hodel: “Extremely cunning man who knows ‘everything’ about ‘everybody’” (no author, 25 February  1933, Hodel’s file); his attitude is “a national disgrace for Switzerland” (no author, 13 May  1936, Hodel’s file); “in his long life, he distributed sizable amounts of money to young men who…knew him in the Biblical sense” (Terracini’s report, 13 September 1936, Hodel’s file); he is allowed “all licenses, even the most illicit and detrimental, in exchange for his supine complicity” (Terracini’s report, 19 September 1936, Hodel’s file); his “moral figure is too well known to be further highlighted” (no author, 8 December 1936, Hodel’s file); he slanders the Fascists, spreading “mumbles, insinuations, smiles full of significance and wickedness” in the foreign journalistic environments and embassies (same report); his attitude towards Italy is “among the most venomous, devious and immoral, because it offends the profound values of the Italian people in a much more harmful way than the openly antifascist attitude of some correspondents of the Foreign Press” (no author, 19 August 1937, Hodel’s file); Hodel “while getting older, becomes more and more clownish” (no author, 2 April 1940, Hodel’s file); he has no loyalty whatsoever and is “ready to serve anyone, provided that he can quietly remain in Rome” (no author, 18 July 1940, Hodel’s file).

The list is quite impressive—especially the assessment that Hodel may be even more of an antifascist than the openly antifascist foreign press correspondents. His homosexuality and outsider status become here a synonym of political dissidence. More than just being an outsider, he voluntarily acts like one. But if he is given greater political agency, the same homosexual spies adopt the homophobic language in their reports: As we previously saw, Terracini talks about the antiquarian’s shop as a “landing and exchange place for all international inverts, the place of ‘exchange’ and ‘restock’ in the broadest and most obscene sense that can be understood in this particular case” (Terracini’s report, 19 December 1936, Hodel’s file). Once again, the Fascist repression is both enforced and disrupted by the outsiders, who adopt the homophobic language here—a language that condemned their very identity.

Here lies, therefore, the third layer of ambiguity. Homophobic prejudice was deeply rooted among the Fascists: although the specific article against homosexual relationships did not make it into the penal code, “homosexuality was listed as a specific category” in the surveillance reports, “often referred to in the personal files of people watched by the police precisely for their ‘particular’ sexual tendency” (Benadusi 212). Difference was perceived as a material, a moral and a political threat to the regime. Being “morally” acceptable also coincided with being a true Fascist, on the right political side. The treatment of alleged pederasts was even more ambiguous, “hovering somewhere between sin and crime, vice and illness” (Benadusi 212). We are therefore confronted with ambiguous definitions and an even more ambiguous outcome: despite the reports’ ambiguity, the police seemed to be neither motivated by moral concerns nor interested in defending Fascist virility. Instead, they identified a potential informer and used his sexual tendencies as leverage in order to convince him to become one. The growing intolerance in the reports about Hodel is due more to his growing “antifascism” than to any conduct of his that could have been considered immoral.


In principle, homosexuality was for the Fascists a negative archetype: the absence of virility. This lack was absolutely incompatible with the ideological premises of the regime. As George Mosse has clearly shown, Mussolini’s “new man” had to be quintessentially masculine: a fighter, constantly in action, wearing a uniform, marching and practicing physical exercise (The Image 160). Could homosexual agents be any of the above? For the Fascists, certainly not. But what they could do was use their “immoral” networks to spy for the regime—a lesser evil for a greater good.

Both the Fascist and Nazi regimes advertised a narrative of morality and respectability, of which the Duce and the Führer were to be considered the embodiment and greatest realizations. And yet, for the Fascist police, homosexuality became a tool for controlling individuals and turning them into spies at its service, one of many examples of the contradictions between the totalitarian narrative and practice. Instead of safeguarding morality and enforcing respectability, the police “tolerated” homosexuality in exchange for information. In pursuing this policy, the Fascists seemed to clash with their own ideology, but also to construct pragmatic principles and practices that identified these outsiders as disposable tools: unfit to be Fascists, but useful to uphold the Fascist repression.

The Fascist “new man” had already found an obstacle in what Benadusi calls the “bourgeois canon of respectability”: while the latter “defended the private sphere from political interference,” Fascism hammered on the heroism of the politically engaged mass. In their “antibourgeois campaign,” the Fascists preached against the bourgeois man, characterizing him as effeminate and ridiculing him as a dandy (Benadusi 291–92). Homosexuality posed an even bigger problem, especially in light of the absence of antihomosexual sanctions in the penal code. How to tackle it, then? Fascism’s response seems to be a combination of concealment and exploitation: homosexual spies could come in handy, as long as their practices were not advertised.

These homosexual spies, however, seemed to be part of a failed “totalitarian experiment,” to use one of Emilio Gentile’s concepts: essentially, the regime’s structural plan to subjugate individuals to its goal and ideological grounds. Gentile notes that the “limits of Fascist totalitarianism are not sufficient to deny that it existed and had effects; in the same way the contradictions between myth and realization do not disprove the importance of the presence and function of myth in Fascist politics” (Gentile, La Via Italiana al Totalitarismo 148–50, qtd. in Benadusi 404). But Dobbert’s and Hodel’s cases are proof that police intimidation does not always lead to the expected results: these spies are imperfect tools, just as their place in the Fascist universe is blurry. Dobbert did not respond well to the pressure; Hodel did not accomplish his task and was ultimately more detrimental than useful to the image of the regime abroad.

If the archival documents about Dobbert and Hodel suggest insights about the police exploitation of homosexual informers, they are also voicing the regime’s concern for Italy’s international power and the view of the country in the foreign public opinion. Mussolini cared enormously about the view of the regime from abroad. His plans for a “national regeneration” and crafting of a Fascist “new man” were paired with illusions of national conquest (Ben-Ghiat 2). He dreamed of creating “a Mediterranean and Red Sea empire”—a dream that later escalated with the invasion of Ethiopia (Ben-Ghiat123). Thus, foreign spies could also be tasked to influence the foreign public opinion in favor of the regime.

The biggest concern with Dobbert seems actually to be that he might reveal industrial secrets to Germany. His expertise in economics makes him even more dangerous in the eyes of the Fascist regime: an anonymous report of June 12, 1934, specifies that he is well suited for this kind of espionage “for his incredible knowledge of the world economy” (no author, 12 June 1934, Dobbert’s file). The same concern about Germany appears in some reports in Hodel’s file, such as one titled “Trustee news” and dated April 15, 1938, where the unknown author discussed the issue of Germany’s expansionist goals of attaining an outlet in the Mediterranean with Yugoslavia’s support—a project that would obviously undercut Germany’s friendship with Italy (“Notizie fiduciarie,” no author, 15 April 1938, DPP, Hodel’s file). But more generally and importantly, Hodel is constantly accused of spreading malicious gossip and defeatism about the Fascist regime. While he acts as an asset of the police because he wants to remain president of the Foreign Press Association and continue to live comfortably in Rome, he also targets the regime in every possible way. First, he challenges Fascist morality with his immoral conduct—and the Fascists consider his relationships with the soldiers particularly worrisome in light of the dreaded potential infiltration of homosexuals in the army. Second, he does the opposite of what he is asked—stirring the public opinion in favor of the regime—with his deprecation of the regime’s policies, geopolitical role, and hierarchs, such as Ciano and Alfieri. Finally, he eludes the Fascist control, with the self-assuredness that the feeling of being essential to the regime gives him. While Dobbert succumbs to the pressure of his new role of spy, Hodel gains from it more than he loses. Surveillance becomes a double edged sword for the Fascists and sometimes is turned against them by the very ones they thought they were keeping in check. The Fascist repression fails, because the spies do not always act in accordance with the regime.

A careful analysis of the documents leaves us incapable of labeling Dobbert and Hodel as “victims” or “accomplices,” since they occupy an ambiguous, shifting position. We are however left with the impression that in the Fascist regime surveillance takes on an agency of its own: the limits of the spies’ actions are always defined by the possibility that someone else may be spying on them. This mirroring dynamic has both historical and narrative implications. The historical outcome is the failure of the totalitarian system of surveillance, whose premises of uncontested allegiance and unchallenged terror do not ultimately work. The narrative implications consist of a multi-layered gaze, once again reminiscent of those of fictional characters.  Just as we do not know whether Hodel is ultimately working for or against the Fascists, le Carré’s Spy does not tell us until the end where Mundt’s loyalty is. And yet, spy fiction provides that final answer or plot twist that archival documents are more reticent to give.

Even without a definitive interpretation, Dobbert’s and Hodel’s stories expand our knowledge of the inner workings of Fascist surveillance. Mussolini had deliberately set up this atmosphere: his policy in regard to his regime was reminiscent of the Romans’ divide et impera—“a system of rivalry and distrust, conflicting ambitions, suspicion, and slander aimed at weakening the power of the most influential gerarchi [party officials] and rising above them as the arbitrator of their fights” (Benadusi 214). The secretary of the Nationalist Fascist Party, Roberto Farinacci, “maintained emblematically that ‘every Fascist must be a carabiniere [policeman] to the next.5 The regime thus capitalized on this constant feeling of the spy’s insecurity, of being under surveillance, to strengthen Mussolini’s charisma as a leader and prevent other Fascists from replacing Il Duce’s leadership. Morality and sexual tendency were reduced to tools to keep the wheels of this complex system turning, but the wheels brought the system to places the Fascist regime did not always anticipate.


1Copy of Roberto Hodel’s letter to Corporal Carlo Bertoldi signed by Major O. Carnevali, in Central Archives of the State in Rome, Ministry of Popular Culture, Gabinetto, folder 11, Roberto Hodel’s file [all translations of primary sources are mine].

2For the discussion of the categories of “victim” and “perpetrator” as the main roles in genocide (together with that of bystander), see Hilberg, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: Jewish Catastrophe 1933–1945. For a more complete discussion of the existing literature, see Vollhardt and Bilewicz, After the Genocide: Psychological Perspectives on Victim, Bystander, and Perpetrator Groups.

3See Schmitt, Political Theology and Dictatorship, and Agamben, State of Exception and Homo Sacer.

4While Theweleit challenges the acritical and automatic use of the notions of either latent or overt homosexuality to describe the fascist terror, he concedes that it is “more than likely that something akin to a ‘latent’ homosexuality, and an associated ‘damming up of the drives,’ played a constitutive part in the fascist terror.” See Male Fantasies, vol. 2, 307.

5See “Roberto Farinacci ai fascisti cremonesi,” Il Regime fascista, November 1, 1927, cited in Benadusi 372, note 7.

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