September 2018 marks the 45th anniversary of the 1973 coup in which the CIA helped remove the democratically elected (but leftist!) president of Chile, and replaced him with the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. We're celebrating the anniversary by having Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings school us all month on real-life dictators of all kind. Autocratic leaders always have a dim view of actual facts, from ancient Rome up to, well, today, but that's no excuse for us to believe all kinds of silly fake news about them.
The Debunker: Did Mussolini Make the Trains Run on Time?
Today, the fact that "Mussolini made the trains run on time" is usually raised sardonically, in recognition of the fact that even the worst political situations can have trivial upsides. It's the fascist version of "Every cloud has a silver lining." The problem with the fact (besides the iffy utility of a proverb that means "Fascism is efficient!") is that it's not historically accurate.
When Mussolini seized power in 1922, the Italian government had already embarked on a massive infrastructure project to modernize the nation's highways and railways, which had fallen into disrepair during World War I. It's true that the Fascists embraced these signs of a "muscular" new Italy, pouring resources into new airports and autostrada highways. But the new train lines were mostly treni direttissimi, direct lines between fancy new stations in major cities like Rome and Milan. They mostly served foreign tourists and political and business elites.
Though these modern links had been in the works for almost a decade before Il Duce's day, they served their political purpose well. British and American tourists went home marveling that the famously shabby. sloppy Italian rail system was starting to get it together. (Remember, this was a golden age of Americans and Brits being openly racist about the "backward" Italians.) But the vast majority of Italy's train schedule was still as inefficient as ever under fascism. "The majority of big expresses, those carrying eye-witnessing tourists, are usually put through to time," reported American journalist George Seldes, "but on the smaller lines rail and road-bed conditions frequently cause delays." Staffing problems got notably worse at the same time, as the fascists dissolved the rail-workers' union and fired 50,000 employees for political reasons. Train punctuality under Mussolini was a propaganda point to be trumpeted in the newspapers, not a reality for Italian travelers.
Quick Quiz: In May 2018, what country's JR West railway company issued an abject apology over a "truly inexcusable" incident when one of their trains left the platform 25 seconds early?
Ken Jennings is the author of twelve books, most recently Planet Funny and co-hosts the most important podcast in human history, Omnibus. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.