On the film, where President Masaryk returns from horseback riding, stands next to Masaryk’s daughter Alice in 1929. She stands back to the camera, so we don’t see her face. In none of the three great books about Štefánik from the first Czechoslovak Republic, we can’t find her story, although she was his fiancée. And the last time she visited Slovakia in 1968, the film material that was created with her ended 20 years in secret. Meet Giuliana Benzoni, the most important woman in the career of our national hero – General Milan Rastislav Štefánik. She is almost unknown in Slovakia.
Reading time: 30 minutes
Štefánik in Italy
Milan Rastislav Štefánik returns in horrible health from the Serbian front. His active military service is impossible. However, he has a mandate from the French government for foreign missions. He performs various tasks for France, mostly seeking war captives from the Austro-Hungarian soldiers willing to fight in the French army. Štefánik is looking for „meat for cannons“ for France. It is an ideal position, where he can multiply the number of future Czechoslovak legionaries.
Italy is his first destination. He leaving Paris on March 24, 1916.
The French pilot also actively participated in combat flights in Italy. During that he continued his psychological war. At this point it might be appropriate to say what the „psychological war“ is? Basically it is a form of media manipulation aimed at destabilizing enemy armies. During World War I it was a leaflets thrown off by the planes. On April 29, Štefánik dropped 3600 leaflets on the heads of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers, which were written in Slavic languages and called on the soldiers to surrender to the Allied forces. In this activity he also continued in May. He sat on the spot of an observer in the Caproni heavy bomber when he took off on May 4 and 7, 1916.
Leaflets for Czechs and Slovaks were compiled together with Edvard Beneš in Paris. In June 1916 Beneš happily notes in the diary:
From Italy comes the news that our soldiers surrendered, as a result of Milan’s statement, which he threw at the front.Edvard Beneš
Štefánik has good informations about Italian politics after returning to Paris. He speaks to Beneš about Italy’s agreement with Romania on July 23, which will bring Romania to the Allied Powers. Indeed, it will happen on 17 August when a collusion with Romania, France, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom is concluded. A few days later, Romania officially entered the war against the Central Powers.
Who knows, whether he also told Edvard Beneš that he found a fiancée in Italy. 🙂
Love at first sight
In one rainy evening in the spring of 1916, Giuliana Benzoni seeks shelter from the weather in the salon of Earl Primoli. She is 21 year old Marquise from an influential aristocratic family. She is Ferdinand Martini’s granddaughter. Left Liberal, writer and politician who sat for 43 years in the Italian Parliament. She immediately attracts a French officer who is also there.
I felt someone looking at me, raising my eyes and seeing a French uniform and two bright eyes over up. The glances continued, seeming to come across me and want to captivate me with an appealing force. To put an end to this cross firing in which my person was the target, I decided to leave and get up. With lightning speed, the officer was at my side.Giuliana Benzoni
Giuliana remembered on her first meeting with Štefánik.
Marquise Benzoni was not just a likeable granddaughter of a well-known politician. Sergio Tazzer in the book „Patriots or Traitors?“ writes, that for her grandfather she served as a messenger of secret messages, when it was decided whether Italy would enter the war. She moved between the French and English embassies and became an expert in Roman politics. Masaryk later describes Štefánik’s fiancee with words:
She’s a good girl, gifted. She has such a practical, real political sense that she could well be a minister.Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
Anna Gašparíková-Horáková, Masaryk’s archivist, confirms these words six years later. Although in a completely different context.
She watches and sees a lot – she is a woman of penetrating intelligence. I’m very careful not to hurt my homeland.Anna Gašparíková-Horáková
But don’t anticipate events. Let’s go back to 1916.
The next day, after a fateful meeting, Štefánik and Benzoni will see each other again. Their first date unfolds unexpectedly.
Suddenly as a magic, he had a small case in his hands, and words followed: ‚I have this stone from Tahiti.‘Giuliana Benzoni
And he added uncertain Italian speech: ‚I have always carried this stone with me for a woman who will become my wife.‘
I nodded to his incredible offer and found the courage to ask him his name. My question has aroused genuine joy.
‚Like that, I thought you knew.‘
‚But not at all, I don’t know anything about you.‘
He bowed and introduced himself: ‚Milan Rastislav Štefánik, mademoiselle.‘
Well, like this the girls were seduced in the early 20th century. 🙂
Love with benefits
From their „engagement“, Giuliana and Milan only see each other briefly. Captain Štefánik fulfills missions in Russia, Romania and America. He will return to Italy only two years later, in 1918, with the task of recruiting war captives for Czechoslovak legions in France.
But the Italians don’t even want to hear about it. Austria-Hungary is their former ally, and ties to the monarchy are still strong. Moreover, there has always been a rivalry between the French and the Italians. This rivalry will soon be felt by Czechoslovakia, but we will talk about it later.
Therefore, a sophisticated compromise will be born – a new Czechoslovak legionary army that will by create and arm by Italy. However, it will not be subject to the Italian king or the French at all, but to the Czechoslovak National Council. Italy – as the first country of the Allies – legitimizes Czechoslovaks foreign resistance. Austria-Hungary ends and Milan Rastislav Štefánik will achieve huge diplomatic success. Would it be possible without the intelligent Giuliana, who knows lot of Italian politics? Who knows.
Marquise Benzoni isn’t enjoy the presence of „little Slovak“ – as she calls Štefánik for his stature. Štefánik is leaving again. This time, he goes to Siberia to reorganize the legions there. She will meet Giuliana again in the spring of 1919. As the Minister of Military of the Czechoslovak Republic, with the rank of General and with a bad health.
When Giulina sits with Anna Gašparíková-Horáková on coffee, their conversation became confidential in 1930. Masaryk’s archivist wrote it in her diary:
Only 15 days were together for four years. Happy moments weren’t. He suffered terribly inwardly, feeling he was going to die. He often spoke of death. She received beautifully touching leaves from him. When he was leaving to Siberia, he said her, that he had sacrificed something for the first time. He had not sacrificed anything yet, he had nothing.Anna Gašparíková-Horáková
Štefánik could not complain about the lack of interest of women, but he successfully avoided marriage. He roused his own father once, because he said he would never marry. Before building the family, he chose to build a career and when the war came, he took to building Czechoslovakia.
Relationships with the women he followed were purpose-built. Journalist Louise Weiss, who won the favor of French journalists for Czechoslovakia and was quickly sent to friedzone when she told him love, writes:
Who will understand his the contempt of women and his the passion in love…Louise Weiss
Masaryk has a slightly less poetic description for Štefánik’s methods. He says to his archivist:
At that time he was often in women’s salons, around Madame Jouvenel and similar political ladies. He flirted with them, not in some sense, but consciously used them for his purposes.Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
The relationship with Giuliana Benzoni is also mentioned in the interview:
Whether he did loved her or she was only one of part on the way to the goal – who knows?Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
Štefánik himself writes to Masaryk the following about Giuliana before his trip to Siberia:
I confess to you that she is extremely dear to me. Love? Or simply respect for the moral power and mental wealth of this elite being? In any case, we are connected by fervent mental ties.Gen. Milan Rastislav Štefánik about Giuliana Benzoni
He also mentions his crazy „engagement.“ However, general Štefánik has kept the poker face ahead of Masaryk.
The Italians (family, community) are before of the events when they call us as fiancees. However, today I have no time or cause to intervene against it. Love her, trust her; she knows the Italians well, the persons, is invaluable.Gen. Milan Rastislav Štefánik
And yet he loved her
In Russia, many things change for our General. The glory of the sun-drenched Italy is replaced by the harsh Siberian winter and reality. Štefánik’s task to reorganizing the Siberian legions is not easy. The Allies‘ plans to tackle the situation in Russia are unclear and the General’s position in the new state is unclear as well.
When he returns to Paris in the spring of 1919, Štefánik arrives for the dinner to historian Paul Raphael. He met him before the war, during his scientific career at Janssen’s observatori. Paul is first shocked at how Milan looks. He remembered him as a scientist in a suit with a walking stick and beard. Now a General stood in front of him with a shaved face. But he quickly realizes that, in addition to appearance, nothing has changed, and the dinner debate is going on like the old days. However, when Raphael’s mother unexpectedly asks him, if he is going to Italy for business or visiting her fiancée, the eloquent Štefánik remains embarrassed. Raphael writes:
Štefánik blushed violently. ‚It’s hard to say anything,‘ he added quietly. ‚Today I am more fall in love than when I first saw her…‘Paul Raphael
You can’t fool your body unless you’re a pathological liar or a psychopath. Štefánik apparently was not so and so lovers of romantic stories can enjoy the idea that his feelings for Giuliana were – apparently – really honest.
It’s rush at the Italian airport Campoformido on Sunday morning. Preparations for the departure of the aircraft is peaking. Štefánik sits nearby and writes something. He leaves the letter for his assistent to sent. He says goodbye – emotionally as he’s in the habit – and boards the plane with the crew. The plane takes off shortly after eight o’clock in the morning. At the lunch General Štefánik will no longer live. His plane crashes when landing near Bratislava.
The addressee of the last letter is Giuliana Benzoni. When she reads Milan’s words, he will know that the flight has ended tragically. Get your handkerchiefs, these are Štefánik’s last words:
Girlfriend, dear girlfriend!
Goodbye! Oh, what a terrible word dividing our lives! Over time, I am angry at Fate, which is testing at our love, still bold and honest, without rest. Goodbye! Well, I’ll be back. I will go back to stay – I hope for it – continue to be with you, my love. The engine is roaring. I need to go, go, allways keep going… Goodbye! I see circles in my eyes, my heart is concerned. I forgive him the human fragility: Can’t I move away from you, Giuliana, and look for my family, my homeland after years? I’ll see my homeland again. I have a home. What joy is it? How sad is it? The plane is calling me. Goodbye, Giuliana! Goodbye, don’t be sad. In a moment high above the peaks of the mountains and behind the clouds, during the kisses of the rays of the sun and the cuddling of the waves, my soul will find peace again and my lips will whisper again: Dovidenia Giuliana! Goodbye, my adored wife!
Greetings to brothers, mum, aunt.Gen. Milan Rastislav Štefánik
However, the last letter to Giuliana does not end her role in the history of Czechoslovakia.
An Italian woman who brings Slovaks and Czechs closer together
Giuliana witnessed the escalating conflict between Beneš and Štefánik at a peace conference. She arrived in Paris in March 1919. Her presence became the subject of various gossip directed against Štefánik – especially among women – at least Beneš wrote about it to Masaryk.
At the end of May, a few weeks after Štefánik’s death, he meets Edvard Beneš in Paris and tells him about Milan’s last moments. Beneš writes in a letter to Masaryk:
He wanted to talk to you, return to Paris, make a deal with me. He said he acknowledged that it wasn’t all good that he did. He wanted to work together. I was glad I heard it.Edvard Beneš
Even General Maurice Janin, Štefánik’s close associate in Siberia, mentions in his memoirs:
I will not stick to the rule of speaking only about what I have witnessed myself. I know from a trustworthy source that Štefánik acknowledged shortly before his death that dr. Beneš was right in one foreign policy issue, to which he had a different opinion and which divided them.Gen. Maurice Janin
Who was a „trustworthy source“, General Maurice Janin did not reveal. However, the similarities between Beneš and Janin may indicate that it was a mysterious Giuliana.
Has Stefanik really planned to reconcile with Beneš? Or the intelligent and politically clever Giuliana did consider it important that the unresolved disputes between them be settled? Either way, she held her role in 1968 when she visited Slovakia last time. Film material was created with her, which became part of the documentary “Milan Rastislav Štefánik” from 1969. Giuliana says that Štefánik wanted to leave politics and pursue scientific activities.
He was convinced that his homeland had already achieved what it wanted – freedom. And the fate of the homeland was entrusted to the right hands of president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.Giuliana Benzoni
Giuliana and Masaryk
The young Italian woman didn’t want to lose contact with Czechoslovakia even after Štefánik’s death. She tried to help restore Czechoslovak-Italian relations. These were aggravated by the conflict of generals Pellé – Piccione in 1919.
The real reason for Italian dissatisfaction was the orientation of Czechoslovakia to France. The Italians also built legions for the Republic. Italy was the first of the Allies, which recognized the Czechoslovak National Council. It even contributed to the transfer of French Czechoslovak legionaries to their homeland and provided humanitarian aid to the young Republic. The Italians were expecting influence in Central Europe, but only got an agreement of leave the Italian troops from Czechoslovakia, which incidentally Milan Rastislav Štefánik eventually closed with them. The Italians refused to act with Beneš.
President Masaryk and his daughter Alice spend their summer in Capri, Italy in 1921. The holiday is used by the President of Czechoslovakia for a private visit to the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III. He is accompanied by Giuliana Benzoni, who provides Masaryk with contacts and backstage information on Roman politics. Like she did before to Štefánik. But … judging by later developments, Masaryk was not very successful.
But not only Masaryks goes to trips to Italy – marquise Benzoni is a frequent and welcome guest on Lány in Czechoslovakia. Her stays in Czechoslovakia sometimes stretch for several months.
In the second camp?
Benito Mussolini attacked Ethiopia, violating Article X of the Convention of the League of Nations, in 1935. At that time, Edvard Beneš presides over the Society of Nations in Geneva and enforces sanctions against Italy. President Masaryk in Czechoslovakia is rapidly deteriorating health, considering abdication. If he abdicated, Beneš would become the new president. And he would have to leave Geneva. And Giulian suddenly appears unannounced at the Lány.
Masaryk’s archives Anna Gašparíková-Horáková will write on 5 November 1935:
Giuliana is already for Mussolini. She ironizes the League of Nations, criticizes England and Eden. Considers Italian imperialism and war for granted, and we are insane not to support them. She watches and sees a lot – she is a woman of penetrating intelligence. I’m very careful not to hurt my homeland.Anna Gašparíková-Horáková
She continues with a new record in a few days:
Alice Masaryková didn’t allow her to visit President Masaryk. She doesn’t talk to her about political affairs. Obviously, Mussolini and the Italians who follow him want Beneš to leave Geneva.Anna Gašparíková-Horáková
‚Only Edko has the right to judge Mussolini, because he had his opinion about him, when Mussolini was admired in England,‘ Giuliana told me once.
We speak French together. Alica Masaryková suffers greatly that Giuliana is here. She likes her, but now she can’t see what Štefánik’s fiancée want, belong to the second camp today.
Could Giuliana join the fascist camp? Who knows. However, she was one of the key figures in the Italian conspiracy against Mussolini in the years of World War II. But … that’s another story.
„She looked unattainable, mysterious, able to break into the forbidden places and explore the unreal ways to achieve the goals,“ Italian journalist and historian Franco Giannantoni written about Giuliana.
- Štefániků memoriál, 1929 ()
- Gen. Maurice Janin – M. R. Štefánik, 1932
- Štefan Osuský, Bohdan Pavlů – Štefánik, kniha prvá: spomienky a postrehy, 1938
- Ján Juríček – M. R. Štefánik, 1969
- M. R. Štefánik (TV film), 1969 (účinkuje Giuliana Benzoni)
- Anna Gašparíková-Horáková – U Masarykovcov, 1995
- Korespondence: T. G. Masaryk – slovenští veřejní činitelé, 2007
- Miroslav Musil, Antonello Biagini – Milan Rastislav Štefánik vo svetle talianskych archívov, 2011
- Dagmar Hájková, Eva Kalivodová – Deníky Edvarda a Hany Benešových z období první světové války (1915–1918), 2013
- Korespondence: T. G. Masaryk – Edvard Beneš 1918–1937, 2013
- Franco Giannantoni – La Compagna Della Principessa Ribelle, 2014
- Sergio Tazzer – Vlastenci alebo zradcovia?, 2018