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Authors: Sergio Luzzatto

The Body of Il Duce

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Title Page

Copyright Notice



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About the Author



There are some experiences, even very abstract or spiritual ones, that are lived only
through the body
. If the body belongs to another, so does the experience.

What the bodies of our fathers experienced, our own cannot. We can try to imagine, we can reconstruct and interpret; we can write a history, that is. But the reason history interests us so passionately (and more than any other science) is because the most important element in it irrevocably eludes us.

—Pier Paolo Pasolini,


No previous event in Italian history comes close to the horror at Piazzale Loreto. Even tribes of cannibals do not visit such atrocities on the dead. We cannot say that the murderers stand for progress; they represent a descent into primitive bestiality.… Nor can we say that the war was the cause of their ferocity, since the lynch mob of Piazzale Loreto never saw the trenches. These are the shirkers, the deserters, the boys too young to have gone to war.


may seem, these lines are not a news report from Milan at the end of April 1945, when the Resistance and the Allies had just liberated the city from the Germans. This is not a crowd driven wild by the suffering and privations of World War II; the victims are not Benito Mussolini and other Fascist Party bosses; the lynch mob is not a group of partisans. No, the events in question took place earlier, in June 1920, during the great wave of strikes and political unrest known as the
biennio rosso,
the “red years” of 1919–20. The dead person was an anonymous Carabinieri officer, Giuseppe Ugolini, who just happened to be crossing Milan's Piazzale Loreto. The perpetrators were Socialist and anarchist militants who had grown violent after a long general strike, infuriated by the government's repressive response. Benito Mussolini did play a role, but not as the victim. The editor of the Fascist daily
Popolo d'Italia
, Mussolini was the writer, the source of the commentary.

The conjunction is remarkable, a rare find for a historian: an editorial written by Mussolini himself (accomplished journalist that he was) on the tortured fate that awaited him twenty-five years later at the very same piazza. The connection is pure coincidence, of course; Mussolini wrote these lines just as he was preparing to put the
the Fascist combat groups he controlled, at Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti's disposition to squelch the threat of a pro-Bolshevik revolt. His piece in
Il Popolo d'Italia
thus properly belongs to the study of the origins of the Fascist regime, not to the history of Il Duce's dead body.
And yet his “tribes of cannibals” editorial is as good as any place to begin such a history, if only because Mussolini's words underscore—with all the intensity of pure chance—the intrinsically tragic dimension of his life. A man unaware he is passing judgment, twenty-five years in advance, on the precise and terrible circumstances of his own demise: is this not the stuff of tragedy?

In Mussolini's writings there are other premonitions of what he once called his “grotesque and sublime” destiny as a public figure who would be both widely loved and despised.
“I would have to be extremely disingenuous to ask to be left in peace after my death,” he wrote, for “there can be no peace at the gravesides of those who lead the great transformations we call revolutions.”
Yet, lest coincidence lead us astray, a reminder: that Benito Mussolini died a violent death at the hands of Communist partisans outside the gates of a villa near Lake Como was not the mark of predestination. Nor was the violence visited on his corpse, the way his body was strung up in view before the people of Milan. This does not mean, however, that we should ignore Mussolini's past when trying to understand his postmortem life. Out of that past comes the historical logic of his death, the restless fate of his corpse in the early postwar years, and the impact his body—his dead body—would exert on Italian life and the Italian imagination.

It was Mussolini himself who first structured his life story under the double aegis of life and death—or even more extravagantly, of death and resurrection. From his earliest experiences as a soldier in the trenches of the Great War, Mussolini cast himself in a large public role, in the sense that this particular soldier was a prominent personage, a leader in the movement calling for Italy to enter the war on the side of the Allies. But he was public also in the sense that he represented the common man, because he was risking his life just like the humblest foot soldier. When he was gravely wounded, Mussolini skillfully used his convalescence as a propaganda tool, suggesting a kind of imaginary descent into the realm of the dead. His subsequent recovery—seen as an act of duty to those who had fallen in battle—earned him the eternal gratitude of bereaved mothers and widows. Mussolini had arisen from the inferno of the battlefields by passing the highest test—he had shed blood. In his struggle to give Italians a better future, Il Duce had risked dying even before he was born.

The prehistory of Il Duce's corpse must begin with World War I for another reason as well: after the victory, the bodies of the wounded and the dead dominated all political discussion surrounding the Great War. As editor of
Il Popolo d'Italia
Mussolini was quick to occupy this ground; as early as December 1917 he identified the war wounded as the vanguard of the mass of war veterans who would make up a postwar “trench-ocracy.” When the guns finally fell silent, the celebration of the rite of the Unknown Soldier suggested how large a role the body had come to play in postwar European politics. In Italy this emphasis was the result of Fascism's decision to build its legitimacy and its political platform on the tragedy of the Great War, drawing from blood already spilled the mandate to spill new blood. Mussolini emerged from the trenches bearing the stigmata of the fallen, brought back to life by the will of the nation. But with him also came a vocabulary and an armory of violence that would provide the pillars of a new civil religion: physical aggression against opponents, the destruction of their meeting places, and murder as a legitimate political weapon. Mussolini's opponents similarly employed religious symbolism, using terms like
Calvary, resurrection, holocaust
, and
. Life, violence, and the sacred became tightly interwoven in Italy after World War I.

Thus Mussolini's body assumed political significance even before the rise of Il Duce and his seizure of power, in October 1922. For many Fascist sympathizers, especially survivors of the battlefield, Mussolini's flesh and blood symbolized the just cause they had fought for and promised victory to a generation that was ready to join ranks in a military Fascist party. Not all of Mussolini's supporters felt this way: Giuseppe Bottai, a veteran of the Arditi, the elite combat unit formed during the Great War, wanted to separate Fascism from its embodiment in the party leader. But the writer Curzio Malaparte was surely closer to mainstream Fascist opinion when he advocated militancy by calling on his leaders: “Oh, Mussolini, you old hard ass, when are you going to kick up some dust?”
Mussolini's opponents also attached great importance to his physical self. They were keen to see his body become a corpse; to them, it was a symbol they wanted buried. Thus, after the general elections of October 1919 (a disaster for the Fascists), Socialist militants staged a mock funeral for Mussolini in the streets of Milan. Similarly, a journalist for the Socialist daily
wrote a macabre satire of a crime story, reporting that “a corpse found in the waters of the Naviglio was identified as that of Benito Mussolini.”

Less than five years later, in August 1924, the language of bodies became brutal when a real corpse, that of Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, one of Mussolini's fiercest opponents, turned up in the woods outside Rome two months after his disappearance. The violence done to Matteotti's body was primitive. Long before they beat him to death, the Fascist thugs made it their business to physically abuse the Socialist leader. He was battered repeatedly, the violence eventually culminating in sexual assault. For the Fascists, bringing Matteotti down meant destroying his body. When he was found, a rumor circulated in the Roman press that his genitals had been mutilated. Although it was false, that rumor suggests the depths of the political fight, how brutal it had become. Not a fistfight, not even a wrestling match, politics now demanded crushing, dismembering, even devouring the opponent. “We'll make sausages of Matteotti's flesh,” some Fascist militants are said to have chanted after the deputy's murder—a boast that would echo down the years; a quarter of a century later the rumor that the assassins had sliced off Matteotti's genitals and displayed them as a victory trophy was still alive.
Sausages, trophies—Matteotti's flesh was treated with the same profane disregard that many of Mussolini's followers had developed in the trenches of the war, where they were forced to eat, drink, and sleep in the slurry of dead bodies. The trenches had forced a cohabitation between survivor and victim that had pushed the veterans' knowledge of death beyond the obscene and the grotesque.

In the anti-Fascist imagination, Mussolini's demise began to take shape the day Matteotti's body was found. At night, under cover of darkness on the streets of Rome, red paint was applied to pictures of Mussolini, drops of blood trickling down the Fascist leader's throat. Twenty years before he was removed from office in a coup, Mussolini was already murdered in effigy. The fantasies were not always so violent, but dreams of Mussolini's death would persist among those Italians who remained in opposition to the Fascist regime—Italians like the country priest from Puglia who spent his evenings working on an ambitious poem laced with references to Erasmus, in which Saint Peter halts Mussolini at the gates of Paradise and condemns him to perdition with “the insults of Earth, Heaven and Hell.”
The priest set the distinguished anti-Fascist historian Gaetano Salvemini to reflecting on the epochal significance of Matteotti's murder. Whether Mussolini was directly responsible for Matteotti's death or not, Salvemini thought, the murder was clearly going to haunt him for the rest of his days. “There are two dead here, Matteotti and Mussolini,” wrote Ugo Ojetti, one of the most perceptive journalists of the time, “and Italy is divided between those who mourn the one and those who mourn the other.”

BOOK: The Body of Il Duce
3.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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