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Authors: Sergio Luzzatto

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And like other twentieth-century revolutionaries, Mussolini dreamed of being eternal, sometimes to foolish effect, as when Fascist propagandists sought to conceal the fact that he was aging and kept quiet about the birth of his grandchildren. The exhortation to endure also tested the regime's legal experts, who struggled with the question of succession. How were they to decide whether the title of Duce was transferable to others without questioning Mussolini's immortality? The debate—such as it was, given the participants' connection to the regime—testifies to the poverty of juridical thought in the period. One Fascist legal expert felt no shame in asserting that Mussolini was Italy's “eternal Duce.”
Journalist Berto Ricci had a subtler interpretation. “We believe in the
Dictator perpetuus,”
he wrote, “but not in the perpetual dictatorship.”

Il Duce the eternal, Piazza Venezia, October 28, 1934. (
Istituto Luce

That Mussolini's dictatorship would be eternal was just what the anti-Fascists had begun to fear. So they periodically waxed enthusiastic about rumors of Il Duce's poor health, rumors that circulated all the more vigorously the harder the regime tried to silence them. The opposition especially cultivated the “myth of the ulcer” that writer Leonardo Sciascia later recounted. As far away as the provinces as Racalmuto, Sicily, Sciascia's hometown, people had heard about Mussolini's “galloping” ulcer “and they were as enthralled by that gallop as by the cliffhanging end of a Western.” One local anti-Fascist made sure to go down to the village station in 1937 when Mussolini's train came through. “He went to see how far the ulcer had galloped,” but against his hopes found Il Duce in excellent physical form. “Ulcer, my foot,” the man confessed to his friends, “that man is going to live for a hundred years.”

For all the promise of the galloping ulcer, the anti-Fascists never gave up on the hope of a liberating bullet. In 1927 the special tribunal for crimes against the state heard more than 160 cases that involved the accused's speaking favorably about an attempt on Mussolini's life. While the court issued its harshest sentences in the places where the workers' movement had flourished before Fascism, the tribunal's proceedings suggest that the crime of wishing Mussolini dead was not confined to his radical working-class opponents. Anti-Fascist tongues were loosened, it seems, whenever there was news of someone's actually trying to kill Il Duce. Thus a rush of cases followed the assassination attempts of 1926; after a few years of relative silence, a new spate of attempts in 1931–32 prompted more cases. Of course, it would be unwise to overstate the political significance of this verbal crime against the Fascist state. An offender could just as easily be a careless drunk or someone mentally ill as a coolly rational anti-Fascist. Still, there is no gainsaying the truth that emerges from the tribunal's archives: every corner of Italy and every social class harbored enthusiasts in favor of Il Duce's assassination.

Among those indicted for applauding the Friends of the People's 1926 attempt were two peasants from Trapani, Sicily; another two from near Verona; a mechanic from Vercelli, in Piedmont; a field hand from Trieste; a traveling salesman from Palermo; and an electrician from Tivoli. Admirers of Anteo Zamboni included a farm owner from Istria; a waiter from Perugia; a day laborer from Siena; a bricklayer from Vacri, near Chieti, in Abruzzo; a housewife from Merano; a mechanic from Bologna; two factory workers from Brescia; an engineer from Russi, in Emilia-Romagna; a priest from Pontemaggiore Belsisto, near Palermo; a farmer from near Padua; an agricultural laborer from the Marches working in Friuli; a glazier from Mondovi, in Piedmont; an accountant from Modena; and a student from Avellino. Cheers for Violet Gibson came from a vintner from the Roman Hills; a farmer from Alessandria, in Piedmont; a road inspector from Chiesanova, near Padua; a decorator in Turin; and a sailor from Pesaro. Gino Lucetti's effort to kill Mussolini won support from a fellow marble cutter from Avenza, in Tuscany; a white-collar worker from Lodi, in Lombardy; an accountant from Milan; a field hand from Brunico, in Alto Adige; and a bricklayer from Arezzo. A parish priest from near Salerno was denounced along with a friend when he told two Fascist militiamen, “We're not mad at you, poor fellows, but at Mussolini, who makes you act like bandits.… Whoever gets rid of him is going to get a golden trophy.”

The crime of wishing Mussolini dead was not the only insult to Il Duce processed by the tribunal. Sometimes the charge was “offenses against the head of state.” A single remark could bring multiple charges. Pasquale Spagnuolo, a farmer from near Aquila, made the following comment in 1928: “Fascism won't last more than ten years and you'll see that Mussolini and the four bums still loyal to him will come to a fine end.” For these few words Spagnuolo was charged on three counts: speaking in favor of assassination, causing offense to the head of state, and spreading subversive propaganda.
But beyond the fine points of judicial process, the tribunal records reveal the level of hatred toward Mussolini: “Kill the toad-faced, monkey-faced bum,” “Wring his neck like a chicken's,” “Split his heart in two.”
In Mantua, someone named Ulderico Carnevali predicted in 1931 that “soon we will see Mussolini strung up in a public square.”
That same year—the high-water mark of popular anti-Fascism—seventeen-year-old bricklayer Leopoldo Piantino was charged with writing “Death to Mussolini” in a book in the Turin prison library.

Without the messages left to us by these faceless opponents of the regime, the prehistory of Mussolini's dead body would be incomplete. Talk, however, was just the tip of the iceberg; would-be assassins surely had plans. The mere idea that someone was scheming to kill Il Duce obsessed the regime's police, who filled archives with reports on suspected murder plots. True, OVRA and its henchmen had an interest in finding plots everywhere so as to justify their existence. Nevertheless, the police files are instructive for the light they shed on the sometimes grotesque paranoia of Mussolini's safekeepers. Such paranoia was by no means unique to Fascist chief of police Arturo Bocchini and his aides; it was shared by heads of security the world over, as it is now. But in Mussolini's Italy, paranoia reached such extremes that it is an indicator of historical significance. As the OVRA police knew better than anyone else, even at a time of sweeping consensus for the regime, Mussolini's body was one that many imagined as dead.

In 1928 Fascist informers in Paris reported a plot to kill Il Duce with “a large dose of bacteria” and recommended chemical analysis of Mussolini's drinking water, the carpets in his office, and other potential sources of infection. In 1930 those same sources reported plans for “an assassination device to be hidden in an animal, perhaps a stuffed dog or a lady's fox fur.” In 1931 the police foiled the sale of some acres of agricultural land in Romagna, on a tip that it was to be used to plant a bomb along Il Duce's most-traveled route. A few years later an informer revealed a murder plan that involved “a pencil capable of launching a sharp needle tipped with a powerful poison.” Another spy for OVRA, aware of Mussolini's weakness for women, reported that he was to be murdered in the bedroom by “a beautiful, sexy female.” If the police informers are to be believed, the prize for ingenuity would go to the would-be killers who intended to exploit Mussolini's vanity and his passion for his likeness: a 1933 plan reported from Paris involved a “bust bomb” destined to explode weeks after its installation in Palazzo Venezia.

While the police force's imagination was sometimes overheated, anti-Fascist conspirators were not lacking. Their schemes became ever more complex after the failures of 1926 and they were increasingly at risk of infiltration by the police. In April 1929, when Sandro Pertini was arrested in Pisa following a period of exile in France, the Socialist leader had come to OVRA's attention for a plot to plant a powerful time bomb in the sewer system of Palazzo Venezia. The plan had been suspended because one of his colleagues, Ernesto Rossi, a veteran anti-Fascist, had learned that the drains in question were under police surveillance. Neither in this case nor in others did the failure of one plot mean the conspirators renounced their plans to murder Mussolini, especially once the anti-Fascists began to see how tightly the regime's hold was tied to the person of Mussolini. As Rossi later put it, all good anti-Fascists thought that assassination was the only solution, although it would mean their certain deaths.

In his 1930 book
The Chain,
published in Paris, Emilio Lussu, cofounder of the anti-Fascist movement Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), sharply rejected the wait-and-see attitude of some opponents and urged efforts to kill Il Duce. Because the opposition had not adopted violence as a political weapon, argued Lussu, its leaders had been exiled and sometimes murdered. But now the time had come to change direction. Lussu was ready to put his ideas into action. First he tried to hire a killer with a long-range precision rifle, then he got involved in an amateurish assassination plot with Michele Schirru, a Sardinian anarchist who ultimately faced the firing squad.
Lussu's enthusiasm was contagious among anti-Fascists abroad. In September 1931, OVRA's agents in Paris were clearly worried. “All hopes among the community of anti-Fascists … now lie in the disappearance of the chief,” said one dispatch.
A few months later the Roman police arrested Angelo Sbardellotto, an anarchist militant who had planned to shoot Il Duce on June 2, 1932, the day the ashes of Anita Garibaldi, Giuseppe Garibaldi's wife, were to be transferred to the capital. It was a heavily symbolic choice of occasion, for the murder of Mussolini would coincide with the moment he had chosen to appropriate the democratic legacy of Italy's unification. As it was, Sbardellotto failed and, like Schirru, was condemned to die. In both cases, the tribunal for crimes against the state turned to the clause of the Fascist penal code that applied the same sentence for an assassination plot as for a successful murder.

The years that followed were particularly hard for anti-Fascist exiles. In 1932, on the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome, the regime offered an amnesty to Italians exiled abroad, and to many an Italian, the choice not to return to Italy now seemed a choice of victimhood. Meanwhile the myth of Mussolini's invulnerability grew as the bullets multiplied but Il Duce remained untouched. Even Lussu abandoned the assassination strategy in his writings on the theory of insurrection. At home, there were still some anti-Fascists who continued to defy the tribunal for crimes against the state, but the 1930s, the high point of the regime's consensus, saw fewer of them. There was, however, an increase in sentences for damaging an image of Il Duce—a print, photograph, or postcard. Felice Arrigoni, an Alfa Romeo mechanic from Milan, was brought before the tribunal after he tried to stop a colleague from hanging a portrait of Mussolini in the shop. “Do you have to hang that thing here? It turns my stomach,” Arrigoni was reported to have said. “Mussolini really has a shitface.”
There were many more such cases, elementary acts of protest against an icon that Fascist propaganda was disseminating ever more widely.

In the anti-Fascist imagination, fantasies about Il Duce's death varied according to the individual's sociocultural background. To the educated, history offered an obvious figure of comparison, Cola di Rienzo, a medieval Roman rabble-rouser who emerged from humble origins to lead the people before plunging back into ignominy. Throughout the 1930s various opponents cited the similarity, which made even more sense after the war, when Mussolini's corpse met its implacable fate at Piazzale Loreto. As rulers, Mussolini, the son of a blacksmith, and Cola di Rienzo, the son of an innkeeper, were linked by their plebian origins to a precarious destiny. Other educated Italians dreamed of taking advantage of their position to eliminate Mussolini personally. The writer Alberto Moravia advised his friend Roberto Ducci, son of a high-ranking navy official, to shoot Il Duce at close range just as Mussolini was awarding him a prize at a ceremony. And the archaeologist Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli dreamed of assassinating Il Duce as he showed Hitler and Mussolini around Florence during a 1938 state visit.

*   *   *

of World War II, the prehistory of Il Duce's dead body became intertwined with Italian foreign policy. Although Italy had signed a mutual intervention agreement with Germany, Italians wondered about Il Duce's real intentions: would he keep Italy out of the European conflict or wait for a propitious moment to join the fray at the side of his powerful German ally?

Mussolini's prestige seesawed wildly during this time of uncertainty, with public opinion ranging from rage at a leader who seemed unable to protect his country from an inevitable war to fear of losing the one man who could guarantee the country's future. As early as September 1939, an OVRA informer from Florence reported Mussolini as “morally dead, in the sense that there seems to be no trust in his political acumen.”
In the months that followed there were rumors that Il Duce was dead or dying. One elaborate story had Mussolini “embalmed with his right arm raised in the Roman salute” so that he could be wheeled out onto the balcony of Palazzo Venezia, concealing his inability to walk.
The fantasy showed how widely Il Duce was seen as a human monument.

BOOK: The Body of Il Duce
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