Authors: Sergio Luzzatto
There is every reason to believe that the fall of Il Duce was welcomed not only by longtime anti-Fascists but by some of the same Italians who had once cheered him under the balcony of Palazzo Venezia. Nevertheless, the marches of July 26 should be seen less as an abrupt change of heart by Italians than as the culmination of twenty years of antiregime sentiments. Those who had talked about assassinating Mussolini over the previous two decades were a minority, just as the people celebrating his downfall and killing his effigy were a minority. While there is no certain evidence the two minorities were one and the same, there are grounds for thinking they were largely composed of the same kinds of people: visceral anti-Fascists who came out on behalf of no political parties but mobilized along generational or professional lines. This was an Italy moved less by political platforms than by symbolic gesturesâby place-names, for example: already by July 27 there was a Piazza Giacomo Matteotti in Rome and a Via Matteotti in Milan.
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THE ANONYMOUS GRAFFITI
writers of Milan were not far wrong when they spoke of Mussolini as a dead man. In many ways the dictator, although he survived the coup that deposed him, was a figure who had outlived his purpose. His adventures of the summer of 1943âfifty days in confinement on the remote island of Ponza and the Gran Sasso peak in Abruzzo; Hitler's order to free him, followed by a swashbuckling jailbreak from the Gran Sasso carried out by Otto Skorzeny, a German pilotâonly added to that impression. On July 28 the Socialist leader Pietro Nenni, himself confined to Ponza, stood by as Il Duce was brought to the island. “He is a defeated man,” Nenni wrote in his diary, “a hero who has fallen from his paper throne and is rolling in the dust.”
How could Il Duce see it differently, given the news of demonstrations and burning effigies that followed his ouster? In a letter to his sister Edvige at the end of August, Mussolini called himself “a bag of bones and muscles in a state of organic decay.” He was “three-quarters dead,” he wrote.
Having been for twenty years the physical symbol of the regime, Il Duce perceived his political decline as bodily decrepitude. On the night of September 11, he tried to slash his wrists.
After his escape from prison at the Gran Sasso, in the fall of 1943, Mussolini was installed as the head of the German-backed Italian Social Republic in northern Italy, headquartered at SalÃ², while southern Italy, under Field Marshal Badoglio, had surrendered to the Allies. Yet many Italiansâwhether in Rome, in Mussolini's birthplace of Predappio, in the south, liberated by the Allies, or even in the German-occupied northâbelieved that the real Duce was dead. According to Vincenzo Costa, a senior official of the Republic of SalÃ², Mussolini was widely thought to have passed away or been imprisoned by Hitler in Germany; the Duce installed at Lake Garda was said to be a body double. The same conviction was shared, according to a young Blackshirt, by the clients of a provincial brothel. The philosopher Benedetto Croce noted that these suppositions were widespread in Naples. “The very rumor that he is dead, which goes around from time to time, suggests that he really is dead in the hearts of many.”
In the spring of 1944, Mussolini also reportedly believed that the rumors of his death indicated a popular wish.
Thus the fate of Il Duce during the six hundred days of the Social Republic was to live on to show he was not dead. To some of the less motivated Italian soldiers of the Hitler-backed regime, Mussolini's destiny was pathetic. One young artilleryman recounted to a friend a visit to his barracks by Il Duce: “He amused us when he was reviewing the troops. He waggled his backside around like a girl in heat, and some of the officers, seeing him doing that, could barely stop themselves from laughing.”
However, Il Duce's situation was tragic for the true believers of the Italian Social Republic: the men who had signed up to prove to their idol that the real Italy was not the spineless nation that had surrendered to the Allies, that Fascism had raised at least a few courageous youths ready to honor the war pact with Hitler, people who knew what a hero's death was, who had no fear of finding themselves wearing “a wooden overcoat” lined with “zinc fur,” as one Blackshirt memorably put it.
The most passionate followers of the Social Republic never ceased worshipping the body of Il Duce. The women enrolled as auxiliaries, in particular, adored their new Christ risen for the salvation of the country, still venerating his image and thrilling to his voice. But Mussolini, now aging at sixty, was increasingly difficult to present as an icon, to the point that the SalÃ² regime allowed few of his photos to circulate. Apart from military occasions, Il Duce appeared less and less in public, spending his time holed up in his headquarters at Villa Feltrinelli in the village of Gargnano. Those who encountered him came away initially with the impression of a man unchanged. There were the same strong facial expressions, the same jerky gestures, the same habit of pursing his lips and sticking them out after saying a few words. Still, the sense that this was the Mussolini of old quickly gave way to uneasy uncertainty. “Who was that man who talked like him, moved like him, whom we had seen so many times in the newsreels, but who wasn't him?” asked one young Blackshirt from Rome, Carlo Mazzantini, who saw in Il Duce a self-impersonation.
For writer and journalist Leo Longanesi, a cruel fantasy he'd once harbored seemed to have come true: Mussolini is back in Predappio, living on charity, and his friends invite him to the bar. “Benito, we'll buy you a drink,” they say, “but first you have to do your famous Blackshirt speech.” So Il Duce, hands on hips, strides to the center of the applauding circle to ape himself.
“Who was that man who talked like him, moved like him, whom we had seen so many times in the newsreels, but who wasn't him?” Mussolini inspecting his troops, the Republic of SalÃ², March 1945. (
“Never before has a bankrupt man been called upon to take charge of his own bankruptcy,” jurist Salvatore Satta wrote;
yet this was Mussolini's fate, the hardest Providence could assign: to rise from his own ashes. Postwar neo-Fascist writers would depict SalÃ² as a place of punishment curiously devoid of any crime. Mussolini had sacrificed himself, given himself over to the Germans to spare Italy further suffering. This interpretation of Mussolini's final years was later taken up by revisionist historians: Il Duce as the helpless and impotent head of a puppet state; as the ever more bored lover of his mistress, Claretta Petacci; as a grandfather indulging his growing number of grandchildren; as a grieving father haunted by the death of his son-in-law, exâforeign minister Galeazzo Ciano, who was executed by the Social Republic for supporting Mussolini's ouster in 1943. While each of these personas contained some degree of truth, taken together they added up to a false picture. It wasn't true that the head of the Social Republic was notâand did not want to beâanybody's dictator.
Between 1943 and 1945, Mussolini proposed at least one political initiative, a “socialization” plan to turn workers into the owners of companies through their labor federations. He also began a media campaign to burnish his image, starting with a series of articles signed “The Globetrotter” that appeared in the
Corriere della Sera
in the spring of 1944. Collected in a book entitled
The Story of a Year
, first published by the newspaper and then by the Mondadori publishing house, Mussolini's volume was one of the rare best sellers in a year when reading books was not a priority for Italians. In it Il Duce told his version of the fall of Fascism and the rise of the Social Republicâhis ouster on July 25, 1943, his arrest and imprisonment, the shame he felt when Badoglio signed the armistice with the Allies, his arguments for why the German-backed Republic of SalÃ² was the responsible choice for Italy. But he also told the story of his, of Il Duce's, body. Mussolini began with his injuries in the Great War, when he lay in the hospital at Ronchi, his “body riddled with shrapnel.” He continued through Il Duce's “many duels,” the “incredibly tedious” attempts on his life, and a series of car and airplane accidents that put his body to the test of history. That he escaped with his life, Mussolini suggested, was partly due to his “iron skull.”
Tempting as it is to read this account ironically, that would be a mistake. Twenty years of Fascism had shown that the body of Il Duce was a serious matter. Nevertheless there is something old hat about the book, as, for example, when Mussolini boasts about his “Panzer-style” head. Dozens of regime hacks and poet laureates had made the same claim, likening his head to “a square bullet, a box of good explosives, a cubic will to rule.”
When Il Duce took the praise up himself he was merely invoking an old futurist dream of remaking the human body in metal. But there is also the incongruity of his making these claims for himself, claims previously advanced only by his admirers. It is unusual for a leader to have to write an appreciation of his own physical attributes and seems desperate, after he has been cruelly murdered symbolically. If the fairy tale had a moral, it was that this was a leader who was “tough to eradicate.”
The message was far from irrelevant, for Mussolini's intention was to prolong his life.
The Globetrotter's articles were written with a purpose that would have been clear to people immersed in the political climate of the moment. Mussolini's version of events was meant to send a signal of rapprochement to the forces in the Resistance front that Il Duce considered most moderate and most likely to negotiate with him: the Socialists and the Christian Democrats. Thus, when the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, a former Fascist minister and supporter of the Social Republic, was murdered in April 1944, the Globetrotter's column ceased publication for a month; Gentile's murder was seen as the Communists' ferocious reply to Mussolini's attempts at conciliation. The articles stopped altogether in June, when the political groups opposing the SalÃ² republicâorganized in the Committee of National Liberation for northern Italyâmoved to impose the death sentence on national traitors, meaning the Fascists and collaborators. The negotiations Mussolini had been hoping for ended before they began. Whatever the case, the Mussolini of
The Story of a Year
was anything but a resigned old man. He was a leader determined to fight to the end.
Fascist leaders continued to conduct negotiations with the Committee of National Liberation up until the Resistance's victory in April 1945, but these dealings were of no help to Mussolini since the Communist, the Socialist, and the Action parties had all agreed not to bargain with Il Duce. Moreover, the armistice agreement Badoglio signed in September 1943 contained a clause obliging Italy to turn the Fascist leaders over to the Allies to be tried in an international war crimes court. The futile negotiations resulted in Mussolini's attempt to escape to Switzerland on April 27, 1945, just before the Allied armies reached Milan, and his much described arrest by partisans on the road along Lake Como, with Claretta Petacci and other Fascist officials. During that time of Italy's liberation, history was moving too quickly to be written according to the rules of international law. Both the Fascists and the partisans understood that they were fighting to the death. Mussolini himself, under his Globetrotter byline, had prayed he would be spared “the farce of an absurd trial in Madison Square in New York” and insisted he was proud to be a protagonist in the “terrible fifth act” of the national tragedy.
As Il Duce well knew, there are no sixth acts. The heads of the Resistance knew it, too, among them Leo Valiani, a leader of the Action Party, whose newspaper urged that Fascist criminals be dealt with as to do no further harm. Luigi Longo, a Communist leader, wrote that Mussolini should be “killed right away, in whatever way possible, without a trial, without theater, without any historical declamations.”
Socialist leader Sandro Pertini invited the partisans to kill Il Duce “like a mangy dog.”
Their conviction was widely shared by the rank and file of the Resistance. In those feverish days there were few militant anti-Fascists who believed that pardon was a republican virtue. One of the few anti-Fascists willing to look to the lessons of history was Mario Borsa, an aging journalist installed by the Committee of National Liberation as editor in chief of
Corriere della Sera
. With regard to Mussolini's fate, he quoted an intellectual of the unification period, Carlo Cattaneo, who said of an opponent, “If you execute him you will do the just thing, but if you don't you will do the sacred thing.”
Except that justice was more in demand than sanctity.