The Dead Duce
The strange story of the death and posthumous life of Italy's Fascist dictator, and the continuing power of the cult of his body over the Italian imagination.
Warning: graphic image below
From the very start Italian Fascism was inextricably linked to the personality and person of its founder and leader Benito Mussolini. The Duce's body, and stories concerning his alleged physical courage, virility and violence were a key part of the appeal of the movement. Mussolini's wounds sustained in the First World War sealed his credibility as a nationalist hero. After the war, Mussolini became involved in a series of real or threatened duels with opponents, again seemingly placing himself in the front line of the struggle against the Left.
With the Fascist regime in place, Mussolini’s body became a central component of the ruling mystique. Thousands of heroic statues were erected. The Image of Il Duce, with his huge shaved head and bared barrel chest, was reproduced on posters, in films, and in newspapers. Left-wing activists became obsessed with the physical extinction of Mussolini, as if with his death the whole regime would crumble. Mussolini himself enthusiastically endorsed this personification of the regime with himself: in the 'Battle for Grain' he was famously pictured bare-chested and wielding a farm implement, and at the draining of the Pontine marshes he harangued an adoring crowd half-naked.
The removal of Mussolini by his own Fascist Grand Council in July 1943 allowed his enemies to wreak their revenge on the symbols of his regime. Images of the dictator were destroyed or mutilated. Huge crowds dragged stat ues of Mussolini through the streets, kicking and spitting at his head. As the war drew to a close in 1945, partisan leaders debated what to do with the Duce should he be captured. Almost all agreed that he should be shot without trial. It was too dangerous to allow such a powerful figure to live, and in any case Mussolini had to pay personally for the crimes he had committed against the Italian people.
The events surrounding Mussolini's death near Lake Como in April 1945 have always been shrouded in mystery and controversy. Mussolini was arrested in the lakeside town of Dongo with his mistress Claretta Petacci, while trying to escape dressed as a German soldier. He was shot the day after his capture, but it is still unclear exactly who shot him and how. The Communist Party refused to reveal the identity of the executioner until well after the war. Walter Audisio, a Partisan commander and later a Communist Parliamentary deputy, was eventually named by the Party as Mussolini's killer, but many refused to believe the official line, and sceptical journalists continued to investigate the story. Audisio, meanwhile, became a hero to millions, and a villain to others. Some claimed that the Party's leader, Luigi Longo, had been personally responsible for the dictator's death. Wild stories circulated. Alive or dead, it seemed, Mussolini refused to just lie down.
After his execution, Mussolini's corpse was taken to a Milan square, the Piazzale Loreto, where the Germans had displayed the bodies of executed partisans in 1944. The bodies of Mussolini, his mistress, and some close associates, were hung upside down from the girders of a garage. Soldiers guarding the bodies were unable to prevent an immense crowd from taking out their anger on the exposed corpses. People spat at them, kicked them, and even pumped more bullets into them. These scenes were filmed by US troops, and postcards of the event became macabre mementoes treasured by thousands of anti-Fascists. Others, and not only Fascists, were disgusted by the gory spectacle, and the bodies were hastily taken down and buried. Yet the deaths and their aftermath continue to hold a grisly fascination for Italians: previously unseen film; footage of the spectacle in the Piazzale Loreto, and Mussolini's subsequent autopsy, gained record audiences when shown on television in 1994, and only last year a 'new' investigative book by a neo-Fascist journalist titled Mussolini's Last Five Seconds became a bestseller.
On April 22nd, 1946, as a revolt raged in Milan's San Vittore prison, Mussolini's body vanished from its unmarked grave in the Musocco, the huge municipal cemetery to the north of the city, during the night. Persons unknown had taken the Duce's body from its supposedly secret resting-place a year after his death. Soon, it became clear that the body snatchers were themselves Fascists - and their ghoulish act was a political one - a propaganda coup on the eve of the first anniversary of the Liberation. The group, led by a young Fascist called Domenico Leccisi, called themselves the Partito Fascista Democratica and published a journal called Lotta fascista ('Fascist Struggle'). Mussolini's body was a symbol of the old order, and for those nostalgic for his regime, it deserved a proper resting place. A bizarre message was left in the grave: 'Finally, 0 Duce, you are with us. We will cover you with roses, but the smell of your virtue will overpower those roses'. The theft had a profound effect on public opinion amd made worldwide news.
The symbolic and shocking nature of the grave robbery, along with a series of other demonstrations of Fascist 'faith' (for example, on May 1st, 1946, a Fascist group occupied a Rome radio station and broadcast the Fascist hymn Giovinezza), was lost on nobody. Rumours circulated about the whereabouts of the ex-dictator's body for months. Was it being taken to Rome? Was it already abroad? Was it at his birthplace? Mussolini's body - exalted during his lifetime - remained a powerful and contentious symbol for both supporters and opponents. For the Fascists the invincibility myths built up during Mussolini's twenty-year rule, had to be preserved and respected. For the anti-Fascists, these myths were at the basis of the desire to treat Fascist corpses (particularly Mussolini's) with intense disrespect.
Of particular importance were the clashes over the kidnap and murder of the Socialist parliamentary deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 by a Fascist gang. Anti-Fascists succeeded in keeping Matteotti's memory alive through pilgrimages to the places where he was abducted and killed and where his body was dumped, and by the (illegal) celebration of key dates associated with the martyred politician. Fascists were attempting the same feat after 1945 with their fallen leader.
The Italian public had to wait four months for the recovery of their ex-dictator's remains. In August 1946 what remained of Mussolini's illustrious corpse was 'recaptured in a small trunk at the Certosa di Pavia outside Milan, and two Franciscan monks (one the brother of the Fascist ex-prefect of Milan) were charged with hiding his body.
During the intervening sixteen weeks Mussolini's corpse had been kept on the move, being variously hidden in a villa, a monastery and a convent.
The saga of Mussolini's body symbolised the continuing bitterness over the Fascist period and its aftermath. The inability of Italy's fragile new democratic regime to deal with the power of Mussolini's legacy, even in the guise of his corpse, summed up its weakness in constructing a new state, its lack of legitimacy in the eyes of many Italians, and the continuing fear of a return to Fascism.
It was not until 1957 - twelve years after his death - that Mussolini was finally 'laid to rest' at his birthplace, Predappio in Emilia, after a campaign led by the neo-Fascist party, the Movimento Sociale Italiano, and the chief grave-robber, Leccisi himself, with the support of more mainstream journalists and the burgeoning popular magazine press. In the meantime Leccisi had become a Fascist deputy and later published an autobiography entitled With Mussolini before and after Piazzale Loreto.
The then prime minister, Adone Zoli, like Mussolini a native of the Romagna, contacted the ex-dictator's widow Rachele and promised to return her husband's remains. Political expediency played its part, as Zoli needed far-right parliamentary votes (including that of Leccisi himself) to keep his government afloat. Zoli tried to fix a date for the body's delivery which would cause the least fuss – the national holiday on August 15th was mentioned - but finally settled on August 30th.
The long wait for interment did not prevent Mussolini's grave from becoming a shrine for his followers and a key part of the continuing Mussolini cult, with particular 'pilgrimages' on significant dates (July 29th, Mussolini's birthday; April 28th, the anniversary of his death; October 28th, the anniversary of the March on Rome). Rachele Mussolini moved permanently to Predappio and the town was the scene of frequent clashes between Fascists and young left-wingers, who stoned Fascist buses and blocked the entrance to the graveyard. Mussolini-inspired souvenirs and memorabilia were sold and tourists visited the tomb.
There the Duce might have rested. But the story was still not quite over. In March 1966, Rachele received a visit from a US diplomat. He had with him a leather bag which con tained a yellow envelope. Inside was a piece of Mussolini's brain which had been removed by the Americans in 1945 for 'experimentation'. Rachele was asked to sign a receipt for the fragment which she placed in a box above the grave. Inside the envelope was a small note which read: 'Mussolini, frammenti di cervello (fragments of brain)'. Finally, nineteen years after his execution, Benito Mussolini's mortal and restless remains were back in one place, and in more or less one piece.
Dr John Foot is British Academy Research Fellow in Italian history at University College, London.