Friday, 28 April 2017

The Odd Odyssey of the Dead Duce

The trials and tribulations of Mussolini's body

When Hitler committed suicide in Berlin on the 30th of April, the direct cause was the military collapse of Germany and the victory of the Red Army, but the event that emotionally triggered it was the death two days previously of Hitler’s main ally, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Hitler simply did not want to live in a world without Mussolini.

As late as April 1945, Northern Italy remained under German and Italian Fascist control, but on the 6th of April the Allies launched their final offensive and soon broke through into the Po valley. This, along with a general Partisan uprising, meant the end for Mussolini and the Fascists. Accordingly Il Duce decided to escape to Spain, but in order to do that he had to get to Switzerland first, where a plane was waiting. Unfortunately for Mussolini, as he headed North with his mistress, Clara Petacci, and an entourage of around 15 followers, they were caught near Lake Como by Communist partisans, a few miles short of the Swiss border, and executed the next day.

On the 29th the bodies were loaded into a removals van and taken to Milan, where they were hung upside down in a public square and mutilated. The US 1st Armoured Division had occupied the city two days previously and did not prevent this. Although US troops allowed this disgraceful act to take place, later in the day they had the bodies removed to the city morgue, where a U.S. Army photographer placed the bullet-ridden and mutilated bodies of Mussolini and Petacci in a macabre romantic pose and photographed them, an additional sacrilege.

Next, the body was buried in an unmarked grave in the Musocco cemetery to the north of the city, where it stayed until Easter Sunday 1946, when it was located and dug up by followers of Mussolini. The police searched for it for several months, until it was found hidden in a trunk at the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery just outside Milan.

The body remained in a state of “carnal limbo” until 1957, when the Christian Democratic Prime Minister, Adone Zoli needed the help of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement) to stay in power until the next election in 1958. The Italian Social Movement was the direct successor of Mussolini's Fascist Party and had won around 6% of the vote in the 1953 elections, with 29 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 9 in the Senate.

They wanted to see Mussolini's body decently buried, so a deal was made by which the body was returned to Donna Rachele, the dictator's widow, in return for support in the Italian parliament. Mussolini was then buried in a crypt in Predappio in Romagna, his place of birth. His grave is surmounted by a bust in his likeness and is flanked by two marble fasces.

The emotional power that Mussolini exerted over his followers in the Italian Social Movement meant that a dozen years after his death, he was able to play a remarkable role in Italian politics and, in a sense, even prop up a government – a remarkable achievement for a mutilated corpse supposedly on the losing side of history!

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