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Did the Brutal Death of Mussolini Contribute to Hitler’s Suicide?

Seventy years ago on Tuesday, partisans in the backwoods of northern Italy summarily executed Benito Mussolini after they happened to foil the dictator’s attempted escape across the Swiss border.

Mussolini_e_Petacci_a_Piazzale_Loreto,_1945

Seventy years ago on Tuesday, partisans in the backwoods of northern Italy summarily executed Benito Mussolini after they happened to foil the dictator’s attempted escape across the Swiss border. “You can imagine the shock when they found him. They had no idea what to do with him,” Professor David Kertzer — whose book, The Pope and Mussolini, won a Pulitzer Prize last week — told Foreign Policy. The partisans settled on shooting Mussolini alongside his young mistress, Claretta Petacci, and passed their bodies to an angry crowd, which brutalized the corpses and hung them upside down from a girder in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan, for display and preservation. Mussolini and Petacci greeted U.S. military authorities when they arrived in the city, where the dictator had ruled as a Nazi puppet over his ever-dwindling territory until the bitter end. Days earlier, the bodies of partisans had adorned the same plaza.

Mussolini’s rule of Italy since 1922, and since 1925 as a fascist dictator, had been predicated upon a cult of propaganda that often focused on his body, representations of which dominated the country’s visual culture. His death was marked by the same emphasis. “His omnipresence meant that he was recognized the next day when he was hanging upside down, despite the desecration of his body,” Kertzer said.

Some historians now believe that Mussolini’s death also influenced Adolf Hitler’s decision to commit suicide and have his body burned in the final days of World War II, though historian Hugh Trevor-Roper argues in his seminal book, The Last Days of Hitler, that the news out of Milan would have been unlikely to strengthen what he describes as “an already firm decision.”

News of Mussolini’s public, humiliating death reached Hitler by radio the following day, April 29, 1945, in his Führerbunker below Berlin, where he had been confined for two weeks as Soviet forces approached the German capital. “This will never happen to me,” Hitler said of his role model’s death, according to statements made by top Nazi official Hermann Göring carried in a 1946 newspaper account of the Nuremberg trials. The same day, Hitler composed his will. “I do not wish to fall into the hands of an enemy who requires a new spectacle organized by the Jews for the amusement of their hysterical masses,” he wrote.

On April 30, Hitler said a final goodbye to his remaining inner circle, which included top official Martin Bormann and Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. With Russians practically on his doorstep, Hitler and his girlfriend Eva Braun, whom he had just married, killed themselves and were burned. On May 1, the final day the Nazis held the bunker, Goebbels and his wife killed their six children and themselves.

By ensuring that all trace of his body was destroyed, Hitler aided the Allies in one respect: Their effort to prevent any material legacy of the führer from becoming the object of reverence or pilgrimage for future fascists. The story played out differently for Mussolini: He was buried in an unmarked grave, but fascist radicals later exhumed the body and hid it in various places until the Italian government agreed to reinter it, this time in a family crypt.

In 1945, Mussolini’s death was celebrated widely in the Allied nations as evidence of the war’s imminent conclusion (the world celebrated V-E day on May 8, less than two weeks later). “The wretched end of Benito Mussolini marks a fitting end to a wretched life,” the New York Times rejoiced. “Shot to death by a firing squad, together with his mistress and a handful of Fascist leaders, the first of the Fascist dictators, the man who once boasted that he was going to restore the glories of ancient Rome, is now a corpse in a public square in Milan, with a howling mob cursing and kicking and spitting on his remains.”

The Times never had the pleasure of writing the same about Hitler.

Renzo Pistone/Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy@bsoloway

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