An Inglorious End: The Summary Execution of Benito Mussolini

Picture Credit: Wikipedia

It was on this day, 71 years ago that Benito Mussolini, the proud founder of fascism was summarily executed after being captured by the partisans, on April 28, 1945. For the 20 years that he ruled Italy, it was only two as elected prime minister of the Fascist Party. By 1925 he gave himself the title of Il Duce[1] leading the National Fascist Party.

The Fascists have been accused of committing many grave offences for which they would have had much to answer for in an international court of criminal law.  But as Mussolini’s most erudite biographer and expert on modern Italian History, Denis Mack Smith has put it, “No Italian was ever brought before the Nuremberg tribunal, and local Italian courts preferred wherever possible to ignore or exonerate…and black out what was painful in the past.”[2]

The execution was brutal. In 1940, Mussolini took his country into World War II, siding with the Nazis in Germany and met with defeat. By 1945, he was reduced to being the leader of a German puppet state in northern Italy and was faced with the Allied advance from the south and an increasingly violent internal conflict with the partisans. In April 1945, with the Allies breaking through the last of the German defences in northern Italy and a general uprising of the partisans taking hold in the cities, Mussolini lost control and power that he had so brazenly used. He fled Milan on April 25, where he had been based, and tried to escape to the Swiss border. He and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were captured on April 27, 1945 by local partisans near the village of Dongo on Lake Como. Mussolini and Petacci were shot the following afternoon, two days before  Afolf Hitler committed suicide.

Mussolini succeeded in his aim of making Italy feared and hated in the world. Blood-letting for him and his vision of a militaristically strong Italy, was ‘normal and desirable.[3] Eventually he brought economic ruin and civil war to Italy. Obsessed with territorial expansion –the menacing expression of Mussolini’s nationalism led him to make an armed landing on the Greek island of Corfu, as early in his political career as 1923. There were huge casualties, duplicity involved in justification for the attack and finally humiliation when Italy was forced by international opinion to withdraw.

It was in 1923 itself that Mussolini, united, his Black Shirts[4] with the Blue Shirts[5] of the National Fascist Party. "Fascist Italy" is the era of National Fascist Party rule from 1922 to 1943 with Benito Mussolini as head of government. The fascists imposed totalitarian rule and crushed the political and intellectual opposition, while promoting, in the name of economic modernisation, transfer of public resources to privatised corporate interests. A narrow definition of traditional social values, and a rapprochement with the Catholic Church also marked their reign.[6] “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power”, Mussolini in Doctrine of Fascism.

"The Fascist regime passed through several relatively distinct phases," says Payne (1996). The first phase 1923–25 was nominally a continuation of the parliamentary system, albeit with a "legally organised executive dictatorship." Then came the second phase, "the construction of the Fascist dictatorship proper from 1925 to 1929." The third phase, with less activism, was 1929–34. The fourth phase, 1935–40, was characterized by an aggressive foreign policy, warfare in Ethiopia, which was launched from Italian Somaliland and Eritrea,[2] confrontations with the League of Nations sanctions, growing economic autarchy, and semi-Nazification. The war itself (1940–43) was the fifth phase with its disasters and defeats, while the rump Salo regime under German control was the final stage (1943–45). 

Italy was allied with Nazi Germany in World War II until 1943. It switched sides to the Allies after ousting Mussolini and shutting down the Fascist party in areas (south of Rome) controlled by the Allied invaders. The remnant fascist state in northern Italy that continued fighting against the Allies was a puppet state of Nazi Germany, the "Italian Social Republic", still led by Mussolini and his loyalist Fascists. Shortly after the war, civil discontent led to the Italian constitutional referendum, 1946 on whether Italy would remain a monarchy or become a republic. Italians decided to abandon the monarchy and form the Italian Republic, which is the present form of Italy today. Much damage had been done by then, however.

After being shot dead, the bodies of Mussolini and Petacci were taken to Milan and left in a suburban square, the Piazzale Loreto, for a large angry crowd to insult and physically abuse. They were then hung upside down from a metal girder above a service station on the square. Initially, Mussolini was buried in an unmarked grave but, in 1946, his body was dug up and stolen by fascist supporters. Four months later it was recovered by the authorities who then kept it hidden for the next eleven years. Eventually, in 1957, his remains were allowed to be interred in the Mussolini family crypt in his home town of Predappio. His tomb has become a place of pilgrimage for neo-fascists and the anniversary of his death is marked by neo-fascist rallies.

Three distinct and different strains of Indian political opinion and ideological thought are linked in public discourse to Benito Mussolini. The most controverted are Netaji Subas Chandra Bose’s flirtations with the Axis Powers and his blinkered views on Italy’s Fascism and Germany’s Nazism. As discussed and contested is the Hindu supremacist’s open admiration for the fascist and nazi ideologies. Last but not the least, the Hindu right’s diversionary response is to selectively quote from Mahatma Gandhi’s views on Mussolini. Gandhi had visited Italy and seen part of the work; his later observations on the Italian dictator are however ignored.

Indian historical studies on Subhas Chandra Bose's flirtation with the Axis powers, first Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy and next Tojo's Japan, either condemn him or evade aspects of the association. Bose’s crucial phase in Germany that preceded the trial(s) of the Indian National Army at the Red Fort in New Delhi are glossed over. Here, students of history could benefit from Romain Hayes' work, based on extensive research.[7] It is both nuanced and fair; it examines Bose’s views on democracy and the fallout with Gandhi and Nehru. Here we are left with the actions of a man, Bose, who, while incapable of being anybody's stooge could be an  opportunistic, albeit fierce, nationalist. Hayes is unsparing in his censures of Bose's moral blindness to the crimes of his deliberately chosen allies.
Gandhi and Mussolini in popular perception and narration is a relationship that has been deliberately confused. Every so often, be it supporters of fascists in Italy, or the Hindutvawaadis in India, the photograph of Gandhi visiting Mussolini and his oft quoted words re-enter and re-circulate in the public domain.

In 2000, a well researched paper by the Italian scholar Marzia Casolari has revealed, on the basis of archival evidence, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's (RSS) links with and admiration for Mussolini's fascist regime under the title“Hindutva's foreign tie-up in the 1930s”, Economic & Political Weekly, January 22, 2000.

Based on this researched article, The Hindustan Times  has carried an article by Bharat Bhushan titled The Other Italian Connection (February 18, 2000) in response to which Sangh ideologue,
K.R. Malkani (February 23) had, in the same newspaper tried to obfuscate the connection by saying that the RSS was founded before Moonje visited Italy, that its heroes were Indians, and that Gandhi also met Mussolini. Dilip Simeon, historian had then further responded saying that “It was the militaristic mind-set of fascism, not its specific heroes that inspired Moonje. All ultra-rightists had their own "national" heroes. Mussolini seized power in 1922, and his impact was evident by the time the RSS was founded in 1925. And whereas Moonje was greatly impressed by Mussolini, Gandhi told the latter that his state was "a house of cards", and took a dim view of the man – "his eyes are never still". Moonje’s trip was not an innocuous replica of Gandhi’s.
Casolari says in her research that,
“One can easily come to the conclusion that, by the late 1920s, the fascist regime and Mussolini had considerable popularity in Maharashtra. The aspect of fascism which appealed most to Hindu nationalists were, of course, both the militarisations of society and what was seen as real transformation of society, exemplified by the shift from chaos to order. The anti–democratic system was considered as a positive alternative to democracy which was seen as a typically British value.

“The first Hindu nationalist who came in contact with the fascist regime and its dictator was BS Moonje, a politician strictly related to the RSS. In fact, Moonje had been Hedgewar’s mentor, the two men were related by an intimate friendship. Moonje’s declared intention to strengthen the RSS and to extend it as a nation–wide organisation is well known. 

“Between February and March 1931, on his return from the Round Table Conference, Moonje made a tour to Europe, which included a long stop–over in Italy. There he visited some important military schools and educational institutions. The highlight of the visit was the meeting with Mussolini. An interesting account of the trip and the meeting is given in Moonje’s diary and takes 13 pages. 

“The Indian leader was in Rome during March 15 to 24, 1931. On March 19, in Rome, he visited, among others, the Military College, the Central Military School of Physical Education, the Fascist Academy of Physical Education, and, most important, the Balilla and Avanguardisti organisations. These two organisations, which he describes in more that two pages of his diary, were the keystone of the fascist system of indoctrination — rather than education — of the youths. Their structure is strikingly similar to that of the RSS. They recruited boys from the age of six, up to 18: the youth had to attend weekly meetings, where they practised physical exercise, received paramilitary training and performed drills and parades.

In 1934, Moonje started to work for the foundation of his own institution, the Bhonsla Military School. For this purpose, in the same year he began to work at the foundation of the Central Hindu Military Education Society, whose aim was to educate them in ‘Sanatan Dharma’, and to train them “in the science and art of personal and national defence”…

“…Moonje’s Plans for Militarising Hindus:
Once Moonje was back in India, he kept the promise made in his diary and started immediately to work for the foundation of his military school and for the militant reorganisation of Hindu society in Maharashtra.
Ironically, among the Allied western powers too, there were the fair share of those leaders who admired Mussolini and Italy under him. At one time, Churchill expressed his admiration for Mussolini. Public opinion in Great Britain and France was divided about fascism. The Duce kept in close touch with foreign newspaper editors, most prominently William Randolph Hearst and Lord Rothermere. Rothermere famously wrote to thank Mussolini “ for his great services to civilization and humanity.” Hearst even praised the ‘astounding ability” of this “marvellous man.” On June 26, 1925, Mussolini, Il Duce by now, had a letter in his name published in the The Times, London. Here he insisted that fascism in Italy had no intention of curtailing liberties!

This cover of the American news weekly, Newsweek, says it all. Peculiarly, the British fioreign office, under Austen Chamberlain (1924-1929) pinned its hope on Mussolini ultimately becoming respectable and civilized. Four times he went to Italy with this vainly held belief. It was these attentions by foreign leaders that gave fascism the veneer of respectability. One image is painted in historical memory: Lady Chamberlain asked for Mussolini’s fascist badge and pinned it on her dress for a photograph.

This great skill of Mussolini’s –used by Tinpot and other dictatorial regimes all over the world since, including in South Asia — was in the manufacture and communication of such myths. Propaganda and the propaganda machine have been invaluable to the fascist project. The inability of the older generation of Italian liberals to distinguish between the reality and illusion of fascism, in Italy in the 1920s, not just allowed Mussolini to ride to power by taking his propaganda at face value; a similar inability to distinguish reality from spin doctored imagery, even today, in 2016, allows a justification of authoritarian regime(s).
A historical study and analysis of Italy then is also, incidentally a study of the effectiveness and the dangers of propaganda. Fascism then largely succeeded in isolating Italy from the rest of Europe. Not only was the press used in its service as was the radio, but the educational system was also manipulated to build up a series of convenient myths. Through these falsified histories and myths Mussolini silenced criticism, crushed dissenters and dissent.
This author’s extensive analysis and study of Indian history and social studies textbooks used in schools revealed shockers from the state of Gujarat in 1999. Textbooks that had been used (and continue to be used) in that state since 1989 have an apologetic rendering on Fascism and Nazism.
The Standard X Textbooks say,
“Ideology of Fascism: The views regarding the State administration adopted by the topmost leader of the Fascist Party, Mussolini came to be known as the Ideology of Fascism (Principles of Fascism). According to this ideology the State is sovereign. An individual exists for the State. An individual does not have freedom over and above the State. Here, everyone is absorbed within the State. Since the party firmly believed in Militant Nationalism, it opposed Internationalism. National interest and progress were its basic aim. The Party believed that the total power of the nation should be wielded by a leader endowed with Divine power. This party was a staunch opposer of democracy and individual freedom and also of communism. Thus Fascism was totally opposed to Democracy”.
(Gujarat state social studies text for Std. X)
“Ideology of Nazism: Like Fascism, the principles or ideologies for governing a nation, propounded by Hitler, came to be known as the ideology of Nazism. On assuming power, the Nazi Party gave unlimited total and all embracing and supreme power to the dictator. The dictator was known as the ‘Fuhrer’..Hitler had strongly declared that ‘the Germans were the only pure Aryans in the entire world and they were born to rule the world’. In order to ensure that the German people strictly followed the principles of Nazism, it was included in the curriculum of the educational institutions. The textbooks said, ‘Hitler is our leader and we love him’. 

“Internal Achievements of Nazism: Hitler lent dignity and prestige to the German government within a short time by establishing a strong administrative set up. He created the vast state of Greater Germany. He adopted the policy of opposition towards the Jewish people and advocated the supremacy of the German race. He adopted a new economic policy and brought prosperity to Germany. He began efforts for the eradication of unemployment. He started constructing Public buildings, providing irrigation facilities, building Railways, roads and production of war materials. He made untiring efforts to make Germany self-reliant within one decade. Hitler discarded the Treaty of Versailles by calling it just ‘a piece of paper’ and stopped paying the war penalty. He instilled the spirit of adventure in the common people. 
(Gujarat state social studies text for Std. X)
This is before the advent of Dinanath Batra’s textbooks, now compulsory reading for over 4,00,000 students in Gujarat and a proportionate number in Haryana. Welcome to our very own brand of supremacist propaganda in the state system of education.


[1] The  phrase means leader in Italian but has come to mean ‘dictator’, applied especially to Benito Mussolini as head of the fascist Italian state.
[2] Mussolini’s Roman Empire, Denis Mack Smith, Penguin Books, 1977
[3] “Let us have a dagger between our teeth,a bomb in our hand,and an infinite scorn in our hearts:”, Benito Mussolini in Doctine of Fascism
[4] Black Shirts, was and is a colloquial term originally used to refer to the members of the Fasci di combattimento, units of the Fascist organization founded in Italy in March 1919, by Benito Mussolini. A black shirt was the most distinctive part of their uniform. The Black Shirts were mainly discontented ex-soldiers. Ultranationalist, they posed as champions of law and order and violently attacked Communists, socialists, and other radical and progressive groups. They broke up strikes, destroyed trade union headquarters, and drove socialist and Communist officials from office. In October, 1922, their activities culminated in the famous march on Rome, which brought Mussolini to power. Afterward, while the term "Black Shirts" continued to be used to refer to party militants in general, the name Fasci di combattimento designated the local party units.
[5] The Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (MVSN, "Voluntary Militia for National Security"), commonly called the Blackshirts (Italian: Camicie Nere, CCNN, singular: Camicia Nera) or squadristi (singular: squadrista), was originally the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party  and, after 1923, an all-volunteer militia of the Kingdom of Italy. Its members were distinguished by their black uniforms (modelled on those of the Arditi, Italy's elite troops of World War I) and their loyalty to Benito Mussolini, the Duce (leader) of Fascism, to whom they swore an oath. The founders of the paramilitary groups were nationalist intellectuals, former army officers and young landowners opposing peasants' and country labourers' unions. Their methods became harsher as Mussolini's power grew, and they used violence and intimidation against Mussolini's opponents.[1] In 1943 the MVSN was integrated into the Italian armed forces.
[6]The Doctrine of Fascism  by Benito Mussolini, published September  2006 by Howard Fertig (first published 1932)
[7] Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany: Politics, Intelligence and Propaganda, 1941-43 Columbia University Press, July 2011




Related Articles