Were you to query the typical person regarding who was humanity’s single most despicable historical figure most would justifiably cite Adolf Hitler. That guy was a homicidal nutjob. He was personally responsible for tens of millions of innocent deaths. Hopefully, his is a record that will never be broken. However, what many do not appreciate is that Hitler’s role model, inspiration, and BFF was actually Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini.
The eldest of three siblings, Benito Mussolini was born in 1883 in Predappio, Italy. His father was a blacksmith and an atheist. His mother was a devout Catholic schoolteacher. Mussolini despised Christianity and deified the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Hitler once presented Mussolini with a complete 20-volume set of Nietzsche’s works as a personal gift.
Prior to World War 1, Mussolini worked as a journalist. Late in the war he enlisted and served nine months in the trenches. He was badly wounded by a mortar round and carried no less than forty pieces of steel in his body for the rest of his days.
After his discharge, Mussolini returned to mass media. During WW1 Italy was aligned with the British. For a time Benito was paid handsomely by the British MI5 security service to help publish pro-war propaganda. As his political ambitions grew, Mussolini began to see himself as a 20th-century version of Julius Caesar. He felt his destiny was to lead Italy back to its Roman-era greatness.
As is the case with all despots, Mussolini subscribed to a uniquely rarefied opinion of himself. By the mid-1920’s he had obliterated any vestiges of constitutional restraints on his personal power and established Italy as a dictatorial police state. In nearby Germany, an ambitious Adolf Hitler liked what he saw.
By the 1930’s Mussolini enjoyed a remarkable cult of personality, sometimes helming as many as seven government departments simultaneously while still drawing a check as Italy’s supreme leader. His armed local fascist militia, the MVSN or Blackshirts, violently suppressed dissent. Under Mussolini’s leadership journalists were required to obtain a certificate of approval from the Fascist party. Unbeknownst to him, Il Duce (The Leader) was setting himself up for a mighty fall.
Running with the Wrong Crowd
Mussolini applied a certain social Darwinism to his international relations. He believed that virile nations with high birth rates were destined to destroy more effete nations with lower rates of procreation. This led him into an alliance with Germany and a visceral disdain for the French. He described the war as “The struggle of the fertile and young people against the sterile people moving to the sunset.”
In short order, Italy allied itself with Germany and embarked on a variety of military misadventures. The Germans had to rescue the Italians in Greece and the Balkans, subsequently delaying Operation Barbarossa. The Italian formations committed to the bloody battles on the Eastern Front got chewed into sausage on the frozen Russian steppes. The Italians got soundly trounced in North Africa, and by 1943 Mussolini’s subjects were both cold and hungry. An uninterrupted stream of bad news from the sundry battlefields upon which Italian blood was being so liberally spilled finally spurred them to action.
In July of 1943, Mussolini was summoned to a meeting with the Italian king and arrested. Mussolini was subsequently imprisoned at the alpine resort of Gran Sasso. In one of the most daring special operations in military history, an elite force of German Fallschirmjagers and Waffen SS troops led by Major Otto-Harald Mars and accompanied by the famed German commando Otto Skorzeny rescued Mussolini and spirited him to safety in Germany.
Hitler mobilized German forces in Italy to shore up his southern front and appointed Mussolini the titular head of the Italian Socialist Republic, a German puppet state headquartered in Milan. As German battlefield reverses grew to epic proportions, Mussolini fled north to Switzerland with his mistress du jour Clara Petacci in a sports car he had given her as a gift. His final destination was actually Spain.
The murder of Benito Mussolini has rightfully been described as the Italian JFK shooting. No less than a dozen different individuals claimed to have pulled the trigger. As such we will stick to the technical details and avoid some of the debatable human bits.
Mussolini disguised himself in a Luftwaffe helmet and greatcoat and masqueraded as a drunken German soldier in a military convoy. He was subsequently identified by his characteristic chiseled jaw and shaved head and captured by pro-communist partisans.
Mussolini and Petacci spent their last evening alive together sharing a peasant bed in a farmhouse belonging to the De Maria family in Mezzegra. The following morning they were rousted so quickly Petacci was unable to retrieve her undergarments.
An Italian partisan leader going by the nom de guerre Colonnello Valerio had the two prepped for execution. The most reliable versions of the story have him attempting to do the deed with a Sten submachine gun that jammed. He then retrieved a French-made MAS-38 and killed Mussolini with a burst of either seven or nine rounds.
We have explored the Sten in previous installments. It was a prolifically mass-produced arm that saw wide service with both partisans and Commonwealth forces around the world. The French MAS-38, however, was a remarkably well-made weapon that saw very limited production.
The MAS-38 sported a complicated machined steel receiver. Its action was an unusual off-axis delayed blowback contrivance that made the gun exceptionally controllable. The MAS-38 weighed just shy of ten pounds empty, cycled at around 650 rpm, and fed from a 32-round steel box magazine. The weapon’s unusual 7.65 Longue round was loosely based on the American .30-caliber Pederson cartridge.
The recoil system on the MAS-38 projected at an angle into the buttstock and the gun could be disassembled without tools. Pressing the trigger forward served to lock the bolt in either the open or closed position. The gun had a two-position flip-up sighting system.
The MAS-38 was an odd rare piece. Less than 2,000 copies were manufactured prior to the German occupation of France. Production figures under German control are unknown. Some of the weapons were supplied to the Vichy French collaborationists, while the German Wehrmacht accepted the gun as a substitute standard weapon titled the 7.65mm MP722(f). The MAS-38 was encountered later during the war in French Indochina.
The Rest of the Story
Nearly a year before Mussolini was shot his government had murdered fifteen Italian partisans and displayed their bodies in the Piazzale Loreto, a suburban square in Milan. After Il Duce’s execution, his body along with that of Clara Petacci and his Fascist comrades were dumped in the same square. A violent crowd assembled and desecrated the corpses most vigorously. The entire macabre scene was captured by a US Signal Corps cameraman and can naturally be found on YouTube.
Partisans attempted unsuccessfully to disperse the crowd by firing into the air and unlimbering fire hoses. Most of the assembled unconventional troops appear to be armed with Carcano carbines or Beretta 38A submachine guns. An enraged Italian mother shot Mussolini’s corpse five times in the head with a pistol, loudly exclaiming that she had done so to avenge her five sons lost to the war. Angry Italians pummeled their dead leader’s body, and a woman unceremoniously hiked her skirts and urinated on his face.
The corpses were ignominiously hung feet-first from an unfinished Esso gas station. Petacci’s lack of undergarments became embarrassingly obvious, so a local priest secured her skirt to her legs. Later in the day American military authorities retrieved the bodies and took them to a local morgue for autopsy. A slice of Il Duce’s brain was sent to America to be tested for syphilis. The test was negative, and Mussolini’s preserved gray matter was returned to his family for some bizarre reason in 1966.
Adolf Hitler was mortified at the news of the desecration of Mussolini’s corpse, and this shaped his own sordid destiny. Determined to avoid a similar fate, Hitler shot himself in the head with his engraved Walther PPK two days after Mussolini’s gory demise. He left instructions that his body along with that of Eva Braun be burned outside the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin.
It Gets Even Weirder…
Mussolini was subsequently buried in an unmarked grave, but neofascists stole his body nearly a year later and spirited it off with the authorities in hot pursuit. Over the next sixteen weeks, they dragged the guy’s moldy corpse over half of Italy, losing one of his legs in the process. Italian authorities finally recovered what was left of him and hid it for the next eleven years in a Capuchin Monastery.
In 1957 Benito Mussolini’s long-suffering carcass was finally laid to rest in a family sarcophagus liberally adorned with fascist symbology and a marble bust of the man. Every year more than 70,000 people file by to gawk, pay their respects, or feed some misguided nostalgia for the good old days of unbridled despotism. Apparently the misplaced leg is still out there somewhere.