the death of mussolini -- 12/22/20

Today's selection -- from Year Zero by Ian Buruma. In Italy as elsewhere, once the Allies had liberated the country in World War II, there were reprisals against the fascists and those who had collaborated with them:

"Among the victims of the partisan reprisals in April 1945 were Mus­solini himself, with his mistress, Clara Petacci. They were caught while attempting to escape to Austria with German soldiers from an antiaircraft unit. When they were stopped at a roadblock manned by partisans, the Germans were told to go on their way; the partisans had no more interest in them. But the Italians had to stay behind. Mussolini, despite wearing a German army greatcoat over his red-striped Italian general's riding trou­sers, was recognized. On April 28, he, Clara, and fifteen fascists picked at random were machine-gunned in front of a country villa on Lake Garda. The following day, they were hung, like game, upside down from a girder at an Esso gas station on a shabby square in Milan, exposed to the wrath of the mob. Soon their faces were barely recognizable.

"Edmund Wilson was shown the spot where it happened a month later.

"The names of the executed were still daubed in black on the girder of the now abandoned Esso station. Wilson wrote: 'Over the whole city hung the stink of the killing of Mussolini and his followers, the exhibition of their bodies in public and the defilement of them by the crowd. Italians would stop you in the bars and show you photographs they had taken of it.'

"But this was just one instance of possibly twenty thousand killings of fascists and collaborators in the north of Italy between April and July. Eight thousand in Piedmont. Four thousand in Lombardy. Three thou­sand in Emilia. Three thousand in Milan province. Many were summar­ily executed by partisans, dominated by communists. Others were quickly tried in makeshift people's courts, the so-called justice of the piazza. The killings were swift and sometimes involved innocents. Known fascists were gunned down together with their wives and children. Most recipi­ents of rough justice were police officers and fascist government officials. Even those already in prison were not safe. On July 17, the Schio prison near Vicenza was raided by masked partisans, who murdered fifty-five incarcerated fascists. Some of these avengers were hardened resistance fighters. Some were the kind of last-minute heroes who swelled the ranks of the resistance everywhere, once the real fighting was over. Some were criminals who used their new 'patriotic' status to blackmail rich business­men or landowners, or loot their properties.

"In Italy, too, however, revenge often had a political agenda; it was a revolutionary settling of scores. Communist partisans saw the purges as a necessary struggle against capitalism. Since big corporations, such as Fiat in Turin, had worked with Mussolini's regime, they were seen as legiti­mate targets. Even though the most powerful businessmen from Turin or Milan had usually managed to save their skins by crossing the Swiss bor­der, or buying potential killers off with black market goods, the corpses of lower-ranking figures did have a way of ending up dumped in front of the gates of local cemeteries.

"Seriously worried about a communist revolution in Italy, the Allied Military Government quickly tried to disarm the partisans, many of whom had fought bravely against the Germans. Conservative Italian politicians supported this effort, not surprisingly, since some of them had been close to the fascists themselves. Indeed, the slowness of the provisional Italian government in Rome to punish the fascists was one reason why the 'jus­tice of the piazza' came about in the first place.

"As a sop to the pride of former partisans, parades were organized in various cities, with Allied commanders, flanked by Italian notables, taking the salute of partisan military units decked out in scarves denoting their different allegiances: red for the leftists, blue for the Christians, green for the autonomi, mostly deserters from the Italian army. Many had given up their weapons, but by no means all. The radical left remained strong, and sometimes armed. Still, as it turned out, conservatives needn't have worried. There was to be no revolution in Italy. In return for extend­ing his empire to central Europe, Stalin agreed to leave the Mediterra­nean to the Western Allies. But murderous reprisals still went on, and the fear of communism in Italy, as well as a bitter sense of betrayal on the left, would continue, in some cases well into the twenty-first century."



Ian Buruma


Year Zero: A History of 1945


A Penguin Random House Company


Copyright 2013 by Ian Buruma


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