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'The Body of Il Duce' Reflects Italian History


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

What to do with the dictator who is deposed but not universally disgraced, the defeated despot who retains a worshipful, if small, following? Today, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic stands trial in The Hague and benefits from the sophisticated legal defense; Saddam Hussein awaits trial; Josef Stalin, still in power, died a natural death; Adolf Hitler took his own life. As enemy armies converged on his bunker, he spared them the chore of adjudicating his crimes.

Well, with that question in mind, I was drawn to a brilliant little book by Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto. It's called "The Body of Il Duce." It is the history of a corpse, the mortal remains of Benito Mussolini, ousted as fascist dictator of Italy, maintained by the Nazis in charge of a rump northern Italian republic, then captured and executed by Communist partisans as he attempted to escape. Sergio Luzzatto describes all that as the prehistory of the body.

And, Professor Luzzatto, tell us about what happened to Mussolini's body after he was killed.

Professor SERGIO LUZZATTO (Author, "The Body of Il Duce"): Communist partisans took him to Milan. He was executed on the lake of Como, which was nearby Milan. But then the day after, they took him to Milan and they just displayed his body on Piazza Loreto, a Milanese main square. Most of Milanese citizens that day--which was the April 29th, 1945--were able to see the body of Mussolini--actually, the corpse of Mussolini, but not only to see him but even somehow to act on him. And so they were dealing with the corpse in a very violent way, kicking him and then even actually shooting at him. And the whole city, so to speak, had this kind of very impressive show.

SIEGEL: The man who had been Il Duce hanging from his feet from...

Prof. LUZZATTO: Right.

SIEGEL: ...atop a gas station, I guess.

Prof. LUZZATTO: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Those scenes, I must say, I was familiar with. I was unfamiliar with the fact that soon after that, Mussolini's corpse was stolen.

Prof. LUZZATTO: Yes, one year later, more or less, and that was the very time when Italians were asked to vote through a referendum to decide whether they want to have a republic or to keep the monarchy. So during the election period, so to speak, clandestine neo-fascists decided to dig out Mussolini's corpse from Milano Cemetery and then somehow kidnapped him. And they were getting back to the public scene through this very spectacular, somehow necrophiliac act of digging out the corpse and taking it somewhere, hiding it from the public scene.

SIEGEL: But as you remark on a couple of occasions in your book, this was happening in Italy, a country which had some history of venerating the relics, bones of saints and things. There was something about the body that was not entirely un-Italian about all this.

Prof. LUZZATTO: Quite a history. I know Italy is, of course, the place of Christians and of relics and of holiness and the cult of saints and so on. And so I do think that somehow the fact of choosing this way for the fascists to come back on the public arena was somehow related to this old-fashioned way of political and moral Italian life, which somehow goes through bodies.

SIEGEL: Mussolini's body, when he was alive and then when he was dead, was this colossal symbol. He wore the scars of combat from the First World War. He was always depicted as a great athlete, a vigorous lover. He was a theatrical speaker. This is the idea of leadership that is somehow linked to physical prowess, a very primitive notion of leadership somehow.

Prof. LUZZATTO: Yes, it is. Mussolini was really playing politics--in a very modern way, by the way--through his own body. And so the whole relationship he had with Italians was somehow a physical one, not only with Italian males but I would say also with Italian women. And so this somehow I think explains not only the importance of his body during his life, but also the importance of the very same body during his afterlife.

SIEGEL: His afterlife began in 1945. And then in 1957--I was very surprised that it was that late that he was formally reinterred in a public burial.

Prof. LUZZATTO: Yes. In fact, what happened is that the government managed to arrest the neo-fascists who had actually stolen the body, and they took the corpse and then they decided to hide Mussolini's body in a very secret way. And so the secret was kept from '46 to '57, and I think this is because they didn't want Mussolini to have a rest, so to speak, to have a tomb, because they were feeling that fascism was still strong enough to make the very existence of a tomb possibly a place of memory.

SIEGEL: That if there were a tomb of Mussolini, it would be a magnet for neo-fascists to come.

Prof. LUZZATTO: Exactly. And maybe it was right; maybe they were wrong. I don't know. But in any case, the government itself decided to hide the body for such a long time, which, of course, was quite an ordeal in a Christian country, again, in a Catholic country. Christians--in a Christian country, you would like a body to have a decent place to rest. And so for Christian Democrats, who were at rule in Italy at that time, it was a decision which probably was not easy to take.

SIEGEL: And there's an extraordinary photograph of people close to Mussolini, both by family ties and also by political ties, I assume, in 1957 at his burial, his new funeral, giving the fascist salute around the coffin.

Prof. LUZZATTO: Yes. But somehow this was--the very moment when Mussolini got back and had a decent place, a burial, was probably the end of his posthumous life, so to speak, because as far as the body was not there, fantasy could work, so to speak. Imagination would speculate about this specter, so to speak, hanging over the Italian landscape.

SIEGEL: Unlike Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic or leading Nazis, apart from Hitler, Mussolini did not stand trial. Is modern Italy deprived of any legitimacy for having disposed of its own monster in such monstrous fashion?

Prof. LUZZATTO: I don't think so. Somehow on the contrary, the very decision of executing Mussolini was a revolutionary one and was a very symbolic gesture. The Germans didn't have a resistance movement, so Allies had to do everything, whereas Italians somehow got the chance to kill the tyrant, so to speak, and to display him in Milan. And so I think there somehow stand the very foundations of the legitimacy of Italian republic.

SIEGEL: Professor Luzzatto, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. LUZZATTO: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Sergio Luzzatto is the author of "The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini's Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy." He spoke to us from Paris.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.