During the last days of the Second World War in Italy, Benito Mussolini attempted to escape the advancing Allied Army by hiding in a German convoy headed toward the Alps. Partisans stopped and searched the convoy at a small village on Lake Como; in the back of a truck, they found a private suspiciously wearing a general’s pants under his overcoat. It was, of course, Mussolini.
The partisans took him prisoner and he was later joined by his mistress, Clara Petacci. The council of partisan leaders, lead by the Communists, secretly decided to execute Mussolini and 15 leading Fascists. They were executed on April 29, 1945, and their bodies were brought back to Milan, where the fascist dictator’s meteoric rise to power began two decades ago; the bodies were hung from an Esso gas station in the Piazzale Loreto, the scene where Mussolini’s own fascists executed fifteen partisans (the so-called Martyrs of Piazzale Loreto) the previous year.
The photos of Mussolini’s gruesome demise was widely reproduced and sold to many Allied soldiers. Meanwhile in Berlin, Hitler heard how Mussolini was executed and vowed he would not let this happen to him. The end was near and Gotterdammerung was about to begin. (See an extremely gruesome picture of Mussolini’s defaced (literally) body here).
Mussolini’s body was buried in a secret grave, but fascists found the body and removed it a year later. A small trunk containing the remains moved from a local convent to a monastery to a police constabulary until it was finally returned to Mussolini’s widow in 1957, and was buried at Predappio, Il Duce’s birthplace.
Even today, Italy has one of the least free presses in Western world. Although press-censorships were not created with the Fascist state Benito Mussolini forged, Mussolini’s Ministry of Popular Culture — which administrates everything that appeared in newspapers, radio, printed works, theatre, cinema or any form of art — did cast a long shadow. In a move worthy of today’s language bastions, it banned usage of non-Italian words; the ministry’s lackeys were posted to publishing houses to immediately oversee what is being printed, and there were public bonfires of forbidden books. However, noting Italian efficiency, all actions were more Kafkaesque than Orwellian.
In a hierarchical system where the government appointed directors and editors and distributed printing paper, self-censorship was easily accomplished by individuals currying favor with the regime. Although many international publications, writers and photographers were left untouched by censors before the war, the beginning of the WWII changed the landscape.
Working for Time and Life magazines, Carl Mydans arrived in Rome in May 1940. Tensions were high; Mussolini was thought to be on the brink of declaring war on the Allies (although in reality he delayed another month). At the public events, Mydans was repeatedly prevented from taking pictures by Blackshirts who blocked his cameras. He remembers the events that happened next: “On May 9, Mussolini appeared at the Victor Emmanuel II monument to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Italian Empire. A circle of security men barred me from the ceremony. But as Mussolini was departing, he strutted right past me. The security men were compelled to applaud as he went by, and I was able to make one quick frame between their shoulders. The picture appeared across a page of LIFE several weeks later with the caption, “The Elderly Butcher Boy of Fascism”. The photo, which appeared in LIFE on June 24th, caused the responsible staffers of TIME and LIFE being immediately expelled from Italy. Rather than sending a new bureau staff, they closed down the Rome Bureau, writing “In the face of wartime censorship there was no chance in Italy for TIME’s kind of reporting.”
Mussolini Giving Orders to Teruzzi, Commandant of the Fascist Militia, 1931
Mussolini without Pose
Mussolini and his press chief Ferretti
When Mussolini agreed to be trailed for a day by pioneering photojournalist Felix H. Man, the photographer was genuinely surprised. But as a former journalist, Mussolini understood the power of the media in modern political life, and he acknowledged existing official images of himself for what they were: stiffly posed, cold portraits that detracted from his desired persona as a “man of the people.” The ideal candidate for altering this image, Man had established his reputation photographing candid moments in the lives of important and powerful people for the burgeoning German picture press.
For the essay from which this photograph is taken—”A Day in the Life of Mussolini”—Man amassed “slice-of-life” images like this one, which humanized Il Duce by presenting him in the course of his daily routine, as though unaware of the camera, in surroundings to which very few had access. The essay was published in picture magazines around the world and its play-by-play narrative format established a new and widely popular paradigm for photo-essays.
— from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There are many photos of der Fuhrer and Il Duce, but this photo is unique. Taken in August 1944 by Heinrich Hoffmann, the photo depicts Hitler and Mussolini in their waning days. A year earlier, in June 1943, Mussolini lost a vote of confidence in Italy after confronted by his son-in-law, the army and the king. He was dismissed and arrested–but his arrest threw Italy into chaos, and an anarchy. A special German unit was dispatched by Hitler to rescue Mussolini. The rescue saved Mussolini from being turned over to the Allies, but by this time, Mussolini was in very poor health and wanted to retire. However, Hitler didn’t allow him to do so. In his villa in Lombardy, Mussolini was alone, distant and virtually a puppet of the Germans.
Hitler was not doing so good in that summer of 1944 either. In 1942, Germans lost the Battle of El Alamein, forever destroying Hitler’s plans to seize the Suez and the Middle East. The defeat in Stalingrad came in February 1943, followed by the Allied invasion of Sicily. Already beset with Parkinson’s disease, and syphilis, Hitler would suffer another ignominy: in July 1944, a confederate Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb in Hitler’s Führer Headquarters, the Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair) at Rastenburg, which injured his right arm. [Hitler was wearing a sling for his right arm in above picture].