April 28th in German History: The Execution of Benito Mussolini

Did the Brutal Death of Mussolini Contribute to Hitler's Suicide ...
The bodies of Mussolini and other fascist leaders hung upside down by partisans.

Benito Mussolini had fallen far by the time of his execution on April 28th of 1945. Barely 20 years earlier he was the leader of the first and only Fascist state in the world. He would go on to re-militarize Italy and extend its colonial holdings in Africa through his conquest of Ethiopia, avenging the national shame that was the defeat at the Battle of Adawa. His pre-war rule was not without its upsets, though. The economy stagnated in the 1930s and his intervention in the Spanish Civil War, while ultimately successful, was fraught with embarrassment. Further, his attempts to assert Italian leadership among Fascists failed as fascist Austria, which he supported, was annexed by Germany. Nevertheless, on the eve of war fascist Italy looked like a formidable regional power and one that could help the war effort of whichever side it joined.

However, Mussolini was reluctant to enter World War II as his army and airforce were hopelessly outdated, rearmament having been conducted a decade too early, and the Italian economy dependent on raw materials imported from Britain. Even the Regia Marina, the most modern of the three branches, was hamstrung by outdated doctrine and a reliance on imported fuel. When Italy entered the war in 1940, it quickly launched invasions of Southern France, Egypt, and British colonies in the middle of Africa. All of these offensives failed, often spectacularly, and Italy was forced back in Africa. The Germans supported the Italians in North Africa and for a time drove the British back. They were unable to take Egypt, though, due to insecure supply lines and the British replacing poor commanders. American entry into the war resulted in vast quantities of weapons and munitions being supplied to the British army in Africa and Operation Torch, the invasion of Northwest Africa, resulted in the destruction of the Afrika Corps and the complete loss of North Africa. While this happened, the Italians had lost air and naval superiority in the Mediterranean which allowed the Allies to invade Sicily and Southern Italy in 1943. In reaction to the horrible defeats that Italy had suffered, King Victor Emmanuel of Italy along with the Grand Council of Fascists ousted Mussolini as Italian Prime Minister and had him arrested. They negotiated an armistice with the Allies and declared war on Germany. In response, Germany occupied as much of Italy as they could and established the Italian Social Republic as a puppet state. German special forces rescued Mussolini from imprisonment and installed him as the leader of the Republic. He was, however, no longer anywhere near an equal partner of Hitler as his country was defended by German troops as much as Italian ones and the Germans, Croatians, even the Japanese took Italian European and colonial possessions. The Italian Social Republic was pushed up the Italian peninsula, losing Rome and then Revenna in 1944. The Allies broke through the Gothic line, the last defensive line in Northern Italy, in August of 1944 and from then on the Allies moved to take cities in Northern Italy. The Allies were unable to occupy the entirety of Italy by the end of the war but did force the German army in Italy to surrender on the 29th of April. Mussolini had tried to appeal to the workers and rebuild public faith in his rule, but these efforts proved insufficient to prevent rapid growth of partisan activity in Northern Italy and the defection of much of Mussolini’s army. A day before the surrender, Mussolini was captured by some of these partisans while fleeing to Switzerland along with his mistress. Both were shot and their bodies displayed for the public to see.

The death of his puppet saddened the Führer, but Mussolini’s fall had been expected and did not shock what little of the Reich that was not too busy fleeing battle to pay attention to news of the wider world. The death of the first fascist leader, at the hands of those who were supposed to be cogs in the great state, was a fundamental blow to the supposed strength and unity of fascism. Further, it showed the world that no matter their positions, tyrants would suffer for their crimes. Hitler would escape Mussolini’s fate when he committed suicide two days later. Demagogues and dictators should learn from the example of Mussolini; no matter one’s glorious rise, the most common fate for tyrants is death at the hand of their subject.

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