Although otherwise distracted, around the world we are now observing the 75th anniversary of events ending World War II. We note especially now two events in the waning days of April 1945 — the deaths of two dictators, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
Mussolini was the prime minister of Italy who decided by 1925 that he alone knew what was best for his country. As “Il Duce,” he was the autocratic leader of the Republican Fascist Party, a far-right nationalist ideology that inspired the initial rise of Adolf Hitler. When the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943, Mussolini lost the confidence of the Grand Council. King Emmanuel imprisoned him, but Hitler sent commandos to rescue him. Mussolini returned to power as a puppet of the Nazi Party, executing his opponents, including his son-in-law.
In late April 1945, the Allied forces were breaking through northern Italian defenses; partisan internal factions were rising. Mussolini was out of options. With his mistress, Clara Petacci, Mussolini and 15 ministers/aides made a run for the Swiss border. They were recognized by partisan communist forces and held. Different accounts make uncertain who was responsible for what happened next. On the afternoon of April 28, the car with these captured nationalists stopped in Mezzegra. Mussolini, Petacci and the others were stood in front of a wall and shot. The bodies were then dumped in a plaza in Milan at 3 a.m., where citizens discovered them and began to kick and spit on them. The bodies were hung by their feet from the canopy of a service station as citizens continued to stone the corpses. These Italian citizens wrought their anger upon this man and his political henchmen who had destroyed the country with their arrogance and corruption.
On that same day, 650 miles north, Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, was sequestered in his personal command bunker in Berlin. He had hoped the death of President Franklin Roosevelt on April 12 would confound the Allies, but it did not. American, British and French forces approached from the west; the Russians were closer from the east. Discouraging reports from the German front continually arrived. When his declared successor, Hermann Goring, reasoned that Hitler was trapped in Berlin, he offered by telegram to assume command. Agitated and erratic, a syphilitic Hitler believed this was a coup. He ordered Goring arrested. When he learned that military officer Heinrich Himmler was secretly negotiating with western Allies to surrender, he ordered Himmler arrested; he had Himmler’s representative in Berlin shot.
Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, was in the bunker with him. They married in a civil ceremony. Their honeymoon lasted only 40 hours before they committed suicide on April 30, she by cyanide, and he from cyanide and a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. In accordance with his orders, attendants carried their bodies outside and burned the corpses beyond recognition.
The demise of evil leaders is not something thoughtful Americans openly applaud, although we may be privately thankful. Instead, VE Day, “Victory in Europe” Day, was celebrated on May 8, 1945 following the unconditional surrender of Germany. The deaths of these two tyrants was but a step on the path to recovering the civilized world from the delusions of power both these men espoused and the malevolence they enticed their conspirators into bringing upon the world.
We do not have dictators in America. We are a democratic republic operating at the will of the people. In theory. We have a Constitution and support the orderly control of leadership through impeachment and elections, as we should.
However these stories may apply to America today, another also comes to mind, a German fairy tale, actually. Not having revealed his name, a crafty, deceitful imp spun straw into gold for a young maiden (whose father had lied about her having this skill) in exchange for her first-born child. When the churlish imp later came to collect her child, he offered to rescind his claim if she could learn his name.
She did, of course, declaring who he was. When he realized she knew exactly who he was, he became frightfully angry, agitated and erratic. He threw a childish tantrum. Rumpelstiltskin stomped his foot on the ground so hard, he cracked open the earth. The angry little man fell in as the fissure closed upon him.
We might like a good story to end with “they all lived happily ever after.” To write that ending, we must each first decide if we face an imagined fairy tale imp or a frightfully dangerous tyrant.