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The death party

They took his body into the city in the evening of the 28th of April, but it was well past midnight by the time they passed all the roadblocks and reached the particular square they had chosen as their destination. There they unloaded all of the bodies – eighteen in total – and arranged them in the forecourt of the petrol station. Then they stood guard, waiting for the sun to rise.

All the photos we have of that grisly display are in black and white, but the scene that the platoon of partisans led by Walter Audisio (aka ‘Valerio’) was trying to recreate had been witnessed by another anti-Fascist, artist Aligi Sassu, who painted it in full colour.

 

 

This was the spectacle that the Fascists militias of the Repubblica Sociale, under orders from the local Nazi command, made of fifteen partisans killed by firing squad in Piazzale Loreto, Milan, in August of 1944, and left out in the sun so that they could abuse and deride them the entire day whilst preventing their families from recovering the bodies. Now Valerio and his men wanted to return the favour, so they chose the same site to lay out the bodies of Mussolini, of his lover Claretta Petacci (who had been killed whilst trying to shield the Duce’s body), and of the lieutenants and former ministers of the regime executed the day before in Dongo. To expose them to public anger and derision, just like their comrades had been at the hand of the repubblichini.

Dawn came, and with it the first civilians who noticed the truck and its cargo. The news spread quickly, and soon the partisans – who had made no arrangements to face what was surely inevitable – found themselves powerless to protect the bodies from the crowd that was assembling in the square. The dead were kicked and beaten and spat on. They were pelted with vegetables and brown bread. A woman fired five shots into Mussolini’s chest, one for each of the sons she lost in the war. Somebody urinated on Petacci. This was allowed to go on until mid-morning, when the partisans were able to restore some order with the help of a group of firemen, who also washed down the bodies. That’s when they decided to hang Mussolini and some of the others by their feet from the roof of the petrol station, so that everyone could see them without having to push their way through. And because one of the chosen was Petacci (but why?), whose panties someone had removed, they had to secure her skirt first with a pin, then with the trouser belt of the partisans’ chaplain, don Pollarolo.

 

 

This is the classic shot, the one that entered into the collective public memory of that day. Bombacci, Mussolini, Petacci, Pavolini, Starace. Four leaders and a courtesan, put on display in death so that the people could mark the passing of the regime that had shamed and ruined us. There were other pictures. One, of Mussolini and Petacci on the ground, taken early in the day, accompanied some of the reports in the foreign press. Others didn’t surface for years, including a horrifying set taken later that day at the morgue, before the Duce’s autopsy. There is one of these images in particular that I cannot forget. It’s a portrait of the two lovers, arranged with incongruous tenderness so that they are lying side by side, arm in arm. Petacci’s body looks like it might have once belonged to a person. Mussolini’s no longer has a face. That head of his, which had been so symbolic of the power of the state – his signature pout, that famous cranium – is reduced to a pulp scarcely bearing any recognisable human features.

You can look at the picture if you wish, although I strongly advise discretion. It is in colour, like Sassu’s painting. It’s also the crudest document I have come across of the events of that day.

This was a true death party. The spontaneous street celebrations that followed the death of Margaret Thatcher – pace the Daily Mail – are not worthy of so dramatic a name. This, and not those, featured displays of genuine hatred. This, and not those, was mired in historic ambiguity and prepared the grounds for the political amnesia to come, substituting the blows, the fury of that day for the effort to document and understand what Fascism had been, and who had been complicit in it, therefore how it was bound to survive under different guises once the blood was washed off the pavement of that petrol station forecourt in Piazzale Loreto.

Even so, I couldn’t unequivocally condemn those grotesque and misplaced acts of revenge, not even those committed by people who had discovered anti-Fascism that very morning, of which there were certainly some and possibly many. The country was due its moment of grim celebration. Some people and not others happened to be there, on hand. And some of them would have been genuine victims of the regime, or people who had fought to overthrow it. Amongst these, those who were in charge – Valerio and his men – thought that we should have a death party, and so that is now part of our history. For better or for worse.

It strikes me too that the leftists who have censured certain expressions of joy at the news of Thatcher’s death – some of whom are comrades, all of whom I respect – may just have been wishing for levels of restraint and decorum that don’t belong in the real world. Which reminds me in turn of the report on the events of that April 29 published on the newspaper of the liberal socialist Partito d’Azione. It read in part as follows:

Past the remains of those who had been most guilty of Italy’s ruin, in silent procession, files the crowd. It’s a crowd of men, of women, who for a moment – in the glacial atmosphere of death that hangs on the square of the Fifteen Martyrs – has ceased shouting and expressing its joy for the liberation. We didn’t witness a single rash gesture before the corpses of these men, who paid with their lives for their heinous crimes, but this certainty only: that the people’s justice had been served.

It was a noble nation indeed that reacted with such heroic composure when tested by history. It’s a pity it never existed.

Comments

  1. No. I can’t get on this train, no matter how slow it appears to be going. Joy in the death of others feels just so intensely wrong to me, fundamentally abhorrent; no matter how heinous their own crimes might have been.

    • “Joy in the death of others feels just so intensely wrong to me, fundamentally abhorrent; no matter how heinous their own crimes might have been.”

      That’s partly why I wanted to bring up Mussolini (although the bigger reason is that Rjurik alluded to it in the discussion on his Thatcher post). Was joy in his death abhorrent? I’d emphatically argue otherwise, even though he was powerless by then. Were all the manifestations of that joy acceptable, or sympathetic? Again, I’d have to say no, although I stop short of total condemnation. The abuse of Petacci’s body is really the only thing I find genuinely appalling. But another way of looking at Mussolini’s death party is that it simply happened. Wrong-headed and hypocritical and grotesque some aspects of that celebration might have been, but they also meant that enough people felt at the same time angered and elated to have produced that particular event.

      So too with Thatcher the fact that people took to the streets to express joy is, on a level, just something that happened. The Daily Mail is trying to use it as fodder to demonise the radical left, but that’s not why I think we would do well not to go along with any reflexive condemnation. That people hailing largely from the working class felt moved to dance in the streets is significant. There is a reason why “many enemies, much honour” is a Fascist motto. Surely a politician worthy of the hagiography that Thatcher is attracting from so many shouldn’t provoke those feelings.

      Finally, to take a clear side: I didn’t celebrate myself, although there was an event in Wellington, because she wasn’t my enemy, and it would have felt awkward to let my solidarity for the people she hurt turn into appropriation of a history that doesn’t belong to me. However I have many friends who did, both here and in Britain, and my first reaction at hearing the news was happiness for them. I’m not ashamed of that.

      • “That’s partly why I wanted to bring up Mussolini (although the bigger reason is that Rjurik alluded to it in the discussion on his Thatcher post). Was joy in his death abhorrent?”

        Joy in his death? Yes, that’s abhorrent. I don’t see how we can condemn the things that fascists did to people at the same time as we relish in their own deaths. Maybe this is crude theory but I can’t get my head around how we can fight so hard for people’s human rights while simultaneously celebrating them also being violated.

        Relief and joy at the end of a repressive and totalitarian regime? No, of course that’s not abhorrent. But that’s different, and while Mussolini’s death may have symbolised the end of fascism celebrating that is different to revelling in his slaughter. I’m not saying maybe sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, but in the case of Thatcher, it definitely is. Thatcher is dead, but her death signifies nothing except that everyone dies – even horrible people. She is dead but her ideas are stronger than they ever were. What is there to celebrate?

        • I mean, in the case of Thatcher, there’s no confusion about the fact that people are celebrating her death. Not the demise of her regime, not the end of her legacy, not the vanquishment of her ideas – just the fact that she stopped breathing.

        • “Maybe this is crude theory but I can’t get my head around how we can fight so hard for people’s human rights while simultaneously celebrating them also being violated.”

          Hang on: I’m pretty sure that being mourned or being remembered well aren’t in fact human rights, are they? Perhaps Mussolini’s torture, even in death, is closer to a violation, but Thatcher’s suffering no such indignity. Quite simply, people whose hatred she had done everything to deserve did the opposite of mourning her passing. These people aren’t stupid. They know her political legacy lives on. They know that if anything her death, like Reagan’s, will likely intensify the revisionist mythologizing of her years in power. But in the meantime she’s gone and briefly it feels good.

          I’d add that these sentiments have roots, and they aren’t entirely dishonourable. In my grandparents’ village the greatest expression of contempt for another person was the hissing under one’s breath of the phrase tsè ancor mort, ‘you aren’t dead yet’. For the atavistically dispossessed, knowing that people who had power over them would die some day, just like them, was a source of comfort. It didn’t mean their world was going to change – there was no prospect of that. But they might allow themselves to raise a glass.

  2. I’m not really convinced by this analogy: in the Mussolini example, it was a political overthrow of a sitting fascist government (a reaction to existing despotic rule and wounds still raw); with Thatcher, it was a celebration of reality catching up — we beat Thatcher not through vanquishment, but by waiting her out.

    • My parallel is between the death celebrations, not between how Mussolini and Thatcher held and relinquished power, or died. Although I will note that Mussolini had been deposed in 1943 following a coup within the Fascist party, and that by the time of his death he was the figurehead of a collaborationist government, and neither the formal nor informal leader of the country. The liberation had nothing to do with his arrest and was declared four days before his death.

    • Sorry, that wasn’t very clear. I get that it’s not really an analogy, but I meant that with the Mussolini example, the death party outrage can be seen in a different light. And while with Thatcher there was admittedly no body desecration, the joy because she reached the inevitable conclusion is still kinda weird.

      • I do feel conflicted about this, tho: if Thatcher’s death had been met by silence, as if she had symbolised nothing — well, we would surely consider that a political defeat.

  3. I feel like anytime now, someone’s going to invoke the Left version of Godwin’s Law: if this were July 1918 in revolutionary Russia …

  4. I’ve been under the pump with a funding deadline and so haven’t been able to engage with this stuff, though I feel I probably should, given (I guess) it’s partly my post to which Giovanni’s alluding.
    Obviously, with blogging, when something significant happens, you write stuff pretty quickly, so as you can at least have some content up. I didn’t realise Rjurik was also doing something and, in retrospect, publishing the two pieces was kinda overkill, creating the impression we were running some kind of campaign. So our bad.
    Nonetheless, I think my post stands up OK, particularly since it’s primarily directed to an Australian readership whose experience of Thatcher was largely vicarious. In this country, the death of Thatcher, first and foremost, provides an opportunity to discuss the influence of neoliberalism in Australian politics, particularly in the ALP. Hence the Belloc quote: it’s easy for Labor politicians to speak out of the Left sides of their mouths about Thatcherism as a historical phenomena that, with her death, has now passed, a period of division that is thankfully over, so that we can now continue with a Laborite program of economic reform. That’s pretty much what Rudd did with his Monthly piece on neoliberalism, after all: neoliberalism, defined extraordinarily narrowly, is bad, but ALP-style economic management is good and should continue.
    Hence my argument that Thatcher isn’t really dead and that the real issue was that we faced the much more difficult task of overcoming her clones, many of whom seem, on the surface, much more pleasant and less fanatical than MT herself.
    Various people suggested that my tone didn’t acknowledge the sense in which the end of Thatcher herself was being experienced by ordinary workers as something to celebrate. Well, that’s surely an empirical matter and I’m happy to be corrected by those who know more about it than I do. Clearly in England, Thatcher’s death has touched a genuine chord. Is that the same here? Outside the Left, are people really celebrating? Maybe … but I haven’t seen them.
    In any case, surely the task of the Left here (where Thatcher’s personal legacy is much less important than her political legacy) is to make a broader argument, to cut against the general focus on Thatcher as a figure who was repellent because of her personality or because of specific (now past) historical decisions, and to emphasise instead the ongoing relevance of the ideas she embodied, ideas that are very far from being defeated; that, in fact, are considerably more hegemonic in mainstream politics now than a decade ago.
    That, to me, is what we should be debating.
    While Giovanni’s post is, as always, fascinating, I am not at all convinced by the analogy with Mussolini.
    I have a quite different concern, to be honest. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: that, as part of the war on terror, we’ve been subjected to a concerted and longterm campaign to ratchet up the level of publicly acceptable barbarism. Torture is the most obvious example — witness the remarkable shift visible throughout Hollywood culture so that, where fifteen years ago a character who employed torture was invariably a super villain, today torture is increasingly used to signify the nobility of the hero and his ability to get his hands dirty. But there’s plenty of other examples, such as the willingness of pundits to take an almost pornographic glee in the deaths of official enemies (bin Laden, Hussein and his sons, Gaddafi, etc) and to gloat over photos of their corpses.
    I don’t want this to be misconstrued: I am NOT suggesting that the Italian partisans were the moral equivalent of George Bush, or whatever.
    Rather, it seems to me that the Mussolini example comes from a different era (most obviously, in the wake of two world wars), in which attitudes on these questions were obviously different.
    We, on the other hand, are in a period in which a longterm economic growth and relative social stability has, relatively recently come to an end. That means there’s still a contrast between a more civilised attitude to human dignity that (to a certain extent, at least) developed in the post war era, and a new attitude that’s necessitated by the period of intensified brutality into which we seem to be descending.
    The US military is aware of this, and that’s why they made such a point of digitally parading the corpses of Hussein’s sons, as a way of softening up the world for the ‘new normal’: an era in which torture, indefinite detention, targeted killings and so on are nothing special.
    IMO, if people responded to those photos (or the images of Hussein on the gallows or whatever) with revulsion and disgust, that’s a good thing, an indication of a general abhorrence of the brutality capitalism fosters. To put it another way, the Left’s reaction should be to denounce such assaults on human dignity as indicative of everything we loathe, evidence of the qualitative difference between our methods and theirs, between the world they represent and the one we seek to bring into being.
    Again, I’m NOT saying the response to Thatcher was comparable to that.
    But that’s the backdrop to my line about not finding celebrations of death particularly edifying. I wasn’t thinking of Thatcher so much as the stuff I’d been researching about the bin Laden killing, and the obsession of the far Right with photos of his corpse — to the point where one particular nutcase was launching a mission to locate his coffin in the ocean and another was arguing that a holographic image of the bullet ridden cadaver should be located in New York, so that Americans could admire it.
    I think we’re entering a period in which spectacular cruelty and bodily degradation will be increasingly important on their side, just as an insistence on human dignity will be increasingly important on ours.

    • I was partly trying to differentiate between very different degrees of assault on human dignity. Personally I don’t find the public exorcisms of Thatcher offensive; to me they’re simply a form of counter-mourning, not to be taken too literally as I think the pissing on the grave here is entirely metaphoric (had the body been available to the revellers, I suspect they would have recoiled from it). None of this is clear-cut though and you make a very good argument on the point of principle.

  5. ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ is now the number 3 song in the British charts. Meanwhile the BBC has refused to play the song in full.

    I know whose side I stand on.

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