Who killed Mussolini? That question has inspired one of the most enduring conspiracy theories to have emerged out of the second world war. Now, a Hong Kong-based author has helped reignite the old controversy.
Most students of history know that Italian communist partisans killed Il Duce and his mistress, Clara Petacci. There is, however, another version that has always lingered on the fringes like the illegitimate offspring of proper history. In this theory, agents from the British Special Operations Executive, working with the partisans, killed Mussolini – on the orders of Winston Churchill.
This conspiracy theory has now been resurrected, thanks to two new books. One is called Les Derniers Jours de Mussolini (The last days of Mussolini) by Pierre Milza, a French historian and specialist in Fascist Italy. The other is titled Ben – a historical novel written by Hong Kong-based Italian novelist and journalist Angelo Paratico – which was published this summer in Milan. Both titles have the Italian and British press up in arms.
The Italian press is, by and large, sceptical about the books’ thesis. However, Paratico says many Italians believe the story, including the late Renzo De Felice, the dean of studies of Italian Fascism and Mussolini.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph in Britain, author and historian Guy Walters angrily dismissed the theory. ‘No! No! No! Churchill did not order the assassination of Mussolini,’ he wrote. ‘Milza’s claims should go straight in the big dustbin along with claims about Josef Mengele’s secret tribe of twins and Hitler surviving the war.’
Of the two titles, Paratico’s book is the less historically upsetting, because he merely uses the British-inspired assassination plot as the setting for the exploits of his hero, an SOE operative dispatched by Churchill to do his dirty deed. Milza, however, wrote about the plot as history. Churchill, Milza believes, wanted Mussolini killed to hide the existence of secret correspondence, the most compromising part of which was his alleged attempt to entice Il Duce into a separate peace. This would have violated his prior agreement with US president Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Even though he had written a fictional novel rather than a historical account, Paratico believes this conspiracy theory to be true, or at least close to what really happened. ‘Before I started on my book, around three years ago, I thought this story was just crap, but now I believe it is close to the truth,’ he says.
Milza argues that Churchill spent holidays in Italy in 1945 and 1951 not to rest by the shores of beautiful Lake Como, but to retrieve the secret letters and related documents. ‘Perhaps he went there just to paint,’ Milza writes. ‘It is credible, however, that he was there for other reasons, as one now knows a certain number of trunks were thrown into the lake with documents and booty and perhaps the services had a look for them. We cannot completely eliminate this theory.’
Walters believes the whole fantastic story originates from Otto Skorzeny, the famed Nazi SS officer and commando who rescued Mussolini in 1943 on Hitler’s orders after Italian general Pietro Badoglio put the Fascist dictator under arrest and signed an Italian armistice with the Allies. Skorzeny survived the war and claimed he had the secret Churchill-Mussolini correspondence. But when the letters saw the light of day, most competent authorities judged them to be amateurish fakes.
However, the Hong Kong author thinks the whole conspiracy theory has another, Italian source. There was an Italian partisan called Bruno Giovanni Lonati, who claimed he actually shot Mussolini on April 28, 1945.
‘Lonati is still alive, close to 90 years old,’ Paratico says. ‘He went public with his story about 30 years ago. Nobody believed him until he found a publisher in 1994. Lonati had his 10 minutes of glory and was called to a popular TV show where he agreed to take a lie detector test. He failed.’
Paratico’s novel is dedicated to Luciano Garibaldi, probably the most prominent Italian proponent of the Churchill-killed-Mussolini theory. Garibaldi, according to Paratico, thought bits of Lonati’s story had elements of truth but his whole story was not reliable. Indeed, according to an account by former SOE operative Manfred Czernin, SOE had about 100 agents – of whom 60 were British – embedded with Italian partisan fighters in northern Italy at the time. SOE’s American counterpart, the OSS, had no one there.
‘They were there for something, I do believe,’ Paratico says. ‘If Mussolini had trusted the Americans instead of the British he would have been made prisoner and then could have been put on trial. He made a fatal mistake.’
What Paratico, Garibaldi, Milza and other more serious conspiracy-minded writers have in common is their apparent belief in circumstantial evidence. Paratico went so far as to say Churchill admired Mussolini, and that was why he was interested in pursuing a separate peace.
‘Mussolini and Churchill respected each other,’ he says. ‘It is well known that as chancellor of the Exchequer in 1927, after a visit to Rome he said that if he were an Italian he would have been a Fascist. Contacts were kept and even after Mussolini’s death, Churchill respected him.’
But despite the latest dust-up, Walters probably deserves the last word on Il Duce’s death. ‘Italy is a nation of conspiracy theorists, and the death of Mussolini is especially popular fodder for their imaginations. Granted, the precise details of Mussolini’s demise are a little opaque, but what’s more likely – Mussolini was killed by communist partisans, or by a beyond-top-secret British agent acting on the orders of Winston Churchill? I suppose those who believe in the junk version also subscribe to the ‘Churchill was a war criminal as well, you know’.’
But here, his last sentence hints at something else. Conspiracy theories are abortive attempts to get at a larger truth. Trying to prove Churchill ordered an execution to hide a dark secret may be a historically or factually inaccurate attempt to get at the Janus-faced career of Britain’s greatest prime minister of the last century.
The young Churchill, after all, was an enthusiastic advocate of the Boer war, in which British troops carried out a ‘scorched earth’ policy and set up the 20th century’s first concentration camps. Early on, he subscribed to an extremist ideology of white supremacy and ruthless imperialism which, as historian Richard Toye has shown in a new work, was way out in the fringes of mainstream public opinion in Britain even in his own time.
Behind the great man who used immortal rhetoric in the defence of liberty and Western civilisation, there is a far darker Churchill who believed such Western values were the exclusive prerogatives of white men, and perhaps a few exceptional natives.
There is a danger of projecting today’s values back to a wartime leader who may not have shared them. Conspiracy theories, for all their flaws, are merely attempts to get at much darker truths.