• Steven Heller

Fall of the Roman Empire

On Oct. 29, 1922, Benito Mussolini was offered the Italian premiership by King Victor Emmanuel III. In 1925 Mussolini became dictator. After 21 years as absolute ruler of the Fascist state, in 1943 Mussolini was nonviolently removed as Il Duce by the Fascist Grand Council’s vote of “no confidence,” and placed under arrest. The Italian people, who had once so enthusiastically embraced him for his grand promises of a new Italian “empire” (or to make Italy great again), turned against him for the humiliating defeats when invaded by Anglo-American forces. With Mussolini deposed, Fascism took a hiatus, sort of. Actually, it never totally disappeared.

Gen. Pietro Badoglio, who assumed military power in Rome at the King’s behest, presumed there would be an attempt to somehow rescue the former Duce from incarceration and moved him to a fortress-like hotel in the Apennine Mountains. German commandos, however, outwitted the army and police, quietly landed on the Apennine mountain peak from the air and flew Mussolini to Hitler’s headquarters on the Russian front. There a restless Mussolini planned to build a new Fascist republic in northern Italy. But Hitler, who once revered Il Duce, now regarded him as incompetent—a liability, unfit to rule a nation on the brink of civil war and allied occupation. He opposed anything but total occupation.

Instead Duce led a puppet regime in a German-controlled area of northern Italy. Mussolini still had a few loyal followers. But not enough to make his oddly imagined new Fascist regime that would include elections and a free press a reality. The “Verona Manifesto” was the blueprint for this Republic of Salo (Republica Sociale Italia). A new flag and polished symbols were designed, but lacked the inherent power of earlier Fascist regalia.

Salo was nonetheless ostensibly governed by Nazis. It was a police state and haven for fanatical and violent Black Shirted militias, out to take revenge on disloyal Italians. Mussolini had power in name only. But the one thing Salo did become was the design capital of an anti-Allies, pro-German propaganda machine.

Examples of some posters here show how heavy-handed and ineffectual even Duce’s once-convincing poster campaign had been. By 1945 Duce could not muster more than a few teenage Fascists to protect him from the wrath of the Italian partisans, who against the wishes of the allies, shot Il Duce and hung his remains from the roof of a gas station.

So, Duce-esque populists take note: This is the price of popular disdain for demigods.

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