Dictators’ Downfall

Part 7, “Hearts of Darkness,” focused on the rise of two of the most notorious figures in the 20th century. While Hitler’s and Mussolini’s regimes differed in the speed with which each achieved total power, the two leaders had exuded similar messianic pretensions for years. Once in firm control, these counterfeit christs willingly accepted the divinity their adoring publics granted them.

What had taken Benito Mussolini three years in Italy took Adolf Hitler a mere three months in Germany. The Führer’s brutal regime seemed to arrive almost fully developed early in 1933. Historian Fritz Stern writes, “In ninety days, a one-party state had been established and people had been stripped of rights that in the Western world had been thought inalienable for centuries.” The Duce, on the other hand, had only gradually achieved his totalitarian state.

Sacred Politics

Mussolini was invited to become prime minister in 1922. Leveraging an already existing Italian appetite for political religion in which the fatherland was considered divine, he embarked on the fantasy that his governmental system could solve all of Italy’s postwar problems. His intended solution was centered on institutionalizing a fascist religion. Between 1925 and 1939, four party secretaries worked in succession to introduce the new quasi-religious order to a mostly willing Italian populace, with the goal of establishing the “New Man” of fascism.

According to historian Emilio Gentile, secretary Roberto Farinacci (1925–26) “helped install the régime with ‘Dominican faith.’” His successor, Augusto Turati (1926–30), “preached the need to ‘believe absolutely: to believe in Fascism, in the Duce, in the Revolution, as one might believe in the Divinity.’” With characteristic blind allegiance, Turati pronounced: “We accept the Revolution with pride, we accept these dogmas with pride; even if we are shown they are wrong, we accept them without argument.” Not surprisingly, his 1929 catechism of fascism emphasized “the subordination of all to the will of a Leader.”

Party secretary Giovanni Giurati (1930–31) encouraged the Fascist Youth organization to become both militant and missionary in character, in line with Mussolini’s 1930 dictate, “Believe, Obey, Fight.” Italian fascists believed that their movement had appropriated important characteristics of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1931, Fascist Youth secretary Carlo Scorza declared, however, that these religious traits did not include meekness and humility. Rather, he wrote, Mussolini’s movement had learned much from the “great school of pride and intransigence”; Italy’s fascists had adopted the methods of “those great and imperishable pillars of the Church, its great saints, its pontiffs, bishops, and missionaries: political and warrior spirits who wielded both sword and cross, and used without distinction the stake and excommunication, torture and poison—not, of course, in pursuit of temporal or personal power, but on behalf of the Church’s power and glory.”

With the appointment of party secretary Achille Starace (1931–39), Mussolini’s civic religion reached its height. In 1936, notes Gentile, the Fascist Youth were instructed, “Always have faith. Mussolini gave you your faith. . . . Whatever the Duce says is true. The Duce’s words are not to be contested. . . . Every morning, after your ‘Credo’ in God, recite your ‘I believe’ in Mussolini.”

Mussolini the Divine

Though Italian fascism did not begin with the cult of Mussolini, he had previously been accorded mythic stature as a socialist and wartime interventionist leader. His elevation to divinity came later, after 1925, as the new movement tightened its grip on Italy. Once the religion of fascism was securely installed, Mussolini could claim to be the center of its worship.

Gentile refers to Il Duce’s form of rule as “totalitarian caesarism.” As we have seen in this series, religious sentiments were manipulated by many of the Caesars, several of whom were deified. Some even demanded divinity while still alive. It comes as no surprise, then, that according to this same historian, the cult of the Leader made Mussolini the equivalent of the greatest emperors, Caesar and Augustus. Scholar Piero Melograni notes that Mussolini came to believe the hype himself and “claimed to be the heir, if not the actual reincarnation, of Augustus” (“The Cult of the Duce in Mussolini’s Italy,” Journal of Contemporary History, 1976).

If that were not sufficient pedigree, he was also considered the equivalent of Machiavelli, Napoleon, Socrates, Plato, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Saint Francis of Assisi, Christ, and God Himself! Gentile adds that Mussolini became “statesman, legislator, philosopher, writer, artist, universal genius and prophet, messiah, apostle, infallible teacher, God’s emissary, elect bearer of destiny, the man announced by the prophets of the Risorgimento. . . .”

[Mussolini] is all Hero, resplendent as the sun; the inspiring and creative Genius; the Leader who conquers and fascinates; He is the massive totality of myth and reality. . . . The Revolution is Him, He is the Revolution.”

O. Dinale, “La Mostra Della Rivoluzione. Lui: Mussolini,” Gioventù Fascista (March 1, 1934), quoted by Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy

As indicated, the major promoter of this adulation was Starace. He formalized the cult, even instructing that the word Duce always appear in capital letters. Following his appointment, attempts to impose institutionalized fascist religion on the general public knew no bounds. The fawning journalist Asvero Gravelli composed some extraordinarily effusive lines about the Leader, including, “God and history today mean Mussolini.” It was not, however, fascism per se or its other leaders that inspired so many Italian people. Thus when Gentile quotes an anonymous informer (“Fascism is a religion, a religion that has found its God”), he means to emphasize the Duce’s central role in fascism’s appeal. It was the person of Mussolini himself that drew people, not “belief in the values and dogmas of the Fascist religion.” Gentile adds the important thought that it was in part traditional Italian religious faith that made adulation of Mussolini so easily possible.

The Uses of Religion

To the north, in Germany, a similar melding of religious fervor, idolatry and political purpose was accelerated once Hitler came to office.

Asked by President Paul von Hindenburg to become chancellor at the end of January 1933, the Führer moved quickly to establish authoritarian control. Yet, in parallel with extreme brutality toward any opposition, he continued to assert that traditional values and legal means were central to his actions.

Historian Ian Kershaw notes that “once he had become Chancellor, Hitler’s language became pronouncedly ‘messianic’ in tone, and his public addresses were frequently replete with religious symbolism.” Themes of renewal and mission merged religious concepts with the Führer’s political purposes. In his first radio address as chancellor, he acknowledged Christianity “as the basis of our entire morality” and the family “as the germ of our body of nation and state,” and he ended with an appeal he would often use, asking “the Almighty” to bless the government.

A few days later at a party rally, in a speech broadcast live from Berlin to an estimated audience of as many as 20 million, Hitler introduced elements of the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer into his conclusion. He called on the audience to look forward to “the new German Reich of greatness and honor and strength and glory and justice. Amen.”

Despite his apparent religiosity, Hitler’s faith was quite different from that of the churches. But the atheistic side of Nazi philosophy was somehow successfully separated from his professed personal beliefs. Thus for a long time he managed to deceive the public and many church leaders into believing that Nazi actions against Christians were simply the excesses of some of his followers. Hitler had, of course, recognized that it would be premature to attack the Catholic and Protestant churches openly. His first goal was the destruction of the Jews, and only then what he called “the rotten branch of Christianity.” For the time being he needed church support among the population and aimed at controlling political Catholicism within the state.

Thus in July 1933, like Mussolini before him, he disingenuously entered a concordat with the Vatican. Quieting party opponents of the agreement, he privately told them that he needed to create “an atmosphere of harmony in religious matters.” Accordingly, he worked at convincing many leading church figures that he was a sincere Christian believer. As late as 1936, Cardinal Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, wrote in a private memo, “The Reich Chancellor undoubtedly lives in belief in God.” With the Protestant churches, Hitler was less successful, though even many of their leaders were willing to encourage support for him among their members.

Belief Mishmash

Hitler’s personal beliefs were a strange amalgam. Baptized and raised a Catholic, he had apparently adopted aspects of pagan Nordic religion and distortions of biblical belief. According to Vatican scholar Peter Godman, he “saw himself as a redeemer . . . [and] claimed that his movement had discovered the true meaning of the New Testament. The Old Testament was to be excluded because it was ‘Semitic’; God’s law was to be identified with racism. Hitler portrayed himself as the prophet of this doctrine, which [he said] the Catholic Church had perverted.” Hitler’s idea was that the Aryan/Nordic race was superior. He said that the New Testament was wrong about Jesus, asserting that he was not a Jew but actually of Nordic blood.

In his autobiographical Mein Kampf, he displayed his anti-Semitism openly, writing that “no one need be surprised if among our people the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.” By contrast, he said that his imagined German völkisch state “should consecrate [matrimony] as an institution which is called upon to produce creatures made in the likeness of the Lord.” Godman notes: “Demonizing the Jews, the Führer heroized himself as a savior and redeemer of Arian blood. A Christlike figure in the Germanic people’s struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ the Hitler of Mein Kampf spoke in apocalyptic tones.”

Consolidating Power

The opportunity for Hitler to bring about dictatorial rule came very soon after his taking office. And it came by chance in the wake of an attempt to burn down the Reichstag in late February 1933. Perpetrated by either a Bulgarian communist or a mentally unstable Dutchman with communist connections—historians still cannot agree—the arson was reason enough for Hindenburg to agree with the chancellor that the nation was now in grave danger from bolshevism. As a result, the president immediately signed emergency decrees suspending fundamental civic rights. Arrest of “suspects” without formal charge or access to legal counsel was now possible. Though largely unrecognized at the time, this “democratic” presidential action formed the legal basis of all the terror that descended on the inhabitants of German-controlled territory in the Nazi period.

But Hitler went further. Lacking a parliamentary majority, he asked the Reichstag for the power to rule by decree. Astonishingly, the parties agreed (with one exception, the Social Democrats), thereby relinquishing power to the presently cooperative chancellor, who was now on the fast track to becoming the all-powerful Führer. By March, the authorities had arrested 10,000 people in Bavaria—communists, socialists and democrats—and opened the first concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich at Dachau. By April, Prussian police had rounded up a further 25,000. The abolition of trade unions and the disappearance of all other political parties, voluntarily or by force, followed within Hitler’s first six months in office.

Meeting of Minds?

In June 1934, the long-awaited face-to-face between Hitler and Mussolini—one of 17 such meetings—took place in Venice. It was the first time Hitler had ventured outside Germany as leader. He had admired the Duce for years, emulating him and even keeping a life-sized bust of his hero in his personal quarters at Munich’s Nazi headquarters, the Braun Haus. From Hitler’s point of view, Germany was Italy’s natural ally, counterbalancing Italy’s natural enemy, France.

But the meeting at a Venetian palace once owned by Napoleon disappointed both parties for personal reasons. Hitler objected to the city’s decadent art and its all-too-prevalent mosquitoes, while Mussolini was bored with the Führer’s one-way bombastic conversations. More significantly, the visit presaged the gradual sea change in their relationship. From now on Hitler would no longer be in the subordinate position. Over the next decade, this shift would contribute heavily to the Duce’s downfall.

Taking Control

Two separate events soon assured Hitler’s complete control of Germany. On his return from Venice, he orchestrated the “Night of the Long Knives.” Moving ruthlessly against challengers within his own party, he ordered the murder of the leadership of the SA (Sturm Abteilung, or Storm Troopers), including his former Munich compatriot, Ernst Röhm. The execution of two German army generals and a number of Jews came next. Heinrich Himmler’s SS (Schutzstaffeln, or Protection Squad) carried out the entire purge. For his timely action in heading off what was presented as yet another “threat” to the nation, Hitler received official thanks from Hindenburg, though there is doubt that the president personally sent the message.

The second event was the death in August of the ailing president himself. A hastily introduced law had combined Hindenburg’s role with Hitler’s, making the cold-blooded chancellor supreme commander of the armed forces on the veteran leader’s demise. Once the representative of the old guard was no longer there to impede Hitler’s ambitions, the army confirmed his dictatorship by an oath of loyalty, despite the Führer’s recent purge of two of its own.

Deifying the Dictator

By September practically all of Germany supported Hitler’s new powers as head of state. At the annual party rally in Nuremberg that month, the party faithful idolized their Leader. Kershaw notes that while Hitler had been the center of the rally in previous years, “now he towered over his Movement, which had come to pay him homage.” Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous cult film of the occasion, Triumph of the Will (commissioned and titled by Hitler), was soon playing throughout Germany. The opening scenes show the Führer’s plane descending through the clouds, casting a cross-shaped shadow on the marching troops in the streets below. Historian David Diephouse draws attention to this blatant “second-coming” imagery and the film’s pervasive “tone of insistent messianism.” At the conclusion of the film, deputy Führer Rudolf Hess is seen emphasizing the mystical unity of leader, party and people with the words, “The party is Hitler, but Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler. Hitler! Sieg Heil!”

By March 1936, the Führer seemed to have become convinced that he was in some kind of mystical relationship not only with the people but also with God. He had just succeeded in restoring the Rhineland to Germany by exploiting French weakness and British passivity and simply marching his troops into the demilitarized area. Feelings of infallibility began to overwhelm him. Speaking that month to a large crowd in Munich, he said, “I go with the certainty of a sleepwalker along the path laid out for me by Providence.” Pseudo-religious terms began to dominate his speech.

Such language was not confined to Hitler. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels commented that when his master spoke at the final election rally in 1936, “one had the feeling that Germany had been transformed into a single great church embracing all classes, professions, and denominations, into which now its intercessor stepped before the high seat of the Almighty to provide testimony for will and deed.” Goebbels himself seemed taken in by Hitler’s messianic pretensions. In the same election campaign, he claimed to have experienced in the Führer’s speeches “religion in the deepest and most mysterious sense of the word.”

The proclamation of Hitler as a kind of messiah, a divinely-ordained personification of German destiny—was not merely an article of the Nazi faith but its necessary condition.”

David J. Diephouse, “The Triumph of Hitler's Will,” in The Cult of Power: Dictators in the Twentieth Century (Joseph Held, Ed., 1983)

According to Kershaw, a few months later at the September Nuremberg rally, “messianic allusions from the New Testament would abound in his address to party functionaries.” Hitler remarked to the vast crowd in a typical late-evening speech (his chosen time for major addresses): “How deeply we feel once more in this hour the miracle that has brought us together! Once you heard the voice of a man, and it spoke to your hearts; it awakened you, and you followed that voice. . . . Now that we meet here, we are all filled with the wonder of this gathering. Not every one of you can see me and I do not see each one of you. But I feel you, and you feel me! It is faith in our nation that has made us little people great. . . . You come out of the little world of your daily struggle for life, and of your struggle for Germany and for our nation, to experience this feeling for once: Now we are together, we are with him and he is with us, and now we are Germany!”

Two days later, Hitler called on messianic references once more as he declared to his audience: “That you have found me . . . among so many millions is the miracle of our time! And that I have found you, that is Germany’s fortune!”

Since his appointment as chancellor, Hitler had been absorbed by domestic issues. Now that he had established the one-party state, disposed of his own Nazi challengers, set an economic revival in motion, and restored German sovereignty in the Rhineland, he could turn his attention to world conquest. (For a more detailed discussion of Hitler’s colossal wartime brutalities, in which upwards of 6 million Jews—men, women and children—were systematically murdered, see “Lest We Forget” and “Final Solutions.”)

Dreams of Empire, Italian-Style

Down south, similar ambitions had long preoccupied the Duce. Mussolini had mulled over the idea of renewing the Roman Empire for many years. Ethiopia, sandwiched between the two Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somaliland at the Horn of Africa, represented an opportunity. At the end of 1934, he wrote that force was now necessary to resolve a diplomatic impasse. A year later, Italian forces defeated the pathetically armed Ethiopians, bombing them with poison gas. Now the Duce could grandiosely declare that “Italy finally has its empire. . . . It is a Fascist empire, an empire of peace, an empire of civilization and humanity.” Hardly. Soon the newly established colonies in Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI) were overcome by waste, corruption and inefficiency, their distance from the fatherland a constant challenge.

Nevertheless, as a result of the “conquest,” according to historian Richard Bosworth, adulation of the “divine” leader flowed freely in Italy. Journalist Gravelli wrote a book emphasizing the Duce’s spirituality, in which he proclaimed “Homer, the divine in Art; Jesus, the divine in Life; Mussolini, the divine in Action.” Moreover, “[his] smile is like a flash of the Sun god, expected and craved because it brings health and life”; “To whom does he compare? No-one. The very act of comparison with politicians from other lands diminishes Him [sic].” Bosworth adds that in the opinion of another propagandist, “looking at [Mussolini] was like looking at the sun; the man could not be seen but rather ‘an immense flood of radiant vibrations from the ether.’”

The Axis

In November 1936, Mussolini coined the term by which the allies in World War II came to know their fascist enemies. Speaking in Milan, he said that the relationship between Italy and Germany was “an axis around which all European states, animated by a desire for collaboration and peace, can revolve.” Mussolini had in mind that he and Hitler would divide continental Europe between them. The Nazis had proposed that he visit Germany, and he hoped that his stay would “signal not just the solidarity between the two regimes but also [the adoption of] a common policy by the two states which must be clearly delineated towards East and West, South and North.” By this he apparently meant that Italy would take care of the Mediterranean Basin, and Germany would concentrate on Eastern Europe and the Baltic.

In the summer of 1937, the fascists engaged in war games off Sicily, and the Duce took the opportunity to visit the region. By now the religious fervor had reached stratospheric heights. As Gentile relates, one zealous resident explained in anticipation: “We await our father, the Messiah. He is coming to visit his flock, to instill faith. . . .”

In late September, Mussolini made his first official visit to Germany. Bosworth records that before an audience of 800,000 in Berlin, the Duce proclaimed fascism and Nazism as “the greatest and most authentic democracies existing in the present day world.” Doubling up on this contradiction, on his return home he began to wonder about incorporating racism into his political platform. It was an idea that would grow in the months ahead as Hitler’s reputation for decisive action began to eclipse Mussolini’s status as first leader of fascism.

When Hitler invaded Austria in March 1938 and forced its union with Germany, Italy’s acceptance of the aggression brought the Duce into disrepute with some of his own people. Some scholars believe that this act marked the end of Italian independence from Hitler.

Anxious to shore up his role within the state, Mussolini had himself declared “First Marshal of the Empire,” replacing the king as sole authority over the armed forces in wartime. But when the Führer came to visit Italy a second time in May, protocol required that the king (as head of state) and not the prime minister ride with him. This contributed to the growing public perception of Mussolini as Hitler’s second man. Fascism’s original voice was fast becoming the lesser partner.

Realizing the shift and desperate to keep pace with Nazi policies, the Duce now introduced various racial policies, with special reference to the Jews. Declaring true Italians to be of Aryan stock, Mussolini aligned himself with virulent anti-Semitism, though he had previously called it Nazi “anti-scientific drivel.” It was an example of naked expedience with horrific consequences. Italians saw fellow countrymen and women of Jewish and other “non-Aryan” origins prevented from marrying Italian “Aryans”; in 1943 more than 8,500 Jews were deported from Italian territory to death camps in Austria.

In February 1939, Italy and Germany signed a new commercial agreement, a clause of which provided for 500,000 Italian guest workers to help out in German industry. The slough of alignment was deepening. In May came the military alliance known as the “Pact of Steel.” But Mussolini, aware that war in Europe was inevitable, opposed an immediate declaration. He would have liked to postpone it until 1942 to give Italy time to shore up its woefully inadequate armed forces. Meeting Hitler at the Brenner border with Germany in March 1940, the Duce could make no commitment to war. Yet in June, sensing an opportunity to share in the spoils and gain French territory on the Italian border, he gave halting military support to Hitler’s already successful invasion of France.

However, fruitless military adventures in Greece later that year set the Duce on a downward path that saw him driven from Rome in 1944 as the allies moved northward from their invasion of Sicily, and he was stripped of his office by the king.

Downfall and Death

In April 1945, partisans discovered the Duce—“Big Head,” as they named him—in the back of a truck while attempting escape to Switzerland and Germany. His capture led to an unceremonious execution by firing squad and the public display of his corpse in Milan, where former devotees spat on his remains. In the days before his death, he had confided that all was lost. Maintaining his messianic delusion nonetheless, he told an old friend, “I am crucified by my destiny. It is coming.”

In his Berlin bunker amid bombs and fire, Hitler heard of the Duce’s death. Two days later, alternating between despair and hope that his troops would yet break through the Russian advance and save him, he planned his final destructive act. With the blood of six million on his hands, and caring nothing about the ongoing suffering of the German people, the most hated figure in human history made ready for suicide.

The parallels between Mussolini and Hitler were many: elements of their childhoods, World War I experiences, disillusion with postwar conditions in their homelands, rightist politics, anticommunist persuasions, brutality, delusions of grandeur. Certainly, as the Führer admitted, Mussolini inspired him, having come to power a decade earlier. But eventually Mussolini, to his chagrin, was eclipsed by his admirer. Perhaps the most telling similarity was the enormous pride with which each pursued his path. Kershaw subtitled the first volume of his biography of Hitler Hubris. He named the sequel after the Greek god of retribution, Nemesis, for the inevitable consequence of gargantuan pride. The same words surely describe Mussolini’s life story.

After the Duce’s downfall, party secretary Giovanni Giurati wrote that he had believed Mussolini “was the man destined to give life to Dante’s idea: that the two great symbols, the Eagle and the Cross, would be brought together again in Rome, and that moral and civil disorder, heresy and war, would be put to flight, not just from Italy but from the whole world.”

Kershaw notes that Hitler’s devotees, too, expressed a “genuine belief in his power.” He records the words of the former head of the Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach: “This unlimited, almost religious veneration, to which I contributed as did Goebbels, Göring, Hess, Ley, and countless others, strengthened in Hitler himself the belief that he was in league with Providence.”

Both Mussolini and Hitler made vain and failed attempts at the same kind of universal human messiahship we have examined across millennia. At the human level it can never be. Next time, we look at the lessons we might learn from these thousands of years of failed messiahs.