An Italian historian claims that Churchill had a wartime correspondence with Mussolini and urged his death to cover it up. Paul Bompard sifts the evidence.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was shot by a makeshift firing squad of the Italian Resistance on April 28, 1945 on a country lane near Lake Como, close to the Swiss border.
Mussolini was executed by order of the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale, the provisional assembly created by Italian political and Resistance leaders after Italy's September 1943 armistice with the Allies. As the Germans clung to the north and as the Allies advanced, the CLN became the central authority for the many Resistance groups, Communist, Catholic, Socialist, in northern Italy.
This, at any rate, is the generally accepted version of Mussolini's death. Recently, however, Italy's most celebrated and respected historian of the Fascist period, Professor Renzo De Felice of Rome's La Sapienza University, has suggested that at Winston Churchill's behest, the British intelligence services, which in the spring of 1945 were in close touch with the Italian Resistance, were directly involved in the shooting of Mussolini.
De Felice's view is expressed in a book published last month called Rosso e Nero, a 170-page interview by Pasquale Chessa with De Felice about the end of Fascism and Italy's passage to republican democracy. De Felice claims that British agents either took part in the shooting of Mussolini, or put pressure on the Resistance to execute Il Duce.
De Felice, 67, has a chair of contemporary history and is sometimes referred to as a revisionist. He is well known for his anti-Communism and for his efforts to demolish the myth of a democratic and anti-Fascist Italy rising up spontaneously, joyful and triumphant, after the fall of the Fascist regime. In this sense De Felice is generally credited, even by historians who disagree with him, with having done much to dismantle an ideologically tainted vision of Fascism and its aftermath.
Italy's postwar political establishment claims "anti-Fascism" as the historical legitimacy of its birth. According to the official propaganda Italians en masse supported the Resistance in its war against the Germans and the Italian Fascists; a war which began in earnest after September 8, 1943, when the Badoglio government made peace with the Allies and the German army occupied Italy.
De Felice, instead, asserts that the Resistance was a minority movement without support from the nation and was largely Communist-controlled. He claims that only 200,000 to 250,000 partisans fought in the Resistance out of a nation of 44 million people. His critics argue that even if his figures are correct, one must also count sympathisers, supporters and relatives and bear in mind that the Resistance war was fought almost totally in the north.
As for the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, set up by Mussolini in September 1943 in northern Italy, under German patronage, De Felice suggests that this was morally justified. He claims Mussolini placed himself at its head in accordance with Hitler's wishes, but mainly to save Italy from German vengeance, and that the Repubblica Sociale cannot be dismissed as the last stand of fanatical Fascist "villains" fighting the "heroes" of the Resistance. De Felice also argues that most of the weaknesses of today's Italy can be traced back to September 1943. On September 8 the Badoglio government announced Italy's armistice with the Allies and the King. Badoglio and most of the government fled from Rome leaving it to the Germans. According to De Felice, Italy's collective identity suffered traumatic shame from which it has never recovered. And he suggests that in the vicious civil war that soon followed in the north between the Fascists of the Repubblica Sociale with the Germans on one side, and the Resistance on the other, both sides committed, give or take a little, equally evil acts.
It is particularly on this point that De Felice is considered "revisionist" by his critics. But he is also attacked for describing Mussolini as "not an anti-semite at heart, his anti-semitism was political rather than racial". As evidence for this De Felice points out that two of Mussolini's pre-war mistresses were Jewish. De Felice's theory about the death of Mussolini is in line with the version that seeks to redefine, both morally and historically, an extremely confused and violent period when the country stood on the brink of civil war and in parts of the north a ferocious war was waged between the Resistance and the Repubblica Sociale. What he sees as the British role in the dictator's death goes against the idea of the Allies as "liberators", and indirectly conforms to the long-standing Fascist obsession with a "Perfidious Albion".
According to De Felice, the Americans wanted Mussolini taken alive to stand trial, to publicly account for himself before some kind of postwar tribunal. But Winston Churchill wanted him dead. Why? Because, before and during the war, Mussolini and Churchill had supposedly carried on a correspondence which would have seriously compromised the British premier's image of stalwart intransigence towards the Axis powers and would have wrecked Churchill's political career.
According to De Felice, the key British agent was Max Salvatori, an Anglo-Italian captain in the British army who liaised with the CLN and with partisan leaders. But De Felice does not explain exactly what Salvatori is supposed to have done. He claims that the compromising correspondence was with Mussolini when he was caught by the partisans, that Mussolini kept it as a kind of insurance policy. As far as is known, this correspondence and other documents, not to mention the so-called "treasure of Mussolini", disappeared without trace.
Given De Felice's renown as an expert on the history of Italian Fascism, this book has put a cat among the already touchy pigeons of Italian political-historical thinking. Extremely aged and hallowed "fathers of the Republic" have put pen to paper to fill the pages of the main national dailies. Ex-partisans and eminent historians have written to shoot down or qualify De Felice's theories, both regarding the civil war and Mussolini's death.
In interviews by the Italian papers, spokespeople for the Churchill archives have said they have no knowledge of any correspondence with Mussolini. But then if Churchill had recovered the letters he would, presumably, have destroyed them rather than leave them for posterity. Denis Mack Smith, Britain's best known Mussolini expert, says he does not share De Felice's theory. Others, less diplomatically, have said they think it is all a lot of nonsense.
A colleague of De Felice, said: "In the past De Felice has had excellent sources for his books. De Felice is a hard-line, right-wing Christian Democrat and enjoyed unique sources from that political area for decades. Today, however, in Rosso e Nero, he does nothing to substantiate his claims. And this is his great weakness as a historian."
So why does an eminent, if controversial, historian air theories which he only supports with implied references to second or third-hand reports or long lost documents that may or may not exist? One answer could be that in the spring of 1996 De Felice will publish the much awaited last volume of his "definitive" biography of Mussolini, a multi-volume opus that he has been producing since 1965. More may be revealed then.