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Sept. 23 — a date that won’t quite live in infamy


Two things of historical significance took place that day

By Joe Cannavo

Almost every month Italy has a public or national holiday that celebrates a religious or political event. For workers it means a paid day off. September is one of three months that does not have any such “official” holiday. However, two events occurred on Sept. 23 that have historical significance, one of which could have resulted in the breakup of a united Italy just 82 years after its unification in 1861.

The first one is the least known of the two and occurred on Sept. 23, 951, long before Italy’s unification in 1861. It all began in 949 when Italy fell into political chaos. One year later with the death, possibly by poisoning, of Lothair of Arles, the Italian throne was inherited by a woman, Adelaide of Italy, the respective daughter, daughter-
in-law, and widow of the last three kings of Italy. A local noble, Berengar of Ivrea, declared himself king of Italy, abducted Adelaide, and tried to legitimize his reign by forcing Adelaide to marry his son Adalbert. However, in 951 Adelaide escaped to Canossa and requested German intervention. Otto I, traditionally known as Otto I the Great, the German king, invaded Italy. He received the homage of the Italian nobility, assumed the title “King of the Lombards” and in 952 forced Berengar and Adalbert to pay homage, allowing them to rule Italy as his vassals. Having been widowed since 946, he married Adelaide himself.

Otto’s later years were marked by conflicts with the Papacy and struggles to stabilize his rule over Italy. Reigning from Rome, Otto sought to improve relations with the Byzantine Empire, which opposed his claim to emperorship and his realm’s further expansion to the south. To resolve this conflict, the Byzantine princess Theophanu married his son, Otto II, in April 972. Otto finally returned to Germany in August 972 and died at Memleben in 973. Otto II succeeded him as Emperor. In 962 Otto was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope John XII in Rome.

The Salo map

The Salo map.

The other Italian historically significant event that took place on Sept. 23 could have undone the 1861 “Risorgimento” unification of Italy.

On that date in 1943, Benito Mussolini, deposed dictator of Italy, fashions a new fascist republic, by the leave of his new German masters, which he ruled from his headquarters in northern Italy.

In July 1943, after the Italian Grand Council’s vote of “no confidence,” Mussolini was thrust from power and quickly placed under house arrest. The Italian masses, who had so enthusiastically embraced him for his promises of a new Italian “empire,” now despised him for the humiliating defeat they had suffered during the war. But Mussolini still had one fan, Adolf Hitler.

The Salo flag

The Salo flag.

Gen. Pietro Badoglio, who had assumed authority in Mussolini’s absence, knew there might be an attempt to break the former Duce out of his confinement, and so moved him to a hotel in the Apennine Mountains. Despite the presence of an entire army of armed police, German commandos in a bold move swept onto an Apennine mountain peak from the air, overran the hotel, and flew Mussolini to Hitler’s headquarters on the Russian front.

Mussolini could not sit still long and wanted to return to Italy to reassume power. But his German “patrons” had no intention of allowing him, whom they regarded as incompetent, to return to the scene of the disaster. So in order to pacify and control him, he was set up in a German-controlled area of northern Italy, Gargnano, on Lake Garda. Mussolini set about creating a reformed version of fascism, one that supposedly had learned from past mistakes and included elections and a free press. His “Verona Manifesto” was the blueprint for this new fascist republic, the Republic of Salò where his government departments had fled in light of the Italian surrender to the Allies.

Though in theory there were to have been “free and fair” elections, there were never any elections in the new fascist republic, or for that matter, freedom of anything. Salò was little more than a police state clogged with aging Black Shirts — corrupt, viscous and delusional. And Mussolini, geographically removed from Salò, ensconced at Lake Garda as he was, controlled nothing. He was little more than a puppet of the Germans, spewing anti-Allied propaganda and avenging himself and his masters on traitors to the party by ordering the executions of former Grand Council members, including his own son-in-law, Count Ciano. Eventually, the Allied advance into northern Italy, and the brave guerilla warfare waged by the Italian partisans, spelled the end of Salò and its paper ruler, Benito Mussolini.

When even Mussolini realized that all was lost, he conceded: “I am close to the end … I await the epilogue to this tragedy in which I no longer have a part to play.” 

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