A part – a considerable part – of me shares the relish that commentators here and elsewhere have shown for the ignominious way that Muammar Qaddafi met his end. The Sun is predictably forthright in its good riddance to the Libyan dictator, seeing his death as revenge for the Lockerbie bombing, among much else. If Lockerbie was the least of his crimes, that would have been bad enough, but since Qaddafi’s regime was brutal, repressive, violent, and malevolent in a way surpassed only by North Korea, he had many more sins on his non-existent conscience.
But the sight of crowds dragging Qaddafi’s corpse does give me pause. In Libya, Qaddafi’s killers are as likely as not to become part of the next Libyan Cabinet, presuming that august body ever comes into existence. Thus, Rich Lowry observes that “the brutal and lawless way he met his end doesn’t bode well for Libya’s future.” And Victor Davis Hanson asks if “the horrific murder of the loathsome Qaddafi is a sign of things to come or an aberration of the mob?”
Comparisons between Qaddafi and Mussolini are multiplying – the invaluable Michael J. Totten was one of the first to make it – and as historical analogies go, this one is pretty good. It’s not just that they met their end in the same way. They were both centers of cults of personality, relentlessly occupied in trying to stir up trouble, bitterly hostile to democracy and to every manifestation of liberalism, with an overblown crackpot semi-socialist ideology that masqueraded as a self-sufficient cure for all ills, and a brutal regime that was treated far more seriously than its accomplishments or the skills of its leader merited. If you want a good biography of Mussolini, I recommend Dennis Mack Smith’s: I have never read a biography that sustains its hostility to its subject so continuously and convincingly.
But in light of the comparison between these dangerous clowns, I thought it might be interesting to see what Churchill had to say about the way Mussolini met his end. The answer is in volume six of his Second World War memoirs. After Churchill saw the famous photo of Mussolini dangling from a meat-hook, he wrote to Field Marshall Alexander, commander of Allied Armies in Italy. Describing himself as “profoundly shocked,” Churchill noted that:
The man who murdered Mussolini made a confession, published in the Daily Express, gloating over the treacherous and cowardly method of his actions. In particular he said he shot Mussolini’s mistress. Was she on the list of war criminals? Had he any authority from anybody to shoot this woman? It seems to me the cleansing hand of British military power should make inquiries on these points.
The death of Clara Petacci has a parallel in the revenge killings in Libya during the past several months, and there is no cleansing hand of British military power conveniently available in Libya today. Nor was the post-war history of Italian politics particularly placid, a fact that owed much to Mussolini’s crimes and was reflected in the manner of his death.
Churchill was not entirely sorry to see Mussolini elude formal justice. He closed his reflections on the episode with a single sentence: “But at least the world was spared an Italian Nuremberg.” Opinions on Nuremberg have shifted since Churchill wrote his account. Perhaps in future years we will have cause to regret Qaddafi never stood trial for his crimes in front of the Libyan people.