[WARNING: Post includes graphic images]
It may seem sacrilegious to travel all the way to Italy and waste a meal by eating at McDonald’s, but when said McDonald’s was built on the spot where Mussolini’s corpse was defiled by an angry mob, it’s worth sacrificing some flavor for a taste of history.
You may have seen the famous gory images of Benito Mussolini and his fascist compatriots dangling from the rafters of an Esso gas station. The story of how furious citizens vented their rage on his carcass is so well known that it was even a punch line on the show Friends: Joey underscores his grandmother’s temper by claiming she was the sixth person to spit on Mussolini’s body. It also inspired the lyrics of a song called “Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ” by one of my favorite bands, Against Me!:
You’re gonna hang like Benito from the Esso rafters
Hang like Clara with her skull caved in
Hang like a cross around my neck
You’re gonna hang, you’re gonna hang
It was while listening to that song one day that I wondered where that Esso station was, and if I could visit it on my upcoming trip to Milan. I dove into Mussolini research and learned the backstory about how and why he ended up at that specific Esso station.
Here’s the extremely condensed version:
While Benito Mussolini was disturbingly popular for much of his political career, by the end of his reign he was—to put it mildly—not well-liked. After basically coining the term “fascism” he provided a vivid and tangible definition of it as Italy’s prime minister. He removed his political opponents with assassinations and a secret police force, he consolidated power with a series of new laws, he waged war with chemical weapons and put people in concentration camps, and he banned contraception so he could increase the population in case he needed more soldiers.
Mussolini ultimately proved to be the Muddy Waters to Hitler’s Led Zeppelin, inspiring the latter to take fascism to even more horrific levels. Even though the two dictators initially didn’t get along, they would go on to have each other’s backs during World War II. By 1943, though, the Russian army had destroyed the Italian army on the eastern front and the Allies had taken Sicily. Mussolini was ousted from power and he escaped to Germany, but Hitler ordered him to return to northern Italy and run a toothless but symbolic puppet regime. Brutal fighting broke out between fascists and partisan forces around the country. The Germans moved in to try and maintain control, but small cells of guerrillas engaged in a terror campaign against them.
And that brings us to a fateful day in August of 1944, when a group of partisans in Milan blew up a German truck. The Germans couldn’t let the deed go unpunished, so they ordered the local Italian military police to pull 15 anti-fascists out of a local prison. They executed the prisoners and left their crumpled bodies in the middle of Piazzale Loreto, a bustling town square in the northeast part of the city. It was intended to frighten the locals into submission but Mussolini knew it would have the opposite effect. When he was told about the slaughter he reportedly said, “We will pay dearly for the blood of Piazzale Loreto.”
I rarely say this about Mussolini, but—in this particular instance—he was so right.
When the Allies advanced into northern Italy, the Germans retreated and the partisans declared an uprising. 61-year-old Benito and his 33-year-old mistress Clara Petacci attempted to flee to Switzerland in a German convoy, but partisans stopped them near Lake Como. They shot Benito and Clara along with 26 of their fascist traveling partners.
The bodies of Benito, Clara, and a dozen others were eventually loaded into a van and dumped in Piazzale Loreto in the middle of the night…at the same spot where the 15 anti-fascists had been executed eight months earlier.
Now THAT is some grim symbolism.
By morning a crowd had gathered and the bodies were kicked, spat on, urinated on, shot at, hit with hammers, hung upside down from the roof of the nearby Esso gas station, and stoned. The motivation was partially revenge, partially a purging of their own guilt for initially supporting Mussolini so enthusiastically, and partially a medieval way to discourage other fascists from continuing to fight. Fittingly, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide the following day. It was a good week for anti-fascism.
Despite learning all I could about Mussolini’s life, death, and desecration, details on the exact location of that notorious Esso station were scarce.
Piazzale Loreto is enormous, encompassing multiple city blocks, and the Esso station is long gone. But thanks to some historic photos and Google street view I was able to triangulate the location to a bank building on the corner of Piazzale Loreto and Corso Buenos Aires, the ground floor of which is now a McDonald’s. So I knew where I’d be having lunch in Milan when I arrived.
It turns out the 15 anti-fascists were killed one block to the northwest of the former Esso site, at Piazzale Loreto and Viale Andrea Doria. A relief sculpture of St. Sebastian created by Giannino Castiglioni was placed there in 1960, and features the names of the martyrs on the back. When I visited, some wreaths had recently been laid at its base, along with a bottle of Lambrusco.
The McDonald’s itself held no surprises. Busy people on their lunch breaks. A crowded upstairs seating area. Inoffensive design. Predictable food. I’m sure everyone there knew of Mussolini, but were they aware they were enjoying their McFlurries and french fries on the site of his famously gruesome end?
For me, personally, it made my Crispy McBacon even tastier. It’s not my usual policy to condone mob justice, but there are certainly a handful of people in history who have deserved it. Mussolini is one of them. The guy who refuses to pick up his dog’s poop in front of my house is also one of them. But that’s another story.
I supposed my flippant tone in the face of such grisly acts could be considered uncouth. But here’s one more story I uncovered during my research:
After his autopsy Mussolini’s body was buried in an unmarked grave, but it was later exhumed and hidden by some of his fellow fascists. The government finally tracked it down but didn’t know what to do with it because every option was fraught with political consequences. It was tucked away at a monastery for over a decade and eventually returned to Mussolini’s widow in the 1950s as a way for the then-Prime Minister to curry favor with the far right members of Parliament. It has since been placed in a crypt at Mussolini’s birthplace, which is now a pilgrimage spot for modern day neo-fascists. Apparently dozens of them visit every day, and every year on the anniversary of his death there’s a fascist march through the nearby town.
If those jackasses have a site on which to celebrate Mussolini’s life and work, certainly the rest of us should be able to enjoy a Quarter Pounder while quietly celebrating the day that everyone got a chance to spit on his lumped-up corpse.