ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: MUSSOLINI IN MUNICH
On June 18, 1940, soon after Adolf Hitler’s stunning defeat of France in the early stages of the Second World War, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini arrived and met with Adolf in Munich. As usual, Nazi newsreels documented the orchestrated spectacles of parades, public speeches, the ubiquitous enthusiastic crowds, even as Hitler’s official photographer Heinrich Hoffmann snapped the photographic stills of Il Duce and der Fuhrer standing and smiling together. In an age when the public relied on newspaper articles and radio broadcasts for news of public events, the photographic postcard served as an important visual component in commemorating such occasions. Photographs were regularly published in postcard format and distributed in the tens of thousands within days of an event to reinforce and impress the populous of the importance of German-Italian friendship and alliance.
GIFT OF STEVE HELLER
But behind the public displays of mutual admiration and affection, trouble and dissatisfaction was brewing. Mussolini’s state visit in Munich, of course, was not the first meeting between the two most powerful dictators in Europe. Having come to power more than a decade before the German upstart, the egoistic Mussolini considered himself to be the dominant player. When Hitler and his diplomatic delegation arrived in Italy in May of 1938, Mussolini had orchestrated an over the top seven-day fête of the German leader to overawe him with the popularity of his regime and the power and might of his armies. The Wolfsonian library holds a number of rare materials documenting this visit ranging from propagandistic school notebooks to Fascist and Nazi party produced publications.
The 1938 visit was not only commemorated in state propaganda materials like the one pictured above, but was also documented in official newsreels and amateur films of the period.
But by the time Mussolini visited Munich in June of 1940, the fortunes of war had reversed their positions of dominance. Hitler’s spectacular successes on the battlefields of Europe stood in bold relief against the Italian army’s embarrassingly late entry into the war and its less than inspiring performance in North Africa. In spite of the hype associated with his visit to Germany, Mussolini had been reduced to a supporting role in the blueprint for forging a New Order in Europe.
In his first talking picture, The Great Dictator (1940), comedian Charlie Chaplin brilliantly lampooned Hitler by assuming the lead role of Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania. Even as Chaplin satirized the “man who stole his mustache,” Jack Oakie brilliantly captured Mussolini’s chin-in-the-air pretensions in his supporting role as Benzino Napaloni. Some of the film’s greatest laughs come during the scenes satirizing the sibling rivalry of the two “brother dictators.” Chaplin punctures Mussolini’s pride in having made the “trains run on time” by having Napaloni’s train incapable of pulling to a proper stop during his publicized visit to Tomania. In an obvious spoof of Joseph Goebbel, Hynkel’s Minister of the Interior Garbitsch (pronounced garbage) tries to arrange psychologically embarrassing situations designed to put the pompous Napaloni in his place, only to have each of his schemes backfire in their rivalry over Osterlich (Austria).