What a Murder by Mussolini Teaches Us About Khashoggi and M.B.S. (NY Times, Oct. 23, 2018)
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis has striking parallels with the murder of the Italian socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti by Fascist thugs.
In the weeks after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, a question has been repeatedly asked: How could the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, be so reckless as to sanction this horrifying murder carried out in such a clumsy and shameless fashion?
The answer, I think, is that dictatorships are inherently obtuse. Dictators live in their own self-created bubble of adulation and impunity, which leads them to huge misjudgments when they are forced to act outside of the bubble.
The premeditated and coldblooded murder of Mr. Khashoggi by the Saudis has striking parallels with the premeditated and coldblooded murder of the Italian socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti by Fascist thugs operating on the orders of Benito Mussolini.
On the afternoon of June 10, 1924, Mr. Matteotti was walking in Rome when a group of Fascists grabbed him and stuffed him into a waiting car. Two months later, his decomposed body was found about 12 miles away.
Several days before his abduction, Mr. Matteotti had delivered an impassioned speech denouncing widespread fraud and violence committed by the Fascists during national elections two months earlier. He was scheduled to give another speech when Parliament reopened the day after his disappearance.
The murder of a prominent critic of Fascism shocked Italy and the world. Before Mr. Matteotti’s disappearance and murder, Italy’s democratic allies had been prepared to believe that despite Mussolini’s violent rise to power, he intended to respect the rules and freedoms of parliamentary democracy.
For some months, while an official investigation took place, Mussolini’s political survival as the prime minister seemed to hang in the balance, as evidence accumulated that Mr. Matteotti’s killers were part of a hit squad operating under the control and acting on the orders of the prime minister’s office.
Then, as now, there were even powerful oil interests in the affair — possible payments to Mussolini’s brother Arnaldo Mussolini, the Jared Kushner figure of the situation — that contributed to the consensus to “get over” the brutal killing.
Then too, the reaction of near-universal horror to the Matteotti killing was surprising since violence had been a consistent feature of Fascism. The thugs who killed Mr. Matteotti had already used violence, intimidation and fraud during the 1924 elections that gave Mussolini a majority in Parliament. The world — and most middle-class Italians — credited Mussolini with preventing a Bolshevik-style revolution in Italy and was prepared to overlook what it took to be a little residual violence that it assumed would fade away after Mussolini started wearing the bowler hat and spats of a respectable politician.
Italy was still a half-functioning democracy, and that helped expose the murder and the lies deployed during the attempts at a cover-up. Eyewitnesses had seen Mr. Matteotti being forced into a car. An elderly couple had seen the killers’ Lancia automobile as they staked out Mr. Matteotti’s house in the days before the kidnapping and wrote down the license plate.
The police found the car’s upholstery covered in Mr. Matteotti’s blood. He had been stabbed repeatedly and his body mutilated. A comparatively independent initial investigation linked the killers to Mussolini’s office, where one of his top aides, Cesare Rossi, directed his press office and ran Ceka Fascista, the private hit squad named after Cheka, the Bolshevik predecessor of the K.G.B.
Mr. Matteotti was killed before his parliamentary speech because he had been gathering evidence and planning to expose corruption in the assigning of a major oil concession by Mussolini’s highly personalized government to an American company, Sinclair Oil.
Mussolini got the case transferred to more cooperative investigators who concluded that the Matteotti killing had been unplanned and involuntary. The passage of time, the dithering of the Italian political class, the self-interest of foreign governments and the complicity of the international press helped Mussolini survive.
A remarkable new book, “La Scoperta dell’Italia,” by the Italian historian Mauro Canali, describes how the Fascists manipulated foreign journalists during the Matteotti crisis. At the time, two of the most important media outlets in Italy, The Associated Press and The New York Times, were locally headed by a father-son team, Salvatore and Arnaldo Cortesi, who were Italian citizens and ardent Fascist supporters.
Mussolini survived the crisis because of the weakness and division of his political opposition, because Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s king, who had invited Mussolini to form a government, was reluctant to risk a “leap in the dark” by demanding his resignation.
Mussolini was also saved by the complicity of foreign allies and international public opinion to accept the implausible explanation that Mr. Matteotti’s killers were Fascist hotheads who had acted on the spur of the moment, to “teach him a lesson,” and killed him accidentally.
Mr. Rossi, the Mussolini aide who directed the hit squad, fled to Paris, and to avoid taking the fall for the murder, he offered The New York Times documentation implicating Mussolini. But the paper refused the offer both because Mr. Rossi wanted $15,000 in return and because the journalists were reluctant to accept the notion of Mussolini as a political assassin.
Mr. Rossi made a deal with The New York World, and Arnaldo Cortesi published a long piece in The Times attempting to deflect blame from Mussolini and discredit the Rossi revelations. His piece ran with the headline “Rossi ‘Revelations’ Fall Flat in Italy; Why Former Associate’s Charges Against Mussolini in the Matteotti Murder Failed. Premeditation Disproved.”
And soon, most of the world was happy to move on and do business with Mussolini, who proceeded to consolidate his dictatorship. Getting away with murder wasn’t good for Mussolini or Italy, feeding his sense of dangerous omnipotence. While he was extremely shrewd in judging and dealing with his internal opponents, he made one catastrophic mistake after the other in foreign policy. He vastly underestimated England and the United States, failed to listen to his advisers about the unpreparedness of Italy’s war machine and believed his own rhetoric about Italy’s being a nation of “eight million bayonets.” Dictators rarely end well.
This might offer lessons as to why the Saudis had the chutzpah to murder Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul. The Congress and the global press must avoid the mistakes made during the Matteotti affair.
A paunchy, middle-aged journalist does not take on 15 Saudi agents in a fistfight, and you don’t bring a forensic doctor and a bone saw to the interrogation of a political dissident. If Mr. Khashoggi had been killed accidentally, the Saudis could hand over his body and it would come out in an autopsy. The Saudi failure to produce his body is a virtual admission of premeditated murder.