In the final edition of This Week in History for the 2020-2021 school year, we will take a look at the lives of some of the most beloved and most hated figures in world history. So let’s dive in!
The final days of April will forever be tied to the final days of World War II, seeing the deaths of the two figures most responsible for the devastation and destruction brought on by mankind’s deadliest conflict.
On April 28, 1945, 76 years ago, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was executed while trying to flee to Switzerland with his mistress.
Known as “Il Duce,” Mussolini brought fascism to the Italian peninsula, and in becoming allies with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, brought the Italian people into a global conflict that many did not want to be part of. As the war dragged on, the suffering Italian people turned against their government. By 1945, an Allied victory seemed imminent as American and British forces made their way up the Italian boot starting in Sicily, with many Italians welcoming their arrival.
Mussolini escaped Rome and headed north toward Germany, hoping to escape to neutral Switzerland and live out his days with his mistress, Claretta Petacci. As I said, Italy was turning against him, so the Italian border guards would not let him pass freely. He tried to disguise himself as a German soldier and pass into Austria; however, he was spotted and shot on sight by Italian partisans.
Mussolini and Petacci’s bodies were brought to Milan, where they were hung by their feet on meathooks to be spat on, urinated on and beaten with any weapon on hand. When Mussolini’s body was taken down, his face was completely unrecognizable.
Two days later on April 30, 1945, also 76 years ago, Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler committed suicide in an underground bunker as Allied forces closed in on Berlin.
Similar to Italy, Germany was being invaded on all sides, with the Soviet Union knocking on Berlin’s front door from the east. Several German commanders began breaking ranks, plotting to assassinate Hitler when he refused to surrender, yet all attempts failed.
The Führer’s dream of building a “1,000-year” Reich was over. He resolved to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide and shooting himself, as well as his wife (whom he married in the bunker the night before) and their dogs. His devotees, not wanting his body to face the same outcome as Mussolini, had him cremated. When Soviet soldiers found his ashes, they hid them in undisclosed places so nobody could go and mourn his death. Today, the ashes of one of the evilest leaders in human history is still unknown, and will always remain as so.
Mussolini and Hitler’s deaths were among the final two of the approximately 80 million people to die during World War II, from bullet wounds on the battlefield, starvation on the homefront and extermination in concentration camps. Three percent of the total world population was lost, and in the hardest-hit countries of Eastern Europe, one in every 10 citizens was gone.
Of course, while some leaders are universally hated and despised, some are revered, honored and beloved.
On April 29, 1983, Prince Charles and Princess Diana concluded their six-week tour of Australia and New Zealand in Auckland.
Any fan of Netflix’s “The Crown” could tell you that the couple’s first official tour in 1983 was monumental for the British royal family, launching the pair, and more specifically Diana, into the international spotlight.
Lady Diana Spencer first made headlines when marrying the Prince of Wales at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in the summer of 1981, donning one of the most talked-about wedding gowns in human history. That being said, it would not be until their first royal tour that her fame and notoriety skyrocketed to the iconic status of “Princess Di.”
It should be noted that while Australia and New Zealand are independent nations, they are members of the Commonwealth, an organization made up of former colonies of the British Empire. The Commonwealth is made of up 54 nations, both small and large, and includes such powers as the United Kingdom, Canada, Jamaica, South Africa, India and Malaysia, all of whom recognize the Royal Family as their monarchs.
In March of 1983, however, the Australian prime minister and a large percentage of the Australian people hoped to leave the Commonwealth and do away with the seemingly silly monarchy. Charles and Diana’s visit was vital to keep the ties between the Windsors and Australia strong, and boy, did they deliver!
Though their initial days were difficult, the six-week tour charmed the entire continent, with all hopes of abandoning the monarchy being thrown out the window. At each city, hundreds of thousands of Aussies gawked at the Princess, with international headlines proclaiming her glamour, beauty and down-to-earth demeanor. People worldwide couldn’t get enough of photos showcasing the young mother holding her 10-month-old son, William, clutching his koala bear stuffed animal.
From then on, Diana, much to the dismay of her jealous husband, was universally beloved and adored, and would continue to be so for the remainder of her life. Her charitable actions and connections with everyday people ushered in a new era for the British royal family, making her worthy of her fame.
That’s all from me for the 2020-2021 school year. I wish you all a restful summer, and I hope to see you back for more deep dives into the wonderful world of history this fall!