Behind Every Successful Dictator…

After nearly 10 years of courtship, Eva Braun must have been asking herself the question on a daily basis: Is Adolf ever going to propose? Her family was wondering, too. Eva had spent so much time with Adolf Hitler, and for so long, that Europe was starting to talk.

Even the British were wondering about Adolf Hitler’s intentions. An American ambassador reported that many in Great Britain wanted to know when “that Hitler person would get married and settle down.” Maybe they assumed Hitler’s conquest of Europe was the sort of thing a bachelor might get up to, with an abundance of time and energy. (At 50 years of age, Hitler was a little old to be sowing wild oats.) Still, there was the hope that a wife could find a positive outlet for all that conquering energy.

Eva must have felt she was well qualified to be Frau Hitler, or she wouldn’t have stuck with Hitler so many years. In his December 16, 1939, Post article “Is Hitler Getting Married?” Richard Norburt reported information “from sources inside Germany which we have always found dependable” that the two had been carrying on their “colorless little love affair” for over a decade.

But wedding bells wouldn’t be ringing for the Hitlers any time soon. As the Führer told a women’s organization in Nuremburg, “I should love nothing more dearly than a family. … When I feel I have accomplished my historical mission, I intend then to enjoy the private life which I have hitherto denied myself.”

That wasn’t soon enough for the Braun family. They decided to put some pressure on Hitler to name a date. Unfortunately, they chose a bad time to confront Hitler (which was pretty much any time). In late August of 1939, as Hitler was feverishly putting the final touches on his invasion of Poland, a group of Eva’s female relatives drove down to Salzburg to tell Adolf he’d better do the right thing by their “Evi.”

Hitler was a master negotiator. He dodged the family’s ultimatums, but soon after their Salzburg meeting he “ordered part of his personal suite in the Chancellery [his Berlin headquarters] prepared for Evi’s use, and she promptly moved in.”

As part of Hitler’s official household, Eva became a cheerful hostess at Hitler’s Bavarian mountain home. She liked to cook for Adolf, and specialized in preparing the vegetarian dishes he liked. In her spare time, she enjoyed making rag dolls, taking photographs, and reading detective stories. Once, she had enjoyed playing the accordion, but she traded it in for a mandolin, perhaps believing the squeezebox was not refined enough for the Third Reich.

She was showing her support for the war effort by saving fuel. She stopped driving the Horch limousines Hitler had given her, preferring an ivory-colored Volkswagen. She tried to stay informed on news of the war. Perhaps she hoped that someday, as Frau Hitler, she would help Adolf in his great mission, discussing strategy with him and helping with his negotiations. As Richard Norburt reported, “A few weeks ago, when the German minister to Denmark returned to Berlin to consult with Hitler, the two men walked together in the garden of the Chancellery. After a little while they were joined by Evi, and Hitler’s guards were amazed to see her actively participating in their sober conversation.”

Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun with their dogs. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun with their dogs.
(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Until the day when Hitler got down on his knee to propose, she spent her days sunning herself on the stone porch at Hitler’s house in the Bavarian mountains. There she would smile at visitors, engage in small talk, be pleasant, and wait for Adolf to get out of his meetings.

And in those empty hours, maybe she envied the family life of Europe’s other dictators.

Spain’s General Francisco Franco, for example. He had proposed to María del Carmen Polo y Martínez-Valdés in 1923, but had postponed the wedding when the Spanish king promoted him to command the Spanish Foreign Legion. Yet, unlike Hitler, Franco had only put off the wedding a few months, not years. He and Carmen Polo were married that October, and by 1939 were raising a teenage daughter.

And then there was Benito Mussolini — Italy’s fascist warlord who wasn’t shy around women. He had married Rachele Guidi in 1915, and had fathered six children by 1939. Guidi was devoted to Mussolini, though Il Duce didn’t seem to reciprocate that devotion.

And even Hitler’s ally Joseph Stalin was a family man, of sorts. Though a widower in 1939, he had been married twice and had three children.

All the other dictators were starting families. What was Adolf’s problem?

Eva probably didn’t know that life with a dictator was often bitter and short. She, like most of Italy, couldn’t have known that when Mussolini married Rachele Guidi he was already married to Ida Dalser and had a son with her. Instead of seeking a divorce to Dalser, he simply denied he’d ever been married to her, then ordered government agents to destroy any records of the marriage. Still insisting she was married to Il Duce, Dalser was eventually detained, against her will, in a psychiatric hospital where she died in 1937. Their son was put up for adoption. He grew up and enlisted in the Italian Navy. But, like his mother, he refused to be silent about the marriage. He continued to assert that Mussolini was his father. He, too, was sent to a psychiatric hospital, and soon after, died there.

Stalin’s case was even more sinister. In 1906, he’d wed Ekaterina Svanidze in the Russian province of Georgia. They had a boy before she died of tuberculosis the following December. In 1919, Stalin married again. His new wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, gave birth to a boy and a girl. Yet, as anyone — other than Eva Braun, maybe — might have expected, marriage to a dictator was not as much fun as it looked. Alliluyeva learned, as did all of Russia, that Stalin was very hard to live with. The couple frequently argued and, in 1932, after they quarreled bitterly at a party, she went home and shot herself.

Stalin appeared to have been fairly affectionate toward his daughter, Svetlana. He didn’t care much for either of his boys, though, probably because he didn’t see any promise of a ruthless dictator in either of them. Bullied by his father, the eldest boy, Yakov, shot himself, but survived. (“He can’t even shoot straight,” Stalin is reported to have sneered.) Yakov joined the Red Army, was captured, and died in a German concentration camp. His stepbrother, Vasily, survived the war but, after Stalin’s death, was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. Svetlana defected to the U.S. in 1967.

It’s possible Eva would have stuck with Adolf even if she’d known what had happened to the other dictators’ families. She remained with him even though she must have known of his murderous policies, the millions of deaths he ordered. But she was, in her quiet way, as much a fanatic as him.

She hoped to share his dream, but wound up in his nightmare. Eva and Adolph married, at last, on April 29, 1945. The couple enjoyed a short, underground honeymoon before committing suicide the next day.

On the Sidelines, Mussolini Awaits His Opportunity

Military parade in Rome
Military parade at the Stadio dei Marmi in Rome in front of Benito Mussolini (1939)
( via Wikimedia Commons)

You may have seen the photos of Benito Mussolini’s messy demise. The photos show the corpse of Italy’s ex-dictator, shot, beaten, and kicked, hanging upside down from the roof of a gas station. Seeing the brutality of his death, you get a sense of how fiercely the Italians hated the man who had dragged their country into a war that brought only poverty, disgrace, and death to their land.

Once Mussolini had enjoyed broad support in Italy. He presented himself as the savior of the country, promoting fascism as the solution for the country’s problems. He inspired young Italians to join forces, donning the black shirts of the fascist party members. He also inspired a young Austrian named Adolf Hitler, who looked up to Mussolini as a role model.

But Hitler was a fanatic. Mussolini was an opportunist. And nothing illustrated his opportunism better than his actions in 1939. In May of that year, he and Hitler signed an alliance in which they pledged to come to each other’s aid in the event of war.

Mussolini Prepares for War
Read the entire article “Mussolini Prepares for War” by Demaree Bess from the pages of the Post.

Furthermore, the agreement “stipulated that neither of the parties would take action within the next three years [to] cause war in the West,” wrote Post correspondent Demaree Bess. [Read the entire article “Mussolini Prepares for War” from the Nov. 18, 1939 issue of the Post here.] Mussolini needed that delay. His advisors had told him Italy wouldn’t be ready to launch a war before 1942.


Not surprisingly, Hitler ignored this clause in the agreement when, just four months later, he declared war on Poland. As his army launched its blitzkrieg, the world looked to his ally Mussolini. What would Il Duce (the Italians title for “the leader) do now?

Bess was hearing all sorts of wild rumors of possible alliances and confrontations—an alliance between France and Italy, war between France and Italy, even an attack from Germany. “I finally decided that the only way I could hope to learn about Mussolini’s real intentions would be by going to Rome,” he wrote.

Bess left a darkened, huddled Paris that anticipated German bombers at any moment. Traveling south, he found Italy sunny and peaceful. “As we walked about in the handsome new [Milan] railway station, we found ourselves delighted at the sight of so many little children. We had scarcely seen a child in Paris for the past month. We reached Florence at nightfall and were happy to see again the city of lights.”

The Italians were happy again with il Duce, then regarded as a man of peace. He was making no overt moves to drag Italy into Hitler’s crusade against France and England. “[Italy] seemed to be in a position to stay neutral as long as she liked — and to make money trading with the belligerents,” Bess wrote. Yet he became convinced that Mussolini had no intention of staying out of the war a moment longer than necessary. “He is standing on the side line now, watching how things go, but he isn’t idle. … He is preparing for war.”

Il Duce had set the country on the road to war many years earlier. “He has raised a whole generation of Italian youth in the faith that they should live dangerously, that pacifism is a vice,” Bess wrote. And now, though Italy was still neutral, Mussolini’s government was starting to ration food for civilians and stockpile it for the army.

Mussolini’s refusal to join Germany’s war prompted some to believe he was reconsidering his alliance with Hitler, which had always been “extremely unpopular with Italians,” Bess wrote. “Italians naturally dislike Germans. The two races don’t get along well together. Germans are impatient with the easygoing temperament of Italians and don’t conceal their impatience. Italians resent German assumptions of superiority merely because they are more efficient.”

For now, the Germans weren’t pressuring Italy to join their fight. In fact, Hitler found Italian neutrality useful. According to Bess, it allowed Mussolini to play a peacemaker who suggested there could be a “settlement of the war in the West, thus enabling Hitler to pose before his own people as a reasonable man who didn’t want to fight Britain and France.”

France and Great Britain were also satisfied with Italian neutrality, since it enabled them to maintain their control of the Mediterranean Sea without having to engage the Italian fleet.

Mussolini was under no pressure to commit Italy to the world war. “He foresaw that no pressure from either side could or would compel him to enter this war until he was ready to move,” Bess wrote. “Germany’s air force might destroy Italian cities, but what could Germany gain from that?”

Mussolini would remain neutral for as long as it was profitable. But Hitler’s swift victory over France led Mussolini to weigh the profits from war versus peace. If he remained out of the fight, his country might continue its gradual rise in prosperity. And he might take up the offer of trading concession in Africa that Great Britain and France would grant if Italy remained neutral.

But if Italy entered the fight, it might be able to share in Germany’s looting of conquered France. All he needed, Mussolini told his military chief, was to lose a few thousand Italian soldiers in the war to earn a share of the spoils at the victor’s table. And then Italy could simply seize whatever African colonies had belonged to the Allies.

Above all, Mussolini became trapped by his own bravado. Having posed as a modern-day Caesar, he needed to prove the might of his country’s forces.

On June 10, 1940, he committed Italy to the war. He sent his soldiers into France, prompting President Roosevelt to comment, “The hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.”

The decision began a long, sharp decline in the fortunes of both Italy, and Mussolini, who suffered the consequences in Milan at the hands of an enraged mob.

Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago: