Political Murders in Changing Times
Last week, it seems, Saudi officials murdered the exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Press reports have now identified one of the killers as a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the effective ruler of the Kingdom. The world community in general and the government of the United States in particular are deciding what to do. Kashoggi's death is more than a single international crime or an episode in the relations between the US and an important ally; it is another big step towards a world of authoritarian dictators who show no respect for established norms. As such, it recalls another big step towards such a world in the early stages of the last great world crisis in the first half of the twentieth century: the murder of the Italian deputy Giacomo Matteotti by Fascist terrorists in June 1924.
European democracy began to die in the 1920s in Italy. United by a series of small wars from 1859 through 1871, Italy had been a functioning constitutional monarchy from 1871 until 1922. Its government and traditional elites had lost the confidence of the people, however, after a costly, disastrous decision to enter the First World War in 1915. Although Italy was among the victors, the war brought less than no benefit to its people, and both left- and right-wing revolutionary movements arose in its wake. Benito Mussolini, a former socialist, emerged in the early 1920s as the leader of the new Fascist Party. Terrorism helped bring that party to power. Fascist militias called Squadristi, for which there is at present no parallel in any western nation, terrorized large parts of Italy, driving socialists and liberals into exile in major cities. In 1922 they escalated their revolution, marching into major cities, and later in that year Mussolini led them in a March on Rome. Mussolini was however in many ways a traditional politician, and he did not attempt to overthrow the established order. Instead he became head of the government within its own framework, appointed Prime Minister by the King—rather like Recep Erdogan in Turkey, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, or, in his own way, Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh. Mussolini initially formed a coalition government with other right wing elements, and during the first two years of his rule, political violence ebbed within Italy and the country seemed to have stabilized. Parliament, complete with opposition deputies, continued to function. Similar situations prevail in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, where the new leaders have carried out extensive purges but the framework they have inherited remains, today.
The turning point in the history of Mussolini’s regime came in July 1924, when Squadristi kidnapped and murdered the socialist deputy and opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti, To many Italians Matteotti symbolized honesty and rectitude in politics, and although Mussolini muzzled the Italian press, he suddenly became massively unpopular. In January 1925, in an extraordinary parallel with current events, an Italian journalist named Camille Cianfarra obtained a confession from one of Matteotti’s murderers, the head of the press bureau of the foreign office. Cianfarra was now the correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, and after the Tribune published the confession, the Italian government arrested him and tortured him. The American Embassy did secure his release, but he died shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Mussolini in January 1925 had proclaimed a totalitarian regime, the beginnings of the establishment of dictatorship. Nonetheless, the British, French and German governments treated him as a fully equal power in the critical Locarno negotiations later that summer, which reached new agreements on the Franco-German frontiers. The Matteotti murder started a long term trend. In 1932, Japanese naval officers assassinated several leading politicians, including Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, and effectively brought civilian politicians under control for the next 13 years. Then on June 30, 1934, a year and a half after taking power, Adolf Hitler sent SS men to murder a number of key dissident Nazis and other political opponents in the Night of the Long Knives. The era of Fascist dictatorship was in full swing. Three years later, in 1937, Stalin began large-scale executions of leading generals and Communists.
Both President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un of North Korea have apparently ordered assassinations of political opponents in foreign countries over the last few years. President Trump has continued to heap praise upon them both, and he has not yet criticized Mohammed Bin Salman for Kashoggi’s death. While there are no totalitarian movements comparable to Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism in power anywhere today, authoritarian rule has become a normal feature of our landscape. While the western nations still must maintain some kind of relations with authoritarian states, they must also find ways to hold them accountable for acts on foreign soil, if not at home, and to make it clear that advanced democratic nations stand for something very different. That is what Franklin Roosevelt managed to do in the 1930s. As yet we have no FDR on the horizon this time around.