The problem of the tyrant’s corpse
In between his defiant court appearances, Saddam Hussein sits in a cell, probably eating a bag of Doritos. He also enjoys Cheetos and Raisin Bran Crunch, at least according to the Pennsylvania National Guardsmen once assigned to him and recently interviewed by Lisa DePaulo for GQ. And despite his being heavily guarded and under constant observation, he seems to have adjusted quite nicely to his new surroundings.
“All his drinks, from milk to water to orange juice, had to be room temperature,” writes DePaulo. “He wouldn’t eat beef but seemed to like fish and chicken. Salads were acceptable, but only if they came with Italian dressing,” which he used to marinate his olives. The guards say at times Saddam would be “singing and dancing a jig, clapping his hands, stomping his feet.”
He might as well enjoy it now, for as his trial resumes, Saddam will have to address more serious issues, such as the charge of crimes against humanity. To date, lawyers have formally charged Hussein with responsibility for just one massacre, in the Shiite village of Dujail, dating from 1982 and totaling 143 deaths. But as sources told the Washington Post’s Andy Mosher, “the limited scope of the Dujail massacre made it easier to investigate, producing a less complex case than other alleged crimes.” Whether he is found guilty of murdering a few hundred or tens of thousands, the penalty undoubtedly will be death.
“The Iraqis will definitely kill him,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Middle Eastern specialist with the cia and currently a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. As for how, Gerecht points out that “hangings have been common practice in the more modern parts of the Middle East” while official beheadings have become a thing of the past.
But then what?
Should the Iraqi government cremate Saddam’s body, scattering his ashes to the four winds, his name never to be uttered again? Perhaps the tribunal could simply bury Saddam intact but in an unmarked grave, his precise whereabouts kept a state secret. Or his corpse could be returned to his family and given a proper burial, turning his plot into a shrine for thousands of sympathizers. Then again, he could be both hanged and decapitated, his torso tossed into a ditch while his head is stuck on a spike in public view for the next several years.
When it comes to dealing with an ex-dictator’s body (or that of a war criminal), at some point in time, men have done all of the above and more. But which methods have successfully closed dark chapters in history and which ones have led to public embarrassment or worse? It might be helpful to examine a few historical examples spanning the good, the bad, the ugly, and the just plain bizarre.
The Nazi inner circle
In the early hours of October 16, 1946, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, executed ten men for their roles in Hitler’s Third Reich. Convicted of crimes against humanity and crimes against peace, these former high-ranking members of the Nazi regime faced the sentence of death by hanging. As far as formal executions go, the Allies dispatched the ten quite efficiently, in under two hours. Whitney R. Harris, in his remarkable Tyranny on Trial (Southern Methodist Press, 1954), vividly describes the first convict on his way to the gallows, the “white-faced” foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop:
“At eleven minutes past one o-clock in the morning . . . [Ribbentrop] stepped through the door into the execution chamber and faced the gallows on which he and the others . . . were to be hanged. His hands were unmanacled and bound behind him with a leather thong. Ribbentrop walked to the foot of the thirteen stairs leading to the gallows platform. He was asked to state his name, and answered weakly, ‘Joachim von Ribbentrop.’ Flanked by two guards and followed by the chaplain, he slowly mounted the stairs. On the platform he saw the hangman with the noose of thirteen coils and the hangman’s assistant with the black hood. He stood on the trap, and his feet were bound with a webbed army belt.” His final words were, “God protect Germany, God have mercy on my soul. My last wish is that German unity be maintained, that understanding between East and West be realized and there be peace for the world.” (Ribbentrop would then dangle for almost twenty minutes before dying.)
And so it went for the other war criminals, each given a chance to say a last word. Hans Frank, the one-time governor-general of Poland who had once stated that “Poland shall be treated like a colony; the Poles will become the slaves of the Greater German World Empire” and had helped liquidate at least 3 million Jews, was rather muted in the end: “I am thankful for the kind treatment which I received during this incarceration and I pray God to receive me mercifully.” Julius Streicher, aka “Jew-baiter Number One,” yelled out a fierce “Heil Hitler!” and even told the hangman that “The Bolshevists will one day hang you.”
Afterwards, the bodies of the executed were photographed and, writes Anthony Read in The Devil’s Disciples (W.W. Norton, 2004), “wrapped in mattress covers, sealed in coffins, then driven off in army trucks . . . to a crematorium in Munich, which had been told to expect the bodies of fourteen American soldiers. The coffins were opened up for inspection . . . before being loaded into the cremation ovens. That same evening, a container holding all the ashes” — including those belonging to Field Marshal Hermann Göring, who had committed suicide a few hours earlier — “was driven away into the Bavarian countryside, in the rain. It stopped in a quiet lane about an hour later, and the ashes were poured into a muddy ditch.” (Read also reveals that following ss Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler’s suicide, a British sergeant-major “wrapped his corpse in camouflage netting, tied it with telephone cable, and dumped it in the back of a truck.” The body was subsequently taken to the nearby woods, buried in a hole, and covered up.)
In the late hours of May 31, 1962, former ss Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann was also hanged for crimes “against the Jewish people.” This time it occurred in Jerusalem, where he was delivered after having been kidnapped in Argentina. Prior to his execution, Eichmann consumed half a bottle of red wine and refused both a chaplain and a hood. As Hannah Arendt reported from Israel at the time: “He walked fifty yards from his cell to the execution chamber calm and erect, with his hands bound behind him. When the guards tied his ankles and knees, he asked them to loosen the bonds so that he could stand straight.” Just before his death, this former head of the Gestapo department for Jewish “emigration” declared: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” Eichmann’s body was later cremated, his ashes strewn into the Mediterranean Sea.
The cremation of the bodies of the guilty and the dispersion of their ashes have left sympathizers of the Nazi cause with nothing tangible to memorialize, no gravesite to venerate. This is no minor detail, as we will see in the case of the Tokyo tribunal.
On december 23, 1948, some two years after the executions of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East put to death seven Japanese “Class a” war criminals, found guilty of acts such as crimes against peace, conventional war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The precise sentence was death by hanging.
Among the seven were General Matsui Iwane, held responsible for the Rape of Nanking, and former foreign minister Koki Hirota. But by far the most prominent was wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo, whom many believe was a scapegoat since the Allies had no intention of prosecuting the emperor. (During the trial, Tojo insisted he could not take any action without Hirohito’s consent — a position he would reverse a few days later.)
Like Göring and Himmler, Tojo concluded that suicide was the optimal solution. But his attempt failed disastrously — he managed to survive shooting himself four times in the chest. And though he would later hail the “strength of American democracy” and be grateful to the soldier who donated blood to him, many of Tojo’s supporters were left embittered. “When he belatedly summoned the will to die,” writes John W. Dower in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Embracing Defeat (W.W..Norton, 1999), “[and] chose the foreigner’s way of the bullet rather than the samurai’s way of the sword, and then botched even this, it was more than aggrieved patriots could bear.”
When his time came, notes Dower, the former prime minister “asked the Americans not to let Japan turn Red, and concluded his parting testament by apologizing for ‘mistakes’ the military may have made but also asking the United States to reflect on the atomic bombs and their bombing campaign against civilians.” Like his fellow condemned prisoners, Tojo went to the gallows wearing “salvage work clothing” bearing no insignia — the only head of state executed for war crimes. His remains were then cremated but not dispersed. (Exactly where his ashes were kept for the next 30 years remains unclear.)
All told, more than 900 Japanese prisoners (as well as a few Koreans) were executed in Allied tribunals throughout the Far East. Many of their ashes are now interred in the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. And among them, along with the almost 2.5 million other souls of the war-dead said to have taken residence there since the Meiji Restoration, can be found the actual ashes of “Class a” war criminals (14 in total), including Tojo, whose urn was secretly placed there in 1978 and only publicly disclosed the following year.
In 1985, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made the first official state visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. The current head of state, Junichiro Koizumi, has made annual pilgrimages there since 2001, much to the distress of China and South Korea. Meanwhile, as mentioned in an August Washington Post story by Ayako Doi and Kim Willenson, one member of the Diet, Masahiro Morioka, recently described the Tokyo tribunal as a “show trial” based on such “arbitrarily made up . . . notions as crimes against peace and humanity.” Some of his colleagues, the authors note, “praised Morioka for giving voice to their feelings, at last.”
Despite some parliamentary debate, there are currently no plans for removing the remains of the “Class a” war criminals from the Yasukuni Shrine.
Not that cremation and dispersion is the only solution. Saddam’s remains could simply be buried in an unmarked grave — assuming either that the exact location can be kept secret or that, if located, no one would care to do anything about it. Such is the case with Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.
For 24 years, the Ceausescus reigned supreme over Romania. As prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively, the couple created a powerful cult of personality: Everywhere you turned there were portraits of them (often air-brushed). State television constantly showed Ceausescu giving speeches, which, incidentally, were also available in books and recordings. Newspapers praised him for his genius.
And Nicolae Ceausescu had friends abroad as well. From the very moment of taking power in 1965, he had distanced himself from the Soviets — not participating in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and even condemning the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Presidents Nixon and Ford paid him visits, and he and his wife were welcomed to the Carter White House. But when Ceausescu decided to employ drastic measures in order to slash his multibillion-dollar national debt — meaning brownouts, gas rations, cutting off heat in the winter, and severe food shortages — the public tide turned against him.
As the Iron Curtain came down throughout most of Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989, Romanians were emboldened to demonstrate and demand reform. This culminated in a mass protest on behalf of a popular Lutheran minister on December 15 in the western city of Timisoara. Two days later, Ceausescu’s personal Securitate force and other units opened fire into the crowds, turning the rally into a bloodbath. The killings were by explicit order of the prime minister.
When demonstrators in Bucharest came out against Ceausescu on December 21 (after he foolishly called for the rally, unaware of any strong sentiment against him), he and his wife decided to escape from party headquarters in a helicopter. One of the indignities, it was later reported, was that for lack of space, the mechanic had to sit on Ceausescu’s lap.
The farce lasted just a day, and by Christmas, the prime minister and his deputy were standing before a military tribunal, facing charges of genocide. The trial lasted two hours and resulted in guilty verdicts and immediate sentences of death by firing squad.
“It was not enough to remove Mr. Ceausescu from office,” wrote Celestine Bohlen and Clyde Haberman in the New York Times some 15 years ago. “He had to be exorcised from Romanian life, his body displayed before the people in an electronic-age version of a public execution, his sins put before Romanians so they could see for themselves the awfulness of it all.”
It certainly wasn’t pretty. According to a video of the execution first aired on French television, Mrs. Ceausescu pleaded not to be tied up, saying, “You are bruising my hands. This is shameful. . . . I raised you like a mother.” Her husband remained silent but in tears. According to the Associated Press report at the time, “Soldiers placed the couple, who were not blindfolded, against a brick wall and others rapidly opened fire, emptying their magazines. The Ceausescus crumpled under the bullets. . . .” It has been estimated that some 120 shots were fired at them.
Afterwards, the bodies were wrapped in canvas and taken to an abandoned sports arena. Several days later, their remains were placed in coffins and buried in unmarked graves somewhere in Bucharest. In May of 1990, Western journalists were taken by gravediggers to the supposed final resting place of the Ceausescus, described by the ap as “two plots overgrown with weeds,” both bearing wooden crosses with different names. But even today Romanian officials cannot confirm where the two are buried, though one officer at the Romanian embassy in Washington did say that someone has indeed scrawled the names of the Ceausescus on two crosses next to each other in a graveyard in Bucharest.
Because the hatred of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu was so widespread, no shrine has sprouted among the weeds in that Bucharest cemetery. Nor does anyone seem to have stolen their bodies, as was the unfortunate case of the corpse of Benito Mussolini.
As public executions of ex-dictators go, Mussolini’s is probably the most memorable in recent history. Who hasn’t seen the photos of his bloated and beaten body strung upside down in front of a Milan gas station? And yet the Italian leader had been dead for a day when bystanders at Piazzale Loreto decided to hang his corpse alongside those of his mistress Clara Petacci and two other Fascists for all to see. Mussolini’s actual execution, in fact, is an event that continues to be shrouded in mystery.
Like Tojo, Mussolini managed to embarrass himself in his final moments. Rather than make a last stand against his enemies, the ex-dictator attempted to flee, dressed in a German greatcoat and helmet. Partisans arrested him in Dongo on April 27, 1945, and shot him the next day. Sergio Luzzatto, a history professor at the University of Turin, points out in The Body of Il Duce (Metropolitan Books, 2005) that despite numerous conspiracy theories, the facts are basic and unchanged 60 years later: “Il Duce and his mistress were shot in front of the gates of Villa Belmonte at Giulino on the afternoon of April 28, 1945, by a squad of Communist partisans.”
But did he resist? What were the dictator’s last words, if any? Communist newspapers at the time, Luzzatto notes, described Mussolini as “behav[ing], in the final days and minutes of his life, like a dust mop of a man,” adding that he “died like a dog.” Walter Audisio, the partisan ringleader presiding over Il Duce’s execution, claimed the ex-dictator was silent before he died. But an account by Audisio’s comrade, Aldo Lampredi, “written in 1972 exclusively for the Communist Party leadership and only published in 1996,” according to Luzzatto, tells us otherwise: “Il Duce actually rose to the occasion as he faced the firing squad: widening his eyes, tugging open the collar of his coat, he shouted, ‘Aim for the heart!’”
That the corpses of Mussolini, his mistress, and the Fascists were dumped at the Piazzale Loreto in the early hours of April 29, 1945, was not mere happenstance. One year earlier, the bodies of 15 executed partisans had been piled on top of each other in that very same square in retribution for an attack. Now was the time for payback.
All of the Fascists were assaulted, but locals devoted extra energy to the corpses of Il Duce and Clara Petacci, spitting on them and even supposedly urinating on them. When “with a certain mercy,” writes Richard Bosworth in his biography, Mussolini (Arnold Publishers, 2002), the ex-dictator was lifted up, his body “was covered with detritus. Brain matter seeped out from wounds which were especially deep on the right side of Mussolini’s head.” As for his mistress, someone “had tied up her skirt so that, as she swung upside down, she did not expose too much of her charms to the raucous and unforgiving public.”
Mussolini’s body was later taken to the University of Milan for an autopsy. Luzzatto details the findings: “head misshapen because of destruction of the cranium . . . eyeball lacerated, crushed due to escape of vitreous matter; upper jaw fractured with multiple lacerations of the palate; cerebellum, pons, midbrain, and part of the occipital lobes crushed; massive fracture at the base of the cranium with bone slivers forced into the sinus cavities.” American doctors then removed slivers of his brain for further analysis (some suspected Il Duce suffered from madness brought on by syphilis). For the next 20 years, these brain slivers were kept at St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington, D.C. They were returned to the Mussolini family in March 1966. (It turns out he did not suffer from syphilis.)
The rest of Il Duce’s body was taken to a cemetery outside Milan and quickly buried in an unmarked grave — though word would quickly spread of his whereabouts. On April 23, 1946 — early Easter Sunday — a young neo-Fascist named Domenico Leccisi and two others dug up the dictator’s remains, wrapped it in canvas, and threw it onto a cart, vanishing into the night. Apparently there were a few bumps along the way, and authorities would later discover “pieces” of Mussolini nearby, including part of a finger.
For more than three months, Mussolini’s corpse was crammed inside a steamer trunk, hidden in a village, taken to the mountains, and kept inside a monastery. After police apprehended Leccisi and agreed to certain clerical demands for a Christian burial, the body was placed in the chapel of the Cerro Maggiore convent outside Milan. Between 1946 and 1957, his whereabouts remained a state secret — not even Mussolini’s family knew where he was. As Sergio Luzzatto relates, “By declining to return the body to the Mussolini family, the Italian government wanted to prevent Il Duce’s grave from becoming, for better or worse, a shrine.” He continues, “The authorities did not want the cemetery at Predappio, Mussolini’s birthplace, to turn into a pilgrimage destination for neo-Fascists, nor did they want any of the vandalism inflicted on the Musocco cemetery [site of the original grave] while the body was buried there.”
Nevertheless, prior to national elections in 1958, Italy’s Christian Democrats acceded to the right-wing Italian Social Movement’s demand that Mussolini be returned to the family plot in Predappio (in exchange for much-needed support) and, on August 31, 1957, the body of Il Duce was permanently laid to rest. Soon, thousands of neo-Fascists were making the pilgrimage to Predappio — and dozens were arrested, either for wearing the banned black shirt or for making the illegal Fascist salute. These sympathizers were soon greeted by veterans of the resistance, who pelted their buses with stones. By 1960, the fighting between the two sides had escalated enough to help bring down the Christian Democratic and neo-Fascist coalition. “The anti-Fascist demonstrations were so significant,” writes Luzzatto, “that never again would the Christian Democrats govern with neo-Fascist backing, preferring to seek partners on the left.”
Things are much more peaceful today, and visitors still come to see the Mussolini plot in Predappio. There’s even a guest book if one is so inclined.
As outlandish as it might seem, there is something of a tradition of punishing dictators posthumously. In Mussolini’s case, this occurred a day after his execution. But in the case of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, it actually happened more than two years after his natural death. On January 30, 1661, a year into the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, parliament ordered the posthumous execution of the persons responsible for the regicide of the previous Stuart monarch, Charles i. So, along with those of Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw, Oliver Cromwell’s remains were taken from his vault in Henry vii’s chapel and hanged and decapitated. His body was then thrown into an unmarked pit while his head sat on a pike above Westminster Hall for several years. According to the Cromwell Association, it wasn’t until March of 1960 that the head, “a rather undignified collector’s item” over the centuries, found its permanent resting place, “immured in the ante-chapel of Sidney Sussex, Cambridge,” where Cromwell had been an undergraduate.
Deaths of enemies of the state are often subject to heavy symbolism. A month after the executions of the Ceausescus, one of the prosecutors told a Romanian magazine that the couple had actually run amok in the courtyard before being gunned down, exposing their lack of courage. (This was contradicted later by the actual video footage.) As mentioned above, the last words of Il Duce, “Aim for the heart!” were kept secret for years. News reports instead emphasized the humiliating circumstances of Mussolini’s arrest. Sergio Luzzatto notes the powerful imagery of the ex-dictator “with his lover in one hand and gold from the central bank in the other,” adding that many Italians “saw this last act as evidence of Mussolini’s cowardice, thievery, and infidelity to his wife.” Even Oliver Cromwell wasn’t spared: When the embalming of his corpse was botched, critics interpreted this as a sign of his inner “corruption and filth.” Some went so far as to say the corpse “burst all in pieces.”
And so it will be with Saddam (though it is doubtful he will burst into pieces). What will be his last words, if any? How will he behave in those final minutes? (No matter how he dies, Saddam should consider himself fortunate not to suffer the same fate as one of his opponents — supposedly fed alive to wild dogs.) What is to be done to his body thereafter?
Ideally, says Richard B. Frank, author of Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (Random House, 1999), “the best course of action is execution followed by cremation and a scattering of the physical remains. This does not completely solve the problem of creating a shrine since a shrine can be abstract and need not actually hold remains. But overall I believe the absence of actual remains tends to diminish quite significantly the symbolic power of the shrine.”
Indeed, the Nuremberg model has the most appeal — Baathist sympathizers would be left with nothing physical to venerate. But keeping in mind the objection to cremation in Muslim society, the Iraqi special tribunal will have to ponder an alternative.
“They will follow standard Muslim practice, burying it in the ground,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht. After his death by firing squad or hanging, Saddam’s remains will probably be returned to his family, as is the custom. At the same time, Gerecht adds, “I don’t imagine the government will allow a headstone or a memorial, as is customary with many Sunni Arabs in Iraq.”
Perhaps Saddam will be buried next to his sons, Uday and Qusay, in the Tikrit family plot, which one newspaper has described as “untended mounds of earth.” Considering all of the other untended mounds of earth that concealed mass graves throughout the country, this might be just the right thing to do.