The List

Do Graves of Dictators Really Become Shrines?

A tour of contentious burials from Qaddafi to Hitler.

On Tuesday, Libyan officials laid Muammar al-Qaddafi to rest in a secret, unmarked desert grave to prevent his burial place from becoming a shrine for his supporters or a target for his opponents. The drainage pipes outside Sirte where Qaddafi was captured and the cold storage facility in Misrata where his corpse was temporarily stored, pictured above, have already become major attractions for Libyans. Back in May, U.S. officials cited concerns about creating a shrine as the reason why they committed Osama bin Laden's body to the sea.

This fear of establishing shrines for reviled figures has a long history; the English ruler Oliver Cromwell, for example, was posthumously hanged in the 17th century and his head wasn't laid to rest until 1960. But the concern over Qaddafi's final resting place had us wondering: Do the burial places of controversial leaders really become shrines? In short, yes. But some of the stories -- from evil spirits to dismembered hands -- are almost too bizarre to be believed. Here's a brief history of contentious burials, from Hussein to Hitler.

Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images


The former Iraqi leader, who was found hiding in a hole near Tikrit in 2003, was hanged three years later at a U.S. military base outside Baghdad after being convicted of crimes against humanity. As in the case of Qaddafi's death, gruesome cell phone footage of Hussein's corpse soon made its way online. Iraqi officials initially wanted to bury Hussein in a secret, unmarked grave. But the country's new leaders ultimately permitted Hussein's body to be buried in his hometown of Awja, after local politicians from nearby Tikrit and the head of Hussein's tribe pleaded with them to do so. Hundreds of Iraqis attended a funeral for Hussein, who was buried 24 hours after his execution.

For a time, the burial place did become a shrine of sorts, albeit a relatively unpopular one. In 2007, the New York Times noted that the reception hall housing Hussein's body, which was managed by the former leader's family, had been renamed "Martyrs' Hall" and featured inscriptions hailing Hussein as "the eagle of the Arabs." Saddam-era Iraqi flags were draped over the former ruler's grave and those of Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, nearby. But the article also noted that the number of visitors -- mainly Sunni Arab supporters -- "drops on some days to twos and threes, and only rarely reaches double figures, far short of making Awja a pilgrimage site on the scale of Iraq's religious shrines."

Still, enough pilgrims came, mainly on the anniversaries of Saddam's birth and death (in 2008, for example, hundreds of Iraqi schoolchildren descended on the site), that the Iraqi government decided to ban organized visits to Martyrs' Hall in 2009. Individuals can still make the trip, however, and in May the Washington Post reported that the crowds are growing.

Above, a young Iraqi woman snaps a picture of Hussein's grave shortly after the government's ban on organized visits in 2009.

Mahmud Saleh/AFP/Getty Images


In 2006, Chile's former military leader, who had avoided trial for thousands of cases of murder and torture because of his poor health, suffered a heart attack while under house arrest and died soon after. The Chilean government denied him a state funeral and a national day of mourning, but did accord him military honors at his funeral. Then-President Michelle Bachelet, whose father was tortured under Pinochet, refused to attend the ceremony.

After the funeral, Pinochet's remains were flown by helicopter to a crematorium on the coast and his ashes were taken to his Los Boldos vacation home. "Relatives had said they feared a family grave reserved for Pinochet in Santiago would be vandalized if he were buried," the Washington Post explained at the time (Chile's La Nación learned that government officials had rejected the family's initial request to deposit Pinochet's urn on military grounds). In July, the Guardian reported that the abandoned Los Boldos estate had become a marijuana plantation.

Above, mourners pay respects at Pinochet's wake.

Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images


In 2006, the onetime communist leader and Serbian nationalist, who was facing trial at The Hague for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, died in his prison cell of a heart attack. Milosevic's family accused the Serbian government of trying to block a burial in Serbia, but Belgrade did ultimately allow Milosevic to be buried in the yard of a family residence in his hometown, Pozarevac. Some 15,000 people attended. 

Milosevic's burial in Serbia proved controversial, but things took a turn for the bizarre in 2007 when a dissident named Miroslav Milosevic (no relation) pierced the former president's grave with a three-foot-long wooden pole as part of an ancient Balkan ritual to expel evil spirits. Milosevic's grave, like Saddam's, is typically visited on anniversaries commemorating his death and the founding of Milosevic's Socialist Party. This year, Serbia's infrastructure minister, Milutin Mrkonjic, caused a stir by joining around 100 others in visiting Milosevic's grave on the fifth anniversary of his death. Mrkonjic, a member of the Socialist Party, said he'd come as a friend, not a government official. "It's not like I'm going to ask my coalition partners if I may visit my friend's grave," he explained.

Above, Milosevic's secretary, Mirjana Dragojevic, grips the marker by his grave.

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The former Ugandan dictator, who fled to Saudi Arabia after lording over one of the bloodiest reigns in African history in the 1970s, died of kidney failure in 2003 in the Saudi port city, Jeddah. One of Amin's wives told Uganda's Monitor that she had asked Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to allow Amin to return once her husband became gravely ill, only for Museveni to respond that Amin would be held accountable for his human rights abuses if he came back home. "His body should be brought back to Uganda and put on display for people to view somebody who killed so many people," one Ugandan, whose uncle was killed by the dictator's agents, told the AP after Amin's death.

The BBC later noted that the Ugandan government had decided to allow Amin's body to be sent back to Uganda for burial if his family desired. But Amin's relatives appear to have chosen instead to bury the former ruler in Jeddah. As far as we can tell, his grave has not become a pilgrimage site. 

Above, Ugandans listen to Amin's funeral service on a mobile phone in the Old Kampala Mosque.

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images


The brutal Romanian dictator and his wife were executed by firing squad in 1989, after Ceausescu's government was overthrown. He was, apparently, buried in the Ghencea military cemetery in Bucharest. But Ceausescu's children questioned whether their parents were really interred in Ghencea -- Romanian authorities had hastily buried the couple at night under crosses bearing false names, out of fear that the tombs would be desecrated. Pathologists confirmed last year that the bodies did indeed belong to the former ruler and his wife after exhuming their remains and performing DNA tests. "Since 1990," AFP wrote at the time, "dozens of Romanians nostalgic after [Ceausescu's] regime have been gathering on his tomb for his birth anniversary and for Christmas, the day of his execution."

Above, visitors pay their respects in 2009.

Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images


When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, he was buried in the Valley of the Fallen, a massive underground basilica designed to honor those who died for the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War. But now, the Spanish government is considering transferring Franco's remains to a cemetery near his former residence of El Pardo, outside Madrid -- (a move Franco's family opposes) as part of an effort under the 2007 Law of Historic Memory to remove symbols of Franco's regime.

Franco's tomb still serves as a shrine for his nostalgic supporters, who often attend mass there in large numbers and lay wreaths at his grave.

Above, supporters at his grave give the Fascist salute in 2007.

Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images


When the notorious Communist strongman died in 1953, he was initially buried in Lenin's Mausoleum. But in 1961, Stalin's remains were moved to a simpler grave near the Kremlin, shown above, as part of a de-Stalinization process. His grave remains a shrine, however. AFP reported in March that several hundred (mostly elderly) Russians gathered in Moscow's Red Square to lay flowers on Stalin's grave in honor of the 58th anniversary of his death (that number appears to be down from the 3,000 who gathered there for the 50th anniversary). "Nostalgia for the period when Stalin ruled with an iron hand is still widespread in Russia," AFP noted.

Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty Images


Mussolini's remains tell perhaps the most bizarre story. The Italian Fascist dictator was executed by firing squad along with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, as they tried to escape to Spain at the end of World War II. According to History Today, Italian partisans then dumped the bodies of Mussolini and Petacci -- shown above -- in a plaza in Milan where they were hung upside down, spat upon, and shot some more. Mussolini's remains were then buried in an unmarked grave near Milan, only to be stolen in 1946 by an admirer, who left a note on the grave: "Finally, O Duce, you are with us." When Mussolini's body was finally recovered four months later in a trunk held by two Franciscan monks near Milan, the Italian authorities hid the corpse in a villa, a monastery, and a convent before finally burying the former Italian ruler in his hometown, Predappio.

"The long wait for interment did not prevent Mussolini's grave from becoming a shrine for his followers and a key part of the continuing Mussolini cult," History Today wrote back in 1999. And the debate over Mussolini's remains hasn't yet ended. In 2005, Mussolini's family began debating whether the body should be moved to a grander location in Rome. For now, Mussolini is at rest in his birthplace.

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Hitler's burial story is almost as wild and mysterious as Mussolini's. When Hitler shot himself in his bunker in 1945 as the Russians seized Berlin, the BBC explains, his staff doused the Nazi leader's body in petrol, set it ablaze, and buried it in a grave. But there were reports that Soviet troops secretly reburied the remains in East Germany in 1945, and that the KGB discovered additional skull fragments near the bunker a year later and dug up Hitler's remains again in 1970 to cremate them and scatter the ashes in a river, lest his grave in East Germany become a Nazi shrine. In recent years, Russian officials have claimed to possess a jaw bone and bullet-pierced skull fragment belonging to Hitler -- items they say prove that Hitler committed suicide. But in 2009, American researchers concluded that the skull fragment belonged to a woman, though Russia disputed the finding.

Why, you ask, would the Russians feel the need to prove the widely accepted story that Hitler commited  suicide? To quiet the conspiracy theorists, of course, who have seized on the dearth of evidence  surrounding Hitler's death to argue that the German ruler never killed himself and instead fled to South America or other parts of the world (The Boys from Brazil, a 1970s-era novel-turned-film, told the harrowing tale of a plot to clone Hitler). Just this month, a new book -- Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler -- came out arguing that Hitler fled to a Nazi enclave in Argentina.

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Argentina’s beloved first lady -- whose life was celebrated in the Broadway musical “Evita” -- may not qualify as a dictator, but her story is still worth telling. According to an account published in 1995, an embalmer masterfully preserved Eva’s body with all its internal organs when she died of cancer in 1952, and even made a number of wax and vinyl replicas of her corpse. Eva’s body was initially put on public display in Buenos Aires, as her husband Juan prepared a grand monument to house the remains. But when Juan was overthrown in a military coup in 1955, Argentina’s new leaders, seeking to rid the country of all things Peron, stashed the body first in an army major’s attic and then secretly buried the corpse in Italy under the name Maria Maggi de Magistris. “Wherever the military hid the body, even in the most secure military buildings, admirers would find it and repeatedly place flowers and candles nearby,” the New York Times observed in 1998.

The tale only gets stranger from there. After another military coup in 1971, Argentina’s new leader, Gen. Alejandro Lanusse, had Eva’s body exhumed and sent to Juan, who was living in exile in Madrid at the time, in return for the former ruler’s support. Juan reportedly kept the body first in an open casket on his dining room table and then in a shrine in his attic. (There are creepy stories of Juan’s third wife, Isabel, combing the corpse's hair and lying on top of, or in, the coffin.) Eva’s body was finally brought back to Argentina in 1974, when Isabel assumed control of the country after Juan, who had returned to Argentina the year before to serve a third term as president, died. Eva's remains are now buried in a Buenos Aires tomb, located beneath two trap doors for security reasons. In the words of the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, Eva's tomb has become a “shrine, an object of pilgrimage, a place where men and women -- increasingly, old men and old women -- come to lay flowers and pray.” As for Juan, vandals broke into his tomb in 1987 and sawed off his hands in a mysterious incident that has yet to be resolved.

Above, the funeral of Eva Peron.

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The List

Coming Up Empty

Ten reasons why Obama's foreign policy is not a success.

My FP colleague (and Zombie maven) Dan Drezner had an excellent post up a couple of days ago, defending Obama's foreign policy against various GOP challenges (most of them, as he points out, silly). The payoff pitch is Dan's fantasy of what an Obama stump speech on this topic might say:

As president, I have to address both domestic policy and foreign policy. Because of the way that the commander-in-chief role has evolved, I have far fewer political constraints on foreign policy action than domestic policy action. So let's think about this for a second. On the foreign stage, America's standing has returned from its post-Iraq low. Al Qaeda is now a shell of its former self. Liberalizing forces are making uneven but forward progress in North Africa. Muammar Qaddafi's regime is no longer, without one American casualty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Every country in the Pacific Rim without a Communist Party running things is trying to hug us closer.

Imagine what I could accomplish in domestic policy without the kind of obstructionism and filibustering that we're seeing in Congress -- which happens to be even more unpopular than I am, by the way. I'm not talking about the GOP abjectly surrendering, mind you, just doing routine things like subjecting my nominees to a floor vote in the Senate. I've achieved significant foreign policy successes while still cooperating with our allies in NATO and Northeast Asia. Just imagine what I could get done if the Republicans were as willing to compromise as, say, France.

As Andrew Sullivan points out, that last line is a killer. But is Dan correct to say (as he does at the beginning of his piece) that "it's becoming harder and harder to argue that Barack Obama's foreign policy is a failure"? Not if you consider some of the major items on his agenda when he took office. Even allowing for the fact that Dubya dug him a very, very deep hole, here are ten reasons why one might hesitate to label Obama's foreign policy a "success."

1. Climate Change. This was a major item in Obama's 2008 campaign, and he made a big show of attending the Copenhagen summit during his first year. But then he couldn't get an energy bill passed, and the whole issue -- on which the future course of civilization may depend -- has dropped off the radar screen almost entirely. Not good news if you happen to live near the coast.


2. Israel-Palestine. As Dan acknowledges, this is one issue where the administration has whiffed completely. Indeed, they may well have made things substantially worse, and hastened the moment when the two-state solution that they claim to seek is acknowledged to be impossible. And because new Arab governments are going to be more sensitive to popular sentiment in the years ahead, the damage this situation is doing to America's position in the region is growing. We could argue forever about who deserves the blame for this failure, but it clearly goes in the loss column.

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3. Iran. Here, too, Obama began with some flashy gestures, but U.S. policy quickly reverted back to the status quo of Bush's second term: ramping up sanctions and demanding Iranian compliance with U.S. demands as a precondition for progress on any other issues. Iran's internal disarray and deep suspicions have made a tough task even more difficult, but the bottom line is that Obama hasn't improved U.S.-Iranian relations, hasn't halted their nuclear enrichment program, or didn't persuade other key powers (e.g., China) to support the U.S. position consistently. Nor has the administration managed to think outside the box and try a different approach, even though the policy we've been following has been failing for at least a decade.

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4. Afghanistan. We can still hope for a minor miracle here, but NATO has lost the stomach for the fight and it is increasingly clear that the United States and its allies will not be able to determine Afghanistan's political future. Obama's decision to escalate in 2009 may have created a fig leaf of progress that will make it politically feasible to withdraw in a couple more years, but we will have poured several hundred billion more dollars into Afghanistan, as well as the lives of nearly 2,000 U.S. soldiers, without getting closer to ending the conflict on our terms.

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5. Pakistan. In the meantime, our relationship with Pakistan has gone from bad to worse. Afghanistan is largely a strategic irrelevance, but Pakistan is nuclear-armed, a hotbed of anti-Americanism, and politically unstable to boot. Managing that relationship is a hell of lot more important than figuring out who gets to run Libya, and the administration wins no bonus points here. Getting Osama bin Laden is an obvious achievement, but no consolation if Pakistan goes south completely.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

6. Iraq: Dan's mythical speech puts this item in the success column, but Iraq is ultimately a defeat. The main failure is George W. Bush's, of course, but Obama failed to achieve even his own rather limited aims. U.S. leaders are deeply worried about what will happen after the United States leaves, and so are key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. That's why the administration wanted to keep a larger U.S. presence there, but they failed to convince Iraq's government to give U.S. troops immunity. That is the Iraqis' prerogative, of course, but the fact remains that we are not getting the outcome there that we wanted.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

7. Libya: Nobody is mourning Muammar al-Qaddafi's ouster or his death, and Americans can be pleased that this feat was accomplished without the loss of a single American life. But didn't the "Mission Accomplished" moment in 2003 in Iraq teach us about the dangers of declaring victory prematurely? We can all hope that the Libyan revolution fulfills its idealistic hopes and avoids the various pitfalls that lie ahead, but it is way too early to start bragging about it, or declaring it the model for future interventions. And if Libya does go south, enthusiasm for the "Obama Doctrine" will fade faster than watercolors in the Libyan sun.


8. North Korea. Obama made North Korea a priority back in 2009, and even appointed one of his "special envoys" to handle that portfolio. Not only has there been scant diplomatic progress ever since, but North Korea engaged in one of its occasional episodes of belligerence last year, sinking a South Korean naval vessel and shelling a South Korean island. Pyongyang's nuclear program remains unconstrained, and China continues to provide North Korea with diplomatic protection. These developments have helped reinforce U.S. relations with our South Korean ally, but Obama has done no better than his predecessors at handling the prickly regime in the North.


9. The World Economy. Not only has Obama failed to get the U.S. economy going again, but the United States has done little to help the rest of the world get out of its present doldrums. There has been little progress in promoting trade liberalization, and European leaders have steadfastly ignored U.S. advice on how to deal with their own fiscal and financial problems. Bilateral trade deals such as the recent pact with South Korea are useful for cementing political ties, but will have modest economic impact. Obama hardly deserves all the blame here, but there's also precious little for which he can take credit.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

10. America's Standing. Dan is correct to note that Obama has resurrected the U.S. image from its Bush-era lows, but there really was nowhere to go but up. While it's true that the percentage of people with a favorable view of America has increased almost everywhere except the Middle East, the more important point is that fewer and fewer people trust Uncle Sam's judgment these days. Asian countries still want U.S. protection from a rising China (for good old-fashioned balance of power reasons), but does anybody respect our views on human rights after Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, or our increasing reliance on drone attacks? Who wants to follow our lead on how to run an economy, or regulate the financial sector? American democracy used to attract admiration, but not even Americans are wild about how our political institutions are functioning these days. Obama is obviously more popular abroad than Bush ever was, but the ecstatic hopes that greeted his election (and won him a pre-emptive Nobel Prize) have been dashed and his early charisma has faded. You might give him a passing grade overall on this broad subject, but he doesn't make the honor roll.

Where Dan and I agree, however, is the crucial role of domestic politics. For if you look at the failures listed above, what is striking is that most of them are heavily shaped by domestic constraints. Doing something serious about climate change would have real consequences for business and consumers, and that wasn't going to happen when we are teetering on the brink of another recession. Making progress on Israel-Palestine or on Iran would require bringing in a new Middle East team and taking on the Israel lobby (including the Christianist wing of the GOP), and Obama abandoned that course after the Cairo speech in June 2009. His decisions to escalate in Afghanistan and to try to stay in Iraq were clearly shaped by domestic political concerns, and especially the perennial Democratic fear of being perceived as "weak" on national security. Trade liberalization is always a contentious issue here at home, and especially tough to tackle with a weak economy.

In short, Dan's broader point about Obama's foreign policy successes is insightful: the president has done well in those relatively minor areas where domestic politics do not loom large and where he can exercise unilateral authority. But on the more important and more difficult issues where you would have to convince the American people to follow a new path, he's come up mostly empty.

There is one other "success" that Obama can claim, however, and it forms a revealing subtext to Dan's original post. By combining a center-right approach to foreign policy (akin to Bush's second term) with the inclusive and idealistic rhetoric of Clinton-style multilateralism, Obama has taken foreign policy entirely off the table for the 2012 election. It was never going to be a major issue anyway given the state of the economy, but the GOP simply doesn't have any foreign policy issues on which to attack him without sounding either ignorant or unhinged. That's good news for the president's prospects for re-election, but it won't give foreign policy mavens like Dan and me much to argue about during the campaign itself. Not that this will stop us, of course. 

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