Today’s History Thread remembers the April 28, 1945 execution of Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci.
By now WWII was nearly over in Europe; Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich had been reduced to a few bombed-out neighborhoods in Berlin, his forces collapsing on every front and the Allies jostling for position. In Italy, Allied forces had finally crossed the Po River and effectively ended the war in that country. Italian partisans operating against Mussolini’s Salo Republic declared a general uprising; without authorization from Hitler, SS General Karl Wolff negotiated with the Allies for the surrender of German forces in Italy. Mussolini himself remained sequestered in Milan with his wife, mistress and an ever-dwindling coterie of followers.
Mussolini’s behavior during this period was erratic to a degree that unsettled in his inner circle. Fernando Mezzasoma, one of his cabinet ministers, lamented that Il Duce “does not have the least contact with reality.” Mussolini seemed to swing between manic and depressive states; he could tell one journalist about his desire to “roll in the class like an exuberant child” while confiding to another that “It is impossible to guide or to govern” and that “I await the end of the tragedy, strangely detached from it all.” He was realistic enough to recognize that the war was lost, and attempted to negotiate either surrender or asylum, first with the partisan CLNAI, then with the Allies.
These overtures failing, Mussolini opted to flee the country. He traveled with Petacci and a handful of others, disguising himself in the uniform of a German soldier as they joined a convoy of German troops. Local partisans stopped the convoy near the village of Dongo on April 27th and forced the Germans to surrender all Italians in their party in exchange for safe passage safe passage. The partisan commander, Urbano Lazarro, found fifty leaders of the Fascist Party among the convoy. Mussolini himself was hiding in a transport car, “completely lacking in will and spiritually dead” when partisans identified him.
While Mussolini and Petacchi remained sequestered at a farm house, his captors debated his fate. All seemed to prefer a public trial of Mussolini and his inner circle, at least in theory, to provide a popular reckoning with fascism. There was also pressure from the Allied governments, especially the UK, to turn Mussolini over to them for war crimes. But circumstances intervened; German troops and Salo loyalists remained active near Dongo, and keeping him alive was deemed too risky. Exactly how the decision to kill Mussolini came about, or who gave the order, remains a matter of dispute (it seems the Communists were more inclined to support immediate execution than their liberal counterparts), but the reasons and results were clear enough.
The task was delegated to Walter Audisio, a longtime communist who had served five years in prison for antifascist activities in the ’30s and had organized the first partisan bands in Northern Italy under the pseudonym Colonel Valerio. Along with his partner Alfredo Lampredi, Audisio traveled to Dongo on the afternoon of the 28th. After a brief argument with Mussolini’s captors over the dictator’s custody, they obtained Mussolini and Petacci and drove them to the village of Giulio de Mezzegra.
Suddenly Audisio stopped the car, then forced his prisoners out from the car and stood them against a brick wall. “By order of the General Headquarters of the Volunteers for Freedom Corps,” he proclaimed, “I am required to rend justice to the Italian people.” Petacci begged for Il Duce’s life, then refused Audisio’s orders to stand aside. Audisio pulled the trigger on his submachine gun, only for it to jam. He took a second weapon from Lampredi and killed Mussolini with a burst of nine rounds to the chest. Then he turned his weapon on Petacci and shot her, too.
Whatever catharsis Mussolini’s summary execution denied was repaid by the gruesome spectacle that followed. The corpses of Mussolini, Petacci and several other counterparts were driven to the Piazzelle Loreto in Milan. The choice was deliberate, as the Piazzelle had been the site of a massacre of partisans the previous year by Mussolini’s troops. A mob one American observer described as “depraved and out of control” appeared and began abusing the corpses in all manner of ways; spitting, throwing fruit and vegetables, kicking, smashing at them with hammers and other implements. Mussolini’s face was smashed beyond recognition. Eventually a small group of partisans appeared to hang the corpses up by their feet from meat hooks, to prevent the complete destruction of their remains.
Eventually, Mussolini and Petacci’s corpses were recovered by American troops, who performed an autopsy and buried them in an unmarked grave. Within a year, die-hard fascists disinterred the corpses and hid them from the authorities. Eventually the bodies were recovered by the Italian government and buried in Mussolini’s hometown of Predappio. An inglorious end but very much a fitting one for the Father of Fascism.
P.S.: There have been a few films dramatizing this event; I would recommend Carlo Lizzani’s Last Days of Mussolini (1975), starring Rod Steiger (in uncharacteristically subdued form) as Mussolini, Lisa Gastoni as Petacci and Franco Nero as Audisio.