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The Mysterious Execution of Mussolini

As his dictatorship came crumbling down, he was captured while trying to flee the country.

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  • Mussolini reviews soldiers in northern Italy, 1944.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

For those who don’t know much about Benito Mussolini—or only know him as the diminutive caricature from Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning Pinocchio—he was the fascist dictator who brought Italy into World War II on the side of Nazi Germany. A founding member of the National Fascist Party of Italy, Mussolini took power following the 1922 March on Rome, when fascist Blackshirts mounted an insurrection against the Italian capital. Think of it like a successful version of what was attempted in the United States on January 6, 2021.

Mussolini’s control of the party lasted for 20 years, until he was deposed in 1943, when a vote of no confidence from the Grand Council of Fascism stripped him of his position as prime minister and put an end to two decades of fascist rule. The vote came as a result of several machinations behind the scenes, but was driven in no small part by the fact that Italy was facing military defeat against the Allies in World War II.

Even as the newly-formed government arrested Mussolini and began peace negotiations with the Allied forces, culminating in the Armistice of Cassibile, however, German troops were seizing control of the northern half of Italy. The Nazis freed Mussolini from captivity and installed him at the head of a German puppet state, technically known as the Italian Social Republic, but more often called the Republic of Salo, for the small town on Lake Garda where the government was headquartered.

From the moment of its inception, this puppet government faced massive resistance from partisans and freedom fighters within Italy, as well as the pressure of a nearing Allied advance. By 1945, as Allied forces broke through the last of the German defenses, Mussolini fled Milan and headed for the Swiss border where he had planned to board a plane to Spain. He never made it.

According to most accounts, Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were captured on the shores of Lake Como in Lombardy, Italy on April 27, 1945, three days before the suicide of Adolf Hitler. The following day, both Mussolini and Petacci, along with several other high-ranking Fascists, were executed by Walter Audisio, a communist partisan who went under the nom de guerre of Colonel Valerio. According to his own account of the events, Audisio carried out the executions with an MAS-38 submachine gun which was loaned to him by Michele Moretti after his own weapon jammed.

This was in contradiction to a more detailed version of the Armistice of Cassibile, which had been signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower on board the Battleship HMS Nelson anchored just off the shores of Malta. That armistice specified that Mussolini, by name, along with “his main fascist associates and all persons suspected of having committed crimes of war or similar crimes” would be “arrested and handed over to the United Nations forces.”

Mussolini’s summary execution was not the end of the story, however. The bodies of Mussolini, Petacci, and the other executed Fascists were taken to Milan, where they were exposed to the abuses of an angry crowd before being hung upside down from a metal girder above the Piazzale Loreto. The choice of location was not a random one, nor was the decision to turn the bodies over to the masses unfocused barbarism. In 1944, 15 partisans had been executed in the Piazzale Loreto and their bodies left out for public display, on Mussolini’s orders.

Even after Mussolini’s remains were buried in an unmarked grave, they were stolen by fascist supporters and eventually recovered by the Italian authorities some months later. It was not until 1957 that Mussolini’s body was interred in his family crypt in Predappio. Even now, his tomb is a place of pilgrimage for neo-fascists throughout Europe.

Of course, with any figure as contentious and significant to global events as Mussolini, the commonly-accepted narrative of his death is often questioned, especially within Italy itself. In the years following Mussolini’s summary execution—most likely carried out by Audisio, according to historians—numerous conspiracy theories have cropped up surrounding the circumstances of his death, leading some to compare it to the many similar theories that abound concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

These range from the very simple to the highly fanciful. At their most basic, many assert that someone other than Audisio pulled the trigger. The identity of this prospective executioner varies, with as many as 12 different individuals identified as having put the former dictator to death. Among these are such noted figures as Sandro Pertini, who became president of Italy in 1978. Others have suggested that Mussolini and Petacci took their own lives via cyanide capsules before they were shot.

Perhaps the most far-flung of the various widely held conspiracy theories posits that the execution was actually carried out by agents of the British covert Special Operations Executive branch under the direct orders of Winston Churchill. The reason? Compromising correspondence between Churchill and Mussolini. This theory avers that Churchill had offered to negotiate a peace deal with Mussolini, including territorial concessions, in exchange for Mussolini persuading Hitler to join the Allies in going up against the Soviet Union.

However, very little serious evidence has ever been offered in support of this notion or any other alternate theory. In 2004, it was dismissed by Christopher Woods, a historian researching the history of the Special Operations Executive branch, as “just a love of conspiracy-making.”

The dramatic circumstances of the dictator’s death and its aftermath were adapted to film as early as 1959 and probably most notably in the 1974 film Last Days of Mussolini, where Rod Steiger played the title role. And while these film versions generally follow the “official narrative” supplied by Audisio, the truth is that we may never know for sure precisely what happened that led to Mussolini’s mutilated body hanging in the square at Piazzale Loreto that April day in 1945.