The sun was setting in the tiny hamlet of Giulino di Messegra as the Fascist prisoners were off-loaded from a truck. The handful of men, and one woman, had spent the previous night in a cold farm house, having just been captured off a German convoy by Italian communist partisans. The partisan’s local leader, Walter Audisio, ordered his prisoners to stand against a wall at the entrance to the Villa Belmonte. One of the other partisans closely watched the prisoners, noting that the most prominent one among them “was like wax and his stare glassy, but somehow blind. I read utter exhaustion, but not fear…[he] seemed completely lacking in will, spiritually dead.”
What happened next remains somewhat debated. Audisio, reading orders from his superiors in the Italian Communist Party, supposedly issued a death sentence to those held captive. He immediately aimed his machine gun at the group and squeezed the trigger.
The gun jammed. The life of Benito Mussolini would gain a few additional seconds.
“Yes, madam, I am finished. My star has fallen. I have no fight left in me. I work and I try, yet know that all is but a farce … I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.”
– Benito Mussolini to a Journalist in January of 1945
Benito Mussolini had spent a lifetime fighting. Fighting Austrians and Germans in the Great War. Fighting communists in the early days of the Fascist Party. Fighting wars from Abyssinia to Greece. By September of 1943, the deposed Italian Head of State, Il Duce (the leader) hadn’t the stomach for another battle.
Rescued from the isolated mountain retreat of Campo Imperatore in a daring operation by the Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny, a weary and beaten Mussolini arrived at Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters. Given the opportunity to rebuild his Fascist Party and gain retribution against the Fascist Grand Council that had disposed him, Mussolini demurred. He preferred retirement, whatever that might have meant, to seeking revenge. Hitler was mortified at the reaction of his ally and one-time inspiration. “What is this sort of Fascism which melts like snow before the sun?”, Hitler asked as Mussolini made excuses for his nation’s abrupt switch to the Allied camp. Hitler made it clear – he wasn’t offering Mussolini the governance of the rump Italian state Germany was installing – it was an order. Italian cities like Milan, Genoa and Turin could either be governed by Mussolini or subject to German retribution.
Mussolini was no longer an equal or even a junior partner. He was puppet – an Italian glove around a German fist.
Thus the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic) rose from the ashes of Mussolini’s failed Fascist experiment. Located in Salò (neither the Germans nor Mussolini himself wanted him in Rome), the RSI had no credibility outside the Axis. Only fellow Axis members gave the RSI any sort of diplomatic recognition. Even Fascist Spain, which had benefited from Mussolini’s intervention in the 1930s, refused to acknowledge the RSI as Italy’s legitimate government. Recognized or not, within the folds of the Axis powers, the RSI was widely regarded as a joke.
Mussolini may have known his rule was farcical, but ever the actor, he played the role of the RSI’s wartime leader with panache. As the RSI was stripped of territory, with Italian provinces incorporated into Germany and former Italian possessions falling to fellow Axis collaborators like Croatia and the Reorganized National Government of China (Japan’s Chinese puppet state), Il Duce bellowed with indignation. “We will go back to war for this,” Mussolini threatened. “Where the Italian flag flew, the Italian flag will return. And where it has not been lowered, now that I am here, no one will have it lowered. I have said these things to the Führer.”
When it came to Italy’s position within the war, all Mussolini had left were threats. But where Mussolini did have some measure of control – domestic concerns – the former Fascist attempted to reinvent himself as a Socialist.
Mussolini had been a Socialist, indeed one of Italy’s most prominent Socialists, before the Great War. His support of Italy’s entry into that war had caused his formal break with the Italian Socialist Party and started his path towards Fascism. Now desperate to regain some measure of public support, Mussolini recast his Fascist reign as one limited by the Monarchy and business concerns. He had always been left-wing, or so he now claimed. Only because of political opponents and priorities centered around the war had his true vision for a national socialized government been thwarted.
The RSI’s official policy became “Socialization” – a movement that borrowed heavily from communist ideals. Ex-communist Nicola Bombacci, a one-time Mussolini ally during his Socialist years, agreed to help “rebrand” Fascism as a labor-inspired political party. Labor unions, a determined enemy of Mussolini during his previous rule, were now mandated. Companies with over 100 employees became nationalized.
At the Congress of Verona in November of 1943, Mussolini continued his dismantling of previous Fascist ideology by proposing a democratic government elected on the basis of popular sovereignty, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary that would investigate corruption and abuses under the previous fascist government. Nothing would come of the so-called reforms. Mussolini remained the unelected head of state. The Germans refused to allow some of the labor reforms proposed (it would undermine the ability of Italian labor to support the war effort). And the workers themselves were unimpressed, striking in early 1944 in rebellion to Fascism’s “Socialization.”
The reaction to the RSI’s attempt to recreate the army was only slightly better received than “Socialization.” 52,000 men in four divisions comprised the RSI’s major armed forces. The RSI’s first military unit, the 1st Italian Storm Brigade, saw action at Anzio and performed so well that the unit was incorporated into the Waffen SS. This became the new standard – any RSI unit deemed truly capable of fighting was transferred under direct German command.
The military role of the RSI was to be internal suppression. Italian partisans, in particular communist partisans, had arisen after the German occupation. Paramilitary groups like the Black Brigades, little more than newly recruited Blackshirts with a modest name change, were nominally tasked with crushing internal dissent. Not unlike the Italian experience in Abyssinia, the Black Brigades found killing Italian civilians much easier than armed partisans. Anyone deemed a political opponent, including Black Brigade members not showing sufficient enthusiasm, was executed.
The RSI was too busy consuming itself to notice it was losing the war.
The “spectator,” as Mussolini saw himself, watched the outcome from the relative comforts of Lake Garda in Lombardy.
He had lost significant weight and exhibited little energy. The jowels and confident glare of the dictator of the 1930s had been replaced with sunken cheeks and hollow stares. Mussolini became increasingly obsessed with his own legacy, dedicating much of his time to writing his memoirs. He granted free-flowing interviews to foreign press, admitting that his Italian Social Republic was nothing more than a Germany proxy. He spoke of his regrets, his health, and his death. He knew his time was coming to an end.
The end might have been close, but it hadn’t arrived yet. Publicly, Mussolini often attempted to demonstrate his old Fascist zeal. Those members of the Fascist Grand Council who had voted against him, and were in RSI custody, were executed – including his own son-in-law. Mussolini claimed he would “fight to the last Italian.” But in private, he repeatedly begged Hitler to reach terms with the Soviets. Mussolini was still trying to find a way to survive.
Walter Audisio’s machine gun may have jammed, but it didn’t prevent Benito Mussolini’s execution.
The accounts of Mussolini’s demise have met with a great deal of historic revisionism and skepticism. Audisio claimed Mussolini pleaded for his life, and the life of his mistress Claretta Petacci, begging like a coward. Others at the scene claimed Mussolini tore open his shirt, yelling “aim at my heart” as Audisio grabbed another partisan’s gun and fired. Both versions seem entirely too self-serving, portraying Italy’s 20-year-plus dictator greeting his last moments with either sniffling cowardice or bare-chested machismo. In all likelihood, it all happened so fast that no one – Mussolini, Petacci, or any number of the other Fascist officers against the wall – knew what was going on until the bullets were fired.
The bodies were loaded onto trucks for Milan and dumped on the grounds of the Piazzale Loreto in the early hours of April 29th. Within a few hours, a massive crowd had gathered, beating, stoning and shooting the corpses until Mussolini’s face was literally caved in. The bodies were hung upside down at a Standard Oil gas station, ostenisbly to prevent the bodies from undergoing so much abuse that identification would prove impossible. But the method had deeper-seated roots as well, with the upside down method of hanging signifying in northern Italy since medieval times the “infamy” of the hung.
American troops would claim the bodies that day, photographing and confirming the corpses as belonging to Il Duce and his final inner circle. The next 12 years would see almost comical efforts to dispose of Mussolini’s mortal remains – everything from the body being dug-up by Fascist supporters, to being hidden in a Capuchin monastery.
While Hitler’s remains have been mostly lost to history in an effort to prevent his final resting place becoming a shrine to his followers, Mussolini’s grave is well known and, disturbingly, attracts tens of thousands of people each year . On September 1st, 1957, with a new right-leaning government in Rome, Mussolini was laid in his family crypt in Predappio in a stone sarcophagus, complete with a marble bust of the brutal ruler. Those in attendance gave the fascist salute as the body was entombed.
A far too generous end for the man whose ideology inspired a war that claimed 60 million lives.