It’s April 27, 1945. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, “Il Duce,” is fleeing for Switzerland with his escort and a unit of German soldiers. The 61-year-old is also joined by his 33-year-old lover, Clara Petacci. The convoy is then halted by Italian partisans, on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como. Despite masquerading as a German soldier, Mussolini is recognized. His grim fate is sealed, as is Petacci’s.
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was born in 1883. He began life in the Italian country town of Predappio, south-east of Bologna. The future leader would be the first born of the three children of Alessandro and Rosa. His father, a keen socialist, plied his trade as a blacksmith. His mother was a teacher and devout Catholic.
As a youth, Mussolini was expelled from several schools for bullying and insubordination. Growing up, he then followed in his father’s footsteps as an enthusiastic socialist. And like his mother, he worked as a teacher, but only briefly.
Mussolini started his political career as a socialist agitator in Switzerland in 1902. Evidently not to the taste of the Swiss authorities, they deported him back to Italy in 1904. There he continued his calling as a socialist firebrand, until the First World War intervened.
Mussolini supported Italy in its alliance against Germany during WWI. Subsequently, the Italian Socialist Party, which believed in neutrality, expelled him. And Mussolini himself served in the Italian Army, attaining the rank of corporal. He did a little better than his future friend Adolf Hitler, who only reached the rank of lance corporal. Mussolini was later wounded in 1917 and discharged from the army.
By now, Mussolini had ditched socialism in favor of nationalism and fascism. He united a range of Italian right-wing groups, and founded the Italian Fascist Party in 1919. The future dictator had fantasies. He would return the country to the glories of its long-gone Roman history.
Mussolini now set about organizing the fascists’ paramilitary unit, the blackshirts. They were happy to use physical violence to intimidate their left-wing political opponents. Then in 1921 he achieved his first political success. He was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Meanwhile, Italy began sinking into violent political anarchy.
Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s king, became fearful of the unfolding disorder in the country. And in 1922 he gave the post of prime minister to Mussolini. By 1927 the fascist leader had succeeded in dismantling Italy’s democratic structures. He replaced these with the apparatus of a one-party system backed by a police state.
In pursuit of imperial glory, Mussolini successfully later invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Fellow dictator Adolf Hitler looked on impressed. Germany and Italy then declared allegiance with the Pact of Steel in 1939. The Italian fascists now enacted legislation discriminating against Italian Jews. In 1941 the Italians invaded Greece, which ended in failure. That same year, Germany launched its own attack on the country and defeated the Greeks.
Mussolini also faced military defeats in Africa as WWII played out. Worse, in the summer of 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily. Italy’s military position was rapidly becoming hopeless. Mussolini’s erstwhile political allies forced him to resign in July 1943. He was then arrested on the order of the king.
Mussolini became a prisoner, held at a remote mountain resort in the Abruzzo region. Then came one of WWII’s most extraordinary incidents. Two months after his arrest, a German SS commando unit rescued Il Duce. Hitler forced the dictator back on to the Italian nation. Mussolini set up a rump puppet administration in northern Italy. But military defeats continued as did Italian territorial losses.
Emboldened, Mussolini executed some of the Italian leaders who had deposed him. But he could not halt the inevitable occupation of Italy by the Allies. On April 25, 1945 he decided the game was up and he had to flee. He hoped to escape to Switzerland with his mistress Clara Petacci. From there he would fly to Spain. Il Duce expected a friendly welcome from his fellow fascist General Franco.
Born in 1912, Petacci had become Mussolini’s mistress aged just 19. He had in fact been married to Rachele Guidi, with whom he had two daughters. However, Petacci enjoyed all the privileges of a dictator’s consort. She had her own limousine and bodyguards. The dictator’s lover also enjoyed accommodation at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, where Mussolini had his office.
Mussolini had a legendary sexual appetite. Like many leaders through the ages, he used his position to sleep with a string of young women. His valet later attested that Mussolini had a woman brought to him every afternoon during the height of his powers. They were described in the guest book as “fascist visitors.”
But when it came time to flee, the only personal companion prepared to leave with Il Duce was Petacci. Mussolini had learned at a meeting in Milan that the Germans were negotiating a surrender to the Allies. He and Petacci sped off from Milan in Mussolini’s Alfa Romeo sports car.
The next day, April 26, 1945, Mussolini and Petacci joined some fascist loyalists and German soldiers. The duly formed convoy now drove north towards Lake Como and the Swiss border. Mussolini was instantly recognizable with his shaved head and jutting jaw. But he attempted a disguise by pulling on a Luftwaffe greatcoat and a German helmet.
However, communist partisans stopped the convoy near the village of Dongo on Lake Como’s shore on April 27. Mussolini was quickly identified. Il Duce and Petacci were kept in a remote farmhouse that night. They would be shot the next day, April 28. But the exact circumstances of their execution remain murky. The partisans also killed 26 of the fascists who had been with Mussolini.
The bodies of Mussolini, Petacci and some of the other fascists were packed into a van and driven to Milan. On the morning of the April 29, the corpses were dumped in a square, the Piazzale Loreto. It was an especially significant location. In 1944 the fascists had executed 15 partisans there and hung their bodies on display.
A crowd quickly gathered and began to brutally beat the dead bodies. Mussolini in particular was rendered all but unrecognizable. The crowd even shot the corpses. Some spat or urinated on them. In his 2004 book Mussolini: The Last 600 Days of Il Duce, Ray Moseley described the scene. He quoted an American witness who said the mob was “sinister, depraved, out of control.”
Eventually, the battered bodies of Mussolini, Petacci and other fascists met a final grisly fate. They were hoisted and hung upside down from the front of a Standard Oil filling station. And so ended the fantasies of the blacksmith’s son of restoring the might of the Roman Empire.