The inhabitants of the villa were gazing out over the sunlit lake while listening to the radio when, they later said, they heard a woman cry out, “You’re not going to kill us just like that?” Running outside to see what was going on, they were shooed back into the house.
Meanwhile, Audisio pulled the trigger of his submachine gun. It jammed. He yelled to one of the partisans, who dashed halfway to meet him and exchange weapons. A short burst from the French-made MAS in Audisio’s hands punched into Petacci, tearing her from her lover’s grasp.
“Shoot me in the chest,” Mussolini said as he pulled back the lapels of his jacket. The Communist obliged. It was all over by about 4:20 pm. The two men who had been posted at the farmhouse were told to guard the bodies until they were picked up. The others climbed into the Fiat to return to Dongo. There, Audisio announced to Bellini that “justice is done. Mussolini is dead.”
Disposing of Il Duce
Audisio still was not done. Fifteen of the other captured Fascists, including Pavolini, but most arbitrarily selected by Mussolini’s killer, were lined up in the town square and summarily executed. Then Marcello Petacci, Claretta’s brother, was added to the pile.
Having by now taken complete control, Audisio had the dead men placed on sheets and loaded into a big yellow truck. At 6:15 pm, the vehicle left for Azzano, where it was met by a car bearing the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress. The two were transferred to the truck. It was not until close to 3 am on Sunday, April 29, that the 18 stiffening corpses were off-loaded at a garage under construction on Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. In August 1944, 15 partisans had been executed in that small square for shooting two German soldiers.
The macabre scene later that morning was a much-photographed one—frenzied, jeering crowds, who only four months earlier had cheered their Duce, milling beneath the bloody cadavers of Mussolini, Petacci, and four other Fascists hanging head down from a metal beam. To the bodies under them was added that of Achille Starace, the early Fascist Party secretary, who had been caught and shot on the spot. Someone took the time to bunch up Petacci’s skirt and secure it just above the knees. The corpses, mutilated and barely recognizable, were taken away that evening, placed in simple coffins, and displayed outside the city morgue.
Mussolini was secretly buried in a Milan cemetery. His remains were there only until 1946, when they were stolen by neo-Fascists and taken to a Franciscan monastery south of the city. Recovered by the authorities, they were moved again, this time to the Capuchin monastery at Cerro Maggiore northwest of Milan. Only in 1957 were the remains of Mussolini released to the family to be ultimately interred in the family crypt at Predappio.
The Fate of the Mussolini Name
Mussolini’s widow, Rachele, ever the devoted wife and mother, spent most of the postwar years on her farm at Predappio. She died there in 1979, at age 87, and was buried next to the one-time dictator and two of their children. Son Bruno had died testing an air force bomber in 1941; daughter Anna Maria, satisfied to be a housewife, passed on in 1968. Edda, the eldest and favorite of her father, an “independent-minded woman when women in Italy had few rights,” died of cardiac arrest in Rome in 1995. After the execution of her husband, Count Galeazzo Ciano, for treason in 1944 (his had been one of the cabinet votes to depose Il Duce), she disavowed her father and the family name. Vittorio, an airman, war veteran, and probably Mussolini’s most loyal child, died of kidney failure in Rome in 1997. Only Romano, who, to his father’s disappointment, became a highly successful jazz musician, lived to see the new century.
Walter Audisio served as a Communist deputy in the postwar parliament. He succumbed to heart failure in Rome in October 1973. Of the act that assured him a place in history, he once said, “I did not have the impression I was shooting a man, but an inferior beast.” His partisan counterpart, Bellini, passed on in Milan in January 1984.
The Mussolini name has made the newspapers innumerable times since that fateful Saturday in 1945, most recently in 2003. Alessandra Mussolini, Il Duce’s 40-year-old granddaughter, severed her ties to the rightist post-Fascist National Alliance Party for denouncing the one-time dictator’s 20-year reign as “shameful pages of history.” The daughter of Romano Mussolini, she had been a member of the Italian parliament for 11 years. Earlier, when she was nearly elected mayor of Naples with 44 percent of the vote, she said, “This is a victory for my grandfather.” Before that, she had abandoned an acting career after posing for Playboy magazine and unsuccessfully auditioning for the female lead in Big Top Pee-Wee, an American film. Her mother’s sister is the famous actress Sophia Loren.
Thus, the heritage of Benito Mussolini evolves and lives, a subject of ongoing fascination in Italy. Whether reviled or lauded, he remains the Fascist dictator who led an unprepared nation into World War II and died an ignominious death. Winston Churchill called Il Duce’s execution “murder,” but, looking at the other side of the coin, he realized, “at least the world was spared an Italian Nuremberg.”
Frequent contributor Wil Deac writes from his home in Washington, D.C. He is an expert on espionage and covert operations during World War II.
This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.