This day in history: Mussolini executed by firing squad

Mussolini and his mistress were captured and summarily executed by firing squad at Lake Como on 28 April 1945. On his 79th death anniversary, Al Majalla explores why some people still idolise him.

A picture taken in September 1937, in Munich, shows German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) riding in a car with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini while the crowd gives the fascist salute.
A picture taken in September 1937, in Munich, shows German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) riding in a car with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini while the crowd gives the fascist salute.

This day in history: Mussolini executed by firing squad

During the last week of April 1945, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler met their respective fates 48 hours apart.

Mussolini had been the powerful prime minister of Italy since 1922, better known as Il Duce (The Leader). Originally a very popular figure, his power base began to wane after the outbreak of World War II, due mainly to his catastrophic alliance with Nazi Germany.

Following the Allied invasion of Sicily, Mussolini was dismissed by the king in July 1943 and placed under house arrest in the Apennine Mountain. German paratroopers rescued him at Hitler’s orders that September, and he was appointed to lead a puppet state in German-occupied northern Italy called the Italian Socialist Republic.

As the Allies neared his stronghold in Milan in April 1945, Mussolini attempted to flee to Switzerland in an Alfa Romeo sportscar with his 33-year-old mistress, Clara Petacci.

He wore a German helmet and overcoat, which did little to disguise his famous face. For two solid decades, Italians had been seeing it practically everywhere: on posters, coins, in cinemas, and on the front page of Italian newspapers.

Mussolini and his mistress were captured and summarily executed by firing squad in the village of Giulinio di Mezzegra on the shore of Lake Como on 28 April 1945. It was a quick job, fearing that Hitler would try to rescue him again.

The image of their bodies strung upside-down on a metal girder at a petrol station in Milan sent shivers down the spine of Adolf Hitler.

Determined not to give the allies the satisfaction of killing him in a similar fashion, two days later, he committed suicide at his Berlin bunker, along with his long-term girlfriend, Eva Braun. They married shortly before their deaths; she ended her life with cyanide poisoning, and he ended his with a gunshot to the head on 30 April 1945.

The bodies of Hitler and Mussolini

More amazing than their back-to-back deaths is what happened to the bodies of Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler ordered that his body and that of Braun’s be rolled up in a rug and then carried out of the bunker’s emergency exit to the garden behind the Reich Chancellery, where they were burnt with petrol.

Mussolini’s corpse and that of his mistress were dumped like garbage in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto public square, where a local branch of McDonald’s now stands. Months earlier, this is where Mussolini had displayed the bodies of his killed opponents.

People began to throw rotten vegetables at his body, taking revenge by beating and kicking, while one woman took out a pistol and emptied it into his body, shouting: “Five shots for my five assassinated sons.”

His body was then buried at an unmarked grave in Milan until 1946, when a Fascist fanatic dug it up, washed it at a nearby fountain, and then took it for safekeeping. He left behind a note that read: “Finally, O Duce, you are with us.”

The body remained missing for four months until it was found at a monastery outside Milan that August. The Italian government kept its whereabouts secret for an entire decade until 1957 when Prime Minister Adone Zoli restored Mussolini’s bones to his widow, Rachele Guidi.

He was then allowed a formal burial at Predappio, his hometown in Italy’s Sangiovese countryside. Mrs. Mussolini had been briefly arrested after her husband’s demise, only to be released and left to live a free life. She opened a restaurant to make a living and was given a state pension in 1975, four years before her death.

In 1966, the US government restored samples of Mussolini’s brain, which had been removed for traces of insanity before burial. The tests returned negative, and the pieces of Mussolini’s brain were sent to his widow.

The ruling party of Italy today, Meloni's Brothers of Italy, is the biological grandchild of the Fascist Italian Socialist Movement.

Mussolini memorabilia

Next year marks the 80th anniversary of Hitler and Mussolini's demise. While any form of commemoration is strictly outlawed in Germany, Italian authorities have been laxer with Mussolini and his legacy.

His granddaughter, Alessandra (aged 62), is an established politician who has served as a member of both the Italian and European parliaments.

She even tried her luck as an actress, drawing inspiration from her maternal aunt Sophia Loren (Loren's younger sister was married to Mussolini's son, Romani).

But more importantly, Georgia Meloni has been the prime minister of Italy since October 2022, and she leads a party that is a direct descendant of Mussolini's Fascist Party.

Her party, Brothers of Italy, was born out of the Italian Socialist Movement (MSI), founded by Giorgio Almirante, a senior member of the Italian Culture Minister under Mussolini. This makes the ruling party of Italy today a biological grandchild of the Fascists.

Meloni is opposed to expanded emigration or refugees, saying that she won't let Italy become the refugee camp of Europe. Although she denies being a Fascist, the far-right politician has an interest in Il Duce's life and history.

The Italian parliament's current speaker, Ignazio La Russa, is known to have a bust of Mussolini at his home, inherited from his father, who had been secretary of the Fascist Party in the 1940s.

In Rome today, there is a shrine dedicated to Mussolini at the Sireno Restaurant, which he frequented during his lifetime. There are bottles of wine with his image and a special section displaying his framed photographs.

A picture taken on September 14, 2017, shows bottles of wine with pictures of Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin at a shop in the centre of Rome.

Some pay money to sleep in the same bed that he used when fleeing Milan, while others visit his private bunker under the Villa Torlonia in Rome, which has been open to the republic after restoration as of October 2014.

Tourist shops in his native town are now boldly selling souvenirs like Mussolini statuettes, towels, cups, and posters of him and his famous quote: "I shall march forward."

This is in direct violation of a 1952 law that criminalises the open display of Fascist symbols, topped with additional legislation that calls for arrest up to two years for disseminating Fascist symbols for political purposes over the Internet.

The Mussolini Museum

From 2016 to 2017, authorities seriously considered setting up a Mussolini Museum at the crumbling red and white Fascist headquarters in Predappio.

Their declared objective was not to pay homage to Mussolini but to show the true history of fascism, hoping that this would dissuade people from nostalgically longing for the Duche's time and era.

The project was shelved in 2020, although a museum was opened last year, not in Predappio but in Salo, where Mussolini ruled from 1943 to 1945.

Run by the Italian Ministry of Culture, it cost €230,000 to build and explores the downsides of the Mussolini era, displaying newspaper clippings, photos, speeches, and other memorabilia.

In Rome today, there is a shrine dedicated to Mussolini at the Sireno Restaurant, which he frequented during his lifetime. There are also bottles of wine with his image, among other tributes.

Come back!

The Mussolini cult is part of the neofascism storming Europe, and it does not end there. Recently, the wardrobe where Mussolini's corpse was held for ten years was auctioned on eBay, described as a "unique Fascist collector item."

Last January, demonstrators in a working-class neighbourhood in Rome gave a mass Fascist salute at a rally, also called the Roman Salute. Italian police were standing nearby; they watched and did nothing to stop them.

Every now and then, Fascist sympathisers spray graffiti in major towns or raise their right arm publicly in Fascist salute. Neo-fascist white supremacists still indiscriminately attack refugees and immigrants, mainly from Africa.

Every year, Fascist admirers pay tribute to Mussolini at Predappio on two occasions: his 1922 march on Rome and his 1945 death.

Last April, Italian media reported that there were "no more than 100," headed by his great-grandchildren, Orsola and Vittoria Mussolini.

Vittoria and Orsola Mussolini (C), granddaughters of Benito Mussolini, gather with participants outside the San Cassiano cemetery, Mussolini's burial place, in Predappio, on October 30, 2022.

The figure is surprising given that one year earlier, the Associated Press reported "2,000-4,000 marchers" assembling at Mussolini's burial site in April 2022, coming "from as far away as Rome, Belgium, and the United States."

As one of his great-granddaughters spoke, the crowd shouted: "Duce, Duce, Duce." They were given signed postcards with a photo of Mussolini smiling with his famous salute. "History will prove me right," it read.

The Mussolinis have been very vocal in their defence of Il Duce. When American comedian Jim Carry poked fun at him back in 2019, his granddaughter Alessandra snapped back on Twitter: "You are a bastard."

Next to his grave, thousands leave messages days ahead of the anniversary of his death. One reads, "Italy needs you." The other says, "Come back."

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