Dongo near Lake Como, Northern Italy · April 27, 1945

On this date in 1945, with the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) in Italy in full retreat—indeed, their com­manders had signed sur­render docu­ments on this date—Ital­ian strong­man Benito Mussolini was en route to a safe haven in Swit­zer­land. The Duce (Italian for “leader”) was wearing a Ger­man non­com­mis­sioned officers over­coat and hel­met in a truck con­voy of Ger­man troops. When the Ger­mans were searched by a group of Ital­ian parti­sans near Dongo on Lake Como, Musso­lini’s unmis­takable fea­tures gave him away amid loud cries of “We have got Mussolini!”

The next day Mussolini and his 33-year-old mis­tress, Claretta Petacci, were pushed into a car. When the car later stopped, the two pri­soners were ordered out and pumped full of bullets fired from a sub­machine gun. Their exe­cu­tioner, a mem­ber of the North Ital­ian Com­mit­tee of Nation­al Liber­a­tion, reportedly ex­claimed at the time, “I exe­cute the will of the Ital­ian people.” The bodies of Musso­lini and Petacci, plus those of four­teen other mem­bers of Italy’s Fas­cist leader­ship, were brought to the North­ern Ital­ian city of Milan for pub­lic display, then muti­lated and strung up­side down on butchers’ hooks in the Piaz­zale Loreto, the huge open square where fif­teen Ital­ian anti-Fascists had been executed by Mussolini’s Blackshirts the year before.

Mus­so­lini’s com­rade-in-arms Adolf Hitler, hiding in the clammy recesses of his Fuehrer­bunker under the wrecked Reich Chan­cel­lery in Berlin, heard Radio Stock­holm’s an­nounce­ment of the Duce’s death. Whether he also learned the gory de­tails of Mus­so­lini’s end is uncer­tain. But it would only have reaf­firmed his desire to take his own life before it was too late, and to prevent his body from being seized and put on display by his enemies.

To that end, with the Red Army with­in a stone’s throw of his bun­ker and the Chan­cel­lery gar­den, Hitler ordered his per­sonal adju­tant to ob­tain as much gaso­line as pos­sible. With­in minutes of the sui­cides of Hitler and his wife Eva Braun, their bodies were laid side by side in the sandy soil only yards from the door leading into the gar­den. Shortly before 3:00 p.m., five bar­rels of gaso­line were poured over the remains and set on fire. As the men of the fu­ner­al party watched the corpses burn, they gave their dead Fuehrer one last Hitler salute and scurried back into the pro­tec­tion of the bun­ker when Soviet artil­lery shells started falling into the garden.

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Inglorious End of the Dictators

 Corpses of Benito Mussolini and Claretta Petacci, Milan, April 29, 1945

Above: Displayed in the Piazzale Loreto, Milan’s major town square, on April 29, 1945, is the grime-covered corpse of Benito Mus­so­lini (second from left) and, to his right, that of his mis­tress, Cla­retta Petac­ci, along with the remains of other exe­cuted Fas­cists, pri­mar­ily minis­ters and offi­cials of Mus­so­lini’s Nazi puppet state Repub­blica Sociale Ital­iana (Italian Social Republic, or simply Salò Republic). Mus­so­lini was shot through his fore­head near the vil­lage of Dongo on Lake Como close to the Swiss border late the pre­vious after­noon. His body was taken in a closed van to Milan, the city where Ital­ian Fas­cism was born in 1919, and dumped in the same spot where the year before Fas­cist squads had exhib­ited the bodies of fifteen Milanese civil­ians (the so-called “Martyrs of Piaz­zale Loreto”) whom they had killed in retali­ation for parti­san activ­ity. A howling mob of more than 5,000 peo­ple kicked and spat on Musso­lini’s remains before his body was hung upside down at a gas station.

Reich Chancellery garden, Berlin 1946

Above: Per instructions, Adolf Hitler’s body and that of his wife and former long-time mis­tress Eva Braun were carried up the stairs through the bun­ker’s emer­gency exit, as seen in this photo facing a tree, doused in gaso­line, and set alight in the deso­lated Reich Chan­cel­lery garden. Soviet ar­chives record that their burnt re­mains were recovered and in­terred in suc­ces­sive locations in East­ern Ger­many until 1970, when they were again exhumed, cremated, and their ashes scattered.

American Newsreel Reporting Benito Mussolini’s Execution