Dongo near Lake Como, Northern Italy April 27, 1945

On this rainy date in 1945, with the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) in Italy in full retreat—indeed, their com­manders had signed sur­render docu­ments on this date—61-year-old Ital­ian strong­man Benito Musso­lini was en route to what he hoped would be safe haven in neu­tral Swit­zer­land and from there to Spain. Il Duce (Italian for “the leader”) was wearing a German non­com­mis­sioned officers over­coat and helmet on his bald head as part of a 40-vehicle convoy of mostly German troops heading instead for the Brenner Pass and the safety of Austria. When a truck carrying fuel con­tainers was searched by a group of Ital­ian parti­sans at Dongo on the north­western shore of Lake Como, 10-miles from the Swiss frontier, Musso­lini’s unmis­takable jutting chin gave away the pale figure slouching at the rear as loud cries sounded out: “We have got Mussolini!” A growing crowd of villagers, hearing of Mussolini’s capture, broke into applause.

The next day, Saturday, April 28, Mussolini and his 33-year-old par­amour, Claretta Petacci, were pushed into the back seat of a Fiat sedan. When the car later stopped in front of a villa out­side the hamlet of Guilino (aka Giulino di Mez­zegra), the two pri­soners were ordered out, pushed in front of a low stone wall, and pumped full of bullets fired from a French-made sub­machine gun. Their exe­cu­tioner, a mem­ber of the North Ital­ian Com­mit­tee of Nation­al Liber­a­tion who went by the name “Colonel Valerio” (real name Walter Audisio), 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 that had been part of the German convoy, were brought to the North­ern Ital­ian city of Milan for pub­lic display on April 29, then muti­lated by enraged onlookers and strung upside down on butchers’ hooks in the Piaz­zale Loreto (see photo below), the huge open square where fif­teen Ital­ian anti-Fascists had been exe­cuted by Mus­so­lini’s Black­shirts the year before. The corpses dangled on display at the Piaz­zale and at the city morgue for a number of days before being buried.

Mussolini’s comrade-in-arms Adolf Hitler, hiding in the clammy recesses of his Fuehrer­bunker under the devas­tated Reich Chan­cel­lery garden in Berlin, heard Radio Stock­holm’s announce­ment of the Duce’s death. He likely learned the gory details of Musso­lini’s end because he confided to mul­tiple bunker visitors and denizens that he had no inten­tion of letting him­self fall victim to a similar fate. The Swedish bulletin reaf­firmed his desire to take his own life before it was too late and so prevent his body from being seized and put on public display by his enemies.

To that end, with the Red Army within several hundred yards of the Reich Chan­cel­lery and his bunker, 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 4:00 p.m., ten canisters 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.

Inglorious End of the Dictators: Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler

Death of Benito Mussolini: 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 the once-popular Benito Musso­lini (second from left) and to the right that of the most prom­i­nent of his many mis­tresses, 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), plus Petacci’s brother, Marcello. Clad in mechanics over­alls, Musso­lini had been shot through the fore­head 12½ miles from the village of Dongo on Lake Como near 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. (The practice of putting polit­i­cal corpses on grue­some dis­play had become almost routine in Fascist Italy.) A howling mob of more than 5,000 peo­ple kicked, spat, and even uri­nated on Musso­lini’s remains before his body, with new bullet holes, was hung along­side other bodies upside down by their heels (the ulti­mate insult) at a gas station. The body on the far right is that of former National Fascist Party Secre­tary-General Achille Starace, who was exe­cuted by anti-Fascist par­ti­sans after being shown Mus­solini’s corpse and saluting it. The macabre scene was much-photo­graphed and flashed around the world as irre­futable proof that the Italian dictator was dead.

Death of Adolf Hitler: 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, their ashes mixed with pieces of coal and crushed into powder, all of which was thrown into a river near Magdeburg.

Short Political Biography of Benito Mussolini and His Grisly End