It’s a rain-drenched morning in the north of Italy, on April 27th, 1945.
An Italian resistance fighter, Urbano Lazzaro, is guarding a roadblock in the town of Dongo, on the northwest shores of Lake Como. He scans the highway leading out of town. Seeing no approaching enemy vehicles, Urbano lays down his rifle… and lights up a cigarette. But as he takes his first drag – He hears the faint rumble of engines in the distance. Urbano drops the cigarette and picks up his weapon.
Moments later, a convoy of German military vehicles enters the square and comes to an abrupt halt at the roadblock.
Urbano and his men approach the convoy, their rifles raised.
Urbano taps the window of the first truck with the muzzle of his weapon. The window rolls down revealing a German lieutenant glowering at him. Urbano asks to see his documents. And reluctantly, the German lieutenant hands them over.
Once Urbano has checked the papers, he continues on to the next vehicle in convoy. Again, the driver rolls down the window and hands over his documents. But before Urbano turns to the next truck, he notices a German officer slumped in the backseat.
Urbano demands to see that officer’s papers, but the driver tells him he is drunk, and to leave him alone. Urbano is insistent. He orders the man to sit up and show himself. Slowly, the officer lifts his head and turns to face the window. As he does, Urbano’s blood runs cold.
The man is haggard and unshaven. His eyes – which Urbano is accustomed to seeing ablaze with conviction and charisma – are now gray and lifeless. The German officer’s uniform he is wearing is not his, and there is no mistaking the jutting chin, square jaw, and the bald head as the man knows as “Il Duce”, the fascist dictator whose iron-fisted rule oppressed Italy for over twenty years.
Urbano steadies his nerves.
He cocks his rifle, and orders Benito Mussolini to step out of the truck.
The rise and fall of Benito Mussolini is one of the twentieth century’s most dramatic reversals of fortune. Once hailed as a latter-day Julius Caesar, destined to make Italy great again, Mussolini was a ruthless fascist dictator whose wartime alliance with Adolf Hitler cast a fearful shadow across Europe and the world.
But as Italy’s military campaign in WWII began to unravel, so too did Mussolini’s grip on power. In 1943, he was ousted from office and driven into exile, before being captured by Italian resistance fighters on April 27th, 1945.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 27th: The Capture of Benito Mussolini.
Act One: Rise
It’s October 24th, 1922; 23 years before Mussolini is taken prisoner.
A political rally is being held in Naples, Italy. Beneath thundery, autumn skies, 60,000 men in distinctive black shirts have gathered to listen to their leader, a 39-year-old political dissident named Benito Mussolini.
The crowd erupts in deafening roars as Mussolini takes to the podium. Dressed in a dark pinstripe suit and necktie, his hairline almost entirely receded, Mussolini more closely resembles a bank clerk than a political radical. But as he addresses his loyal supporters, it becomes clear that Mussolini’s respectable appearance belies a violent, revolutionary ambition. Shouting to be heard above the cheers, he declares: “our program is simple: we want to rule Italy!”
Those close to him know that this has been Mussolini’s goal for some time.
Four years ago, in 1918, after returning home from serving in World War I, Mussolini looked at Italy’s economic and political turmoil and concluded that democracy and liberalism had led his homeland astray. Mussolini decided to found a new movement – one that opposed democracy, rejected egalitarianism, and promoted the idea of absolute rule by a powerful elite.
He called the movement “Fascism” and its supporters, “Fascists”, deriving the name from the Latin word “fasces” – a bundle of sticks with an ax head protruding from the top. The “fasces” was once a symbol of official authority in Ancient Rome. But in 1919, it became the official insignia of the Italian far-right.
By 1922, fascism has gained thousands of followers all across the country. Many of the movement’s supporters are people who feel aggrieved by Italy’s declining fortunes following World War I. Italy fought on the winning side of the conflict, but sustained heavy financial losses and devastating death tolls. Following the war, many Italians expected to be compensated with territorial gains. But when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the post-war settlement forced Germany and Austria-Hungary to pay reparations to the victorious nations of Britain, France, and the United States. Italy was largely overlooked.
Many Italians felt cheated and wronged; like their sacrifices had been for nothing. Anger and resentment swept the country. And from that cauldron of bitterness and wounded pride, nationalist sentiment rose – so too did Benito Mussolini.
By 1920, armed squads of Mussolini’s Fascists, known as blackshirts, were terrorizing opposing political groups. Violent clashes between blackshirts, communists, and anarchists frequently erupted out in the streets. And all the while, Mussolini’s popularity grew. In the general election of May 1921, the Fascists won 35 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s parliament. Six months later, Mussolini established the National Fascist Party, uniting disparate groups into one coherent Fascist organization.
But despite these advances, the Fascists were still outnumbered in parliament – which is dominated by Liberal Democrats and Socialists. So by October 1922, Mussolini has decided that if he wants power, he’s going to have to take it.
In front of the crowd of blackshirts assembled in Naples, Mussolini announces his plan: the Fascists will march to Rome and seize control of the government. His words are greeted by a roar of approval. The following day, Mussolini appoints four deputies to lead four columns of blackshirts to Rome. Mussolini himself retreats to his party headquarters in Milan, where he anxiously awaits the outcome of the incursion.
Four days later, at dawn on October 28th, the march begins.
30,000 Fascists advance toward the capital, wielding rifles, pistols, and swords. Panic breaks out in parliament. Italy’s liberal prime minister, Luigi Facta, rushes to the residence of Italy’s king, Vittorio Emmanuel III. Facta begs the King to call in the military to suppress the insurrection. But the King hesitates. He knows Mussolini has the support of the army. He knows how popular Mussolini is among the industrial and agrarian elites. And above all, he thinks Mussolini might actually be good for the country. So instead of granting Facta’s wishes, the King dismisses him from office.
Soon, news of Facta’s dismissal reaches Mussolini in Milan. That evening, he takes an overnight train to Rome, arriving in the capital on the morning of October 30th. An escort whisks him straight to the royal palace, where he is officially appointed prime minister by the King. Later that morning, Mussolini emerges on the royal balcony in military regalia and greets a cheering crowd. Above the ear-splitting clamor, King Vittorio declares: “Mussolini has saved the nation!”
Over the next few years, Mussolini will cement his grip on power, dismantling the bastions of democracy and establishing himself as a dictator. He will clamp down on the free press. He will have his opponents arrested or killed. He will launch an extravagant program of public works, creating a sense of nationalist pride and constructing his own cult of personality. He will take on a new official title: il Duce – the Leader.
And by the mid-1930s, Mussolini’s Italy will have drawn the admiration of another European despot: Adolf Hitler. When Hitler embarks on a campaign to conquer Europe in 1939, Italy will enter into an alliance with Germany, known as the Pact of Steel. And as the combined forces of Hitler and Mussolini spread out across the continent, the future of Europe seems destined to crumble beneath the bootheel of fascism.
Act Two: Fall
It’s July 19th, 1943, in northern Italy, four years after the start of World War II.
Behind the ivy-strewn walls of an opulent villa, in the shadows of the Dolomite mountains, a meeting is taking place between two leaders of the Axis powers: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The difference in mood between the two dictators couldn’t be more stark. Hitler is holding court, criticizing Italy’s disastrous war effort and boasting about Germany’s military prowess. By contrast, Mussolini is quiet and surly. Dark rings circle his eyes, and his skin looks gray and weathered with stress.
The war is not going well for Italy.
In June 1940, encouraged by some early victories for Hitler in Europe, Mussolini decided to launch a campaign against Britain’s colonies in East Africa. But the Italian army was under-equipped and ill-prepared, and the campaign was a disaster. The British launched a counter-attack, and by November 1941, the Italian forces in East Africa had been comprehensively defeated.
For all his personal belligerence, Mussolini repeatedly showed a lack of decisive leadership. He became increasingly reliant on Hitler’s military support – and his sense of inferiority made him depressed and withdrawn. In May 1943, the Allies defeated a joint force of Italian and German troops in Tunisia, heralding the loss of the last remaining Axis stronghold in Africa. Back in Italy, morale plummeted. Many felt the war was already lost. And then – in the dead of night on July 10th – the Allies launched a successful invasion of the Italian island of Sicily.
The fascist defenses on Sicily capitulated within days. In some cases, the Italian soldiers simply laid down their rifles without firing a shot. And so with an invasion of the mainland, an immediate threat, Mussolini wrote to Hitler requesting an urgent meeting.
On July 19th, the two dictators talk face to face in the foothills of the Dolomite mountains. Mussolini, slumped in his chair, pleads for German support in repelling the Allied invasion. But Hitler has lost patience with his Italian ally. He is only interested in defending the north of the peninsula; the south will be left to the Italians. The meeting is interrupted when an aide rushes into the room and whispers something in Mussolini’s ear. Il Duce grows pale as he learns that Rome is under attack.
Mussolini flies back to Rome immediately. From the window of his airplane, he can see vast swathes of the city reduced to rubble by Allied bombing. Mussolini frowns; his face etched with concern. He knows that his people are losing faith in him. The foundations of his regime are built on the myth of Italian greatness. But with every humiliating defeat, Mussolini’s cult of personality gets chipped away, weakening his hypnotic power over the population.
Furthermore, rumblings of dissent among Mussolini’s own government have reached il Duce’s ears. Fearful of the catastrophe of total defeat, Mussolini’s ministers have urged him to break the alliance with Germany and pull Italy out of the war. But Mussolini is too proud to break his pact with Hitler, and his intransigence leaves many government officials convinced that the only way to save Italy, is by ousting Mussolini from office.
On the evening of July 24th, Mussolini attends a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council, to discuss how to salvage the Italian war effort. One of Mussolini’s most trusted ministers stands and reads from a sheet of paper. It’s a petition for a vote of no confidence in Mussolini. Il Duce shakes with rage as, one by one, the ministers vote.
The motion passes. Mussolini is stunned into silence. He grabs a copy of the petition and insists that unless the King approves of the motion, it’s meaningless. Mussolini is Il Duce, but the King is still the head of state. As long as Mussolini has the King’s backing, then he’s safe.
The following day, Mussolini brings a copy of the petition to King Vittorio Emmanuel III. And to Mussolini’s dismay, the monarch sides with the ministers, telling Mussolini that the only way to save Italy is for him to resign. A crestfallen Mussolini staggers outside the palace. And there, swimming before his eyes in the sweltering heat, is a squadron of police officers, who place il Duce under arrest.
Mussolini is imprisoned in a hotel in the Apennine mountains. The nation rejoices – Mussolini’s arrest heralds the end of Italy’s participation in World War II. And all across the country, emblems of fascism are torn down: posters ripped from walls and statues toppled. In the words of one contemporary historian: “behind the façade of fascism, there was nothing.”
With the removal of the last vestiges of Mussolini’s dictatorship, the fascist regime in Italy is replaced by a government of liberal democrats. From his remote confinement in the Apennine mountains, il Duce will lament his sudden downfall. But unbeknownst to him, a rescue mission is already underway. And once again, Mussolini's savior will be his old ally, Adolf Hitler.
Act Three: Arrest
It’s September 12th, 1943, in the Apennine mountains; two months since Mussolini was dismissed from office.
The deposed dictator sits in his bedroom – glumly reflecting on his recent demise. But suddenly, the door opens revealing a Nazi SS officer in the doorway who calls out to him: “Duce, the Fuhrer has sent me! You’re free!”
Adolf Hitler was infuriated by the news of Mussolini’s overthrow. He feared that with Mussolini gone, the Allies would easily sweep through the Italian peninsula. So Hitler ordered a team of ninety SS commandos to launch a daring raid on the hotel where Mussolini was imprisoned. After landing gliders on the mountainside, the commandos overpowered the hotel’s guards and freed Mussolini from his locked bedroom.
Two days later, Mussolini arrives at Hitler’s bunker in central Germany. The Italian dictator cuts a sorry figure with his loose-fitting clothes, skinny frame, and jowly face. But despite his dreadful appearance, Hitler has an important job for Mussolini. He wants him to establish a German puppet state in northern Italy called the Italian Social Republic.
Mussolini does as Hitler says. He sets up a new capital in the town of Salo in northern Italy and forms a government from the remaining loyal fascists. The Italian Social Republic is essentially a buffer between the Allied-occupied south of Italy and the rest of mainland Europe. But depressed by his diminished status as now a puppet ruler, Mussolini gives an interview in January 1944, saying: “I am finished… I have no fight left in me… I await the end of the tragedy.”
It will come soon enough.
In April 1945, with victory imminent on both the Eastern and Western fronts, Allied troops begin their march through northern Italy. Realizing defeat is inevitable, Mussolini makes a break for Switzerland. He and his mistress smuggle aboard a German convoy as it heads north toward the border. But they will never make it.
On a rainy April 27th, 1945, the convoy is stopped and searched by Italian resistance fighters in a village near Lake Como. Immediately, the brigade leader, Urbano Lazzaro, recognizes Mussolini and places him and his mistress under arrest.
The following morning, the rain gives way to a bright spring sunshine. Mussolini and his mistress are marched to a square in the village of Mezzegra. There, the deposed dictator and his mistress are lined up against a wall and shot dead.
Benito Mussolini’s bullet-riddled body will be strung up in a gas station on the outskirts of Milan. Crowds will gather to hurl insults and trash at the corpse, as it hangs limply by the ankles. His death marks the end of a dark chapter in Italian history, one engineered by a ruthless tyrant whose self-serving corruption ultimately proved his undoing. Today, Italy’s thriving democracy is a legacy of Mussolini’s downfall; one that was brought about when Italian partisans placed the dictator under arrest on April 27th, 1945.
Next onHistory Daily.April 28, 1881. The condemned outlaw, Billy the Kid, makes a daring escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse Jail.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.