By April 25, 1945, Benito Mussolini’s dream of re-creating the Roman Empire, much like the crumbling Roman Forum itself, lay in ruins. With the Allies closing in from the south and anti-fascist partisans rising up to seize city after city in northern Italy, Mussolini’s power base was quickly evaporating.
The 61-year-old Italian dictator who sought to become a modern-day Julius Caesar had first risen to power more than two decades earlier when he became prime minister in 1922. “Il Duce” allied himself with fellow fascist Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in World War II, but his outdated Italian military was badly outclassed. By July 1943, the Allied invasion of Sicily and bombing of Rome caused the Italian high command and King Victor Emmanuel III to remove Mussolini from power and place him under house arrest.
In September 1943, Nazi paratroopers staged a daring commando raid that rescued Mussolini from the Apennine Mountain ski resort where he was being detained. Hitler installed Mussolini as the figurehead of the Social Republic of Italy (known informally as the Republic of Salo), a Nazi puppet state in German-occupied northern Italy.
By April 25, 1945, however, the Third Reich was quickly losing its grip on northern Italy. With his stronghold of Milan teetering on the precipice, Mussolini agreed to meet with a delegation of partisans at the palace of Milan’s Cardinal Alfredo Schuster. There, a furious Mussolini learned that, unbeknownst to him, the Nazis had begun negotiations for an unconditional surrender.
Mussolini stormed out of the palace and fled Milan with his 33-year-old mistress, Clara Petacci, in the 1939 Alfa Romeo sports car he had bought as a gift for his girlfriend. The following day, the pair joined a convoy of fellow fascists and German soldiers heading north toward Lake Como and the border with Switzerland. Mussolini donned a German Luftwaffe helmet and overcoat, but the disguise did little to save him when partisans stopped the convoy at the lakeside town of Dongo on April 27. For 20 years, Mussolini had built a cult of personality with his image emblazoned on posters and newspapers. Now, the familiarity of his distinctive shaved head and granite jaw, even in disguise, did him in.
The partisans seized Mussolini and Petacci. Fearing that the Nazis would again try to liberate the dictator, the partisans hid the pair in a remote farmhouse for the night. The following day, Mussolini and Petacci were removed from the house and driven to the small village of Giulino di Mezzegra on the shores of Lake Como. They were ordered to stand in front of a stone wall at the entrance to Villa Belmonte where both were executed by machine gun fire. The identity of the triggerman remains a point of contention, but it was likely communist partisan commander Walter Audisio.
There’s no uncertainty, however, about what happened to Mussolini’s body in the hours after his execution. In the pre-dawn hours of April 29 the corpses of Mussolini, Petacci and 14 fellow fascists were placed in a truck and dumped like garbage in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, a deeply symbolic public square for the anti-fascist forces. There, eight months earlier, fascists acting under orders from Hitler’s SS publicly displayed the bodies of 15 executed partisans.
After Mussolini’s arrest in July 1943, jubilant crowds mutilated images of the dictator. Now, as the sun rose on the “Square of the Fifteen Martyrs,” residents of Milan had the chance to do the same thing, only this time for real. They hurled invectives and vegetables at the dictator’s corpse before kicking, beating and spitting upon it. One woman, deciding Mussolini wasn’t dead enough for her, emptied a pistol into the dictator’s body and shouted, “Five shots for my five assassinated sons!” The crowd then strung the bodies of Mussolini, Petacci and other fascists by their feet from the girders of a gasoline station in a corner of the square.
In the early afternoon, American troops ordered the bodies to be taken down and Mussolini’s bullet-ridden corpse transported to the city morgue. By this point, Mussolini’s badly beaten body was barely recognizable, but a U.S. Army photographer still staged the bodies of the former dictator and his mistress in each other’s arms in a macabre pose.
As the Soviets closed in on Berlin, Hitler received news of Mussolini’s death. Determined not to give his enemies the satisfaction of killing him or defiling his body, Hitler committed suicide on April 30 and had his corpse subsequently burned. Mussolini’s body, meanwhile, was buried in an unmarked grave in a Milan cemetery. Its location was hardly a secret, however, and anti-fascists made regular pilgrimages to the cemetery to desecrate his grave until Mussolini made a resurrection of sorts on Easter Sunday 1946 when Domenico Leccisi and fellow fascists dug up Il Duce’s body, washed it in a nearby fountain and pushed it in a wheelbarrow to a getaway car. The note left behind by the “Democratic Fascist Party” stated they would no longer bear “the cannibal slurs made by human dregs organized in the Communist Party.” The corpse was missing for nearly four months before it was found in August 1946 in a monastery outside Milan.
Once the Italian government recovered Mussolini’s corpse, it kept its whereabouts secret for more than a decade. In 1957, however, newly elected prime minister Adone Zoli needed the support of a far-right party and in return for its votes, he delivered the bones of Mussolini to his widow. After spending 11 years in the cupboard of a Capuchin monastery, Mussolini’s body finally received a burial in the family crypt in his birthplace of Predappio, which has become a pilgrimage site for neo-fascists. In 1966, the last piece of Mussolini’s body was returned to his widow as the United States handed over a sample of the dictator’s brain that was removed at autopsy and tested inconclusively for syphilis.