Italy was plunged into deep social and political crisis by the war. Veterans, unemployed workers, desperate peasants, and a frightened middle class demanded changes, and the 1919 elections suddenly made the Socialist and the new Popular (Catholic) parties the largest in parliament. While extreme nationalists agitated for territorial expansion, strikes and threats of revolution unsettled the nation
In 1919, in the midst of these unsettled conditions, Benito Mussolini, also known as “il Duce” a former revolutionary socialist, founded a new movement called “Fascismo”. Through a combination of shrewd political maneuvering and widespread violence perpetrated by Mussolini’s Black Shirt squads, the Fascists gained increasing support.
In October 1922, after the Fascists had marched on Rome, King Victor Emmanuel III named Mussolini prime minister, a mistake he would soon come to regret.
Within four years, Mussolini had become a dictator, destroying civil liberties, outlawing all other political parties, and imposing a totalitarian regime on the country by means of terror and constitutional subversion. Public works projects, propaganda, militarism, and the appearance of order gained Mussolini considerable prestige, and the Lateran Treaty with the papacy in 1929 gave the “duce” (as he was called) a wide measure of popularity.
During the 1930s, Mussolini’s foreign policy, based on aggression and expansion, moved Italy closer to war. In 1935-36 the Italian army invaded and conquered Ethiopia, and in 1936, Italy sent troops to support Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Later that year Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, the National Socialist dictator of Germany, established the Rome-Berlin Axis. In 1939, Italy took Albania, and the two dictators then concluded a military alliance known as the Pact of Steel. In June 1940, nine months after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Italy entered the conflict on Germany’s side.
Death of Mussolini and his Mistress Claretta Petacci
Towards the end of World War II, the Italian people had grown to passionately hate the previously revered “Duce”, mainly fueled by the unjustified execution of dicidents, who in most cases disappeared without trace.
Mussolini himself, along with his mistress Claretta (Clara) Petacci, were executed by partisans on April 28, 1945 while attempting to flee Italy. Their bodies were taken to the Piazzale Loreto in Milan, a symbolic place where countless partisans were executed previously. Their corpses were beaten, urinated on and hung upside down in the midst of a large crowds cheering the demise of the Duce. The People wanted to make sure the hated dictator of over 20 years was indeed no longer.
In the late 80s, I met J. Duane Cann, a member of the US Air Force who was stationed in Italy during WWII. He was on special orders to assess the bomb damage in Northern Italy and was sent by US command to witness and confirm Mussolini’s death.
I have the original pictures Duane took and attached to his note, but I decided that they are too graphic to publish here. Should you be interested in copies of the pictures for research purposes, feel free to send me a request by email.