Some of you may not be aware that the last hours of Mussolini’s fascist regime were played out on the banks of Lake Como – and that those few eventful days following the signing of the Armistice on April 25th would lead to a host of unanswered questions, accusations of complicity and betrayal to one cause or another and divisive historical interpretations that still touch raw nerves to this day.
The chief mystery concerns the so-called Dongo Treasure – in other words what happened to the money Mussolini was said to be carrying with him when he was seized by the partisans? What role did Allen Dulles of the American Office of Strategic Services based in Lugano play, why did Winston Churchill come on a painting tour to Dongo so quickly after the end of the war, why did so many of the partisan witnesses to Mussolini’s capture and execution die young, why was the partisan leader Captain Neri and his lover Gianna executed and their bodies cast in the lake just outside of Cernobbio, etc…etc..?
Leaving those questions aside, let’s establish exactly where and what happened on Lake Como following the 25th April 1945 when the Armistice was signed in Rome by representatives of the German and American armies. Previously on April 20th back in Milan, workers had started a general strike and the partisans an open insurrection. On April 25th, Mussolini was trying to negotiate a peace treaty mediated by Cardinal Schuster with the partisans but the talks broke down and, with the official ending of the German Occupation, Mussolini recognised his fascist RSI (Socialist Republic of Italy) puppet-state was defeated. He leaves Milan for Como along with his wife, Rachele, and many of the fascist ex-ministers.
He spends the night of April 25th in Como with his wife who the next morning seeks asylum in Switzerland but she is refused entry when she reaches the border post at Chiasso.
Also on April 26th, Mussolini now joined by his mistress Claretta Petacci and her brother alongside the fascist leaders of the RSI, joins a column of 200 German soldiers who leave Como aiming to reach the Valtellina by following the western shore of the lake. Their intention was either finally to reach Germany or to assist Mussolini in setting up a last stand in the Valtellina itself.
Mussolini and the column stop at Menaggio for the night. There has been speculation that Mussolini was waiting there for a secret allied emissary from Lugano but if so, he was disappointed. The column sets out north on the morning of April 27th.
At Musso the column is halted by a partisan roadblock where a rock promontory forces the road around a narrow bend. The partisans, heavily outnumbered by the German soldiers, allowed the soldiers to continue on their way but insisted on retaining all Italians including the fascist leaders and Claretta Petacci with her brother who were travelling under false Spanish Ambassadorial visas. Mussolini had disguised himself as a German soldier but was identified as the partisans checked the convoy.
Mussolini is detained by Pedro, the commander of the 52nd Garibaldi Brigade, in the Dongo Town Hall (Palazzo Manzi) and later transferred to the Guardia di Finanza barracks at Germasino for greater security. The Americans had requested that Mussolini, if captured, should be delivered to them alive but the insurrectionists in Milan wanted quick justice.
Claretta Petacci reveals her true identity and insists on being able to accompany Mussolini. Both, at 1.30 in the morning of April 28th, are transported back down the lake with the idea of finding an even more secure confinement either in Como or eventually in Milan. However news of a militant partisan roadblock in Cernobbio causes the party to change plan and seek temporary shelter in the Bonzanigo district of Mezzegra.
What later happens that day in Mezzegra is the subject of doubt and different interpretation but the official account states that a partisan known as Colonel Valerio, sent by the leadership in Milan, arrives at Mezzegra later in the day and assassinates Mussolini and his mistress outside the gates of the Villa Belmonte. Valerio then goes (returns?) to Dongo and there arranges for the execution of the fascist leaders and Claretta Petacci’s brother. All bodies are then gathered up and carried down to Milan to be displayed in Piazza Loreto.
Modern day visitors at this time of year may find it hard to imagine the raw emotions, the spirit of vengeance and sharp social division when placed in the context of the glorious landscape as it reestablishes its splendour as Spring advances; but the lake did witness these historical events and provided a discordantly scenic backdrop to the final days of Mussolini and his fascist regime.
If in Dongo, it is well worth visiting the End of the War Museum, housed in Palazzo Manzi where Mussolini was first held, dedicated to the memory of the partisan resistance and insurrection on Lake Como and particularly to the events recounted in this article. The museum is open from 10.00 – 13.00 and then from 15.00 – 18.00 every day except Monday from the beginning of April until the end of September. Entrance fee is €5 reduced to €3 for the over 70s and under 18s. Children aged 11 and under are free. This Monday, on Liberation Day April 25th, the museum will open.