April 25th was Liberation Day in Italy – a public holiday to honour the signing of the Armistice in Rome 72 years ago. This brought an end to the Nazifascist regime in Northern Italy. It is a day of commemoration strongly promoted by ANPI (the national association of Italian partisans) so as to maintain the memory of the sacrifices made by the partisans and by the even larger numbers of their civilian supporters.
And for Como, the significance of this commemoration must always be particularly strong, given the way events turned out in the last few days of the fascist regime. After all, it was the partisan group known as the 52nd Brigata Garibaldi which operated on the western shores of Lake Como who captured Mussolini as he attempted an escape from Italy disguised within a column of retreating German soldiers. Mussolini, his wife Rachele and mistress Claretta Petacci along with many leaders of the fascist puppet-state known as the RSI (or the Republic of Salo) descended on Como on April 25th 1945. (Read the 25th April Liberation Day for more information on how Mussolini met his end and where.)
So clearly Como was not itself liberated on April 25th. Instead it turned out to be hosting the fascist Head of State prior to his attempted flight to safety having left Milan following the breakdown of surrender discussions mediated by Cardinal Schuster. He chose to spend the night at the Prefettura on Via Volta, the representative site of national government still in the hands of the fascists.
His wife Rachele stayed instead further up Via Volta at the Villa Mantero which had been requisitioned for her use. On the 26th Mussolini joined up with Claretta Petacci and her brother and left alongside his fascist leaders for Menaggio. Rachele instead tried to cross over into Switzerland but was turned back at the border crossing at Chiasso.
So, in spite of the fascist leaders being mostly on the run, it was not until April 28th that Como itself was liberated. The first indication of the dawning of a new era was the arrival early in the morning of an armoured car captured by the partisans and driven around Piazza Cavour in a celebratory lap of honour. This heralded the later arrival of the American allied army as it came up from Milan. Piazza Cavour thus became the impromptu setting for celebrations as the citizens and armed partisans began to gather in the open.
Christian Schiefer, a professional photographer from Lugano, had sensed that monumental events were unfolding and so travelled down from Chiasso and caught on film the historic shots reproduced here.
The American allied army immediately took over the Hotel Metropole Suisse as their headquarters. It had only hours before been the local HQ for the German Wehrmacht but the remains of the German army had made their way that day to the border crossing at Chiasso where they were allowed to surrender to the Swiss authorities once all arms were given up.
The Fascist party had also abandoned their headquarters in the Palazzo Terragni, also known as the Casa del Fascio, leaving it free for the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano) to take it on as their HQ.
These were just a couple of the monumental changes facing the territory at that time. The partisan brigades including the 52nd Brigata Garibaldi took over policing duties and were free to hunt down ex-fascist leaders and Nazi collaborators until June of that year when their powers were suspended. They and the workers, who had maintained the General Strike from 20th April, were the heroes of the hour.
During the fascist regime, the celebration of May Day as the day of international labour had been suspended. So 1st May 1945, just three days after the liberation of Como, provided the first major opportunity for a communal celebration of liberty and labour. Thus it was only fitting as to who should head the parade that year – the 52nd Brigata Garibaldi.
Further sources of information about the partisans, the last days of the fascist regime and the liberation of Como are available from:
- Nodo Libri
- Istituto di storia contemporanea ‘Pier Amato Perretta’
- Istituto Nazionale Ferruccio Parri
- Archivio di Stato Cantone Ticino for the photos of Christian Schiefer