How did Mussolini really die?

The killing of the Fascist dictator has, like JFK’s assassination, fuelled dark rumours and bizarre conspiracy theories.

Mussolini

THE OFFICIAL STORY

According to the "official" history, the death of Benito Mussolini is a simple, brutal story of revenge by the people he once ruled with an iron fist. In April 1945, Mussolini and his much younger mistress, Claretta Petacci, were put to death by Italian partisans in a small, picturesque village. The man who pulled the trigger was one Walter Audisio, a brash Communist fighter. The bodies of Mussolini and Petacci were then taken to Milan, where they were met by an enraged mob which kicked, spat on and defiled the corpses before they were hoisted up and hung upside down like grim hunting trophies. But does this narrative conceal secret truths?

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THE BACKGROUND

Before considering Mussolini's killing, it's worth looking at the context. At the time, Mussolini had long since relinquished control of much of Italy. His alliance with Hitler in World War Two had been a disaster, and Mussolini's military failures led to his domain shrinking to a small, puppet state in northern Italy, propped up by the Germans.

It was a humiliating position for the man who once strutted around like a modern-day Caesar, and things got worse when he was forced to disguise himself as a drunken German soldier to escape to Switzerland. His plan didn't work, and the fallen dictator was arrested by a partisan called Urbano Lazzaro who described him as having a "face like wax", "completely lacking in will" and "spiritually dead". Mussolini and his mistress were eventually taken to a nearby farmhouse to await their fate.

WHO WAS COLONEL VALERIO?

According to the official account, Mussolini's executioner - Walter Audisio - travelled under an alias: Colonel Valerio. He later claimed to have held a miniature "war tribunal" with fellow partisans, in order to officially condemn the dictator to death. However, Urbano Lazzaro, the man who'd arrested Mussolini, denied this tribunal ever happened, calling the whole process "barbarous."

Lazzaro would also later drop a bombshell, claiming that the "Colonel Valerio" he met was NOT Walter Audisio. According to Lazzaro, the man known as Colonel Valerio was actually Luigi Longo, a very senior Communist party official. Some believe it was Longo who killed Mussolini and Petacci, and that Audisio was only named as the executioner to cover up the involvement of such a major political figure.

Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini

Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini

AN EARLY KILLING?

But Lazzaro also made another claim: that Mussolini had actually been killed many hours before the official execution time. According to this version of events, his mistress Claretta Petacci had tried to grab one of the partisans' guns, and Mussolini was accidentally shot in the ensuing scuffle. The dictator was then finished off like a crippled animal, before Petacci was herself shot dead. The partisans then staged a mock-execution because, as Lazzaro later said, "the times demanded an execution." Did this really happen? And if so, was it Longo or Audisio or someone else entirely who pulled the trigger on Mussolini?

A BRITISH CONSPIRACY?

Then there's the most outlandish theory of all: that Mussolini was actually murdered on direct orders of the British government, in order to cover up secret negotiations between the dictator and Winston Churchill. This theory is largely based on claims by a partisan fighter named Bruno Lonati, who said he'd been approached by a British agent codenamed "John" to embark on this mission.

Conspiracy theorists believe Churchill had once made peace offerings to Mussolini because he wanted Il Duce to convince Hitler to join the Allies and take on the Soviet Union. To keep these shocking, embarrassing revelations a secret, "John" and Lonati went to the farmhouse and shot both Mussolini and Petacci dead, to ensure he couldn't be hauled up in court and spill the beans on these supposed negotiations. According to this theory, the bodies were then used in a mock-execution by Audisio later on. While the lack of solid evidence has led most historians to dismiss the whole scenario, many still believe there's far more to Mussolini's death than a simple execution by plucky partisans.

Discover more about Mussolini's death in the final episode of Forbidden History S4 on Wednesday 19th July at 8pm.