January 11th, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 1944, Benito Mussolini had his son-in-law, the politician Galeazzo Ciano, shot for treason outside the gates of Verona along with four other fascists who had abandoned Mussolini.
A glamorous playboy in public life, Ciano was the scion of a wealthy fascist founder. The youth wed Mussolini’s eldest daughter in 1930 and quickly ascended the party’s ranks, becoming Foreign Minister at the tender age of 33.
Ciano’s treachery, and that of the others seated in chairs and shot from behind on this day, was to have voted with the majority of the Fascist Grand Council for deposing Mussolini as Allied attacks thrust Italy into a desperate position. This confused affair lacked the character of a coup d’etat, but Mussolini was indeed placed under arrest the next day and a separate peace concluded with the Allies in early September.
Soon after, an audacious German glider raid freed Mussolini, who was quickly re-installed as head of a Nazi puppet state in northern Italy.
Ciano’s capture by this body set in motion a final personal drama with implications for later students of the Second World War. Edda Ciano escaped to Switzerland with her husband’s diaries — potentially damaging notes on the machinations of the Axis.
These scribblings she took hostage for the life of her husband. The blackmail was not accepted — to the grief of Edda, who never spoke to her father again.
One final quixotic rescue attempt cooked up by a female SS administrator on Ciano’s guard detail — the last of many women drawn to this charismatic man — foundered; the preordained death sentence came down on January 10th, and the men were shot the next morning.* Mussolini reportedly fretted in the small hours of the night over whether his standing in Hitler’s eyes would suffer should he intervene.
Edda had the diaries published as she threatened, and if they exposed scant novel evidence against his German and Italian compatriots, they offer a window upon diplomatic intrigue and personal relationships within the Pact of Steel.
The last entries were written from prison just three weeks before his execution, and (allowing that by that time the author had reason to lay blame for policy missteps explicitly at Mussolini’s door) the protracted effort they describe to steer the impulsive Duce towards some sane foreign policy — something that might have spared Italy the devastation of war and maintained a fascist government, as Spain managed to do — reads almost farcically in retrospect. Italy could make little material contribution to the war, and probably had as much to fear from Hitler in victory as from the Allies in defeat … but at every turn, Hitler’s inspiring star pulled the Italian dictator away from realpolitik and towards romantic catastrophe.
As the invasion of Poland approached, for instance, Ciano watched Mussolini vacillate on whether to cast his lot irrevocably with Hitler.
The Duce’s reactions are varied. At first he agrees with me [not to commit to war]. Then he says that honor compels him to march with Germany. Finally, he states that he wants his part of the booty in Croatia and Dalmatia.
Like World War II’s every nook and cranny, the Italian experience bestrode by Ciano has received eager literary coverage.
Edda and Galeazzo Ciano’s son Fabrizio also wrote a personal memoir entitled Quando il nonno fece fucilare papa (“When Grandpa had Daddy Shot”).
* Four of the five were only wounded by the initial volley, and the fifth was missed altogether; all were dispatched with a coup de grace.
Also on this date
- 1830: William Banks, housebreaker
- 1909: The Pollet gang, breaking the French moratorium
- 1951: Harley LaMarr, dutiful son
- 1801: Chevalier, bomb plot scapegoat
- 2010: Salah ibn Rihaidan ibn Hailan Al-Johani, Medina serial rapist
- 1897: The Thirteen Martyrs of Bagumbayan
- 2003: Nobody in Illinois