The map of the world changed dramatically throughout the 20th-century. Empires rose and fell, some lasting most of the hundred-years and others much less time. We know about the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the dividing of the Middle East, and Imperial Japan’s growing then shrinking territory. However, often lost in the commotion is the tale of two Italies. For two years, the country was split in half, divided into two countries— one led by King Victor Emmanuel and occupied by the Allies, the other a Nazi puppet state with Benito Mussolini at its helm. The story of the ensuing civil war is historically absorbed by World War Two, but, for Italians, it’s considered an entirely separate conflict. Today, we’re exploring the Nazi-led Italian Republic of Salo.
In July of 1943, Allied forces invaded Italy via the large island of Sicily, with the explicit intention and ability to move into the Italian mainland, pushing towards the capital city of Rome. Shortly after that, the Grand Fascist Council passed a no-confidence motion against their leader, Benito Mussolini. The no-confidence vote was meant to remove Mussolini’s authority over the armed forces, where he seemed to be in over his head. However, the day after the vote, King Emmanuel dismissed Mussolini from office and had him arrested.
Mussolini had been prime minister of Italy for more than 20 years, serving on behalf of Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel the Third. Besides implementing a brutal fascist regime, Italy had struggled immensely in the war, having lost their African colonies, succumbed to invasions of Sicily and, eventually, the southern peninsula, all while Allied planes bombed Rome. Even worse, Mussolini, who portrayed himself as an oft-shirtless strongman at home, struggled to push back against Hitler’s will, and Italy became little more than Nazi Germany’s subordinate order-taker. The people referred to Mussolini as a “sawdust Caesar,” a ruler without ultimate authority over his people. His cruel, right-wing policies gave rise to an opposition party called the Partisans, who had long sought to undermine the dictator however possible.
Following Mussolini’s ousting, Italy’s de facto military leader, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, immediately began negotiating an armistice with the Allies. This truce would require Italy to formally abandon the Axis Powers, giving rise to the possibility of Allied forces pushing through the country and invading Germany from the south. The Nazi regime claimed to respect the will of this new Italian government, but they also sent several of the Wermacht’s best units into northern Italy to resist the Allied advance. As Badoglio’s negotiations proceeded, though, Hitler took action. He ordered German troops to seize central and northern Italy, disbanded the Italian army, and commandeered much of their material and manpower.
At that time, the makeshift Italian government was moving Mussolini from jail to jail to keep his pro-fascist supporters from orchestrating his escape. But, the Nazis eventually tracked him down at a prison in Campo Imperatore, high in the Apennine mountains, where they overpowered his guards and broke him free. Summoned by the Fuhrer, The German troops escorted Mussolini to Berlin, where he was reunited with his family. By this time, the former dictator was 60 years old, and his health was quickly deteriorating, so he expressed to Hitler his desire to quietly retire and disappear from the world of politics.
Of course, that would not work for Hitler. Germany was fighting Russian troops in the east and awaiting an Allied invasion in France. He didn’t have the forces to fight the Allied push in Italy at the same time. So, he asked Mussolini to establish a new fascist regime in the Axis-controlled territory in Italy’s upper-half.
At first, Mussolini refused, but Hitler threatened to destroy some of Italy’s greatest cities, like Milan, Genoa, and Turin, so Mussolini capitulated. He assumed control of a new Italy, the Italian Social Republic, with the fun title, il Duce (Du-chay). The government claimed Axis-controlled Rome as its capital and all the land north of that area as its territory. However, Allied forces were too close to risk establishing a government there. So, they operated from a small northern town between Milan and Venice called Salo, where the country got its name.
After establishing the capital, Hitler ordered that the new Duce be surrounded by 30 SS guards at all times for his safety, though it likely had more to do with ensuring that he didn’t attempt to flee the country. These guards practically placed the man under house arrest. After repeated complaints by Mussolini, the Germans let him establish a guard of Italians who had been thoroughly vetted for their loyalty to the Nazi regime.
In his first public address since his return to power, in September of ’43, Mussolini gave a fiery speech where he denounced King Emmanuel for betraying Italian fascism. He praised Hitler and spoke of a new beginning in Italy. The past twenty years had not been an accurate representation of fascism, Mussolini claimed, as the king hadn’t allowed him to implement it in its purest form. The new Italy would be genuinely fascist. At the same time, Benito attempted to woo the working class, many of whom were opposition members. He spoke of instituting a handful of pro-labor, socialist policies that he had always vehemently opposed because, in his own words, he had a change of heart and deeply regretted his past decisions that favored big businesses over the working class. In fact, he insisted that he had always been a socialist, and he finally had his first chance to prove it now that the king was out of the way.
To prove his genuineness, he ordered the nationalization of all companies with more than 100 employees and enlisted a prominent former communist to speak of the progressive ideals of fascism. Unsurprisingly, none of this worked. The people never bought it, and there was no follow through on any of the promised reforms. Mussolini was the same old harsh dictator, driven to be more violent than ever in a country where opposition forces were growing bolder by the day, as they grew to realize that the former despot was now a puppet.
It seems that most countries realized that Mussolini was no longer the influential leader he once was. Following this new country’s creation, only a handful of nations formally recognized it, including Germany, Japan, and the two countries’ puppet states. Even the pro-fascist Spanish government withheld any acknowledgment of Mussolini’s new domain. This was probably justified, though, since the young state had no constitution, no organized economy, and most of the government’s funding came directly from Berlin. Several countries attempted to reclaim territory that Italy conquered in years prior. Many German-speaking citizens of northeast Italy petitioned for a return to their historical country of Austria, though Hitler vehemently opposed this. Croatia, also a Nazi puppet state, reclaimed control of Italian occupied territory on the Dalmatian coast and inland in a province called Zara. Germany told Croatia that Zara still belonged to the Italians, but the Croatians disagreed, and the two Nazi-controlled nations cut off diplomatic ties for the duration of their existence. The Germans were also forced to assume control of the Dodecanese islands, as the Italian military no longer had the bandwidth to hold them, considering Hitler had taken most of the country’s troops.
Hitler must have seen the difficulty of asking Mussolini to defend his country without an army because the two leaders signed the Rattenburg Protocol in 1943, which allowed the Duce to establish his own division-sized military formations. This culminated in four divisions, totaling 52,000 men, which were organized in early 1944. However, before long, it became clear that Salo would struggle to retain most of its forces. Desertion rates steadily climbed, as the troops were either loyal to the partisans or unwilling to fight for Hitler. Altogether, about 25 percent of Salo’s troops defected at some point during the two years of its existence. In just 50 days, the army lost more than 2,000 soldiers who fled south for freedom from Mussolini’s regime.
Despite the high desertion rate, Mussolini’s military fought with some success, alongside the Nazis and independently. Their main order from Hitler was to defend the Gothic Line, a military barrier in central Italy that gave the Germans a buffer zone in case of an Allied push. In late 1944, Salo and Nazi Germany executed the Christmas Offensive, also called the Battle of Garfagnana, where they pushed southwards into the Tuscan heartland. The offensive was mostly successful, as Allied troops retreated and lost much of the ground they had gained in recent months. Some German officers even noted the effectiveness with which several of the young republic’s divisions fought. However, the success would not last long, as the Allies counterattacked and retook much of the land that the Axis had captured. Axis troops retreated to the Gothic Line again, which they held for the next several months.
Throughout this period, Salo’s troops were not just battling against the Allied advances— they were also fighting Partisans within their own territory. Some of the Partisans fought in organized formations alongside Allied troops, but those located in northern Italy operated full-scale guerilla warfare against Mussolini’s troops. From the outside looking in, it may seem like two conflicts within a single war. However, to Italians, they were two completely different wars. The fight against Axis troops was called the Italian Liberation War, while the fight against Italian fascists was the Italian Civil War. In this civil war, the fascists benefited from their organization to control most of the larger cities, while the partisans excelled in the mountainous regions.
The nature of the civil war changed dramatically, though, throughout 1945. The Allies pushed through the Gothic Line in March of that year, while the Russians and Americans progressed towards Berlin from east and west. Mussolini relocated his government to Milan in the hopes that it would serve as a better point from which to negotiate a ceasefire with Allied forces. In public, though, he barked that he and his troops would fight until the last Italian was dead. In mid-April, German officials urged the Duce to move his government into Switzerland, signaling the likelihood that they would surrender to the Allies in the coming weeks.
Mussolini planned a radio broadcast for the 27th to formally denounce the Germans as turncoats and declare his unwavering dedication to the cause. However, he was run out of Milan by partisan forces who now controlled much of the city. So, he fled towards Switzerland, where he felt he could evade capture and argue his innocence in court. But he never reached Switzerland. His convoy was intercepted, Mussolini was captured and killed on April 28th of 1945, his lifeless body put on display in Milan, along with several of his fascist associates. Within the next two days, Hitler killed himself, the Nazis surrendered, and the Republic of Salo was officially dissolved, returning to its place within the Kingdom of Italy.
This also marked the end of the Italian civil war, though it likely would have continued without the Allies’ influence, particularly Russia. Though united in their anti-fascist sentiment, the partisans now had little to hold them together, as the party split upon political lines between communists, socialists, centrists, republicans, and many more factions. The communists, in particular, sought to continue the fighting in an effort to remove the king. But, sympathetic Russian officials convinced the Italian communist leadership to save the battle until the country had recovered from the war. Somewhere around 70,000 Italians died in the two years of Salo’s existence, though it’s difficult to distinguish between which conflict they died in. Estimates place deaths about equal at 35,000 per side throughout the fighting.
The year following the civil war, a referendum established Italy as a republic. The king fled the country, and Italy, as we know it, was formed. Still, the Republic of Salo’s legacy within Italy is one of embarrassment and shame. Even compared to the previous decades of fascist rule, it is considered a particularly brutal period of Italian history. Mussolini and his regime deported more than 12,000 Jews, some of Italian descent, most of whom were killed in Nazi concentration camps. The wounds of the Civil War are still fresh, as some Italian politicians are just a generation removed from membership in the fascist party.
So, what do you think? Can a country heal from such a dramatic split within less than a century? Do soldiers who fought for Mussolini deserve any sympathy? How does your country cope with its own dark history?