On the 18th July 1943 Hitler had travelled to Italy to see Mussolini. He attempted to give Mussolini some encouragement to strengthen the resolve of the Italian armed forces in the war. It was a very one sided meeting, with Hitler lecturing the Italian leader at length. Mussolini was uncharacteristically quiet because he could give Hitler no proper answer. He knew that support for the war was ebbing away in Italy – but it was not an argument that would carry any weight with Hitler.
The most recent landings in Sicily had brought matters to a head. On the 24th Mussolini’s own Fascist Council voted against him. He turned to the Head of State, the King of Italy, and apparently was surprised when he did not receive the support that he expected to receive.
It was now obvious to almost everyone that Italy had backed the losing side and was heading for catastrophe. The Allied arguments were persuasive – both those made by leaflet and those made by force of arms. General Badoglio was summoned to form a new government, he gave this account of how he heard from the King about how Mussolini finally lost power:
The King was quite calm and told me at once what had happened. What he said made so deep an impression on me that I can repeat it almost word for word.
‘This morning Mussolini asked me for an interview, which I fixed for this afternoon at 4. p.m. at this villa. When he arrived Mussolini told me that a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council had been held and had passed a vote of censure on him, but he believed that this resolution was not in order.
‘I replied at once that I did not agree with him; the Grand Council was an organ of State which he himself had created by means of a law which had been passed by the Chamber and the Senate; therefore every decision of the Grand Council was valid.
“Then, according to Your Majesty I ought to resign,” he said with considerable violence.
“Yes,” I answered, and told him that I forthwith accepted his resignation.’
His Majesty added: ‘When he heard this Mussolini collapsed as if he had had a blow over the heart. “Then my ruin is complete,” he muttered hoarsely.’
Having taken leave of His Majesty, Mussolini went out, and not seeing his car, he asked an officer where it had gone. ‘It is standing in the shade at the side of the Villa,’ the officer answered.
Mussolini went in the direction indicated when he suddenly he found himself surrounded by secret police who asked him to get into a motor ambulance which was standing a little distance away. ‘Can’t I use my car ?’ he asked, ‘and where are you taking me to’ ‘To a place where you will be quite safe,’ answered the oicer. Without saying anything more, Mussolini got into the motor ambulance and was taken to a Carabinieri barracks.
The King then asked me to become Head of the Government; I knew that the country trusted me, that His Majesty would be embarrassed if I refused, and that my refusal would still further complicate a situation which called for immediate action.
I put all personal considerations on one side and faced the terrible responsibility I was undertaking. I answered, ‘I am very conscious of my lack of political experience; I have never taken any part in politics, but I under- stand the pressing needs of the moment and I accept.
As for my colleagues in the Ministry, I have here a list of the politicians who have promised to collaborate and of the parties they represent.’
I read to His Majesty the names of Bonomi as Minister of Internal Affairs, Casati as Minister of Education, of Soleri, of Bergamini, of Einaudi, and others.
The King was entirely opposed to this plan. He said that I would have to act with great rapidity and energy both internally and in our relations with the Germans, and that I must not be surrounded by politicians.
‘You must have a Ministry of experts,’ he added, ‘who will carry out your orders efciently.’ ‘But as a result,’ I said, ‘I shall be entirely cut off from public opinion and shall have no contact with the feeling of the country.’
‘No’, said the King, ‘the whole country is with you and will follow you. I am sure that your political friends will support you even if they are not in the Ministry. Here is a list of the new Ministers; they are all experienced and capable oicials, with whom you can work.’
So, as the King was determined to have his own way, I ended by agreeing.