Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office. It is part five of a series on the history of some of the seized foreign records housed at the National Archives.
Unlike the very systematic seizure and filming of German records, the acquisition of many of the Italian records that made their way to the National Archives was purely by chance.
The personal papers of Benito Mussolini, also sometimes called the Handbag Files, are a prime example.
Known as Il Duce, Mussolini was the head of the Italian National Fascist Party. He served as Prime Minister from 1922 until July 1943, when his extreme unpopularity led King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy to dismiss and arrest him. Just months later, on October 13, the Italian state switched its alliance and formally declared war on Germany.
Mussolini’s reign, however, was not finished, and in September 1943 he was rescued from prison by a German paratrooper unit. At Hitler’s suggestion, Mussolini became the head of a collaborationist puppet government of northern Italy known as the Italian Social Republic, which he ruled until his death in April 1945.
Mussolini kept a personal archive, which was captured by the successor government after his arrest. However, because the new Prime Minister, Pietro Badoglio, failed to absorb Mussolini’s personal files into the Italian state archives, Mussolini regained control over his records when he was installed as the puppet ruler of the Italian Social Republic.
Despite ruling over only northern Italy, a lack of space in the Social Republic forced Mussolini to leave his less personal archives, his archivo ordinario, in Rome. A year later the United States Fifth Army occupied the city and handed the documents over to the Italian government. His more private records had made their way north to join him in his personal palace, Palazzo Feltrinelli.
By early 1945, Mussolini was incredibly paranoid about how he would be viewed historically. He looked into hiding his personal collection until he could give the records to a group of trustworthy Italian historians who would be sure to use them to write a glowing account of the fascist dictator.
Mussolini, however, had no time to execute his plan once the German defenses in northern Italy were defeated by Allied troops. On April 18, 1945, Mussolini fled his palace on the shores of Lake Garda for Milan, taking with him only two zinc boxes of what he considered the most valuable records in his personal collection.
On April 25, with his defeat imminent, Mussolini and other prominent members of the Italian Fascist Party tried to make their way north from Milan. The dictator sought to make it to Valtellina to attempt a final stand in mountainous terrain there. Again Mussolini had to sift through his documents, this time taking with him only the most important documents that would fit into two briefcases while the rest was sent on ahead to Como by pickup truck.
The truck never arrived at Como—it was intercepted by Italian partisans. Mussolini never arrived at his destination either. On April 27, while en route to Valtellina, he was also captured by partisans in Dongo, some 34 miles short of the mountain city. The two briefcases stuffed with documents that Mussolini had kept with him were seized by the partisans. The next day, Mussolini was shot by a group of Italian Communists, and his body was returned to Milan, where it was publicly defiled.
Though Mussolini’s history ends there, the story behind his documents does not. Those documents that had been left behind in his palace on Lake Garda were captured by the U.S. Army and shipped south to the Allied Force Headquarters (AFHQ) in Caserta, north of Naples.
On May 23, three Italian partisans had arrived at AFHQ, offering documents that had been with Mussolini when he was found in Dongo. The U.S. Army immediately began translating and copying files to be used for intelligence.
The U.S. State Department and British Foreign Office also made use of these records. Together, the institutions created the Joint Allied Intelligence Agency, and for two years filmed particularly valuable elements from Mussolini’s collection in Rome. In 1947, when microfilming was completed, the documents were turned over to the Italian government. A set of copies was sent to Washington in 1948, and a sister set was transferred to Britain.
In 1950, the Historical Division of the Department of State transferred the copies to the National Archives. The collection bore a restricted classification until 1964 although it was later discovered the British copies had already been opened to researchers.
Today, copies of the Italian dictator’s personal documents can found in Italy as well as both the British and American National Archives. A once private archive, it is now available to everyone across the world.