The Personal Files of Benito Mussolini

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.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, June 1941. (National Archives Identifier 540151)

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.

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Letter signed by Mussolini from his personal papers. (National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized)

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.

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Mussolini letter to Hitler from Mussolini’s personal papers. (National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized)

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.

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Microfilm summary sheet indicating that duplicates of Mussolini’s files were to be sent to the State Department and the British Foreign Office, 1945. (National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized)

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.


2 thoughts on “The Personal Files of Benito Mussolini

  1. Good day, I it find it interesting that people in power tend to be more concerned with their legacy then coming to terms of their finite life. They hope that history will find their exploitations worthy of grandeur instead of distaste.
    You can see this in almost all leaders (both political and religious) that use thier written words in the hopes to influence the future. Mussolini was a prim example of narcissism, not only feeding off of the fear of others but also feeding off of those how revered him.

    Thank you for sharing this with us today so that we may learn from the past to prevent people like Mussolini from rising again.
    Oh oops it happening again and again and will occur in the future unless the populace accepts it’s responsibility to stop it.

    As far as I know I am no relation to him, yes my last name is Mus, and I am part Italian. Quit scary:)
    Pat Mus

    1. Don’t be silly. All modern leaders are groomed and vetted by the same interest parties and this will not change just because you dislike one or other of them.

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