ITALY: Death in the Morning

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Able, Rome-wise New York Timesman Herbert L. Matthews spent weeks digging out the facts in the strange and murky death of Mussolini's son-in-law, flashy Count Galeazzo Ciano (TIME, Jan. 17). Last week Matthews cabled his findings from Rome. Their gist:

Under Fascism, money could buy almost anything, even a man's life. Someone spent millions trying to save Ciano. He almost escaped death. But there was treachery within treachery and behind it the implacable figure of Benito Mussolini, who sealed his son-in-law's fate.

All of the 19 Grand Councilors who voted to oust the Duce last July 24 were tried for their lives. But at the trial in Verona's grim, massive Castel Vecchio, built in 1335 near Diocletian's amphitheater, only six defendants were present. The others were in hiding. The judges were all Italians; no Germans took part. Many believe that the judges had been told to go as far as they liked, since the Duce would suspend the sentences in time.

Ciano was the last to testify. He did not behave well. Ciano called it "absolutely absurd that we ... wanted to ruin the Duce, since we would be buried in the ruin." But he admitted that after the Council meeting he had gone to Marshal Badoglio, asked for a passport for himself, his wife Edda and their children. Prince Otto von Bismarck, Counselor of the German Embassy and a close friend, promised to put a plane at Ciano's disposal. Ciano was spirited into the plane, but it flew to Germany, not to Spain as he intended. Later Edda and the children escaped in a car to Switzerland, though police had blanket orders to take her dead or alive, orders that could not have been issued without the knowledge of her adoring father.

'Mama, Mia.' The prosecutor demanded the death penalty, exclaimed: "Thus I have thrown your heads down before Italian history and perhaps even my own, but it is well, provided that Italy live." Eighteen Councilors, including five in custody, were sentenced to death (one got 30 years). The condemned at first did not take the sentence seriously. Italians do not believe in executions, least of all for political reasons, and Ciano was, after all, Mussolini's son-in-law and former Foreign Minister. But the priests came and the prisoners realized that they were to die. Ciano agreed to sign a petition to the Duce. A courier flew to Lake Garda, where Mussolini was staying. But that night he was not there, nor did he appear until late next morning, after the five had been executed.

Italians swear that Hitler, not Mussolini, ordered that the executions be filmed.

So that pictures could be made, the five were shot at 9 a.m. instead of at dawn. Ciano, the last to be executed, had collapsed during the night. He had to be dragged between two militiamen and placed astride a chair withhis back to the firing squad. The volunteer firing squad was nervous and shot badly, which may account for the story that someone had bribed his executioners.

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