In her youth, Edda Ciano represented the Italian Fascist regime's ideal "new woman" - no mere wife and mother, but elegant, sporty, an active and enthusiastic supporter of Benito Mussolini's aggressive policies and of his alliance with the Nazis. Mussolini was her father. Years later, after his death and that of her husband, she became a tragic symbol of the fall of the Fascist regime.
When Edda Mussolini was born in Forli in 1910, her father and her mother, Rachele Guidi, had not yet married. At that time, the man who would become Italy's Duce was just one of the many Italians listed as a "political agitator" by the police. Edda was Mussolini's first and favourite child. She was followed by four other children: Vittorio, Bruno, Romano and Anna Maria.
It was soon apparent that Edda had a strong character and a mind of her own and even the prestigious Poggio Imperiale College in Florence was unable to overcome her resistance to any form of discipline. When Mussolini brought his family to Rome in 1929, at the age of 19 Edda found herself at the centre of Italy's political stage. Police reports kept the Duce informed about young Edda's numerous flirtations: with a station-master, with a Milanese Jew, with a penniless aristocrat from Romagna. The family was quite relieved when Edda fell in love and decided to marry Count Galeazzo Ciano, the son of a popular hero of the First World War.
The marriage was celebrated in true Hollywood style. In the presence of members of the Fascist lite and members of Italy's royal family, Edda was led to the altar by her father and, after the ceremony, the happy couple walked out of the church under an arch of daggers raised in their honour. According to the Corriere della Sera, on that day, 24 April 1930, "One would have believed that all of Rome's gardens had stripped themselves bare to send their roses, their azaleas, their lilies, their lilacs to the Duce's daughter."
When her husband was sent to a diplomatic posting in Shanghai, Edda received daily letters from her adoring father. After the birth of their first child, Fabrizio ("Ciccino"), the couple returned to Rome and Galeazzo was appointed under- secretary at the Ministry for Popular Culture, as the Fascist propaganda machine was called. In June 1936, shortly after the birth of their second child, Raimonde, Galeazzo became, at 33, Italy's Minister of Foreign Affairs, at 33, and one of the leading figures of the Fascist regime.
Edda's relationship with Ciano was stormy and in clear reference to Galeazzo's many affairs she nicknamed her husband Gallo, "Rooster". According to various accounts, Edda had her own "distractions", mainly poker and gin. The couple's third child, Marzio, was born in 1938, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
In the spring of 1940, the victorious German troops were about to enter Paris and Mussolini was anxious to join the fighting in order to ensure Italy a place alongside the victors at the peace talks that he believed were soon to be held. In those final months that preceded Italy's entry into the war, the political differences between Edda and her husband became more evident. Edda was pro-German and publicly admired Hitler while Ciano distrusted the Germans.
On 10 May, Galeazzo Ciano noted in his diary that Edda had tried to persuade her father to join the conflict: "Edda has been to Palazzo Venezia and, enthusiastic as she is, she told him that the country wants war and that to prolong neutrality is dishonour." And on 2 August Ciano writes: "Edda attacks me violently, accusing me of Germanophobia and saying that it is public knowledge, that it is known that I feel an invincible physical repulsion for them."
After the outbreak of hostilities, as a woman Edda was unable to take part in combat but, against her father's will, she insisted in fulfilling her patriotic duties as a nurse on the Albanian and Russian fronts.
At the end of 1942, when the war had already taken a disastrous turn for the Italians, Ciano moved to distance himself from Mussolini and, in February 1943, he was moved from the Foreign Ministry to become ambassador to the Holy See. Five months later, on 24 July 1943, Ciano took part in a crucial session of the Grand Council of Fascism which opposed Mussolini's war policies. Ciano was one of the gerachi, the Fascist leaders who voted in favour of a resolution proposed by Dino Grandi. The resolution called upon the Duce to ask the king to resume effective command of the armed forces, and with it "that supreme initiative of decision-making which our institutions attribute to him".
The following day, King Vittorio Emmanuele II ordered Benito Mussolini's arrest, bringing the Fascist regime to an end.
On that day, 25 July 1943, Edda was in Livorno with her children. It was probably her idea that, after the collapse of the Fascist regime, the family should seek the protection of her beloved Fhrer and seek refuge in Germany. But the Germans considered Ciano a traitor. After they had freed Mussolini and put him at the head of the puppet Social Republic of Salo in Northern Italy, they and the hardline Fascist loyalists insisted that Ciano be tried for treason and shot.
Edda did everything she possibly could to save her husband. She plotted, threatened and begged Hitler and her father to spare Ciano.
"You're mad," she told her father. "The war is lost . . . and in this condition you're letting them kill him? I said this in the face of Hitler as well. You know how much I wanted victory, your victory and theirs, but now there is nothing to do. And you condemn Galeazzo in this condition?"
Mussolini ignored her pleas and Galeazzo Ciano was executed by firing squad in Verona on 11 January 1944. According to the historian Antonio Spinosa, Mussolini, "even if he had wanted to, couldn't have saved Galeazzo because he was in Sal, a Quisling of Hitler and subjected to the will of the leaders of the Fascist Republic, and most notably among them, Alessandro Pavolini, for whom the ex-foreign minister was only a vulgar traitor".
According to the German journalist/historian Erich Kuby, Mussolini asked the SS general Karl Wolff if it might be possible to spare Ciano. Kuby said that in the famous telephone call that took place at 4am, on the morning Ciano was shot, Mussolini asked Wolff if he would lose his credibility with Hitler if the execution didn't take place. "Yes, greatly," answered Wolff. "For Mussolini," said Kuby, "these words were much more important than his daughter's letters."
After Ciano's death, Edda told her father that she preferred to be known henceforth as the wife of a victim of Fascism rather than as the daughter of the Duce. She wrote: "You are no longer my father. I renounce the name Mussolini."
Edda escaped to Switzerland, taking with her husband's diaries and notes, which were published after the war. Spinosa wrote that, in 1945, upon hearing the news of her father's death, according to the Swiss press, Edda went for a walk, "happily and dishevelled, in Monthey's main square, wearing a bright red dress as if overjoyed by the event."
When the war ended, after a brief period of confinement on the island of Lipari, Edda moved to Rome, where she lived in silence until 1975 when she published La mia testimonianza, a book of memoirs.
In her final years, Edda made peace with her father. Three years ago, she appeared in public at a Mass for Mussolini's soul.
According to Marina Addis Saba, a professor of contemporary history at the university of Sassari, "Edda Mussolini incarnated the idea of the new woman according to the Fascist regime; not just a wife and mother, but an elegant and sporty woman, sure of her own decisions."
In the words of the British historian Denis Mack Smith, Edda Ciano was "a courageous woman with a strong character, a woman who knew how to stand up against her father, something that no one else ever did".