Sisters in Resistance
How a German Spy, a Banker's Wife, and Mussolini's Daughter Outwitted the Nazis
In 1944, news of secret diaries kept by Italy's Foreign Minister, Galeazzo Ciano, had permeated public consciousness. What wasn't reported, however, was how three women—a Fascist's daughter, a German spy, and an American banker’s wife—risked their lives to ensure the diaries would reach the Allies, who would later use them as evidence against the Nazis at Nuremberg.
In 1944, Benito Mussolini's daughter, Edda, gave Hitler and her father an ultimatum: release her husband, Galeazzo Ciano, from prison, or risk her leaking her husband's journals to the press. To avoid the peril of exposing Nazi lies, Hitler and Mussolini hunted for the diaries for months, determined to destroy them.
Hilde Beetz, a German spy, was deployed to seduce Ciano to learn the diaries' location and take them from Edda. As the seducer became the seduced, Hilde converted as a double agent, joining forces with Edda to save Ciano from execution. When this failed, Edda fled to Switzerland with Hilde’s daring assistance to keep Ciano's final wish: to see the diaries published for use by the Allies. When American spymaster Allen Dulles learned of Edda's escape, he sent in Frances De Chollet, an “accidental” spy, telling her to find Edda, gain her trust, and, crucially, hand the diaries over to the Americans. Together, they succeeded in preserving one of the most important documents of WWII.
Drawing from in‑depth research and first-person interviews with people who witnessed these events, Mazzeo gives readers a riveting look into this little‑known moment in history and shows how, without Edda, Hilde, and Frances's involvement, certain convictions at Nuremberg would never have been possible.
July 24, 1943–August 14, 1943
The Grand Council meeting of the Fascist party cabinet took place on the Saturday night. The Ciano household was in turmoil on the Sunday. By the afternoon of July 25, word of Badoglio’s ascension and Mussolini’s arrest had trickled out. For the first time, Galeazzo was frightened. He knew that Pietro Badoglio was his enemy. He fully expected the knock on the door that said the police had arrived to search the house for the documents that compromised the new prime minister. Galeazzo doubted he would survive that visit.
If the police should come he fretted, perhaps for the first time, about his diaries. Some of the volumes contained indiscreet—and, considering Badoglio’s new favor with the king, potentially deadly—references to “the pederasty of the crown prince.” For years, rumors had circulated that Prince Umberto preferred the company of young military men to that of his determinedly anti-fascist wife, the Belgian-born Princess Marie José. Gossips said that, so strong was his disinclination for the embraces of his bride and perhaps, as well, for her politics, their four children had been conceived through artificial insemination.
Galeazzo hastily gathered up the notebooks. There were the diaries of his time as foreign minister but also his separate memoranda of his conversations with German officials and various other private notes and papers, including those with details about the predilections of Prince Umberto. These papers might embarrass any number of powerful men, in fact, and get him in a whole lot of trouble: The realization came as a shock to Galeazzo. He burned nearly a quarter of his manuscripts that day in the family’s Roman apartment as a precaution, and he started thinking seriously for the first time about what he was going to do with the remainder. He was loath to burn any more papers. Yes, they were dangerous. But they might, Galeazzo considered, equally prove to be a powerful chip with which to bargain.
* * *
On Sunday, July 25, Edda was still in Livorno with the children, and Galeazzo was also growing uneasy about his family. News of the coup had not yet been made public. When it was released, he wasn’t sure that the Mussolini family would be safe from the public, though he expected most of the opprobrium to be directed at his father-in-law. He called Edda that night, finding her in the middle of hosting a lively dinner party in the villa, unconcerned and unenlightened. “The call was very short,” Edda remembered.
Ciano warned her: “There is a tramontana not especially for us. I’ll be sending the car tomorrow morning. Telephone to my mother and make her leave with you.” Tramontana—the Italian word for the bitterly cold winds from the north—was their personal code for “there’s a bad wind blowing.” “He probably already knew that my father had been removed from power by the King,” Edda understood later. Galeazzo could not say so in that moment; he had to assume that their telephone conversations were being monitored. But Edda knew her husband—and she knew Pietro Badoglio. The call was enough to worry her.
When the dinner party had ended, Edda, rattled by Galeazzo’s guarded message, hurried a lingering girlfriend out the door and placed a late-night call to Galeazzo’s mother, Carolina Pini Ciano. Edda did not like her mother-in-law. The deeply religious Carolina returned the disdain for her son’s unconventional wife.
As Edda’s younger brother Romano put it, “Edda was an unusual woman. Of all [Mussolini’s] children, she most resembled my father. She had his temperament (energetic to the point of restlessness), his analytical skill, and his raging sensitivity. She resembled him physically too, with that withering look she inherited from him.” It was a look that Edda gave her mother-in-law often. “Stop looking at me with those Mussolini eyes” was one of Carolina Ciano’s exasperated expressions. Even Carolina, however, could not fault Edda’s courage. Edda had no official role in her father’s government and made no policy decisions. She could not have been compelled to do anything, either in character or as the Duce’s daughter. Despite having three small children, however, she had volunteered for the Italian Red Cross in 1941, serving in an active combat zone off the coast of Greece. Almost immediately after she joined, her hospital ship was bombed by the British, and Edda survived the shipwreck by swimming five hours in icy waters. She had been feted in the newspapers, and Galeazzo wasn’t the only one with a riveting diary: Edda had kept a record of her wartime adventures, which maybe one day she would publish.
Edda, in fact, had ended her Red Cross service only that year, in 1943, and she was taking the summer at the seaside to spend time with the children. The idea of having to manage her mother-in-law now was exasperating, but Edda dutifully placed the call to let her know to be ready. Typically, Edda found Carolina Ciano stubborn and dramatic. “There was some difficulty in making her realize that the expedition of the morning would not exactly be a pleasure trip and she had better not embarrass herself and the others with huge suitcases, personal maids and other luxuries necessary in normal times,” Edda noted wryly. Then Edda decided she’d best tell the children about their grandfather’s fall from power and what it meant for their family. Reading Edda’s account of that conversation, one’s heart goes out to the young Ciano children.
“What do you suppose is going to happen to us? Shall we all be killed?” the children asked their mother, when they understood their grandfather was no longer prime minister.
Edda did not sugarcoat her answer. “Not yet anyhow,” she told them coolly, “but we must be ready for anything. In the best hypothesis, your father will lose his job, his fortune will be taken and we will all become private citizens. But it’s much more probable that we’ll go through the usual routine: prison, death, or, if we are lucky, exile.” “[The] children understood,” Edda assured herself: “They are clever. . . . Hope is very hard to die. But I had no illusions. Tragedy had entered my house . . . we were doomed.” She said later that she “went to bed, and for one more night, in blissful ignorance, I was still a dictator’s daughter.”
* * *
From their remote seaside estate, Edda could not hear the noise that arose in the streets across Italy that evening. If she had, she might not have slept at all. At 9:45 p.m., the national radio broke away to an announcement from the king, informing Italians that Benito Mussolini had been deposed and arrested. Twenty years of dictatorship had ended. Italy went wild. People flooded from their homes and into the streets that night, the radio broadcast coming in stereo from every open doorway. They kissed each other. They sang. Men swept women into their arms for impromptu dances. Everywhere there was laughter. For the people of Italy, this was no less their liberation than the day, still nearly a year in the future, when the Allies arrived to free Nazi-occupied Paris.
Edda was awakened by an early-morning telephone call. One of Carolina Ciano’s sisters was calling in a panic, hoping to be evacuated when the car came for Edda and the children. “I’m afraid,” she told Edda: “some men outside shouting they are going to break everything.” Witnessing the street revelry in Rome and the angry denunciations, Galeazzo also understood for the first time that perhaps the tramontana was blowing in their direction after all.
* * *
What came next—the period from July 25, 1943, when Mussolini was deposed, to September 8, 1943, when he was freed by Hitler and re-turned to power as a puppet dictator—is known in Italian history simply as the Forty-Five Days. Ironically, Mussolini would get his last political wish: Germany would now have to focus its resources on the theater in the Mediterranean, though it was not the outcome he had predicted.
For one glorious night and into the next morning, Italians celebrated their liberation from Mussolini and what everyone said was the end of the war. It wasn’t only the Italians who celebrated the hope of peace on the horizon. Across the Atlantic, the New York Times splashed the headline: “Mussolini Ousted with Fascist Cabinet; Badoglio, His Foe, Made Premier by King; Shift Believed First Step Toward Peace.” In baseball stadiums across America, as news came in that Mussolini had “struck out,” thunderous cheers brought games to a standstill and players rushed onto the fields in jubilation.
Outside Livorno on Monday morning, the car that Galeazzo had sent for Edda, his mother, and the children never arrived. There would be no more cars arriving for Mussolini’s daughter. Instead, police knocked on the door of the villa and came to give orders. The family would need to return to Rome by train, like any other Italian family. It was nearly two o’clock in the afternoon of Monday, July 26, before they reached the station, and there, passing a newsstand, Edda saw the headline announcing the fall of her father’s regime. The children spotted the freight cars along the tracks, now graffitied with the slogan down with mussolini, and had to be cajoled to stop crying.
Edda, her mother-in-law, and the children arrived in the capital around midnight, four hours late, and by evening the mood had turned uglier still. Italians were coming to understand how little would change after all. It was a different leader, but the same old fascism. Pietro Badoglio, whose commitment to fascism was as unwavering as the king’s, took to the radio in his first speech as prime minister and announced three words that stunned the nation: “La guerra continua”—the war continues. Galeazzo and Edda’s friend Susanna Agnelli was in Rome that day, and she shrewdly noted: “The people thought that by getting rid of the Fascists the war would go. But they seemed to forget two things: that it was the Fascists who were voting against Mussolini and that the Germans, our allies, could be all over Italy in a few days.”
The people knew who they blamed for this mess: Mussolini and his family. Edda was shocked to see crowds in Rome celebrating the arrest of her father as they waited for the bags to be unloaded at the station. Three armed police guards escorted them home—a necessary safety measure— but the guards had no deference left and scolded Edda the whole way for not having told her father that the Italians did not want war.
“We haven’t the least chance of survival if we remain in Italy,” Galeazzo said when he saw her. Edda knew he was right. They could not possibly stay in Italy with Badoglio in power and with the popular anger directed at the Mussolini family. Her father was in prison, in some undisclosed location, and no one in the Fascist party was prepared to lift a finger to try to free him. Her eldest brother, Vittorio Mussolini, was making hasty plans to flee to Germany. The next day, Tuesday, July 27, the Ciano family asked a friend with the Spanish embassy for visas and requested passports to leave Italy as well. They planned only to pass through Spain and to travel on to South America. Galeazzo was already ordering his bankers to move funds out of the country.
Edda and Galeazzo expected the passports to take a few days, perhaps as long as a week. While they waited, the situation in Rome deteriorated faster than they could have imagined and placed an additional strain on an already shaky marriage. The mood of the crowds in the streets turned from celebration to despair to fury. The military, on orders from the new Badoglio government, turned its firepower on the protestors. In the days that followed, nearly a hundred protestors were killed and more than sixteen hundred arrested across Italy. In the cultural clash of that moment—between those who despised fascism and those who believed that fascism had been betrayed by the removal of Mussolini—Galeazzo Ciano now emerged as someone everyone in Italy could agree to hate. He represented both the dictatorship and the betrayal.
The first of August came and went. Still the promised passports did not arrive. Without them they could not legally exit Italy. Edda began to be afraid of the reason. Friends, harboring the same fears, urged Galeazzo to get out now by whatever means necessary. He was the one in real danger, not Edda or the children. Not yet, anyhow. The door was closing. Pietro Badoglio had launched a smear campaign in the press and an investigation into Galeazzo, accusing him of enriching himself through corruption. Arrest and a trial were inevitable, and even if the trial was a fair one—hardly certain—the truth was that Galeazzo was almost certainly guilty. The couple was now under de facto house arrest in their city apartment at 9, Via Angelo Secchi, and bitterly fighting.
They fought about the risks, among other things. Edda saw the perils at home clearly: “The only way to avoid arrest, or perhaps even liquidation was to find refuge either abroad or on Vatican soil,” she told Galeazzo. They attempted to secure refugee status at the Vatican. The Holy See, not wanting to cause problems for itself with the new fascist leader, refused to accept them. Edda wanted to leave Italy immediately, even if it meant going without passports. Galeazzo wanted to wait a little longer, confident there was no imminent danger and that the passports were coming.
By the summer of 1943, Susanna Agnelli was engaged to marry another of their mutual friends, the Sicilian prince Raimondo Lanza, himself an incorrigible playboy, and Susanna and Raimondo went to check on Galeazzo in person in the first week of August. By then, Edda and Galeazzo had been waiting more than a week for the passports. The Ciano marriage had never been an easy one, and the strain of the delay was showing. Locked in the house together and under police surveillance from outside, they were determinedly avoiding each other, entertaining friends and lovers in different rooms of the apartment. Galeazzo insisted that he and Edda were closer than ever, but Susanna, who was also a good friend of Edda’s lover, Emilio Pucci, could at least guess at some of the drama that took place behind closed doors. For visitors to the Ciano apartment, Susanna remarked, “It was embarrassing and difficult.”
Susanna and Raimondo were fond of Galeazzo, and Susanna hoped that he would find a way to get out of Italy. Dino Grandi slipped out of Italy that week, foreseeing the inevitable. Raimondo too was in a precarious position, “all mixed up in talking to the Allies, trying to get an armistice, getting rid of the Fascists, and turning against the German,” as Susanna put it bluntly. They were debating whether Raimondo also needed a passport. When they arrived at the apartment, Galeazzo was on edge but glad to see friends. Few old friends came to see him now, he admitted to Susanna.
Susanna, an intellectual and bookish young woman who, unusually for a great heiress and socialite, aspired to be a physician, was legendary in their social circles for her brutal candor. Galeazzo challenged her now, joking: “Let’s hear you who tell the truth, Suni. Do you think they are going to kill me?”
Susanna paused. Galeazzo was not a good judge of character. He surrounded himself with flatterers, and they were all telling him what he wanted to hear: that his life was not in danger. That his fortune could be saved. That there would be a solution. That he should wait for the passports.
“I smiled to make it less terrible,” Susanna remembered.
“Yes, I do, Galeazzo,” she told him.
“And who do you think would kill me, the Germans or the Allies?” he quipped.
“I’m afraid either one,” she said slowly, regretting her words the moment she saw his face turn ashen.
Galeazzo turned. He was angry now and stung by her words. “Remember one thing, Suni,” he said bitterly, “if they kill me, they will kill you, too.”
“That may well be,” Susanna quietly acknowledged. She and her family were already quietly making plans to flee to Switzerland.
Susanna took her friend’s hand and squeezed. Go to Spain, she urged him. Today. Galeazzo had flown in the Italian air force. There were friends, pilots, ready to fly him to safety, passport or no passport. The Spanish ambassador in Rome had promised to help. She was pleading with him.
He didn’t want to run away, he told Susanna. Privately, he confessed, he didn’t want to flee without Edda and the children, and slipping away with a friend meant going without them. What if he left and never saw them again? What if they didn’t make it out of Italy? He and Edda railed against each other, they fought and argued and raised their voices, but that did not mean that Galeazzo did not love his wife and his children. Their mutual infidelities might have caused storms and jealousy, but, in having them, their marriage was not any different from those of the vast majorities of their friends in Italian aristocratic circles, and Galeazzo was an especially doting father. He didn’t feel that he could abandon his family as a man of honor. Things would turn out okay, she’d see, he assured Susanna as she turned to close the door behind her. Susanna smiled sadly.
On the street outside, Susanna exploded in frustration: “Why the hell doesn’t he go away while he still can?” she burst out. Raimondo could only shrug helplessly. “I. . . wanted to help him,” Susanna said later, “he had so many times helped people I had asked him to intercede for when one word from him could change their future from death to life. Now he was surrounded by people who... assured him that everybody loved him and that, certainly, his life was not in danger.” Susanna, the sensible truth-teller, knew better. All their lives rested in the balance.
Another week passed: mid-August. The drumbeat pressing for an investigation into Galeazzo’s financial corruption—and for his arrest— was growing stronger in the press. With Mussolini shunted to the sidelines, his prison location a secret, rage from all sides of the political spectrum was directed now at Galeazzo. Still the passports did not arrive. There was only one conclusion: The Badoglio government was stalling. Pietro Badoglio had a score to settle. He had waited a long time for this moment. There were not going to be any passports coming. The Ciano family’s house arrest was tightened, and the prime minister began to consider moving them to more secure incarceration on a remote Mediterranean island, to prevent Galeazzo fleeing Italy while the politics of a show trial were navigated.
Galeazzo might escape Italy undetected on his own, with the help of friends in the air force or a sympathetic colleague in a foreign embassy. If they were to leave as a family, they would need the help of the Germans. Only a clandestine operation directed by Italy’s Nazi allies could save Edda and Galeazzo from Pietro Badoglio’s retribution. Edda trusted her personal relationship with Hitler, whom she considered an old family friend, and she made some quiet inquiries. When a friend inside the Third Reich learned of Edda’s plan, he tried to stop the family from moving in that direction. Galeazzo had been frustrating the German war effort from inside Italy since 1939, to Hitler’s considerable irritation. The Nazis also would take their retribution. “Warn Galeazzo that he should make sure not to fall into the hands of the Germans,” he urged; “if they succeed in catching him, they will kill him.”
By then, it was too late. The death of an old friend—the friend who had offered to fly Galeazzo to Spain—in a state-ordered execution brought home the reality: The Badoglio government had a hit list. Galeazzo was surely on it. Cornered, they threw caution to the wind. Edda asked the Germans to help them flee Italy.