Edda Ciano & Hilde Beetz: how the women stood up to Hitler
Dr Tilar J Mazzeo reveals how Mussolini’s daughter, a German spy, and a banker’s wife risked their lives to expose Axis secrets during World War II – and helped to deliver justice at Nuremberg
If Edda Ciano were to rescue her husband, she would have to do what no one else dared: she would have to blackmail Adolf Hitler.
“Führer,” she wrote in a letter dated 10 January 1944, “for some time the documents have been in the hands of persons who are authorised to use them in case anything should happen to my husband”. She gave Hitler three days to release Galeazzo Ciano, or she would publish the Italian’s private diaries. It was a gambit as unlikely as it was daring. A young German spy named Hilde Beetz had already been sent to seduce her husband and learn the location of the documents. That spy’s mission had already produced results.
But what Hitler could not know was that in the final months of 1943, the young spy assigned to beguile Galeazzo Ciano in a prison cell had fallen in love with her target and was, even now, helping Edda to deliver her brazen blackmail message.
Why did Hitler want Galeazzo Ciano's diaries?
So, who was Galeazzo Ciano, and why were his diaries of such interest to Hitler? Galeazzo Ciano had been, until the previous summer, Benito Mussolini’s foreign minister and political heir-apparent. Crucially, he was also Mussolini’s son-in-law. Edda Ciano, née Edda Mussolini, was the headstrong favourite child of Il Duce.
As Mussolini’s foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano had been privy to secret conversations between Germany and Italy, and by 1942, became ever more convinced that joining the Axis powers had been a grave mistake. Determined to act, he began secret negotiations with the Allies and sought to remove Italy from the war. When that failed, he reached out to Allied intelligence, attempting to broker a separate peace.
After that, too, failed, he joined a plot to remove his father-in-law from power in the summer of 1943, and, for a few weeks – until Hitler liberated Mussolini from his mountain-top prison – Ciano and his co-conspirators succeeded.
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In the autumn of 1943, Hitler restored Mussolini to power as the head of a puppet state in northern Italy, which came to be known as the Italian Social Republic, or Salò Republic. The Ciano family attempted to flee to South America, but were detained and sent home. Mussolini understood that he was expected to deal with his treacherous son-in-law in a show trial for treason. The verdict was always going to be ‘guilty’.
When the trial began on 8 January 1944, Galeazzo Ciano’s attorney was persuaded to resign, and the public defender was comically incompetent. But it did not matter – the whole affair was nothing more than a charade. When the inevitable verdict was announced two days later, a plea for clemency was sent to Mussolini, and that night he was heard pacing sleeplessly waiting for the appeal. He had already half-decided to commute the sentence for the sake of his daughter, but the request for clemency never reached him. A senior member of Mussolini’s Fascist Party, afraid that the dictator would waver, withheld the letter until Galeazzo Ciano had been executed on the morning of 11 January.
Edda Ciano and Hilde Beetz did not, of course, know of those palace intrigues. All they knew during the trial was that there would only be a narrow window between the verdict and the firing squad. It might be hours; it might be a day or two. And Edda no longer believed that her father would be moved by appeals for mercy. She knew, though, what might move him: the papers.
The ‘Ciano Diaries’ recorded the inner workings of a fascist strategy that he now renounced, along with its ugliest diplomatic secrets. And since at least 1942, the diaries had been seriously aggravating Hitler. “I don’t understand,” Hitler fumed privately, “how Mussolini can make war with a foreign minister who doesn’t want it and who keeps diaries in which he says nasty things about Nazism and its leaders”. The Gestapo was, even now, hunting for Edda and the missing papers.
A rescue bid
Despite Hilde’s feelings for Galeazzo Ciani, Edda was prepared to set emotional complications aside in a bid to save her husband’s life. Aided by Edda’s wartime lover, Emilio Pucci, the two women teamed up and concocted a plan to smuggle Edda and the diaries over the border to neutral Switzerland, where they would make contact with British intelligence.
Before crossing the frontier, Edda wrote the aforementioned letter to Hitler, along with a letter to her father, threatening to publish the diaries unless her husband was released from prison. She handed the blackmail letters (both post-dated to 10 January) to Emilio, so he could pass them to Hilde. Hilde would then see that they reached the two dictators.
Emilio gave Edda a loaded pistol and warned her to shoot anyone who tried to stop her
On the evening of 9 January, Emilio gave Edda a loaded pistol, warned her to shoot anyone who tried to stop her – and to shoot herself if they captured her – and watched as she disappeared into the woods with several volumes of her husband’s diaries wrapped around her waist in a belt made of pyjamas. When she arrived at the Swiss side of the border, the impression that she was heavily pregnant prevented her being searched by agents.
Having seen Edda off, Emilio rushed to Verona to deliver her letters, with the intention of returning to the border to flee himself. Instead, he was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Hilde, feeling responsible for the debacle, persuaded her supervisor that if she could take Emilio to Switzerland, he would help them ‘trap’ Edda and get the diaries. In reality, of course, they would ensure Edda and the diaries made it safely to Britain.
However, as soon as the pair arrived in Switzerland, Emilio collapsed on the street from head trauma, making their incognito operations impossible. He was then hospitalised with a fractured skull and later interned as an Italian prisoner of war. Meanwhile, Edda – a very unwelcome refugee in Switzerland – was incarcerated in a convent, with no access to outside information. She was still in possession of the diaries, and still hunted by the Gestapo.
Hiding in Switzerland
On 14 January, an Italian diplomat travelled to Edda’s convent, where he informed her that her husband had been executed three days earlier. It was crushing news – a revelation that caused her to howl in grief and fury – but she was still keen to ensure that the diaries were published.
With Hilde now undercover as a German consular secretary in Switzerland, the trio attempted to contact British intelligence to arrange the delivery of the manuscripts, and to negotiate Edda’s passage to safety. Already, there were German plans in the works to kidnap her, obtain the location of the diaries, and ensure her permanent silence.
Frustratingly, though, the British agent on the ground in Bern – perceiving that Hilde was a German operative and suspecting a set-up aimed at revealing his identity – could not be drawn. Things were looking bleak: Hilde was unable to renew a Swiss visa and about to be deported; Emilio was still recovering from a cracked skull; and it was only a matter of time before Hitler’s henchmen discovered Edda’s location.
Fortunately, the trio had a lucky break. The presence of Edda and Emilio in Switzerland came to the attention of an American government man in Bern named Allen Dulles, whose covert assignment was the operation of the newly founded Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the modern Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The OSS already had some information about the diaries, and was keen to obtain them for the Allies.
Not only might the documents help shape public perceptions about the war, but the Allies were already looking ahead to what would become – after the conflict had ended – the trials at Nuremberg. The race was on.
A mountain mission
Allen Dulles’ first thought was to send in a professional intelligence agent, Cordelia Dodson, who had attended university with Emilio, to see if she could obtain the materials. He soon realised, however, that a more expedient route was available: in Fribourg there was a country house, locally known as the ‘House of Spies’, where the American and British intelligence communities socialised, along with a select group of other European agents.
The hostess, an American banker’s wife named Frances de Chollet, was friends with the Italian heiress Virginia Agnelli and her daughters, who were themselves friends of Edda and Emilio. Keen to exploit this connection, Allen Dulles activated Frances as an ‘accidental’ (amateur) agent and tasked her with befriending Edda and persuading her to trust the Americans with her late husband’s papers.
To facilitate the clandestine ‘girls’ lunches’ between the two women, the OSS provided Frances with a sporty race car to cross the mountain pass to the psychiatric clinic where Edda was now living in secret. It was fortunate that they did – and that Frances was an excellent and experienced race car driver. Because, when Edda ultimately did agree to allow the OSS to photograph the papers, the equipment blew the fuses inside the building.
Fearing that the clinic would discover what was happening – and that Edda would be sent back to Italy, and her certain death – it was decided that Frances would drive Edda and the diaries across the mountains to photograph the diaries on Frances’ kitchen table. The plan worked: the intelligence team photographed the diaries, page by page, into the early morning hours. Then, just before dawn, Frances drove Edda back to the clinic at high speed and helped her sneak back in through a window.
What began as an amateur spy mission ended up in a bond that would last after the war ended. Later, Edda would fondly recall “that little trip”, especially how the two women dodged the Gestapo and delivered – at last – the major portion of Galeazzo Ciano’s diaries to the Allies for publication, just as Edda had warned Hitler.
On 27 May 1945, Allen Dulles held the papers in his hands; the papers that three women – Edda Ciano, Hilde Beetz and Frances de Chollet – had each risked their lives to preserve, and that bound them in a curious wartime friendship. Together, the papers were, in the words of the US government, “the most important single political document concerning recent Italian affairs in existence”.
In front of Dulles was Robert H Jackson, the US chief counsel and head prosecutor at the trials that would come to be known simply as Nuremberg, after their location. The charges were crimes against the peace, conspiracy, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The diaries of Galeazzo Ciano were among the most important pieces of evidence against members of Hitler’s innermost circle.
Whatever small measure of justice Nuremberg amounted to, set against the sweeping depravity of World War II, these women – in what must rank as one of the war’s greatest rescue missions – helped to deliver one part of it to history.
Dr Tilar J Mazzeo is a bestselling author and an associate professor at the Université de Montréal. The story of the diaries is explored in her new book, Sisters in Resistance: How a German Spy, a Banker’s Wife, and Mussolini’s Daughter Outwitted the Nazis (Scribe, 2022)
This article first appeared in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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