Turbulent memories of the end of a war

A fascinating aspect of how tourism is developing around Lake Como is the way the experience of two world wars is being transformed into tourist attractions, albeit of a very special kind.

They celebrate the endurance and heroism of very ordinary people from the villages around the lake and the surrounding mountains. They found themselves caught up in a conflicts not of their making, that had repercussions for generations after. This is particularly true of the events at the end of the Second World War.

It is Lake Como’s closeness to the border with Switzerland that accounts for much of what happened. Many different groups of people had been fleeing into neutral territory throughout the war; allied agents working behind enemy lines, partisans who knew that the fascist authorities were onto them, escaped prisoners of war, formed a steady stream of fugitives across the lake from Dervio to the villages of Pianello Lario, and on up the donkey tracks into the mountains and over the border at Passo Jorio.  All faced a gruelling trek in borrowed clothes and boots up into the mountains along the old smuggling paths, hoping that one step over the frontier would bring them safety, help from the Red Cross, and hope of life.  Finally, as the Allied forces streamed into Milan, Mussolini himself made a break for it, disguising himself as a German officer in a convoy. He took his retinue of fascist bigwigs with him, and his mistress, Clara Petacci, not bearing to be left behind, caught up with him at Como, only to share his fate.

There had been many skirmishes between the local fascist ‘black brigades’ and the resistance partisans.  These were led by the communists, but by no means all were actually communist sympathisers.  However, the Americans, believing them to be communist agents, had refused to arm the partisans. And so the resistance had more often than not come off worse, and for any successes, were subjected to brutal reprisals. Thus there may have been some element of revenge in the way that Mussolini and Petacci were summarily dispatched in the village of Mezzegra without handing them over to the Allies first. This happened on 28th April 1945, just a day after Il Duce had been recognised and captured at an ad hoc partisan roadblock in Dongo.

After the war, the bitter memories were buried, too painful or too dangerous to discuss. A new generation was born, who couldn’t ask why one family was not allowed to speak to another, why you could buy bread from one baker but not another, why young people in love were denied consent to marry, and thus had to leave for the cities, or the United States.  Now, more than 70 years on, almost everyone who can remember anything has passed on, and it is possible to examine the evidence, share the stories that were captured in time, and relive the conflicts and adventures, without opening up old wounds.

The most prominent result of this shift is the Museum of the End of the War, in Dongo. This is a small but very absorbing museum dedicated to the memories of those local people who found themselves caught up in the last days of the conflict.   This is a great place to spend a rainy morning or afternoon, soaking up the atmosphere and detail of these violent and heroic days.






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