Sisters in Resistance: How a German Spy, a Banker’s Wife, and Mussolini’s Daughter Outwitted the Nazis

From a Wall Street Journal review by Moira Hodgson of the book by Tilar J. Mazzeo titled “Sisters in Resistance: How a German Spy, a Banker’s Wife, and Mussolini’s Daughter Outwitted the Nazis”:

At the beginning of World War II Galeazzo Ciano (1903-1944), Italy’s foreign minister under Mussolini, began to keep a secret diary. Part of Hitler’s inner circle, he meticulously wrote down what he heard at meetings with Nazi officials. He recorded details of political squabbles and discussions of Germany’s war strategy. The diaries starkly exposed Nazi war crimes and would be used as crucial evidence in the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46.

In the last year of the war three women risked their lives to obtain these diaries and deliver them to the Allies. The title of Tilar J. Mazzeo’s book “Sisters in Resistance” implies that they worked on the same side, but their allegiances could not have been more disparate. One was a Swiss-based American socialite enlisted by the U.S. secret service, another a well-placed Italian Fascist, the third a Nazi spy. The latter two were deeply flawed people, lost in the moral thicket of the war, but who ended up showing enormous courage.

Ciano was married to Mussolini’s eldest and favorite daughter, Edda. Privately, he opposed his father-in-law and Italy’s alliance with Hitler. But he was also a die-hard Fascist who’d greatly enriched himself while in office and ordered executions of political opponents. A notorious playboy, he chased after aristocratic wives and daughters, seducing and dumping them in short order. He was weak, gullible and frivolous, a famously indiscreet gossip who spoke, Ms. Mazzeo writes, “with a high-pitched, nasal twang.” Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, described him as “a pompous and vain imbecile.”

In his diary, Ciano unhesitatingly ridiculed Nazi leaders. Hitler was “not just a bully but a tedious blowhard” who bored everyone with his endless, self-congratulatory speeches. Goering was “a pathetic child, desperate for praise and baubles”; Ciano comments that in Italy he would have been stoned in the streets for his ghastly sable coat, “something between what automobile drivers wore in 1906 and what a high-grade prostitute wears to the opera.” Along with these disparaging observations, Ciano piled up incriminating proof, especially against Hitler’s foreign minister, the hated “sniveling, back-stabbing” Joachim von Ribbentrop. Mussolini was a puppet dictator. Afraid to stand up to Hitler, he was leading the nation into disaster.

That Ciano brazenly wrote all this down is astonishing. Even more so is his obliviousness to danger. He carelessly chatted about the diaries with all and sundry, from foreign diplomats to Mussolini himself. The consummate “loose lips,” he told too much, and soon the Germans were on his track.

Disaster struck in July 1943 after Ciano, along with members of the Fascist Party’s Grand Council, voted to oust Mussolini from office. Ciano had not anticipated that King Victor Emmanuel III would name as his prime minister a hard-liner, Pietro Badoglio, an archenemy who would soon put him and his wife under house arrest.

At this point Ciano began to worry about his diaries. He burned some of them but when he realized they might be useful as a bartering tool he hid the rest. His wife, Edda—pro-war, pro-German and friends with Hitler—contacted German security services with a proposal: if the Nazis helped the Cianos flee to Spain, she would give them her husband’s diaries. Instead of Spain, their plane landed in Munich and the couple were hustled off to “princely captivity” in a rural castle. So much for trusting Hitler. Worse still, he reinstated Mussolini, who under the Führer’s orders summoned Ciano back to Italy, where he was executed by firing squad in January 1944.

Ciano had kept the diaries well-concealed, and they might never have come to light had it not been for the work of the three women at the center of Ms. Mazzeo’s book. Strangers at first, they became an unlikely trio.

Edda had an open marriage to Ciano, with whom she had three children. Glamorous and flamboyant, she drank copious amounts of gin, “wore men’s trousers, smoked, wore makeup, and drove a sports car while her husband rode along as passenger.” She liked “sporty” younger men like the Olympic skier and race-car driver Emilio Pucci, later the fashion designer. After her husband’s arrest she showed great bravery smuggling the diaries out of Italy and into neutral Switzerland. (Pucci was caught helping her and tortured by the Gestapo.)

Hilde Beetz was a beautiful young S.S. agent, described by Ms. Matteo as doll-like, with an innocent face. She was also a brilliant Italian-German translator and interpreter. In September 1943, she was sent to Italy by the Nazis to seduce Ciano into revealing the diaries’ whereabouts. She was exactly his type, and the ruse worked—until she fell in love with him. Hilde became a double agent, later joining with Edda in her attempt to get the diaries to safety.

Frances de Chollet was a middle-aged American socialite who lived in Bern. She held glittering, raucous parties at her mansion where the roster of international guests included members of Allied intelligence such as Allen Dulles, who knew about the diaries. He asked Frances to persuade Edda to hand them over before they were snatched by the Gestapo.

Ms. Mazzeo, a professor of English at the University of Montreal and the author of five other books about extraordinary women, has written a compelling story, a tangled web of deceit, corruption, betrayal, courage and family intrigue. It reads like a spy thriller, moving at a fast pace, and even though the reader knows the successful outcome, the suspense never lets up.

Hilde spent days in Ciano’s cell and was with him for his final hours. His last wish—fulfilled in 1946—was that the diaries be published by the Allies. He wrote to Churchill that he wanted them brought to light so that “those who will have to judge the future should not be ignorant of the fact that the misfortune of Italy was not the fault of her people, but due to the shameful behavior of one man.”

A disturbing photograph in the book shows four prisoners (wearing hats, oddly) tied to chairs with their backs to the camera as they await the firing squad. Ciano is one of them, and he has turned his face toward his executioners, staring them down. He had left a devastating testimony that would help to seal their fate.

Moria Hodgson is the author of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food.”

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