A patriotic war, a civil war and a class war – it’s a good description of the anti-fascist struggle waged by the Italian resistance between September 1943 and final liberation in April 1945. It was of course the partisans who liberated the cities and towns of Northern Italy, including forcing the German garrison in Genoa to surrender, before the Anglo-American armies arrived.
Yet when Claudio Pavone’s “A Civil War” was first published in Italy in 1991 it created controversy because the way the anti-fascist struggle had been packaged post-1945 by the left, and predominantly the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was to stress it was simply a patriotic war, fought against the German occupiers and a tiny minority of Italians who remained loyal to fascism. The Communists fighting units were the Garibaldi Brigade, named after the great hero of the 19th century Risorgimento, the movement which created Italian unity.
It was the fascists and the apologists for the former dictator, Benito Mussolini, who talked of a civil war because that seemed to give them legitimacy. They claimed they were fighting for the “honour” of an Italy which had been allied to Germany and which had betrayed their ally. Further, a civil war implied it was fought between two sides comparable in some ways in support and strength. In reality the anti-fascists enjoyed overwhelmingly greater support than those who rallied to Mussolini, ousted from power by the king in July 1943 after twenty years in power and then rescued by Hitler and installed as head of the puppet Italian Social Republic.
Those who chose to fight alongside Hitler and the Duce could not have been unaware of the evil of their cause. Despite post-war attempts to whitewash Italy’s war crimes, “reprisals” were carried out in Russia and the Balkans against the Axis’ allies. Its leaders and many further down the ladder were already aware by the summer of 1943 of the death camps which had begun carrying out mass murder. After September 1943 Italian fascist forces were involved in anti-partisan operations and in rounding up Jews for the gas chambers.
Pavone’s book is not a military history of the resistance but a look at what made people take sides during those three years, resistance fighters in the main but fascists too. On 8 September the Allies broadcast the news that the government of King Victor Emmanuel, headed by Marshal Badoglio since Mussolini’s dismissal by the king, had signed an armistice with the Allies. Both the king and Badoglio wanted this kept secret and had promised the Germans they would stand by their alliance. This was not because they were using the time to organise resistance; rather they wanted to save their own skins.
After news of the armistice was broadcast there was an explosion of joy because people thought this was the end of a hated war. But as the king and Badoglio surely knew, Hitler ordered his troops south to occupy as much of the peninsula as possible. Neither man issued any orders for resistance to the advancing Wehrmacht, instead they diverted troops guarding Rome to protect their own flight eastwards across the mountains to the Adriatic where a warship took them south to the Allies.
That September the Italian army disintegrated, with the officer corps the first to take to their heels. There was resistance, at the gates of Rome and on the Italian occupied Greek island of Cephalonia (were the Germans massacred those they took prisoner), but in the vast majority of cases Italian soldiers went home or were left without instructions to be rounded up by the Germans and packed off to Germany.
After twenty years of fascist rule, not just the dictatorship dissolved but much of the Italian state. Pavone points out that the organised working class was the one force which could give a lead. Across Northern and Central Italy left wingers understood they needed to gather weapons discarded by the army and begin to organise fighting units both in the urban areas and in the mountains. Inevitably, the resistance involved an element of class war and civil war. In the latter case they were pitted against fascist Italians. In the case of the former industrialists, the security forces, the Vatican and senior civil servants had not just been loyal to Mussolini but had helped him to power.
In reading “A Civil War” you are reading about how the “subversive tradition” which had brought Italy to a revolutionary crisis in 1919 and 1920 re-emerged, not just among the older generation but among younger people brought up under fascism. The dominant force in the resistance was the Italian Communist Party because it had retained an element of organisation under fascism, it had fighters blooded in the Spanish Civil War and because it was associated with the USSR which was seen as defeating Nazism.
As the PCI grew its leaders urged “calm, calm, calm” faced with the hopes and aspirations of their supporters, who believed they’d ordered the revolution when the time was right. Instead they accepted the line from Joseph Stalin in Moscow that Italy was part of the Anglo-American bloc and that they should simply fight to create a parliamentary democracy (Stalin even wanted them to keep the king).
In charting how this played out Pavone’s book is fascinating. It is also a powerful rebuttal of all those who have tried to soft soap or apologise for the crimes of Mussolini and fascism, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi among them. The men and women of the resistance were heroes, and I don’t use that word lightly. I have been happy to meet and listen to some of them. Read this book and honour them by celebrating their struggle.
Resistenza ora e sempre – Resistance now and always