Issue 89 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 2000 Copyright © International Socialism
On 8 September 1943 I was in a camp near Parma in north Italy--one of more than 400 officers taken prisoner in the North African campaign. We had been in a state of suspense since 25 July when, as we knew from the Italian press, Mussolini had been deposed by the Fascist Grand Council and dismissed by the king. The Allies had by this time landed in Sicily. On 8 September when the Allies were already in the toe of Italy we learned that there had been an armistice between them and the Italian government. On 9 September the Italian commandant, learning that the Germans intended to take us away, cut the wire and allowed us to escape. It was an act that subsequently led to his imprisonment in a concentration camp. Once released we naively expected that the Allies would quickly advance up the peninsula.
What did I know about this country into which I had emerged? Having been politically active as a student, I knew that there had been an Italian battalion in the International Brigades in Spain. I knew that there was a radical movement with contacts in Italy called Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty) founded by the Rosselli brothers, who had been murdered by Fascist agents in France. I knew from the Italian press--in spite of censorship that left large blanks on the pages of the papers--that political parties had emerged the day after Mussolini's fall. That day, for instance, there was news of a public meeting in Milan addressed by representatives of various parties including a well known Communist. We had learned from the carabinieri (armed police) who patrolled our camp that there had been big strikes in Turin and elsewhere. It seemed clear to me that Fascism had not managed to suppress all political activity, merely driven it underground. But my information was scrappy. Time--history--has revealed a fuller picture.
On 8 September the Anglo-American forces had just established themselves on the mainland. Churchill described Italy as the soft underbelly of the Axis. This overlooked the fact that a mountain range runs down the middle of the peninsula, on either side of which a succession of rivers flow down to the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas. An advance to the north would necessarily be slow. This did not worry the Allies unduly--their aim was to draw German forces down into the peninsula, not to liberate the Italians whom Churchill and Eden, his foreign minister, both despised.1 The Italians were seen as having been guilty of collaboration with Hitler and so not to be trusted. In general the British attitude towards the 'Eyties' was racist. Thus there was widespread contempt for the Italians in British military circles because of the poor performance of their troops in North Africa where they had surrendered in large numbers. What they did not understand was that many soldiers in an army largely composed of peasants and riddled with class distinctions had not seen the point of laying down their lives for the political and territorial ambitions of Fascism.
As they advanced north the Allies installed an Allied Military Government on the grounds that the Italians were politically naive and incapable of governing themselves. It was a skeleton organisation staffed by mediocrities who were lacking in preparation and sometimes corrupt.2 Local authorities were to be allowed to deal only with public health and public order. It quickly became apparent that the Allies relied politically on the most conservative elements in Italian life. It was noted that their first contacts tended to be with prominent members of the church and the command of the carabinieri. At first they encountered few difficulties because the Allied invasion of Italy had taken place in the south, which was traditionally the most backward region politically--where the big landowners were powerful and there was widespread support for the monarchy. The Allies had nothing to fear from them.
In the north the situation was different. Here, after Mussolini's fall, the king had set up a government under General Badoglio, the general who had directed the invasion of Ethiopia. It was one that made no attempt to reflect the political forces that emerged with the collapse of Fascism. The day after Mussolini's fall a manifesto had been issued signed by six political parties. They ranged from the Liberals (a right wing party) through the Christian Democrats to the Partito d'Azione (the Action Party, a radical bourgeois party which was strongly republican, committed to nationalisation of industry and to land reform), to the Socialist Party and the Communists. The manifesto called for the abolition of Fascism and its instruments of oppression, an armistice for an honourable peace, the immediate freeing of political prisoners, the re-establishment of a rule of law, the abolition of the race laws, and the setting up of a government representing all the parties. It called on the Italian people to organise against reactionary forces and the supporters of Fascism.3 Most of the parties from the Action Party to those on the left were determined that the monarchy, which had colluded with Fascism, must be replaced by a republic.
This manifesto and the political activity that followed from it alarmed the king and Badoglio, who were intent on limiting the effects of the Fascist collapse. Between July and September they dithered, fearful of the political forces which had emerged so quickly and resolutely. As they dithered, the situation deteriorated. The Germans moved eight divisions over the Brenner Pass into Italy. The period ended with a botched armistice. In the ensuing crisis of leadership the Italian army dissolved. The Germans occupied Italy north of Naples. There were a few attempts by Italian troops to resist this invasion--notably at Rome and in the Greek island of Cephalonia, where 4,000 Italians who decided to fight were captured and massacred by the Germans.4 But there were political forces at work determined to resist the invader and to destroy the remains of Fascism. Thus on 9 September, the day after the armistice, a Committee of National Liberation (CLN) was set up in Rome by the anti-Fascist parties. A similar committee was formed in Milan--one which stood for more radical and revolutionary policies.
The king and Badoglio meantime took refuge in the south and set up a government in Bari that was recognised by the Allies, who felt it was no threat to them. Churchill was of the opinion that the dangers and anarchy prevalent in Italy justified support for the Badoglio regime because it would do more for what was now described as 'the common cause' than any Italian government 'formed by exiles or opponents of the Fascist regime'.5
The Germans, for their part, liberated Mussolini from a mountain resort where he had been interned by the king and set him up as a puppet with his headquarters in a small town on Lake Garda called Salò. From here he ruled over the Republic of Salò or, as it was officially called, the Italian Social Republic, with its administrative capital in Verona. He quickly proceeded to set up his own armed forces, largely composed of soldiers who had been interned in Germany after the armistice. He also called to the colours boys of 18 and 19 years of age, many of whom did not present themselves. Some of these Republican forces would later be used for anti-partisan actions in which they earned a notorious reputation--as did the Fascist police. By November 1943 the first resistance groups had begun to form.6
In December, having walked south from near Parma living and working with the peasants, I found myself in such a group in the mountains near Florence. It was typical of these earliest formations. It had been formed by a sergeant-major in the Italian army called Lanciotto Ballerini who, at the armistice, loaded a machine gun, various rifles, ammunition and hand grenades on a truck and drove up into the hills. He and his brother came from a small town between Florence and Prato called Campi Bisenzio where they owned a butcher's shop. They had a reputation for resistance to Fascism even under the regime. The small towns near Florence and Prato had a long tradition of radicalism and a somewhat anarchic strain of left wing politics. It was a district where there had been bitter fights with Fascists when they came to power in the 1920s. The group included two Russian POWs who had deserted from the Organisation Todt, the Wehrmacht's labour force, and two Yugoslavs who had been prisoners. The Italians were either young working class boys who did not wish to fight in Mussolini's armed forces and were liable to be court-martialled and shot if taken, or else soldiers from the disbanded army caught on the wrong side of the front and unable to get home.
The politics of the group were difficult to define. There was a political commissar who was somewhere on the left. He claimed to have read Trotsky. The boys had imbibed, presumably from their parents, that Tuscan tradition of radicalism which goes back into the 19th century. They had grown up and gone to school under Fascism, but the songs they sang included the Italian version of 'Red Flag' and another which has a chorus calling for Communism and liberty. Ballerini himself was not forthcoming about his political allegiance. In clandestine conditions it is wise not to give out more information than is absolutely necessary, but I thought at the time that he was probably a Communist. It now appears that he had contacts with the Action Party in Florence.
Our group was ordered to move into the high Apennines to join up with another formation. On the way we stopped in the hills at a group of peasant houses where we slept in the barn for two or three days. I was alarmed that no sentries were posted at night. This led to our being surprised and surrounded by a force of 50 or more Fascist militia. After a gunfight that lasted a couple of hours, we broke out. The machine-gunner was dead. The barn was on fire. Ballerini was killed. One of the Russians was captured and shot on the spot. I escaped with one of the Yugoslavs. The Italians, several of whom were wounded, were taken off to prison in Florence. I was rescued by workers from a factory near Prato and lodged with a peasant family. It is a reflection of the complications of the times that they were rich peasants who had certainly not opposed Fascism. The Resistance, I have since learned, put it to them that I was an insurance policy against the day when the Allies arrived. They were also decent people who took a great risk in sheltering someone with a price on his head.
The Fascist press gave great prominence to the incident. It made the front page news not only in the Florentine daily, La Nazione, but in the Corriere della Sera of Milan. They claimed that 13 partisans had been killed--among them 'their Russian leader'. Although the local authorities were well aware of the real identity of the group's commander, the press fell in with the Fascist propaganda line which sought to denigrate the resistance by attributing partisan activity to criminal elements and foreigners. For their part the Fascists had to record that a senior Fascist officer had been killed. His funeral was marked by a German army guard of honour and the 'participation', or so it was claimed, 'of the entire citizenry of Prato'.
The action I had been involved in was, I discovered, the first armed clash between the Fascist militia and partisans in Tuscany. After the war Lanciotto Ballerini was awarded the Gold Medal of the Resistance. He became a political icon for his community, which has had a left wing council since the first post-war elections. His name and prestige were exploited by the Communists. In recent times, however, the split in the Communist Party and the accompanying move to the centre have led to the following situation: the local branch of ANPI, the Italian National Partisan Association, has a large bust of Ballerini in its premises which it has tried to persuade the council to put in the town hall. This has proved impossible--the reason being that the local branch of ANPI is run by Rifondazione Communista, the left wing rump of the CP.
All over northern Italy partisan formations began to harass the German forces and their Fascist allies, whose anti-partisan units were ruthless. Parallel to the emergence of armed resistance there was an increase in the importance of the CLN based in Milan, which was known as the Committee of National Liberation for North Italy (CLNAI). Under it a series of local committees were formed which were responsible for finance and support for the partisans, and for political work along with the workers' organisations in industrial centres like Turin. Politically the CLNAI was considerably more radical than the corresponding committee formed in Rome.7 There were obviously political tensions within the CLNAI, one of them being the 'institutional question'--that is to say the question of the monarchy. The republican card was strongly supported by the Action Party and initially by the Communists in the north. The latter changed their policy, however, when the Communist leader, Togliatti, who had been in exile in Moscow, returned to southern Italy in March 1943 and joined Badoglio's monarchist government.8 This meant that the question of the republic was removed from the agenda. The argument advanced--as in Spain during the civil war--was that the main task was to win the struggle and that political solutions must wait till that had been achieved. The Action Party in particular saw in this a disastrous retreat, believing, as one of its Resistance leaders in the north wrote later, that 'the real crisis concerning the revolutionary solution of the struggle for liberation was the Togliatti-Badoglio agreement'.9
As the Allies continued their slow advance up the peninsula, they were confronted by the question of their attitude to the armed struggle beyond the German lines. This struggle was prolonged, bloody and complicated. It has been defined by a historian of the Resistance as having a triple character: as a civil war fought against the Fascist forces, as a war of liberation fought against the Germans, and as a class war fought against those industrial and commercial interests which had backed and financed Mussolini in the 1920s and continued to support him now.10 Clearly not all political tendencies in the CLNAI were committed to all three aspects of the struggle. Alongside the Garibaldi brigades, predominantly Communist in composition, and those supported by the Action Party, there were the so called 'autonomous' bands, which might be monarchist or right wing. It is significant that the Allies in a number of cases tended to support the latter. Overall the amount of Allied support was limited. Allied HQ ordered that supply was to be concentrated largely on non-warlike stores and arms were to be supplied on a selective basis for special tasks.11
In March 1943 I found myself in Chianti, near Siena, trying to make my way south to the Allied lines. Here I was picked up and held by a resistance formation which had, with some difficulty, to be persuaded of my bona fides. It was a time when there were attempts by the Fascists and Germans to penetrate resistance organisations. Having been cleared by information obtained from Campi Bisenzio, I found myself co-opted into an organisation which appeared to be run by ex-officers of the Italian army, probably monarchist in their views. I was appointed to be an area commander with three Italian officers under me. My job was to co-ordinate the activities of various groups including escaped POWs and Italian Communists. Our tasks were sabotage and the harassment of the German lines of communication. Unlike my first partisan formation we did not form a compact unit, but came together for specific operations and then dispersed to live with the peasants who were, in Mao's phrase, 'the water in which we swam'. Last year I learned that the organisation had been set up by an Italian officer acting for the Action Party.
By the autumn of 1944 resistance was organised and active throughout northern Italy. In the mountainous regions there were large formations which on occasion descended into the plain and--as at Albi in Piedmont--occupied towns and localities. In the north east they set up the Republic of Carnia with 150,000 inhabitants. On the Swiss frontier at Ossola they proclaimed a republic of 70,000 inhabitants which held out for several months and was administered by the local CLN.12 This widespread activity presented a problem not only to the Allies, but to the government in the south. The problem had two aspects. There was a political one in that the CLNAI wished to be recognised as the representative body in the north, one that acted on behalf of the legitimate government of Italy. It also wished to be recognised as the body directing a difficult war in the waging of which it needed arms, money and supplies. On the political front the government in the south--with the connivance of the Allies--hesitated to acknowledge the CLNAI as a government, fearing that it could too easily become an alternative one with revolutionary aims. And indeed the thinking in the north was that the Committees of National Liberation formed in the towns should be extended to villages, localities and factories, and be the basis of the future republican government of Italy.13 On the military front the Allies were alarmed at the political nature of the struggle being fought in the occupied territory in which the military committee of the CLN was led by the Action Party and the Communists. They pressed for the appointment of a 'professional' commander in the shape of a regular army general, Cadorna, whose chief claim to the office was the fact that his father had led the Italian forces to victory in World War One. This was an attempt to de-politicise the military situation. All along they were wary of giving concrete support to a force over which they had little control and which was too left wing for their taste. The policy followed was to provide a minimum of support and then to limit its nature.
In June 1944 the group to which I belonged in Chianti was informed by a message broadcast by the BBC that we would get an arms drop. There was a good deal of# confusion but eventually the drop did take place. Most of it landed near a German column. It contained boots, chocolate, some Sten guns and ammunition, some hand grenades and various explosive devices--including ones that looked like horse shit--to place on roads to hold up German transport. What we needed were light machine guns and anti-tank weapons.
By November the Allied forces had reached the mountains above the north Italian plain. It seemed that a breakthrough was imminent. The military command of the CLNAI therefore gave commands for the partisans to be ready for a general insurrection. Instead what came was a statement by Field Marshall Alexander, the Allied commander, saying that there would be no further advance because of the wintry conditions and advising the partisans to go to ground and wait for spring. This proclamation was taken by the Germans and the Fascists as declaring an open season for hunting down and destroying the partisans' forces and their networks. This they proceeded to try to do. The result was very heavy losses of men, material and networks.14
In December the CLNAI sent representatives to Rome. They found themselves discussing the situation with a government headed by a right wing Socialist and with the Allies. The men from the north wanted to obtain the recognition of the CLNAI as, in effect, the legitimate government there. The attitude of the British authorities was hostile. We do not want, they said, people who play at politics, but ones who administer honestly, competently, impartially. That is to say, not in favour of this or that other party.15 They also wanted to define the future role of the partisan forces. In particular they wished to ensure that they were not disarmed, but either incorporated in the forces of the new Italy or used to maintain order and to deal with any Fascist threats.16 But the Allies refused to consider this, fearing a repetition of the situation in Greece where, following Churchill's agreement with Stalin on East-West spheres of influence, British forces had been employed against the left wing ELAS resistance forces.17 The Resistance had been quickly disarmed by de Gaulle in France, and the same had happened in Belgium. Italy was not to be allowed to be an exception. On the political front the Allies refused to recognise the committee. At most they agreed that the Resistance forces in the north would act under the orders of the Supreme Allied Command.
The result of the negotiations in which the British authorities played a crucial part was set out in the Protocols of Rome. On the day that they were signed the government was reshuffled. The Socialists and the Action Party were excluded but Togliatti, a Communist, became one of its two vice-presidents. The Protocols of Rome were a defeat for the forces of the north.18 The government and the Allies aimed to maintain the status quo of the Italian state and protect it from the wind from the north which aimed at reshaping it and society in the course of the anti-Fascist war.
In spite of the hardships and terrible losses of that winter the partisan forces had re-formed by the spring. When the Allied advance started, the CLNAI gave orders for the general insurrection accompanied by strikes and action to prevent the sabotage of plants by the retreating Germans. In Genoa the German garrison of 9,000 men surrendered to the partisans.19 The cities of the north--among them Turin, Milan, Bologna--were liberated by the forces of the Resistance before the arrival of the Allies. If the Resistance in the north expected to play an important role after the Liberation it was to be disappointed. It was disarmed and denied a political role. Thus in Genoa a fortnight after the German surrender to the Resistance a brigadier general of the Allied Military Government Occupied Territory (AMGOT) told his interpreter, 'Tell these people [the CLN, which had organised the local insurrection leading to the German surrender] that from today their committee is dissolved. Tell them that they do not have and cannot have further powers. Tell them that now it will be AMGOT that governs Genoa'.20
The story of the Italian Resistance raises a number of important questions. One concerns the role of the Communist Party, which has tended to monopolise the memory of the Resistance but which by its collaboration with conservative forces in the government in Rome blunted the revolutionary edge of the struggle. Another is, why is so little known in Britain about a Resistance movement which saw 35,000 dead and large numbers deported to concentration camps? Why is the courage of its fighters and their great successes in liberating so much of north Italy not recognised as are those of the French Resistance? The answer lies in an official silence in which a colonial cast of mind combines with reluctance to recognise the achievement of the Italian left.
At present in Italy things are being said and written about the Resistance which were not said ten or 20 years ago. It is undoubtedly true that after this passage of time it is necessary and possible to look at the Resistance and admit to its mistakes as well as to its military and political successes. The memory of the Resistance can no longer be used to silence criticism. But what must be fought is the revisionist line which equates Resistance fighters and Fascists, saying that there was nothing to give between them, and that the Fascists had a case. This is the voice of the conservative right wing tendency in Italy and elsewhere that seeks to rewrite history.