The Italian resistance to fascism
The Italian resistance to fascism
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A mass political and military movement led by the working class and headed by Communists freed Italy from fascism in the early 1940s. “A society which seemed extremely stable and controlled, destined to continue in the same way forever, suddenly exploded from below with mass activity, such that for a brief period everything seemed possible”, Marxist historian Tom Behan writes of the period.

Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had ruled the country since 1922. But the tide turned in 1942-43. His army suffered disastrous military defeats in North Africa and, from 5 March 1943, more than 200,000 workers in Turin went on strike for higher wages, greater rations and an end to the war. It was the first and largest strike wave in occupied Europe during the Second World War, and it sealed Mussolini’s downfall.

In July 1943, the Allied armies invaded Italy from the south, landing in Sicily. Two months later, Italy announced an armistice. Meanwhile, Germany invaded the north of the country and propped up Mussolini. An alliance of anti-fascist parties formed the National Liberation Committee (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale). And at the end of September, Naples was liberated without assistance from the Allies, the first civilian uprising against Nazi occupation in Europe.

From this time until the final liberation of Italy from fascism in April 1945, the country was split in two. In the south, the Allies ran the show in concert with General Pietro Badoglio and the king—a non-fascist regime, but nonetheless repressive towards workers and the left.

The Italian resistance in the north was military, political and industrial, led by workers and the left. In March 1944, 1.2 million workers went on strike, demanding peace and the cessation of war production for Nazi Germany. “In terms of mass demonstrations, in occupied Europe nothing can come close to the revolt of Italian workers”, a New York Times reporter wrote.

The Communist Party had cells in many factories in the northern cities. Some of them had access to arms and carried out armed actions against the occupying German forces at night and on weekends. According to a party report, at Milan’s Redaelli factory, of 1,295 workers, there were “twenty male party members, one female, and many sympathisers. A committee of agitation exists. Football team [code for armed workers] discreetly equipped”. Many women were couriers who would transport information, medicine, money, ammunition or bombs.

Florence was liberated by a three-week insurrection in July and August. The partisans refused the Allies’ demands to disarm and made it known than if the Allies tried to disarm them, they would be treated as an enemy. Partisans liberated their own city, and residents spontaneously joined the insurrection.

Left-wing newspapers began to be sold openly, even during the fighting, as Behan recounts in The Italian Resistance. “A man stopped me in piazza San Marco, he must have been 70-75. Without saying a word he held out his hand to take the paper, and held it just as a Christian might hold a sacred object”, Socialist leader Sandro Pertini recalled of his time selling the party paper, Avanti. “And he kissed it ... And he started crying.”

Hundreds of thousands of partisans fought in the mountains, usually operating in military units of 40 to 50. The Communist Party organised the Garibaldi Brigades, comprising at least half of the partisans. Each brigade had a military commander and a political commander, both elected and recallable. The political commander organised a “political hour” every day to discuss the war and to organise more general political education and debate. They even tried to keep libraries of books.

With little equipment or military experience, and being poorly fed, clothed and housed, partisans faced the most formidable fighting machine in the world in the German army. The resistance was full of left-wing volunteers, fighting not just for the defeat of fascism, but for a better world. This was key to their victory.

The Communist Party was by far the largest left force in the resistance. Its members and supporters were fighting for socialism. But the leadership pursued a fundamentally conservative strategy. The party argued for national liberation first and “progressive democracy” second—an application of the Stalinised Comintern’s Popular Front to Italy. The working class was to form an alliance with the “progressive” section of the bourgeoisie, while the party would form a political alliance with the centre-right Christian Democratic Party.

After the 1943 Allied invasion, Communist leaders agreed to work with the Italian army and the king to oust Mussolini. Meanwhile, the Badoglio government was shooting down striking workers. On 2 April 1944, after a meeting with Stalin, Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti issued the “Salerno turn”, announcing that the party would join the king’s government under Badoglio.

This ensured the integrity of the Italian state and set the scene for the rehabilitation of fascists after the war. As journalist and partisan Giorgio Bocca argued, “Whoever collaborates with Pietro Badoglio, Marshal of the Empire, and with the King, who legalised the March on Rome, can obviously no longer demand the purging of those who worked on behalf of the fascist state. Togliatti and the PCI received great political prestige because they provided a lot: a previously non-existent certificate of anti-fascist credibility”.

Other left-wing parties with a national presence were the Action Party and the Socialist Party. The Action Party provided about one in five of the resistance fighters. Its revolutionary wing rejected the Soviet Union as a socialist model. It attracted many radicals to its ranks and was less willing than the Communist Party to compromise on issues of principle. But it didn’t have a stable working-class base, having been founded only in 1942.

Unlike the Communists, the Italian Socialist Party hadn’t maintained an underground organisation. Like the Action Party, it had both revolutionary and reformist wings. The revolutionary wing was highly critical of the Badoglio government. But it was too small to have a decisive influence on events.

Other political forces to the left of the Communist Party operated in various cities. In Rome, there was the group Bandiera Rossa (Red Flag), which was the biggest resistance faction in the city. In the two decades of Mussolini’s rule, Communist cadres had been exiled in France or the Soviet Union. But local activists, left to their own devices for decades, had not undergone the same process of indoctrination in Stalinism. Historian David Broder writes that they “rejected the idea of a common national interest” and “pursued a class war and revolutionary agenda”.

The Allies and the anti-fascist partisans had a tense relationship. Britain and America’s alliance with the partisans in Italy was based on geopolitical considerations, not a principled opposition to fascism. And their support was limited. Supply drops focused on non-military goods.

The Allies wanted fighters who would risk their lives but make no political demands. What they got was hundreds of thousands of armed partisans, largely workers, alongside a political mass movement and strikes in the cities.

On 13 November 1944, Allied officer General Harold Alexander ordered the cessation of operations and cut off supplies for months. The partisans were ordered to go home—an impossibility for outlaws. The partisan movement survived but was weakened. In December, resistance leaders agreed to disarm and hand over military and political power to the Allies immediately upon liberation, in return for money.

Women were involved in all aspects of the resistance, as striking workers, anti-fascist activists and armed fighters. There were female commanders and all-female units. Some urban militias (“terrorist groups”) were led by women.

Eighty of the 200 members of the 7th Gianni GAP (Patriotic Action Group) in Emilia-Romagna were women. Commander Novella “Vanda” Albertazzi reportedly said: “It seemed absurd and impossible to stay bent over a table ten hours a day, to gossip with friends, while the Germans walked the streets, while the fascists arrested young men”. An estimated 35,000 women took part in military action. Five hundred and twelve women were recognised to have been political commissars.

While the politics of the Communist Party regarding women, and the behaviour of male partisans, were far from perfect, the mass struggle opened up a space for women’s involvement in politics and for sexist attitudes to be challenged. After the resistance struggle, women were granted the vote.

In April 1945, insurrections took place in all the cities of the northern industrial triangle—Milan, Turin and Genoa—to finally throw off the shackles of fascism. All took place before the Allied armies arrived.

Thirty thousand German troops were stationed in Genoa in the lead-up to the insurrection. Partisans numbered 8,000, some with only hand guns. Against the Allies’ wishes, the resistance called for an insurrection and told the Nazis they would accept only unconditional surrender.

Residents spontaneously joined partisan squads, arming themselves with weapons seized from fascists. Gunther Meinhold, a decorated major general and career officer in the German army, surrendered to an emaciated partisan in civilian clothes, Remo Scappini, an industrial worker and Communist leader. In the days after the liberation, Mussolini and his closest associates were executed by partisans.

When the Allies arrived in liberated cities, they found them functioning, with some form of democratic control over civil society. Bosses feared the prospect of social revolution. But they need not have worried. The Communist Party wasn’t interested in mobilising the masses to create organs of workers’ power. It insisted on a self-limiting insurrection aimed at giving its leaders a bargaining chip to ensure their participation in the postwar Italian state. “The insurrection we want does not have the goal of imposing social or political changes in a socialist or communist sense”, party leader Togliatti declared.

As historian Paul Ginsborg argues in A History of Contemporary Italy, the Stalinist strategy of national liberation first, social and political reform second, caused the party “to dissipate the strength of the resistance and of worker and peasant agitation ... at the very moment when the partisan and workers movement was at its height ... The Communists accepted the postponement of all questions of a social and political nature until the end of the war”.

The Allies were handed control of the cities and the workers’ guns, while the Communist Party leaders took three ministries in a grand coalition government.

While fascism was defeated, many partisans were disappointed with postwar Italy. Factory bosses who had collaborated with fascism and profited from the war stayed around. The purging of the state apparatus was limited. Togliatti, as justice minister, shamefully passed an amnesty—which meant that many fascist acts of torture, rape and murder went unpunished—and worked closely with Giuseppe Azzariti, the president of the “Tribunal of the Race”, which enforced anti-Semitic laws from 1938 to 1943. Hunger and rationing continued, and many former partisans were left unemployed.

Workers hid their arms on a huge scale. In large factories, one or two workers were delegated to keep weapons in working order. In Emilia Romagna, 413 kilos of ammunition were found between 1970 and 1995. For partisan and historian Claudio Pavone, the burying of the machine gun symbolised the covering up of an alternative path—one that would not have stopped with the defeat of fascism, but would have continued on to try to establish a socialist society.

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