Resisting revisionism

Issue: 126

Matthew Cookson

Tom Behan, The Italian Resistance: Fascists, Guerrillas and the Allies (Pluto Press, 2009), £18.99

The Italian people played a central role in liberating themselves from fascist dominance and Nazi occupation in 1943-5. Hundreds of thousands of people, mainly from the working class and with women playing a central role, took up arms, aided the partisan fighters and resisted fascism. This legacy remains powerful in Italy today, where every town and city has streets and squares named in honour of the liberation. But it is a contested legacy. A revisionist discourse, on the left and the right, has appeared in recent decades arguing that those who fought on both sides, during what was in part a civil war, should be remembered and respected equally.

Tom Behan’s fine new book takes these reactionary arguments apart. It sides unashamedly with the people who bravely resisted Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship and, when that fell apart in 1943 after Italy’s failures in the Second World War, the German invasion and occupation. Behan uses first-hand interviews and the written accounts by partisans to
illuminate the history.

The most fascinating chapters are those that document the scale, methods and courage of the resistance. As American and British forces invaded Italy and slowly made their way up the peninsula, the crucial thing for the left within the movement was that Italians were the instruments of their own liberation. This would bring a reckoning with the fascists who had ruled their country for over 20 years and ensure that the Allies could not simply dictate how any post-war society could be run. Naples was the first to rise up against German control, with four days of street battles forcing the occupiers out as the Allies arrived on the mainland in September 1943.

Italy was cut in half, with Mussolini only able to remain in power in the north as a puppet of the Germans. A national movement of partisans was born to overthrow this regime, with the left, especially the Communist Party, heavily influential in it. Thousands took to the mountains to launch armed resistance. They created a new kind of army, with a military commander and political commissar, who were both subject to election and recall. The political education of partisans was crucial, helping them understand and come to their own conclusions about the fight for a different world. In a number of areas, partisans even created their own republics where, despite the threat from the Germans, more democratic and progressive policies were introduced.

The urban resistance was also crucial, with the working class at the centre. Even under Mussolini, the number of strikes increased as discontent with the war grew. Hundreds of thousands of workers took part in a general strike in January 1944, one of the biggest such actions in occupied Europe. Insurrections in Florence in August 1944, and in the industrial triangle of Turin, Milan and Genoa in April 1945 liberated these cities.

But the post-war reality of Italy disappointed many who had taken up arms to liberate Italy and create a different kind of society. Managers who collaborated with fascism remained in place, conservative politicians dominated the country and there was no systematic purge of fascists from their posts in the state apparatus. There were also legal cases against many partisans for their Resistance activities. The Communist Party leaders, following the diktats of Joseph Stalin after his agreement with the West, played a crucial role in this. They ensured that this state of affairs was reached by subordinating the struggle to the wishes of the Allies and the more right wing elements in the Resistance. As Tom chronicles, this betrayal provoked protests and dismay, which culminated in an uprising after the attempted assassination of Palmiro Togliatti, the Communist Party leader.

The Italian Resistance is a good place to start for those who have no knowledge of the politics of the period, and it also has many new insights for readers familiar with them too. This story of an often hidden part of the Second World War is an indispensable read.