Revolution betrayed

Issue: 146

Tony Phillips

Claudio Pavone, A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance (Verso, 2014), £20


A Civil War is a detailed survey of the ideas and motivations of the partisans and their fascist enemies in Italy between 1943 and 1945.

In July 1943, following the Allied landings in Sicily, the Italian ruling class realised they had backed the wrong horse in the Second World War. King Victor Emmanuel sacked Benito Mussolini and had him arrested and replaced as Marshal of Italy by Pietro Badoglio. On 8 September Badoglio abruptly announced an armistice with the Allies and then declared war on Germany. The Nazis responded by invading Italy as far south as Rome, rescuing Mussolini from captivity and installing him as the puppet ruler of the fascist Republic of Salò.

While the fall of Mussolini was greeted with popular rejoicing as people believed this was the end of fascism and the war, Claudio Pavone shows how the sudden change of sides led to total confusion. Italian troops were not told of the volte face in advance and faced the choice of surrender or resistance to the German troops they were stationed alongside in Greece, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Some chose resistance, two whole regiments going over to the Communist-led Yugoslav partisans. Some surrendered to the Nazis but were still massacred while others fought as part of the Wehrmacht until the end of the war.

In Nazi-occupied Italy the SS began rounding up Jews and forcing all young men to report for forced labour or military service. Thousands of men and women fled to the mountains, taking part in armed resistance led primarily by the Communist Party (PCI) and the liberal socialist Action Party. Big strikes in the northern industrial cities of Turin and Milan had already weakened the fascist regime and further mighty strike waves followed despite brutal repression by the Nazis.

Pavone marshals a vast amount of detail drawn from contemporary documents of the PCI, Action Party and partisan units as well as private letters. He shows that the partisan movement was the forum for a rich and democratic discussion of political alternatives including the possibility of working class revolution, an aspect of the movement denied by PCI-influenced and mainstream academic historians today. In many remote areas the partisans succeeded in driving out the fascists and the Nazis and became the effective government, albeit fleetingly in most cases. Pavone quotes numerous first-hand accounts of life in the liberated areas and how the partisans dealt with the many challenges they faced—which varied enormously according to the dominant political forces in the area. Life for women in particular was transformed by participation in the movement. Many successfully challenged the macho attitudes of those who sought to confine them to traditional women’s roles and were able to play a full part in the movement as fighters on an equal basis with men. The book’s front cover shows three young women partisan fighters proudly holding their weapons.

After 20 years of fascist rule the PCI had emerged from the underground following the overthrow of Mussolini. Pavone shows that many of its old militants and the hundreds of thousands of young workers who flooded into the party were unaware of the twists and turns of international Communist policy since the 1920s and the degeneration of the October Revolution under Joseph Stalin. They thought they were members of a revolutionary socialist party whose aim was first to defeat fascism and then to overthrow capitalism.

PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti flew in from Moscow in early 1944 with a cadre of hardened Stalinists heavily implicated in the dirty work of the GPU (Stalin’s secret political police) in Spain during the Civil War. In what became known as the Salerno turn, he imposed a new nationalist line on the PCI with some difficulty, arguing that everything must be subordinated to working with the British and American armies to defeat the Nazis and that all other questions must be postponed until after the war. The PCI joined the fascist war criminal Badoglio in a government of national unity. Their policy was dictated not in the interests of Italian workers and peasants but by Stalin’s agreement with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt that Italy was in the Western sphere of influence. Despite the eventual victorious insurrection of the partisan forces in April 1945, the overthrow of fascism and massive popular support for the PCI, the Communist leadership collaborated with the restoration of bourgeois democracy after the war.

Pavone argues that the resistance movement in Italy was three struggles in one—a national liberation struggle against the Nazi invader, civil war between the left and the Italian fascists and also a class war. This is controversial in Italy as the PCI tradition insists that it was only the first of these. The history of Italy in this period has important contemporary resonance as Silvio Berlusconi, whose governments included the “post-fascist” National Alliance, has attempted to rehabilitate the fascists who fought alongside the Nazis after September 1943 and participated in atrocities against the civilian population, including Jews, as “honest patriots” just doing their duty.

Berlusconi’s media empire has tried to demonise partisan attacks on German forces as terrorism and blamed the partisans for Nazi reprisals against civilians such as the notorious Fosse Ardeatine killings in Rome in 1944 which followed a successful partisan attack on an SS police unit in the streets of the city. In contrast, Pavone’s book highlights the importance of the partisan movement in defeating the Nazis, which has always been played down in right wing Italian, American and British academic circles. He shows that it was a spontaneous movement from below involving millions of working class and peasant men and women, an anathema to Berlusconi and mainstream academics.

Despite all the fascinating detail, I found the book difficult to read due to the author’s vague and at times obscure style and the fact that he only refers to the actual events and chronology in passing as they are well known to his intended readership. For that reason beginners wanting to know what happened in Italy in this period and why should start elsewhere. More importantly, however, this book is a powerful defence of the partisan movement and its continuing relevance for the struggles of today.