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Category Archives: AIM Extra

Meaningless Titles and Liveable Cities: Melbourne loses to Vienna

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has gone about its annual business of releasing its World’s Most Liveable City index, the sort of flotsam that matters less to urban planners than hedge-fund managers. The previous seven time winner had been Melbourne, whose supposed ascendancy had been threatened, at points, by Vancouver and Vienna. Now, the Austrian capital has assumed the mantle, and various notes of despair and qualifications are noted.

Like any other index, a false plausibility can be gained from reading its findings. The indicators are all measures of corporate mobility and comfort, rather than urban sensibility and civic value. Companies must be assured that their employees will be able to live and work in suitably salubrious surrounds, with a degree of safety. Bottom lines and share prices are fundamental in these calculations.

The EIU makes no bones about it, its historical mission sounding much like an advisory role to rampant mercantilism. “Created in 1946,” the unit notes in its 2018 liveability index report, “we have over 70 years’ experience in helping businesses, financial firms and governments to understand how the world is changing and how that creates opportunities to be seized and risks to be managed.” The EIU, goes a summarising paragraph of its goals, “helps business leaders prepare for opportunity, empowering them to act with confidence when making strategic decisions.” The unit aspires to analytical sharpness, “uncompromising integrity, relentless rigour and precise communication.” All this, in the name of suitably gathered “business intelligence.”

The scores confirm this impression. Last year, Melbourne attained a score of 97.5: 95.1 for culture and environment and scores of 100 for healthcare, education and infrastructure. This replicated the results of 2016. What pushed Vienna to the top was its improvement in the “stability category.” “The two cities,” goes the unit’s analytical tone, “are now separated by 0.7 of a percentage point, with Vienna scoring a near-ideal 99.1 out of 100 and Melbourne scoring 98.4.”

Through the report, the same themes for the corporate manager and financial planner are emphasised. “Upwards movement in the top ranked cities is a reflection of improvements seen in stability and safety across most regions in the past year.” Much cheer could be had for the “return to normalcy” in Europe, given past concerns of a “perceived threat to terrorism in the region”.

Such essentially fluffy titles serve one purpose: to confer a sort of abysmal complacency that suggests smugness. Former Lord Mayor Robert Doyle suggested in a media release last year that those taking issue with these accolades were the party pooping “naysayers and whingers”. To be deemed the most liveable city for a seventh straight year was not merely a “world record” but “an amazing feat that all Melburnians should be extremely proud of.”

The competitive edge to such rankings is also illusory at best. Cities are treated like race horses, where “gaps” are closed and contenders overtaken at the last turn. “Vienna shot up the Economist Intelligence Unit’s chart,” went the ABC. Osaka, goes the 2018 report, “stands out especially, having climbed six positions, to third place, over the past six months, closing the gap with Melbourne.”

But Melbourne could still claim to have an edge over the crowned city in other areas, with the ABC making a weak effort to convince readers of the finer points of living down under. Winters, for instance, were milder than those in Vienna (this ignores the lack of central heating and poor design of Melbourne’s structures in coping with its milder winter). Melbourne boasted better street art (the premise is dubious), even if Vienna was a thriving “open air museum” aged in culture; and Melbourne’s variant of the classic Wiener schnitzel was “more evolved”, with additions of sauce, ham and parmesan.

A relevant point with such labels is whether they are even necessary. In April, as if with a premonition, Gay Alcorn would note that the city was “weighed own by its gong as the ‘world’s most liveable city’; it was “uneasy about where it’s going, uncertain whether it wants to be a global megacity doubling its population to eight million by mid-century, or hang on to its charms.”

Melbourne was already a city floating on illusions and letting go of what charms it might have had. Its legendary tram network has excellent coverage centrally, but falters in the suburban areas, which are sprawling and continue to grow. Its metropolitan train system is creaky. Promised train lines to various outer suburbs remain the stuff of fantasy. Outside the sacred inner ring of public transport is darkness, where the automobile remains not only supreme but necessary. Access to the main airport remains marred by an absence of a train connection.

For the urban watchers, the fall of Melbourne was nothing short of a relief. Clay Lucas noted indifference from many readers of the local paper, The Age, when the city first topped the liveability tag. On its seventh top ranking, seething anger was noted. “Tell a Doreen or Point Cook resident, trapped on arterial feeder roads morning and night, that this city is as good as it gets.”

Realities in the business of ranking cities vary accordingly. If one were to consult the findings of the engineering outfit Arcadis, Melbourne comes in at 21st in terms of being most expensive for building new infrastructure, while ranking at a lowly 55th for sustainable transport. But such analysis is bound to be dismissed by Victoria’s political chatterboxes as inconsequential in the battle of meaningless titles. The corporate classes come first.

The Apprentice’s Revenge

This yarn was told to me back in the early eighties by my brother-in-law as we walked from his house to the “Top Bar” in his village in Sth’n Italy … he told me the basic rudiments of the story … as one does when relating a matter of interest, rather than a complete and constructed story-line … which is what I offer here to you.

It is of interest that in the days of yore, not that long ago as it happens … perhaps even to the early 1950s in some villages, an apprentice was not hired like we do here and now, rather, he was offered to a master craftsman to train by the youth’s parents … and sometimes money would be paid for that training … the apprentice becoming a sort of “live-in” servant to the master … not being paid any money, but given board in lieu of .. and perhaps being trained alongside a son as a companion. I have spoken to some older European tradesmen who “served their time” in this manner.

The downside was that once apprenticed, there was little that could be done to get out of the arrangement and this could result in a cruel master subjugating the youth to all sorts of abusive treatment. The story I heard may or may not be a type of generic village “myth” … but none the less, it was one of the best “paybacks” by a tyrannised apprentice I have heard. It must be said that the peasants of these isolated villages were very gullible to a well presented lie, and could be persuaded to accept all sorts of weird and lurid scenarios (what am I saying!..is it any different here?) … It wasn’t long ago that I heard and witnessed a “Evil Eye” consultation in that same village.

The superstitions still remain … Anyway, to the story for your entertainment …

It went like this:

The Apprentice’s Revenge

Little puffs of condensed breath steamed from the boy’s mouth in unison with his quick steps.

“Hurry there, boy, hurry” the Master Tailor poked and prodded the youth in the ribs with his rule “why, I had a donkey once, more lively than you.”

“Yes! … ” thought the boy “ … and I bet it carried almost as much, you old bugger!” but he said nothing and kept on hurrying over the cobblestone road, as he stepped, the pewter’d sheen of street-lamps reflecting off the wet stones made his steps cautious.

“What are you mumbling about? … don’t mumble, just get a move on … we have to be at Gemano Alfonsi’s half an hour ago! … step lively now!”

“Please don’t push me master, for if I stumble I will surely drop these bolts of cloth in the mud!”

“Drop the cloth?! Drop the cloth?! Just you try it, boy, just you try it and you will feel the thick edge of my boot a thousand times … yes, yes two thousand times!!” and he prodded the youth once more. A door opened on their right and a shaft of yellow light stabbed onto the road to their feet. a stocky man silhouetted in the doorway called to them in a mocking tone.

“Ahh! Master Tailor … keep a tight rein on your steed there, for these young ones will find any excuse to spit the bit!”

“Ha Ha! … right you are Signor blacksmith … right you are … but never fear, I have this young colt well and truly hobbled .. ha ha! on with you boy, on with you! … to Gemano Alfonsi’s to measure a suit … hurry now!”

So on they went, down street and lane till they halted in front of a peasant’s cottage at the far end of the village. Through the small window facing the street could be seen the wife and three children … girls (for Signor Alfonsi was blessed with only girls) methodically preparing the evening meal. Wafting of steam from a large pot misted over the window, a man’s hand wiped circular on the glass and a face peered out, then with raised eyebrows of recognition pulled away and opened the heavy wooden door.

‘Master Tailor … and his apprentice no less … we were expecting you an hour ago …. lose your way?”

“I was busy fitting a ruby coat to the king of Siam!” replied the tailor.

“And I am to meet him next Monday! … what a coincidence !” mocked the peasant.
‘Ebbene! … my house is your house … Master Tailor … the good wife is preparing a meal for us now.”

“First I will measure you and then I will eat … and tomorrow evening I will cut the cloth … speaking of which, I will leave some cloth for you to choose from though if I may suggest … ”

“Ah!.. I can guess what you may suggest, Master Tailor … But I want cloth that is elegant, BUT! … manly … ”

“Well, if I may … ”

“A suit with fine lines, BUT! … not too delicate … ”

“Well, if I may … “

”Robust.BUT! … (and here he wagged his finger side to side) not in the style of a pig farmer’s overalls!”

“Allora! … then it leaves me only one option to pursue I will make a suit of clothes for you so fine, that when you take the promenade on the Sabbath, people will stop and stare and say: “Ah! … There goes Signor Alfonsi; a Gentleman!”

All this banter back and forth was done with the appropriate gestures and twirls and twists of fingers and hands, with all the nuances insinuated with raised eyebrows and winked eyes. The two men finished with effusive back slapping.

“Master … ” the youth interjected so they both turned a surprised eye to him. “The cloth, it gets heavy.”

“Ah! … if they’re not lazing off in some corner … they’re whining for the little work they have to do.”

Signor Alfonsi “tch’d- tch’d” and nodded in agreement.

The cottage, having one room for eating and meeting, the rest for bedrooms, meant the measuring for the suit had to be done amongst the setting out of the evening meal. The females weaving about and placing dishes amongst the lifting of arms and the shifting of legs … the apprentice eyed the meal, for he was as hungry as … as only a young man can be … and oh! … the tantalizing aromas of a hearty peasant feast sent his tongue licking and smacking against his lips!

“But seriously, Master Tailor, I must look my best for the council meeting next month!” and here he bent low to whisper secretively into the tailor’s ear. “I have heard … heard mind!, that a position may be available for me to sit on the commune council for next term … and then?” (a gesture with the hand).

“Aha! … then you must look to your friends who support your election … and I for one would be grateful for any uniform work that could come my way?”

“Well, I am not elected yet Master Tailor, but … er … given the right price for your services … er … I will certainly not overlook the … er … consideration.”

“BOY! ” called the tailor, “wake up and bring me the chalk!”

“Signori! … ” called the matron of the house. “Dinner is served!” … and placed a large bowl of Chicken cuts in a deep sauce in the middle of the table.

“Are you asleep, boy? … ah! … I see …. more of a mind for the meal than your work eh? … I didn’t bring you here for a feast outside with you! out! out!”

“Ah … truly, Master Tailor … ?” began the peasant …

“Out … and next time think more of the duty to your trade than your stomach! … ” and he shut the youth outside … The peasant and his family were a little embarrassed at the whole incident, but said nothing, not wishing to further compromise the boy.

“A firm hand … Gemano .. a firm hand is what is needed … ” (then a cutting motion with hand-on-edge up and down …).

The youth outside sat sorrowfully down on a bench seat and commiserated with himself … then he plotted his revenge … he would have to be cunning!

“Hmm! Ah!”

The next day in the street near the post office.

Gemano Alfonsi gently lay his hand on the apprenticed youth’s shoulder …

“Look. it was a terrible thing for you to be left out of the meal last night … We expected you to eat with the tailor as is the custom (shrug of shoulders) but … ?”

“NO, no, signor Alfonsi, think not of it, for I am used to Master Tailor’s moods … ” Here he turned to look about him and then looking meaningfully to the peasant made a twirling motion with his finger about his ear

“He gets a bit crazy, you know.”

The peasant raised his eyebrows.

“How do you mean … he doesn’t seem … ?”

“A bit unbalanced … is what I mean … oh! not badly, mind … he just flies off the handle sometimes … it builds up in him, you know.”

“He did seem a bit tense last night … for he was a little hard on you … ”

“Oh that was nothing … but it is building up though … little by little … I can tell.” The youth leant a little closer; “That incident last year in San Angelo ?”

“What incident!?”

“Oh, it was hushed up nicely .. cost Master Tailor a pretty penny .. ” with a low whistle and a nodding of his head. “It’s those lonnng, sharrp scissors he uses to cut the cloth … he becomes mesmerised by them … they say his pregnant mother was threatened in the war by a sword wielding soldier”.

“Long, sharp, scissors?”

“Yes, Signor Alfonsi … you’ll see … you watch his eyes when he runs his thumb along the edge to test the sharpness … you watch … mesmerised.”

“But what will he do? … I have my family … ”

“Nothing! … nothing, if you act to snap him out of it! … Oh don’t judge him cruelly I beg you … and I chastise myself most severely if I have led you to doubt Master Tailor’s intentions, which, at all other times are irreproachable .. and I beg of you also not to tell of this … this confession to Master Tailor, for, while I feel I must be a sort of guardian against any outrage that he may commit in a … a dazed state, I must consider his “face” in the community and his pride … what man needs his pride dragged through common mud … ?”

At those words the peasant puffed out his chest … for there is none more proud than he! … for it is always so: The more unworldly a man is, the more that pride has hold of his heart.

“Have no fear of betrayal on my part, boy … but what can I do to snap him out of this … this mood?”

The youth pulled the peasant close in a huddle, shoulder to shoulder, face to face and went through a little pantomime.

“You will see when he is about to ‘snap’, for he will be cutting the cloth like this and his tongue will be pushed between his lips and he will be biting down on it … look, look … like this .. and his eyes will grow wider and wider … ” and the youth acted out the gesture while the peasant, now wide eyed also, obediently watched … “and when he is doing that, you must have a stout stick handy … no, not too heavy, for we don’t want to brain him! … just stun him … and when he is doing that which I just described … whack! … on the back of the head …. just here … ” he tapped the peasants’ head … the peasant rubbed the spot as if reassuring himself it was really there … “and he will snap out of it”.

“But, he will demand to know why I hit him!?”

The youth pulled a confident face and made a dismissing gesture .

“Deny it … and say he fainted … and tell your family to say the same and all will be well … you’ll see … this isn’t the first time, you know … and after all, you’ll be protecting your family AND his honour.”

“Why don’t YOU hit him then .. since you know how it’s done?”

“ME!… as if I can move about without Master Tailor watching my every move and giving me orders … no .. it must be you, signor Alfonsi .. or we must ALL take our chances.”

That night in the kitchen of Gemano Alfonsi’s …

It was a very nervous family that gathered behind the Master Tailor as he stood at the kitchen table with the cloth laid out in front of him. The peasant; Gemano Alfonsi stood immediately behind the tailor, behind him cowered his wife and the three girls clutching at her skirt. All were wide eyed and trembling.

“My scissors,” commanded the tailor, with hand out.

The youth made a grand gesture of extracting the long shears from their sheaf, like he was withdrawing a sword for the executioner (he had spent some time that day polishing these shears so they gleamed cruelly). The peasant’s hand tightened on a stout stick he had ready behind his leg, his tongue flicked over his dry lips, his eyes as wide as saucers. The tailor snipped once or twice in the air then suddenly spun around toward Gemano … God. how they all leapt in the air!

“I had the boy sharpen them today … you can’t do a good job with blunt instruments.” and he licked and ran his thumb slowly along the keen edge of the blade. The apprentice puckered his eyebrows toward Gemano meaningfully, fear filled the peasant’s eyes, mama’s knees began to fold and she was clutched under the arm by the stout Gemano and brought around.

“Allora!” cried the tailor, “to work” and he bent over the cloth, the family in one motion also leant over the tailor watching his lips closely … he straightened up, so did they …

“My glasses!” he announced, reaching into his pocket, “where are they?” he stared into the empty holder … (the youth had earlier deliberately removed them and left them at the tailor’s home).

“I remember you setting them on your desk at your home ” … the youth quickly answered.

“Well if you know where they are, go and get them! … don’t just stand there!”

The boy opened the door, stopped for a moment and gazed at the little scene … The tailor, head slightly turned on one side, his right eye close to his markings on the cloth, his left hand held the cloth off the table, his right was ready to cut the cloth then with an expression of utmost concentration on his face, he slipped his tongue (as he was want to always do from habit) out between his lips and bit down on it gently, his eyes widening in a glaring stare of deep concentration … The boy stepped outside and closed the door … he took two steps, halted, cocked his ear to one side to listen …

“WHACK!!”

… the noise of the thump, a trifling interruption in the still, silent air of the night. The youth smiled and with his hands plunged deep in his pockets, went off whistling down the cobbled street!

Banning Alex Jones and Infowars

He is treated as the bogeyman of conspiracy entertainment, and Alex Jones has become a prominent figure for advancing a host of unsavoury views. High on his list of incendiaries is the claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting never took place and was the work of paid fantasists, with the victims’ parents being “crisis actors”. “Sandy Hook,” went Jones in a January 2015 broadcast, “is a synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured.” The parents of two children killed at the school massacre are suing.

There are seemingly few limits to the Jones armoury of hyper-scepticism. But Jones has been in the business of such production for years. Now, a campaign for banishing him from various platforms, including Infowars, has been enacted with a degree of censorious ferocity. Summary bans have been made, ranging from the giants such as Apple, Twitter and Spotify, to Pinterest and MailChimp.

Apple took the lead in this competitive banning binge, removing five of the six Infowars podcasts available via iTunes this week, including “The Alex Jones Show” and “War Room”, while Facebook removed four Infowars pages for violating the company’s guidelines.

An Apple spokesperson explained the company’s position in a statement: “Apple does not tolerate hate speech, and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all our users.” Accordingly, “Podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory making them no longer searchable or available for download or streaming. We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions.”

Spotify has also added its name to the list. “We take reports of hate content seriously,” went a statement, “and review any podcast episode or song that is flagged by our community. Due to repeated violations of Spotify’s prohibited content policies, The Alex Jones Show has lost access to the Spotify platform.”

Who is guarding whom, and who should decide which ideas are significantly safe, less discomforting or otherwise? Contraries are, by definition, discomforting; the contrarian, by definition, dangerously disruptive. The idea of social media platforms becoming a constabulary for the controlling of opinion – located in the vague economy of “hate” – is ominous. Nor have these technology mammoths articulated “a clear standard,” as Ben Shapiro notes, “by which the conspiracy theorist should be banned”.

Twitter prefers a different approach. “We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars yesterday,” came Jack Dorsey’s announcement on the medium he helped found. “We know it’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules. We’ll enforce if he does.”

For Dorsey, the role of policing Jones is not for Twitter and such platforms, but the media proper, an estate that has been somewhat remiss in recent years. He did not want to take “one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories.”

This in of itself sensible view has drawn the predictable moralising and indignation. Aja Romano of Vox is particularly riled. “This response is breathtakingly amoral, as well as regressive, terrible decision-making – for Twitter, for the internet, for all of us. It should be a moment of reckoning for everyone who uses Twitter.”

Words do move and change worlds, and care should, at select times, be taken, but who polices their dissemination and exchange remains key. Dorsey has simply diagnosed an inherent problem in the information ecosystem about rage and counter-rage: who controls the participants, bars or muzzles the competition, should not, by default, fall to the giants. For the market place of ideas to function with a fair degree of effect, it is participants who dictate their value, oiled by intermittent legal interventions to test the limits of free speech.

Free speech scholars have been sceptical about whether Jones can available himself of the First Amendment protections. “False speech,” goes a submission by four jurists in an amicus brief in the Brennan Gilmore case, “does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does.” (Gilmore, a Democratic Party activist and former State Department official was in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017 attending a violent rally that subsequently saw the death of Heather Heyer, killed by a car driven by James Alex Fields, Jr). Furthermore, the jurists insist that “there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.”

Jones, for his part, has submitted in court papers that his rubbishing of Gilmore (a CIA plant hired to foment disorder, he suggested) were opinions, rather than statements of fact while Infowars was a “freewheeling” website where “hyperbole and diatribe reign as the preferred tools of discourse.”

The other issue in such summary bans is how they are challenged. Tech platforms acting as righteous disciplinarians seems an odd thing, appropriating a degree of power they simply should not have. And foolishly, the campaign against Jones has given him a sense of dangerous frisson. His information and views will not necessarily disappear so much as migrate to other forums and mutate with aggression. The conspiracy theorist will ride again, even as the various tech giants bask in the ethical afterglow spurred on by anger and undefined standards of hate.

The Non-University and the Manager

We have been seeing over the last few decades the birth of the non-university, an institution hollowed out of its seminal functions: teaching and scholarship. Such an institution emphasises the functions of commerce and branding not dissimilar to the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), dedicated to goods and services and the establishment of trading hubs. In 2007, the Vice Chancellor of Griffith University would note how 11 Australian universities “including my own have 5 or more campuses.”

Pedagogical instruction has become a matter of popularity contests, fuelled by giddy grade inflations on the part of academics who are, let’s face it, often not doing the actual grading. That part of the process is reserved for toiling sessional or casual workers who scrape, labour and hope, often in vain, that they will find a spot of middle-class security. Their life is one of temporary contracts and elusive tenure, a true academic underclass seduced by the elusion of patronage.

The issue of research has also been hijacked by the circuitous nature of research grants. The non-university specialises in workshops run by robotic consultants and endless sessions peppered by power points, preparing the unwise academic for an uncertain future where time is spent in a ceaseless drive for irrelevance. When a grant is received, it is specifically tailor made for insipid trendiness, the latest pop sensation that creates pop-up industries and employment for minions. Universities will, naturally, take a cut. Importantly, getting one grant will mean getting another. A family of sort crops up, and you are guaranteed a line of funding that does not necessarily need proof of use or evidence of worth. Grants, in other words, displace scholarship.

Heading, controlling and asphyxiating the non-university is the layer of not infrequently venal officialdom known as managers. Their impending influence across society was already given a good reading by James Burnham, whose The Managerial Revolution (1941) remains all too relevant. Central to his thesis was the claim that capitalist society would ultimately transform into a managerial one, one where the masses would be told in no uncertain terms that the classless society was an illusion, with state institutions essentially becoming the “property” of management.

Central to the incidence of university management is the divorce between owning the means of production and the control of their distribution. Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means supplied the relevant observations in The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932). With organisations becoming more complex, along with their varied methods of production, a new class of managers hired by capitalist owners came into existence. Direct control was thereby relinquished.

The modern non-university is the very incarnation of this principle, one that sees the academic class forfeiting control over the means of production: their scholarship and teaching. Academic labour, with its fruits of learning, is influenced, observed and ultimately controlled by management. Management, in turn, burgeons with the self-justified rationale that more managers are needed. Fictional projects drive this growth; more committees are deemed necessary, and, importantly, nothing is ever done.

The university manager is a born and dedicated philistine, and is one of the most important reasons why such institutions are not only failing students but failing staff. It is managers who, untutored but entirely self-interested, feather their nests while stomping on the innovative and shutting out the novel. The world of ideas is a world of offense, dangerous and to be avoided.

Within university management are the turncoats known as failed academics. Incapable of writing, researching and teaching, these people, unburdened by their banal resume move into a dreary world of paper clips, staplers and signatures, knowing that they can be promoted up a ladder filled with endless forms and bundles of paperwork. One Australian university is even proud of having a Vice Chancellor who is rather light on education, not daring to even have a doctoral thesis to his name. Such credentials would be an impediment in a non-university.

The fundamental goal of management is not merely to control, monitor and mediate performance on the part of the neutered academic, an insistence that thought is obscene. (Thought, by its very act, cannot be managed). The academic must be restrained before the all-seeing-eyes of the brand label police and authoritarians.

Work-plans – because cerebral activity and inspiration can miraculously become the subject of a spreadsheet or the subject of itemisation – are designed in order to be used against academic staff. Online Modules, fostered in the true Orwellian spirit, ensure a degree of disgruntled humility. They are generally of no consequence, seeing as they will be breached by university managers with impunity, but these must be undertaken by staff. Know the “values” of a university; appreciate “diversity”; know your place and worship the next dogma and, above all, do not criticise “hard working” management. A module on hypocrisy would also be well worth taking, but irony and humour are the stuff of poison to a university manager.

A return to the university, one thriving with students and engaged scholarship would be a jolly thing. But the chances of that happening are glacial, remote and unpopular. The non-university will only be killed off when the students stop coming, or when governments see fit to curb their funding. The problem in the latter case, as it has been for decades, is that students and unions will protest, thereby inadvertently protecting the managers who influence them. The fundamental truth is that most of these bodies run on the blood of those who pay them. Drying up the resources will see management cannibalise itself, a mortal competition to the finish. Now wouldn’t that be fun?

Has Australia become a nation of crooks?

By Ad astra

I’ve been an Australian for a long while now. I always thought that Aussies were a decent bunch, wedded to the notion of a fair go for everyone, always willing to give their mates a hand up when they were down. I’ve seen example after example of this mateship among ordinary folk.

We’ve all seen how generously Aussies offer help in times of crisis, when someone has been dealt an unfair blow by circumstance, when someone needs funds for specialized medical care, and when a family or a town or an area has been devastated by drought or fire or floods. Helping hands are everywhere, generosity abounds, and goodwill is abundant. We are seeing this right now as the widespread drought worsens.

Think though about whom the generous ones are. They are ordinary Aussies like you and me, ready to help our mates when they are in strife.

Then ask yourself why these basic Australian traits are missing from the giants that dominate our economy and our society. Some of them are banks, some are corporations, some are religious orders, and some are clubs and sporting organizations. All have engendered our trust over the years. Yet so many have now destroyed that trust though dishonesty, even criminal fraud.

To our astonishment and our dismay we have discovered that they have deliberately set out to mislead their patrons, to defraud them, to gouge them financially, to take money from their pockets and erode their entitlements, to deprive them of the benefits they were promised. Their actions are no accident, no administrative mistake, no inadvertent error carried out by a junior employee. They are premeditated and carefully calculated to benefit the big guy and disadvantage the little.

In the case of religious orders they have besmirched their principles and defiled their morality as they abused the young and the old alike, the very ones they have always pledged to protect. And then they knowingly covered it up for decades, putting the reputation of their churches ahead of the welfare of the powerless and the vulnerable.

I know I don’t need to write page after page describing in detail these corporate crooks. You know them, but here are a few reminders.

Can you recall how shocked you were when the revelations of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and the Financial Services Industry unfolded day after agonizing day. How many of you, like me, had an abiding faith in the pillars of the financial world, our four large banks, only to find that they have been actively defrauding us all in pursuit of their own profits and filling the pockets of their employees through incentives that always favoured the employee against the client. Everyone in the banks knew about this fraud from the boards and top executives down. They willfully and shamefully set about gouging their clients. It was hard to believe, but believe it we now must.

Now that the banks had been done over by the Royal Commissioner and his assistants through incisive questions and humiliating answers from the bankers, superannuation and other elements of the financial industry are to be put under the hammer. They will be found to be just as bad.

It’s hard to believe that such malfeasance could have infected every corner of the banking industry. And it was all deliberate, intentional fraud that everyone in the industry knew about and worse still, except for the occasional whistleblower, stealthily concealed.

And just last week, AMP, longstanding pillar in the edifice of our financial institutions, having been forced to make a humiliating mea culpa about its fraud, is now publicly attempting to reset its business after its chief executive Craig Meller quit, Board Chairman Catherine Brenner and other Board members resigned, and AMP executives were threatened with years in jail for fraud.

While all this was filling the headlines, the revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse competed for prominence.

Who knew how widespread the abuse was, how many had been involved, and how assiduously it had been covered up by the top echelons of these institutions? Who has not been shocked? Although we usually use the word ‘fraud’ for financial misdemeanors, it applies equally to the behaviour of religious and related institutions caught up in child abuse. The decency and righteousness they have been promising for eons has not been delivered; the opposite has. They are religious crooks.

More recently we have had the ACCC report on the steep rise in energy prices, which it attributes in part to market manipulation by the big players and monopolies. The ACCC wants a cap on any further merger or acquisition of a company with more than 20 per cent market share of generation to stop monopolies arising, and also wants the Australian Energy Regulator to have greater monitoring powers “to target market manipulation”. The energy market is deliberately confusing. ACCC says it’s ‘broken’! We have crooks and frauds in the energy market too.

Let’s look for a while at the sporting arena. Test cricket, long regarded as the pinnacle of decent sporting behaviour, has now been permanently diminished by the ‘ball tampering’ affair in South Africa. Captain Smith, Vice Captain Warner and perpetrator Bancroft have been lastingly shamed, as has Australian cricket and all those cricket officials and administrators right to the top, who knew about the unhealthy ‘win at all costs’ culture that encouraged this unseemly fraud. It is galling to see that our sporting heroes too are frauds and crooks.

We are well aware of the drug scandals that have afflicted the Tour de France, and recently there have been rumours that match fixing may have occurred at Wimbledon, the home of tennis, where some doubles matches were under suspicion. No Australians are implicated.

Recently, we discovered that Facebook and Optus has been deviously capturing intimate details of their clients’ behaviour and surreptitiously selling this to third parties so that they can secretly manipulate our choice of all manner of products. This is fraud, and the perpetrators are crooks.

The restaurant industry has surprised us with countless episodes of underpayment of staff wages, superannuation and entitlements. Details were provided in The merchants of venality. You can read more about this sorry tale in an article in The New DailyThe Melbourne food strip where hundreds of staff are underpaid. George Colombaris of MasterChef fame was involved in this fraud. He underpaid staff in his restaurants by $2.6 million. And when caught out, solemn promises to repay his workers their entitlements were still being dishonoured in mid July.

As a longstanding Aussie, I’m appalled and ashamed that our society has accumulated so many crooks plying their fraudulent trade. Perhaps they were always there, but I didn’t notice them. But they are there now in such profusion that no one can miss them. We are shocked, embarrassed and infuriated. Can our ‘fair go’ nation ever recover?

What do you say?

Please tell us in a line or two.

This article was originally published on The Political Sword.

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Trillion Dollar Companies: The Apple Empire and Concentrated Markets

It seems a distant reality, or nightmare now: a company that was near defunct in 1996, now finding itself at the imperial pinnacle of the corporate ladder. Then, publications were mournful and reflective about the corporation that gave us the Apple Computer. An icon had fallen into disrepair. Then came the renovations, the Steve Jobs retooling and sexed-up products of convenience.

Apple’s valuation last Thursday came in at $1 trillion and may well make it the first trillion-dollar company on the planet. That its assets are worth more than a slew of countries is surely something to be questioned rather than cheered. This un-elected entity, with employees versed in evading, as far as possible, the burdens of public accountability, poses a troubling minder about how concentrated financial power rarely squares with democratic governance.

Chalking up such a mark is only impressive for those keeping an eye on the trillion-dollar line. China’s state-owned PetroChina is another muscular contender for getting there first, while the Saudi Arabian energy company Aramco, which produces a far from negligible 10 per cent of the world’s oil, could well scoot past Apple should it go public.

Cheering was exactly what was demanded by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, whose piece in The Week suggests that Apple reached that mark “the right way”. The critics of such concentrated power, technology company or otherwise, were simply wrong. “For them, superbig is automatically superbad.”

Praise for Apple, an abstract being, is warranted in the way that its ally, modern capitalism, should be. “The story of Apple is really the story of modern capitalism doing what it does best: turning imagination into reality.” The author prefers to see Apple, and Amazon, as products of US genius in the capitalist context.

The New York Times is similarly impressed, linking individual gargantuan successes to the broader American effort in the economy. A small gaggle of US companies commanding “a larger share of total corporate profits” than at any time since the 1970s, is not necessarily something to snort at. The nine-year bull market has, essentially, been powered by the four technology giants. “Their successes are also propelling the broader economy, which is on track for its fastest growth rate in a decade.”

To its credit, the paper does pay lip service to concerns that such “superstar firms” are doing their bit to stifle wage growth, shrink an already struggling, barely breathing middle class, while jolting income inequality.

This is where the trouble lies: a seemingly blind understanding of capitalism’s inner quirks and unstable manifestations. The paradox behind the tech giant phenomenon does not lie in the wisdom that innovation comes from competition. The converse is claimed to be true: that concentration, oligopolistic power, and strings pulled by a few players is the way to keep innovation alive. This was Microsoft’s vain argument during the 1990s, something that did not sit well with the antitrust denizens.

The fraternity of economists, rarely capable in agreeing on broader trends, has become abuzz with literature focused on one unsettling topic: the continuing, and accelerating concentration of US industry. Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin and Roni Michaely noted in April last year that government policies encouraging competition in industry had been “drastically reversed in the US” with a 75 per cent increase in the Herfindahl-Hirschman index (HHI) measuring market concentration.  (Antitrust regulators beware.)  The authors observe how, “Lax enforcement of antitrust regulations and increasingly technological barriers to entry appear to be important factors behind this trend.”

Marketing professor from NYU, Scott Galloway, is one who has supped from the cup of the tech giants. He has written about their exploits (The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google), his addresses having become something of a viral phenomenon with analyses of the companies at the DLD Conference in Munich. Initially seduced by the bling and the product, he enjoyed the magic mushroom inducements the tech giants supplied, relished in their success and stock options, extolled their alteration of human behaviour. “This started as a love affair.  I want to be clear.  I love these companies.”

This year, a change of heart took place. Galloway, after spending “the majority of the last two years” of his life “really trying to understand them and the relationship with the ecosystem” is convinced that these behemoths must be broken up. The big four, striving all powerful deities, sources of mass adoration, have become “our consumptive gods”. “And as a result of their ability to tap into these very basic instincts, they’ve aggregated more market cap than the majority of nation’s GDP”.

Power and influence have shifted. Political leaders have little of these relatively speaking, certainly over the behavioural consistency and content of subjects and citizens. Someone like Mark Zuckerberg, distinctly outside a political process he can still control, does. “He can turn off or on your mood. He can take any product up or down. He can pretty much kill any company in the tech space.” And that’s just Facebook.

What Galloway points out with a forceful relevance is that liberties and freedoms are not the preserve of estranged markets and their bullish actors. Regulation and oversight are required. A return to competition would only be possible through some form of intervention and coaxing, perhaps even economic violence. The memory of the great financial crisis initially stimulated an appetite for regulation. In recent years, such urgings have been satiated. The tech giants, fully aware of this, continue to burgeon.

Longman By-Election: Failed LNP Paradigms Revisited

The federal LNP certainly seized upon Longman as its best chance on Super Saturday.

Cheered on by initially favourable opinion polls, Prime Minister Turnbull persisted with his enthusiasm for the LNP’s Tax Packages. Most of the tax redistribution favours privileged income earners, large corporations and banking institutions.

Just a week out from Super Saturday, Brisbane’s Sunday Mail was confident enough to claim victory for the LNP in Longman. ReachTel Polling results from 19 July 2018 were offered without qualifications about the high error rate in automated telephone polling.

Under the banner of Longman Backs Big Trev, the Sunday Mail (22 July 2018) overstated the LNP’s primary vote by 7.95 per cent at 37.9 per cent. This was translated into a two-party result of 51 per cent for Trevor Rutherberg based on assumptions of a disciplined allocation of preferences from One Nation (ONP) and other minor parties.

The close result in the ReachTEL Polling invited great caution from responsible voters in Longman.

Although Susan Lamb ultimately won the seat with a 55-45 per cent margin after preferences, not one of the voters in the Sunday Mail’s colourful photo mosaic of six constituents really supported Labor.

The Sunday Mail’s editorial used the anticipated close result from the literal interpretation of ReachTEL Polling to warn readers about the dangers of a Labor victory in Longman:

Voters have a golden opportunity to reject the Socialist policies of Shorten and put him on notice that his comfortable relationship with sluggish unions is not what we expect in 21st century Australia.

The official line from the federal LNP was less clear-cut. Invoking the LNP’s underdog status, the federal LNP noted that conservatives in government had not clawed back a federal Labor seat at a by-election since two irregular victories in Kalgoorlie and Maranoa in 1920-21 in the 8th Parliament  (1919-22):


Buoyed by sensational reporting of ReachTEL Polling, the federal LNP was still confident that it had a good chance in Longman on 28 July 2018. There was a nostalgia for conservative victories in by-elections in Kalgoorlie and Maranoa almost a century ago.

The federal LNP’s Tax Plans to restructure personal and corporate taxation rates carried the possibility of a repeat performance in Longman to excite the electorate with a real paradigm change to a more aspirational Australian society.

Failed LNP Taxation Paradigms in Longman

Longman voters were simply not inspired by the federal LNP’s plans to restructure personal and corporate taxes in the interests of privileged sectors of society.
The initial personal tax changes in Phase 1 (2018-22) carried a manipulative short-term sweetener for the most naïve aspirational voters.

For taxable incomes of $50,000 to $90,000 range, the LNP’s tax package offers an immediate $530 per annum or $10.20 a week in tax relief. Short term tax relief was as low as $3.80 per week for income levels of $30,000 and $5.58 per week for taxable incomes of $40,000. The token levels of tax relief for Longman constituents are of course more than offset by the abolition of penalty rates from 1 July 2018.

It was clearly anticipated that more aspirational voters in Longman would not read the fine print of the Tax Plan which gave immediate tax relief for corporations over specific gains for short-term tax relief to wage-earners at all income levels.

The real injustices come years later in Phases 2 and 3 of the Tax Plan. Tax relief for taxable incomes below $80,000 were still in the $200-$540 per annum range after 2024-25. Only a tiny section of taxpayers in Longman will scoop $7,225 per annum after 2024-25. Less than 5 per cent of personal incomes in Longman makes a taxable income of $100,000, let alone $200,000.

For voters in Longman who were still not inspired by such token tax concessions, the second arm of the federal LNP’s election strategy in Longman was the anticipation of more substantial preference flows from the One Nation Candidate, Matthew Stephen. His vote was underestimated by 2.02 per cent in ReachTel Polling and reached 15.9 per cent on polling day.

The ONP preference votes in Longman could have been more decisive if the appeal of the LNP’s tax plan had worked.

However, a federal LNP primary vote of 29.7 per cent was too low to deliver the results anticipated in the ReachTEL Poll.

Apart from the Caboolture South Booth, all major booths recorded a two-party swing to Labor. In the Caboolture South Booth, Labor’s primary vote declined by 1.49 per cent. Here the federal LNP’s vote was a dismal 21.59 per cent. For some local reasons, there were gains by One Nation (+5.11 per cent), a high informal vote of 8 per cent and better than expected results by minor candidates including Liberal Democrats, Labour DLP, the Australian Country Party and an Independent Candidate. All minor candidates scored over 2 per cent and ONP managed 16.22 per cent.

Despite these anomalies, Caboolture South was one of Susan Lamb’s best results after preferences with a 61 to 39 per cent divide to Trevor Ruthenberg.

Across the Longman electorate, voters coped with a field of eleven candidates and achieved a lower informal vote (6.05 per cent) than at the 2016 federal election.The swing to Labor after preferences was remarkably consistent across Longman. The LNP hoped that voters in the Bayside Suburbs and Northern Greenbelt Areas of Longman would warm towards its Tax Packages. For the traditionally Labor-voting suburbs along the Transport Corridors from Caboolture to Dakabin, there was the possibility of a strong ONP vote.

Labor’s Engagement with Longman

Image: ABC News Online

The LNP’s Tax Packages offered immediate gains for businesses of all sizes. Even the most privileged families had to wait until 2024-25 for their promised tax rebate of $7,225 while median salary earners were left to cope with a rebate of $455-540 per annum.

There were no real concessions for retirees. The means test for part-pensions had already been tightened in 2017. Single pensioners with assets of $561,200 beyond the first home and $844,000 for couples receive no entitlement to part-pensions.

For infirm seniors, access to nursing homes required Lump Sum Payments of $250,000 to $550,000. With the approval of the Minister for Social Security, aged care providers can extend the Lump Sum Payment to $800,000.

In aged care facilities demanding a Lump Sum Payment of $550,000, the annual fee amounts to $32,780 plus the standard daily rate of $50.16 per day or $18308.40 per annum. The total amounts to $51,088. In aged care centres requiring a Lump Sum Payment of $800,000, the fees would increase to $65,984 per annum based on the 5.96 per cent levy of $47,680 on the cost of Lump Sum Payment.

Moving into a nursing home facility even for a few short months usually required the sale of a family home. This caused real problems if one partner wanted to continue to reside at home perhaps with access to aged care support services.

Few families could sustain payments to combine a continued homestay with the transition to an aged care facility for the more infirm partner unless resources were carefully tucked away years ago in a family trust or Caribbean tax haven.

Federal Labor’s commitment to improved public health services was undoubtedly well received even in more comfortably off parts of Bayside Longman. Bill Shorten provided the specifics on one of his campaign visits to Longman about the extension of chemotherapy services at Caboolture Hospital (25 May 2018).

The rising cost of private health insurance is an enduring burden. The federal government’s lack of supervision of irregular discounts to private hospitals for the installation of particular brands of pacemakers has received recent media attention (7.30 Report 3 July 2018). These healthcare anomalies come at the expense of policyholders and their funds.

Susan Lamb can now expect heroine status for her commitment to improved living standards and fair wages across Longman.

The current going rates for buying or renting houses in Narangba is available from the real estate sector (realestate.com.au):

For retirees and families with more assets, there is always the possibility of moving pleasant localities near Bribie Island with its bridge connection to the mainland. Median property prices have been documented by real estate providers.


The federal LNP’s campaign was misplaced appeal to small business entrepreneurs. However, most voters in the Longman electorate work for wages and are in some highly unionized sectors in health, education, public administration, manufacturing and construction.

Employment profile in the Moreton Bay Council (Including Petrie and Longman Electorates

Image from Queensland Government Statistician’s Office

Commitment to Top Hat Polities which widen the income divide should be a recipe for the defeat of all LNP members in the six federal seats between Longman and Forde on Brisbane’s Southside in 2019. Continued attention to campaign initiatives such as mobile displays and street theatre can repeat the gains made by Labor in Longman on Super Saturday against federal LNP in its current unholy alliance with the ONP and other far-right minor parties.

Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in advancing pragmatic public policies that are compatible with contemporary globalization.

 

Findings and Non-Findings: The MH370 Report

It does little to allay the grief of relatives and friends, but the MH370 report on the doomed, and ever spectral Malaysian passenger liner merely added smidgens of further speculation. The report from Malaysian authorities into the disappearance of the Boeing 777 on route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014 will do little to contain the fever that accompanies such stories of disappearance, with MH370’s vanishing deemed by The Washington Post “the biggest airplane mystery since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.”

The Post has a point, and Earhart’s vanishing, along with navigator Fred Noonan over the Pacific in July 1937 during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe did prompt a costly effort to rival that of the fruitless search for MH370: a sixteen day, presidentially mandated scouring of an area the size of Texas comprising nine vessels, four thousand crewmen, sixty-six aircraft and a bill of $4 million.

Kok Soo Chon, head of the MH370 safety investigation team, told a news conference on Monday that his team was “unable to determine the real cause for disappearance of MH370.” Such an answer would only be possible “if the wreckage is found.” Nor could his team “determine with any certainty the reasons that the aircraft diverted from its filed flight plan route.”

The chief investigator did dangle a few theories: there might have been interference from any one of the 237 people on the plane with the pilots. “We cannot establish if there was third party involvement but we also cannot exclude unlawful third party interference.”

As for the pilots themselves: “We examined the pilot, the flight officer. We are quite satisfied with their background, with their training, with their mental health, mental state. We are not of the opinion that it could have been an event committed by the pilot.”

That said, there was an undeniable fact: “that there was an air turnback. We cannot deny the fact that, as we have analysed, the systems were manually turned off with intent or otherwise.” Tantalisingly, the motives are left to be pondered over, built upon and inflated.

Agency, in short, is everything; and speculation about how that agency manifested itself has been frenetic and rife. Pilots Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid have furnished investigators and conspiracy theorists over the years ample, if somewhat indigestible fodder. The MH370 investigation team preferred a different diet of solids. The rest have been left to fill in the blanks.

The captain had certainly done his bit to excite various opinions, with Malaysian police documents suggesting that he had been practising a “suicide route” on his home flight simulator. But as ever, the police were simply patching together scenarios rather than accepting them. The Australian was more brazen: Zaharie had hijacked the plane, locked the co-pilot out, depressurised the plane only to then re-pressurize it before landing gracefully upon the waters of the southern Indian Ocean then sinking it.

Such pictures of horrifying finality are always sealed by theories of the mandatory cover-up. In Earhart’s case, one catchy, and very elastic version, is that US Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal felt disposed to conceal the destruction of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E at Aslito Field on Saipan in 1944. The aeronautical beast, so goes this theory, survived its occupants. Destroying the beast would destroy speculation.

Forrestal’s diaries remain silent on the issue, but this did not discourage the idea that Japanese forces might have been responsible for doing away with the two flyers in an act of blood lust. This, suggest Thomas E. Devine and Richard M. Daley in The Amelia Earhart Incident, could well have been a pre-war Japanese atrocity against Earhart and Noonan, who “conceivably flew hundreds of miles off course and might well have observed forbidden military preparations in the Japanese Mandates.” Forrestal, being savvy to a post-war order where Japanese assistance would be needed to counter the communist menace, kept mum on the whole affair.

Those working for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau have been irritated with the cover-up narrative regarding MH370, breaking their silence this year. “There’s no earthly reason,” claimed an agitated Peter Foley, “why someone in control of an aircraft would exhaust its fuel and then attempt to glide it when they have the option of ditching.”

The authorities, however, have not covered themselves in professional, well-regarded glory. The Ministry of Transport did not see fit to have representatives to answer questions from family members. The report is also silent on the foot-dragging. It took hours before any interest was taken in pursuing the flight. When a search did commence, eight days were wasted in a mistaken spot. Then came 1,605 days of waiting for an unsatisfactory 449 page report.

Left with such questions, those seeking answers have filled the void of grief with legal actions and repeated promptings for clarification. Voice 370, a group claiming to represent the victims’ relatives, is keen to identify “any possible falsification or elimination of records related to MH370 and its maintenance.” The legend, agonisingly unresolved, will only proliferate in form and versions, aided by Kok’s own observation this was not “the final report. It would be presumptuous of us to say it is.”

A Simple Love Affair

Let me tell you a story for this Sund’y afternoon … take a break from the political mill-stone and let your dove of delight fly free! …

Years ago I was “doing a reno’” for this Greek bloke who was managing the job for his daughter … who was the owner of the house. She was as the lovely “Anna” described in the story below. She would come around to the job every few days and talk to the old man about design and so on … I never spoke to her and only saw her from a distance … she always wore a jacket thrown over her shoulders in the Greek tradition, so I didn’t know she was a thalidomide child.

“Is your daughter married?“ I once asked him.

“No!! … she never marry!” he replied with a twist of his face. I was puzzled.

“What do you mean; never?” I persisted.

‘What? … You not see? … no arm, no marry”

“What do you mean: ‘no arm’?” I queried him.

“She have no arm … just a stump … her mother she once take that pill … tha … tha …”. I twigged.

“Thalidomide?”

“Yes! … that’s it … and she have no arm … so, no arm no marry … ”

Of course, I have created a fantasy around that moment, that reality … and I have moved the story to the mallee, to another time and place … Why not? … I too desire a better ending than what the sour cynicism of that old man offered. Why should there not be a simple love affair, set in a mallee town with two young people? Let us create our own “reality” … if only for one moment, one afternoon! And even as the some may attest; that only 1% of people are interested … so effing what!? Let it be just that 1%, for that small number is powerful enough to move heaven and Earth to a better place in the heart of humanity even against the greater odds of the indolent 99%!

Dammit all! … what people have we become that we succumb to such beasts and barbarians that would not only steal our possessions, our ambitions, but would come back to steal our dreams! … we should all end up as those killers we saw happily re-enacting their brutality on the news last night! … and if we are but the 1% standing, with nothing to arm us against the cynical mob save our humble imagination .. I tell you this; as far as I am concerned: THEY SHALL NOT PASS!

So … let us imagine …

A Simple Love Affair

When Anna fell in love it was not without a good deal of caution. You see: Anna was a thalidomide child and though she had grown to a beautiful woman, her left arm, stunted just below the elbow with two stumpy fingers threw a “check” on any chance of an out-going personality. So when Anna fell in love with Harry, it was a long, cautious apprenticeship.

Anna worked in partnership with her cousin; Bella, running a small general store in a country town out in the mallee. They named the business: “Annabellas” and it was a good business, an honest business well run that reflected the determination of the proprietors.

Anna was twenty- eight years old, of medium height with a slim face and long black hair down to the middle of her back. Let no-one doubt that old truth that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory! Anna was a fiercely independent woman and held no truck with self- pity, yet, there was that natural reserve that sets aside those with physical disabilities, that je ne sais quoi (that certain something), of the spirit that brackets their behaviour, a caution in manner and speech that is sometimes sadly lacking in other, less impaired specimens of “Humanus Grossness!” However, in matters physical, Anna never failed to pull her weight, and was always ready with a quick witticism if her stunted limb failed her. Yet, she never developed a long term relationship with any boy from the district. Oh, she was not the type to lament this reality, nor did she overcompensate her disadvantage with lasciviousness! She just had a well-balanced perspective of the situation and the close-knit societies of country towns seem to lock the young into behaviour systems that exclude, in the majority, any dabbling in relationships away from the physical and physiological norm. Not that this is a fault, for a country town is born of the earth and survives from the earth and therefore any deviation from the “pure state” (however illusory that is) of natural wholeness is, if not condemned; shunned. To put it simply, as old Smith once remarked with a worldly shrug: “No arm … no marry.”

Harry was of the district, once. His family sold up and moved away many years before and now he had moved back to take over the local garage, for Harry was a mechanic. Harry was thirty-three years old when he moved back to the district. He was tallish, well-built (for a mechanic!) with short fuzzy hair and a fixed smile on a generally happy face. Harry had no chip on his shoulder (no axe to grind!) and a healthy disposition. Just the person to run a garage in a small country town! Why sneer? he created neither moon nor sun, nor shook fist at others fortune, yet, Harry suffered that most disabling of conditions: He was shy! Oh, he could slam the gearbox of any tractor onto the block of the engine, with appropriate epithets and wiping of greasy hands and shout to a farmer across the road:

”She’ll be right this ‘arvo, Clem’,” … but, stand him in front of a pretty woman and he’d fumble about like a cow in a mud-hole. So consequently, one rarely saw Harry outside of overalls and armed with a spanner … except for the annual football club ball (you don’t like football? … tough, millions do!).

Harry’s garage was three doors down from “Annabellas”, consequently there was frequent conversation concerning pies or pasties or pieces of string between Anna and Harry. One of these centered around the aforementioned Ball ..

“Getting close now.” Harry said in an offhand way.

“Yes” Anna checked the list of groceries. Harry shifted foot, like a horse resting.

“Who are you going with, Harry?” this threw him a little as he was about to ask Anna the same question.

“Huh,oh! … well, myself I ‘spose … you got someone?” a slight inflection of voice.

“Yes … ”(drop of mouth from Harry) ”My father”. (Mouth picks up again). Anna ticks the last entry on the shopping list and looks up expectantly.

“Oh, … right.”

Harry fumbles in his top pocket and withdraws some money. He counts out carefully on the counter saying as he does so;

“Well I was wondering if you’d care to go with me?” Anna raised her eyebrows, the merest flicker of a warm smile at the edge of her mouth.

“Hmm, … but what about dad?”

“Oh, … he’d come too,” Harry quickly replied, lest there be insurmountable opposition. His eyes appealed.

“Well … ” and here the usual reserve stalled her, but this time she relented. “I’ll ask dad if he doesn’t mind … ”

“And you’ll come if it’s ok with him?” Harry persisted unusually but fearfully.

Anna thought, then looked at Harry closely.

“Yes,” she said. Harry seemed to lose a frightful burden just then, for he suddenly straightened up and smiled.

“Right-oh! … ” he quipped confidently, ”I’ll … I’ll catch you later”. and he left the store … he suddenly returned sheepishly to take his groceries. He gathered them up as if they were a clutch of puppies, smiled, and quickly retreated to his greasy nirvana.

Well, the night out at the ball went smoothly, as neither Anna nor Harry were wild ragers and would rather dance than drink. So consequently there were other social events that they escorted each other to, for Anna would invite Harry as much as vice-versa and so it became accepted that Harry and Anna would be matched on invitations ipso-facto, so do small communities naturally react.

No more than a stage of evolution I suppose (but you knew this was going to happen; shy man meets beautiful, flawed lady, they fall in love, get married etc, etc and so forth!). But there was one hindering factor in this quaint affair of the heart: the thalidomide arm … the flaw! … ah! … as a flaw in a diamond will deflect the light so does a flaw in a human disturb the smooth natural flow of emotions. Why even an embrace would draw attention to Anna’s stump arm , she; the embarrassed frustration of not being able to rub a caressing hand over Harry’s shoulders without adjusting her position, he ;the knowing of this frustration in Anna and the clumsy overcompensation on his part, the actions of dismissal of the offending limb! Yet that limb was her, or a part of her, as much as a leg or nose or breast! She knew it, he knew it but still the dammed thing would obtrude, out of all proportion into their consciousness. But then again, neither of them could or would broach such a delicate subject, such are the halting secrets of the heart: “will I? should I?” and so neither is done.

I’ll have to mention that long before Anna had met Harry, she became aware of this nagging feeling and once even, had seen a doctor in the city with a view to amputation of the offending limb, reasoning that it would be easier to explain away an injury than be eternally on show as a “freak”. Fortunately, (for she was strong willed) this idea, born on the wings of youthful despair, was soon cast aside as ridiculous and childish. And she grew stronger for it. Oh! that us with body complete could draw on such fortitude, when even a slight ailment of body or soul sends us into paroxysms of complaints. Oh frail souls! Oh weak heart!

So into the summer months under a vacant sky rafting on a sea of mallee bush did they continue with their courting, a gentle affair with neither tryst nor jealousy but as two labourers with a common goal they met, socialised and parted. And one day Harry “popped” the question. And Anna accepted and indeed, why shouldn’t she? … She desired children, a home to raise them in … but do I feel a little raising of hackles in you at this servile “acceptance” of a “woman’s lot”? Should she rebel at this “Patriarchal” social construction? ahh! … permit me a smile … and I ask you : do you really believe the world and all in it waits with bated breath for miraculous revelations from those that would have us stride with determination down this or that corrected path? … I once waited … and so I now smile … Yes. Anna accepted, yet there was one unsolved dilemma left in the air and she meant to speak to Harry about it soon.

Saterdee arvo, ahh! is there a more pleasant occupation than being young and alive in the summer with work behind you on a sunny Saterdee afternoon in the country? … Harry thought not as he stood wiping his greasy hands with a shaggy, greasy cloth outside his garage. A smile on his dial, a song in his heart and whom should he spot walking up the pavement toward him? …

“Anna!” he called with glee. ”Where’re you off to with such a pretty bouquet? … not another secret love I hope?” and he laughed. And gosh, didn’t she look pretty … her warming smile above the multi hued bouquet.

“It’s for mother’s grave actually,” she said. Harry gulped at his over exuberant gaffe!

“Oh dear, pardon me,” he gasped. Anna smiled now.

“Don’t be silly, she’s been dead fifteen years now,” and she fussed with the arranging of the flowers ”I’m going out to her memorial now, … you want to come?”

“Say no more.” And off they went.They had hardly driven a hundred yards when Harry suddenly ducked his head below the dashboard.

“What are you doing?” frowned Anna. “Just keep going it’s Noela Maletz! I said I’d have her car fixed this arvo!”

“What, are you afraid of her?”

“Dammit, the whole town’s afraid of her.”

“Whatever for? she’s a lovely lady … she just knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to say it.” Harry raised his eyes to glance backwards out of the car.

“Well, if she saw me driving around instead of fixing her car, she’d want my guts for garters! I’d lend her my car, ‘cept it’s out of action.”

“Your car! … it’s the worst bomb in town!”

“Oh yeah … an’ I bet your cupboards are empty!” they were both silent for a moment then burst into simultaneous laughter.

“The carpenters house is falling down around his ears! … Anna cried … ”And the cobbler has holes in his shoes! … Harry laughed … ” And the tailor has the arse hangin’ out of his trousers! They both choked in fits of laughter … ”Ahhahah … but it’s true!” cried Anna.

The car pulled up at the cemetery gates, Anna jumped out, Harry made to follow.

“Wait there, just be a minute.”

“But I thought you wanted me to come?”

“To her memorial. yes, this is her grave. We’ll go there next, I’ll be right back.”

It seemed a mystery to Harry, “Graves … memorials … same thing.” Anna returned in a moment and they started going again.

“I just had to replace the flowers.”

“So where is the memorial?”

“On the farm, dad made it just after mum died, it is rather unusual … we’ll be there in a little while.”

The family farm was ten kilometers out of town on a side road. After the black ribbon of bitumen, turning off onto the dirt road was like turning into a photograph:

“And I mark how the green of the trees,
Matches the blue vault of the sky … ”

The low stunted mallee trees leaned in from the shoulder of the road, the fronds of slim leaves dipping over the limestone gravel. Blackened twists of discarded bark and twigs littered around the knuckled boles and roots. Here and there among fallen trees, rabbit warrens displayed their sprays of fresh diggings white and musty between tangles and hummocks and if the eye is quick enough, a flash of cheeky tail can be spotted sporting behind tussocks of native grass, or even a round-glassy eye spying unblinkingly for any sign of danger, then a quick “thump-thump!” signal to other rabbits and scurry down the safety of a burrow and br’er rabbit says cheerio for the daylight hours!

Anna drove off into a track with a gate in the fence, entering the paddock, she drove alongside the fence till she reached another gate, though much smaller than the first, like a front gate to a house, there was a carefully manicured path with white limestones edging it, that led on a gentle slope toward a grotto-like cavern at the bottom of a basin in the surrounding land. Anna led them to this singular spot, for Harry had never heard of it before. They stood at the lip of the soak, green kikuyu grass spilled out from the sunken pit, it was circular, about thirty feet in diameter and the front sloped down to a pool of cool, clear water mirrored under an overhanging lip of limestone six foot above the pool. To one side of the pond, in a well tended, circle of earth, was the most beautiful flowering yellow rose-bush Harry had ever seen! He stood at the lip, gazing around at the scene.

“How long has this been here?” he asked amazed.

“As long as I can remember, Mum and Dad used to bring us here in the hot weather and we’d wade in the pool. After Mum died, Dad and us kids made it into a sort of memorial … she liked the place so much … ”The oasis” she called it. Dad also pumps water out for the stock in the dry weather. It never seems to run dry.”

“And the rose?” Harry asked.

“I planted that … a yellow rose for incorruption … she liked yellow.”

“It’s a lovely place … so peaceful.” Harry spoke dreamily … Anna took out a pair of clippers and went toward the rose.

“Come … ” she called. “Help me cut some roses.”

So they stood, she cutting, he taking the blooms. With her stumpy arm Anna deftly moved the prickly stems out of the way, her long, dark tresses falling this way and that over the blossoms so sparkling yellow in the sunlight. Now and then a petal would dislodge and fall spiraling to the earth, so silent was it there you could almost hear- the petals touch the soil.

“Harry?” Anna spoke as she concentrated.

“Mmm.”

“What do you think of my arm?” she didn’t look at him as she asked, she was listening to the tone in his voice. Harry hesitated … he knew what she meant and was delving into his emotions .

“Your arm … ” He repeated almost to himself. “I … I think it’s unfortunate but I don’t feel put off by it.” it was a start.

“It’s a burden, Harry, always has been, always will be, strange how sometimes it feels like it isn’t a part of me, so different, when I wake sometimes I look to see if it was just a dream.”

“Does it make a difference to our relationship?” he asked.

“In its clumsy intrusion, you know that … yes … more later perhaps than now, when our company grows familiar and little things come between us.”

Harry didn’t answer, but shrugged his shoulders. Anna stood facing him and placed her hand on his shoulder,

“Harry, we are about to be married … to perhaps have children … from there it’s a long road ahead … ”

“I … I’m sure we can do as good as other people in their marriages.” Harry gently replied. Anna turned slowly to one side to stare at the rose.

“I worry, Harry, that any children we may have will not also be affected.”

“It’s not passed on, I believe.”

“You believe, but who knows!” Anna’s emotions engulfed her and she dropped her head crying. “Who knows, Harry … it killed my mother, the responsibility she felt for it … if … if I bore children that were in some way deformed … ”

“Oh I’d hardly call … ”Harry interrupted.

“Yes!” Anna persisted “deformed, for that’s what it is Harry, not correctly formed … deformed … and I would indeed blame myself for … for … ” and she turned her tear-stained face to him ..

“Oh, Harry, If ever there was a time to back away from your commitment, it is now! … I wouldn’t hold it against you … but marry me not with naivety, nor … for gods’ sake … pity!” and she turned to him with a steady challenging gaze. Harry reached for her stump-arm and deliberately took it in his hands, she automatically went to pull it away but he held it tight and though she could have withdrawn it, a stronger force held her.

“Anna … would you think me so simple so as not to see the complications that lie ahead in our marriage? … for marriage it shall be, lest thou refuse me … and would you hold my feelings for you so lightly that you could see me casting them aside, like a discarded rag, for nothing more than this stunted limb? For if that be the measurement of grace, where does one start? Do I compare the beauty of your eyes against size of your feet?… or grace of your step to the lobe of your ear? … hearty laugh against dirty nail? … and where do I stop? .. ” He rubbed Anna’s two stumpy fingers gently “If I gaze into your eyes, do you see pity, greed, selfishness? … look now, Anna, don’t turn away, look! … you see affection … no pity, no naivety, no denial … I’m a grown man … l love you, Anna, do not misjudge me nor deny your own feelings but just say you will marry me.”

Harry raised her stump-arm to his lips, the two tiny fingernails painted red like those on her other arm, and kissed her fingers. Anna’s face contorted to one of weeping happiness and she flung her good arm about Harry’s neck and there they embraced while standing over the rose bush.

“Yes, Harry,” she murmured in his ear. ”I will marry you. Yes!”

1943 – AN EPIC YEAR: Turning the Nazi-fascist tide (part four)

On 25 July 1943 – as Primo Levi recalled – came the internal collapse of Fascism, the piazzas jammed with happy, fraternal crowds, the spontaneous and precarious joy of a country to which liberty had been given by a palace intrigue’: the king, who had made Mussolini his cousin by conferring on him the Collare dell’Annunziata (a Catholic ‘gong’), betrayed the Duce and later abandoned the country to the Germans. Outsider remembers: ‘Italy comes back to smile’ edtorialised the Corriere della sera that day.

The Resistenza against the Fascists, which had begun in 1919, turned against the invading Germans. The partisans acted with a solemn commitment: ‘To suffer, to die, never to betray’, in the name of Justice and Liberty. Liberation in April 1945 cost 100,000 dead.

Let me move to conclude by relating what happened on the night of 14-15 November 1943 in my home town. The previous month the order to arrest Jews had been issued, to seize their fortunes and to ship them in box cars to their death. It was the time when Marshal Graziani, the chief of Mussolini’s army, was calling our youth to resist on “the second Piave line”. Our fathers and grandfathers had held the first Piave line against the fresh German troops spared by Brest-Litovsk in 1917. What a profanity!

As one could read in the newspapers of the time, the Fascists had assembled in Verona for their first so-called ‘republican’ congress. On the morning of 14 November, the news spread: the top Fascist from Ferrara had disappeared. Hours later his body was found – as it turned out he had been killed in a jealousy stoush. The Fascists knew this, but they allowed a travesty of indignation to rise from the floor of their congress. The cry went up: “To Ferrara. All to Ferrara”. The chairman however ordered that only the Fascists from Ferrara should go, assisted by the Fascist federal police of Verona and squadristi from Padua. Vendetta was wanted.

A new verb was entering the Italian language. The Fascists wanted to “Ferrarizzare” the whole of Italy. If vendetta was needed, it was not to be against the person known to be responsible. Rather, it was intended against the returned tolerance, and the regained kindness, after twenty years of brutality and buffoonery which had characterised the Fascist regime. It was vendetta against what had happened on 25 July: against Italy, against a country which was coming out of a nightmare, against the people who had gone back to smile.

In that spirit of vendetta, eleven citizens were captured and shot dead, and piled up against the wall of the Estense Castle, right in the heart of town. They were left there, guarded by submachine-armed Fascists. The head of police notified the judicial authorities with the following words: “The body of eleven unknown persons were found this morning. Causes and authors are unknown.”

So, who were these ‘unknown persons’?

Seventy-five years almost to the day let me honour their memory by naming them.

Three – Cinzio Belletti, a railwayman; Girolamo Savonuzzi, an engineer; and Arturo Torboli, an accountant – were murdered in different parts of the town, perhaps to settle personal accounts.

Three were Jews – taken from the gaol where they were waiting for transport to Auschwitz-Oświęcim. They were Mario Hanau, Vittore Hanau and Alberto Vita Finzi. That they were Jews was enough to justify the selection.

Another victim was a former Fascist senator, Emilio Arlotti, who had voted against Mussolini at the meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism on 24 July and whose death had been sought at the Verona assembly.

Three others were lawyers: Giulio Piazzi, Ugo Teglio and Mario Zanatta. The eleventh was Pasquale Colagrande, the former Deputy Crown Prosecutor. I do not know whether Ugo Teglio was chosen because he was a Jew or because he was a lawyer – or on both grounds. To the Fascists, lawyers came only second to ‘subversives’ in the scale of public enemies. But let me tell you about Pasquale Colagrande – two things.

The first is this: at down of 25 July 1943, while people were coming out of their homes and pouring in the squares to embrace again, without fear, to talk, to rejoice, to exult and make merry in the regained freedom, while all this was happening, the first thought of that austere and compassionate magistrate had been to go to the gaol and free the anti-fascists who were held there. This was the fault for which he was not to be forgiven after 8 September, and for which he was in prison that night.

The second episode, confirmed at the trial of the murderers, is this: when the Fascists back from Verona were looking for him at the door of the gaol and one of the guards was offering to him, and to him alone, a way of escaping certain death, he declined serenely with these words: “To be spared? It is all or nobody.” He seemed to say, the judge to the end: “The law, even that of sacrifice, is equal for all.”

Mario Zanatta’s father told me that, when he tried to reclaim the body of his son – unsuccessfully because of the armed Fascists guards – and to collect a bullet in remembrance, he looked at Pasquale Colagrande who was lying not far. His fists were clenched, as in one final act of resolute defiance. At the trial it was averred that the last word to his murderers had been the sentence without appeal of a heroic magistrate: “Assassini”. The massacre of these men was followed by the arrest of seven more anti-fascists, handed over to the SS and butchered by them just outside the city, on 17 November.

Despite such savagery, for the following twenty months, wherever Germans were bivouacked they were subjected to sabotage difficult to track down. Three-pronged nails on main roads ruined the tired of passing convoys; telephone lines were cut; and night time raids on parked vehicles caused them to be stripped of weaponry and petrol, and sometime to disappear altogether. The explanation was simple: hardly a farm household existed that was not hiding a vulnerable son or husband, or a disbanded soldier. When barns became unsafe, the ingenious peasants had created well-disguised underground hideaways in the fields. At night then, men hidden there would emerge to exercise, do chores, and do what damage they could to the invader.

Farm women played an important role in this dangerous game. They had to be on constant alert for sudden appearances of Germans trying to surprise the hidden men. The women developed many tricks for signalling each other that Germans and their collaborators were approaching: special cries, a certain song, hanging sheet from a window in a particular way. Sometimes a child would run from house to house to carry the warning. When the Germans arrived, they would find only women and children and perhaps an old man. Where were the young men? “In the woods, cutting firewood”; “at the market delivering today’s requisition”; “at the mill, grinding wheat” were the stock answers. At night, when the men came out of their holes they would learn from the women what might be the best targets for that night. The Nazi-fascists usually remained in their quarters after dark, well aware that ambushes were easy for those familiar with every metre of the territory. This made it possible to plant explosives under a bridge a convoy would cross the next day, or to layer a road with mines carefully covered with dirt. But in spite of the inventive hiding places and other precautions, peasant casualties were heavy.

A tragic example is the story of the Cervi Brothers, which has become one of the legends of the Resistance. In September 1943 the extended Cervi family – 23 people in all – lived on a prosperous farm by the romantic name of Praticello – little field – in Campegine, fifteen kilometres from Reggio Emilia. Reggio lies between the Apennines and the Po River, in the region of Emilia-Romagna. One can find Campicinum – Latin for little field – in an old charter signed by Charlemagne in 781 c.e.

Four of the sons of Alcide and Genoveffa were married and among them they had ten children, with one more on the way. The Cervi had come to their land in 1934 as tenant farmers on a dilapidated farm completely neglected by the absentee landowner. In ten years they had transformed the land, and the four cattle the Cervi had brought with them were now a herd of fifty.

Alcide Cervi had a great respect for knowledge. His neighbours marvelled at the boys who worked long hours in the hot sun, and then studied at night how to improve the crops. Most of the tenant farmers near the Cervi clung to traditional methods of cultivation and they regarded the Cervi as slightly mad.

Of what use to poor peasants were books on mechanical harrows, irrigation, vine cultivation and mechanised cow stalls? And what of books by Antonio Labriola, or Karl Marx, or Jack London? Each of the Cervi concentrated on some aspects of farming, but they pooled their information and always planned their work together with their father. Aldo, the third eldest, had the most education and was more familiar than the others with life beyond the farm and the village. He had done his compulsory stint in the Army to which had been added three years in prison, essentially for carrying out orders. On sentinel duty one night he had shot at a shadowy figure who refused to answer to the obligatory: “Who goes there?” The person turned out to be a lieutenant colonel whose injured finger was enough to send Aldo to gaol in Gaeta, coastal town some one hundred kilometres south of Rome. There Aldo was thrown in with some political prisoners, and there began his political education. His brothers and their father were to spend many long winter nights discussing what Aldo had learned. When the family had finally saved enough money to buy a tractor, it was Aldo who went to Reggio to collect the machine. People for years later recalled the tractor trundling by on the main road; a huge map of the world draped it like a flag. The map was kept in the house of a neighbour who had a radio, and Aldo showed his brothers how to follow world events on the map as the shadows deepened. It was not surprising that the boys should being to question Fascism. They resented the increasing demands made by the government on their prosperous farm, and their openly voiced opinions brought several visitations from Fascist officials, warning them to comply silently or face the consequences.

When the 8 September Armistice was announced the Cervi did not hesitate. Entirely on their own, they prepared to defend their home. Aldo, with his military experience, led a surprise attack on a nearby garrison of repubblichini where they found a good supply of guns. As disbanded soldiers began to roam the country-side, the Cervi provided a refuge. For a few weeks all went well, until one wet and foggy November morning. Five foreign soldiers: one Australian, one English, two Russians, and one South-African, plus an Italian whose French was so good that he pretended to be one, and one Italian anti-Fascist were hidden in the hayloft of the Cervi barn in the cow shed. Just as the family was gathering for breakfast, they heard the roar of several automobiles outside, followed by a sudden silence; and then a voice shouted “Cervi, surrender”. Under cover of the fog, preventing even early rising neighbours from giving a warning, a patrol of repubblichini had surrounded the farm. There was no answer from the farmhouse, and keeping a prudent distance the Fascists opened fire. The Cervi grabbed their rifles and fired back, hiding behind the window blinds. The women and children quickly hid in the halls and inside rooms, where the bullets could not reach them. After two hours of stalemate the repubblichini, not daring a direct attack on the house, set fire to the barn which formed one wing of the building. The brothers instinctively turned to Aldo as their leader. With the house on fire, the obvious answer was to surrender or all of them as well as the refugees would perish in the flames. Realising that if they surrendered they might be tortured and give out information on the refugees, Aldo said he would take full responsibility for anything the repubblichini might accuse him of. The others were to pretend not to know about Aldo’s involvement with refugees or with the newly formed partisan groups. If absolutely necessary, Gelindo as the oldest could admit he suspected something but the others were to profess complete ignorance. Aldo hoped that by this manoeuvre at least father Alcide and five sons would survive. So, led by their father the eight men went into the courtyard, arms raised. They were immediately loaded into the cars and taken to Reggio, together with the refugees.

The repubblichini left behind put out the fire with the women’s help, and then at gunpoint escorted the women and children to a neighbouring farm, before returning to look the empty Cervi compound.

lI solco fascista, the Fascist daily newspaper of Reggio Emilia, reported the raid as follows: “For some time the military police were aware that there were prisoners of war in the province and that they moved frequently form one hiding place to another, so as not to be traces. For several days the police had observed that a principal hiding place seemed to be the farm rented by the Cervi family. The refugees, with the consent of the Cervi, were hiding in the barn and there we found a Russian, two South African, a French deGaullist, an Irishman and a renegade Italian. At dawn on the 25 the police surrounded the house and forced the occupants to surrender.” At that point, the only charge against the Cervi was harbouring the refugees, who had been turned over to the Germans. The Cervi were taken to the San Tommaso prison to await trial. While they were waiting, the secretary of a local Fascist party unit was assassinated near the railway station of Bagnolo in Piano on 27 December. Regional officials hastily convened at Fascist headquarter in Reggio and decided, a few hours later, on a reprisal which was announced the next day in Il solco fascista: “The Party secretary of Bagnolo in Piano has been villainously killed. The Tribunal has condemned to death eight individuals and the sentence has been carried out.” The Cervi Brothers and a ‘renegade Italian’ were the scapegoats. The article went on to say that the eight had confessed to conniving with Communists and to armed violence against the State, and also to have plotted to overthrow the government.

Papà Alcide, inexplicably, was not included in the execution. When he protested at being separated from his sons at dawn of the 28, the prison guards told him “you’re an old man. Go back to sleep.” Papà Alcide thought, and so had been told, that the brothers were being taken away to Parma for trial, and for days he waited for the verdict. An Allied air attack on 8 January 1944 damaged the prison, enabling Alcide to escape. When he finally arrived at his half-burned home he learned the truth.

The Cervi, like so many peasant families in the first months of the German occupation, had fought the enemy almost alone. They were not part of a partisan group because the Resistance had not yet become a unified force in the countryside.

And now consider this:

It is easy to provide a short answer to the Nazi problem: the assassination of Hitler. But the utter futility of assassination as a political weapon is one of the few clearly legible lessons of modern history. The knifing of Lord Frederick Cavendish in Dublin Phoenix Park put back the cause of Irish freedom forty years. The shooting of the Habsburg archduke, Franz Ferdinand, at Sarajevo brought down the Habsburg empire, and three others with it, delivering the spiral of history a downward twist from which it has yet to recover. Nicholas II’s disappearance at Yekaterinburg brought great discredit to its perpetrators, as most discovered killings of prisoners do. Mussolini was never forgiven for Matteotti’s murder.

Yet – the thought cannot help darting – how much agony might the world have been spared, if an assassin had disposed of Hitler in time? Mason-Macfarlane, the British military attaché in Berlin, proposed the step in 1938. “I could pick the bastard off here as easy as winking,” he told a friend as they watched a reviewing stand going up near his drawing-room window, “and what’s more I’m thinking of doing it”; but the British government turned him down.

The Resistance was born in 1919: against the systematic injury, used as a tool of government and as an offence to the basic dignity of men – and women too; the brutal humiliation, flaunted as something worth preserving for posterity, of people degraded, reified. A progress of centuries, from Democritus and the Greek philosophers and poets, arrested by such little accidents as cost Bruno’s life and caused Galileo’s stumbling, but resumed during the American and French revolutions, was already quite lively in a hopelessly divided Italy in the eighteenth century.

Five years before Cook, and twenty-three years before Phillip was commissioned to come this way with his miserable lot, my beautiful Beccaria – then a young man of twenty six – had published a treatise On crimes and punishments, which was one of the first arguments against capital punishment and inhuman treatment of prisoners.

When I first thought of these notes I had in mind as title: “Lessons from Europe in wartime.”

I am sorry, I have no lesson to proffer. But, if nothing of what I wrote is worth remembering, please remember Beccaria: “There is no freedom every time laws permit that, in certain circumstances, a person ceases to be a human being and becomes a thing.”

By Outsider

(Go raibh maith agat, Macushla!)

Previous instalment

1943 – AN EPIC YEAR: Turning the Nazi-fascist tide (part three)

On 25 July 1943 – as Primo Levi recalled – came the internal collapse of Fascism, the piazzas jammed with happy, fraternal crowds, the spontaneous and precarious joy of a country to which liberty had been given by a palace intrigue’: the king, who had made Mussolini his cousin by conferring on him the Collare dell’Annunziata (a Catholic ‘gong’), betrayed the Duce and later abandoned the country to the Germans. Outsider remembers: ‘Italy comes back to smile’ edtorialised the Corriere della sera that day.

The Resistenza against the Fascists, which had begun in 1919, turned against the invading Germans. The partisans acted with a solemn commitment: ‘To suffer, to die, never to betray’, in the name of Justice and Liberty. Liberation in April 1945 cost 100,000 dead.

At the moment of changing sides, the Italians held perhaps 80,000 British prisoners in camps. None of them had until then succeeded in making an escape which could carry outside Italian territory. In a moment of total military confusion, many commandants simply opened the gates, and let the prisoners move out. The quicker-witted, luckier, tougher, and more resolute of them streamed towards the Apennine valleys. Some joined the partisan bands which soon sprang up, a few hid, many were recaptured, and some thousands walked out south-eastward towards the battle-line. One of them had the leisure to write, in odd moments, two of the most powerful English novels to come out of the war; and never lived to revise them, because he got involved in a gun battle with a Gestapo agent who tried to break up the escape line he ran. Thousands of those former prisoners, British for the most part, were helped, sheltered, guided in their ‘long walk’ by Italian peasants who were fully aware of the fact that if they were caught in the act of doing so they would be summarily executed by the Nazi-fascists. The hospitality the contadini have always shown to strangers in their countryside, the warm-heartedness and generosity which always characterised patriarchal Italian society, prevailed over the barbaric laws of war.

Eric Newby, on the run in the Apennines above Parma as an escaped prisoner-of-war late in 1943, recorded an interesting example of peasant solidarity. A group of farmers, all draw from two related families, sent for him. Their spokesman said: “Many of the people in this village and in the farms around about have sons and relatives who are being hunted by the Germans. Three of them were taken the other day. Some of them have sons in Russia of whom, so far, there is no news and who may never return. They feel that you are in a similar condition to that of their sons who, they hope, are being given help wherever they are, and they think that it is their duty to help you through the coming winter, which otherwise you will not survive.” Life as an escapee was very risky. To get out of the camps might have been easy in some cases, but to travel was hazardous.

Let Newby testify: “Italians are fascinated by minutiae of dress and the behaviour of their fellow men, perhaps to a greater degree than almost any other race [his word] in Europe, and the ingenious subterfuges and disguises which escaping prisoners of war habitually resorted to and which were often enough to take in the Germans: the documents, train tickets, and ration cards, lovingly fabricated by the camp’s staff of expert forgers; the suit made from dyed blankets; the desert boots cut down to look like shoes and the carefully bleached army shirts were hardly ever sufficiently genuine-looking to fool even the most myopic Italian ticket collector and get the owner past the barrier, let alone survive the scrutiny of the occupants of a compartment on an Italian train. The kind of going over to which an escaping Anglo-Saxon was subjected by other travellers was usually enough to finish him off unless he was a professional actor or spoke fluent Italian. And, in Italy, before the Armistice, there were no members of the Resistance or railway employees of the Left, as there were in France, to help escaping prisoners out of the country along an organised route.”

On the other side of the front line, Eisenhower himself found a way of reminding Badoglio of the plight of the armed Italian soldiers captured by the Germans when, on 29 September, the second Armistice was signed in Malta. This was known as the Long Armistice because, unlike that which had been signed in Sicily, it contained certain political, economic and financial clauses in addition to those which were purely military. At long last, on 11 October, through the Italian Ambassador in Madrid, an ultimatum was presented to the Third Reich, stating that as from three o’clock on 13 October 1943, Italy would consider herself in a state of war with Germany.

The Italian change of sides, and the establishment of Allied forces in southern Italy, enabled the Allies to provide support for resistance all over the Balkans. The Allied Command in Cairo continued to be in charge of most operations into the peninsula; but work into Yugoslavia, where most German forces were pinned and the greatest possibilities of subversive expansion seemed to lie, was detached from the commander-in-chief, Middle East, and placed under the supreme commander, Mediterranean theatre – that is, under Allied Force Headquarters at Algiers, with advanced headquarters at Caserta, near Naples. So much work was done by Allied Force Headquarters on subversion that it added to its four conventional branches – G1 troops, G2 information, G3 operations and G4 supply – the novelty of G5 special forces.

The fighting in Yugoslavia was particularly savage and confused; to the wild terrain, poor roads, rough tracks, few railways, the variegated population added many further doubts for the travelling soldier – on any of the several combatant sides. German, Ustaše, Bulgars, Italians, partisans, two sorts of Četnik, Greeks, Albanians – there already were nine distinguishable groups, and there were several more; though none but the Germans and Italians could be distinguished at a glance by their clothes.

Tito’s partisans secured a great deal of Italian armament; and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia’s nation-wide organisation was efficient enough for the partisan army to multiply ten times almost overnight, absorbing a great many Croats – some of them recent deserters from the Wehrmacht. By November 1943 Tito had about a quarter of a million available armed soldiers, and a decent proportion of artillery units. This meant that he could tackle the Germans on equal and the Ustaše on superior terms; it also released him from much dependence on the Special Operations Executive for supplies of arms. On the other hand, Tito’s troops’ needs in blankets, boots, and food were greater than ever. Office of Strategic Services was by now ready to join the supply The Allied presence in southern Italy, and the decision at the highest level at Teheran that Tito was to receive full support, transformed the problem as well.

Churchill and Roosevelt, particularly, put their full personal weight behind the business of arming the partisans. Liberators became available in quantity, for drops; so did Dakotas, for pick-ups. Late in 1943 4,000 wounded were flown out of Yugoslavia from Balkan air terminal service landing-strips to hospitals in Italy, thus relieving Tito from a crushing moral and tactical burden; a further 8,000, including 2,000 civilians, were flown out in 1944. Naval and Special boat Section operations in the Adriatic, supported by a British commando brigade and a partisan fishing fleet, cleared Vis (Lissa) and some other Dalmatian island of Italian troops, and provided Tito with a secure summer rear headquarters in 1944. In November 1943 the second formal session of the Yugoslav National Anti-fascist Liberation Council at Jaice in the Central Bosnian Canton had proclaimed him marshal, and had set up a national liberation committee as the provisional government of post-war Yugoslavia. By this time he was in somewhat closer touch with Moscow.

During the course of these events, I was in Ferrara, a small town, now of 200,000 between Venice and Bologna, but out of the way of German invasions which, for centuries had come via the Brenner Pass, down through Verona. Our elders’ first thought went to public records, where addresses could be found, enemies identified, Arbeitseinsatz (forced labour) mobilised. The police headquarters were already in the hands of the Germans, who occupied the Estense Castle, one of the gems of the Este family – another is Villa d’Este in Tivoli. A major concern was the Draft Board Building, where records were kept of all persons subject to military service. The matter was of capital urgency.

There was this meeting, way into the night, of neighbours of ours and others. The head of the military district came with his daughter, who had been my sweetheart for years – she was not yet fourteen. Then there was the City Chief Engineer, with his son two years older than me. And then along came a judge, a Deputy Crown Prosecutor: Pasquale Colagrande – an unusual southerner, very tall, blond with beautiful blue eyes, distinguished in manners, and married to an equally intelligent and beautiful woman. They shared a large, happy family. Everybody in town knew, admired, and envied them. There were others: Mario Zanatta – my father’s closest colleague, Ugo Teglio another lawyer, Vittore Hanau a businessman. Of them I will say more shortly.

They were all persons of civic courage, of personal and professional probity. But they were also men of propriety, hesitant to trespass on – let alone damage – public property. Left without orders, military personnel do not destroy buildings. Engineers by and large build or re-build. Crown law people normally do not violate the law. Lawyers do not take readily to crime. There was the rub.

Each speaker expressed moral restraint. To three of us, young, trusted and overhearing the conversation, such concerns seemed excuses for inaction. We passed final judgement. Not quite fifteen, fourteen and seventeen we knew better. We were of course wrong; most of those present would at different times pay for their daring actions. They left my house early in the morning, apparently without having reached a conclusion as to what to do. A good can of petrol and rags found in the building made a good fire which destroyed the draft records later that morning. The Germans were at the door.

In the confusion which followed the armistice, German paratroopers freed Mussolini. He was rescued, by a brilliant coup de main of Otto Skorzeny’s, from the hotel in the Abruzzi where he had been ineffectually hidden, as early as 12 September 1943; and was settled by Hitler at Salò on Lake Garda, in charge of a nominal republic. Italians took to refer to it in the pejorative-diminutive, as a repubblichina; it had little information and less authority; but it was fascist, so it had some atrocity in its manners. Mussolini’s ‘liberation’ came with a tag: from October 1943 the Germans would annexe and combine the Trentino Alto Adige and Belluno, and Venezia Giulia and Udine (renamed by them Südtiroler Alpenland and Adriatische Küstenland).

Two weeks later, from Germany, Mussolini proclaimed himself head of state of the Italian Social Republic. For days later, Naples rose up, and after a four-day battle was freed by Allied forces moving north. The Allies had seemed to be in no hurry to move north and were stopped at the Gustav Line, which passed through Cassino. There they would stay until June 1944.

Continued tomorrow …

Previous instalment

1943 – AN EPIC YEAR: Turning the Nazi-fascist tide (part two)

On 25 July 1943 – as Primo Levi recalled – came the internal collapse of Fascism, the piazzas jammed with happy, fraternal crowds, the spontaneous and precarious joy of a country to which liberty had been given by a palace intrigue’: the king, who had made Mussolini his cousin by conferring on him the Collare dell’Annunziata (a Catholic ‘gong’), betrayed the Duce and later abandoned the country to the Germans. Outsider remembers: ‘Italy comes back to smile’ edtorialised the Corriere della sera that day.

The Resistenza against the Fascists, which had begun in 1919, turned against the invading Germans. The partisans acted with a solemn commitment: ‘To suffer, to die, never to betray’, in the name of Justice and Liberty. Liberation in April 1945 cost 100,000 dead.

At the Quebec Conference (17-24 August 1943), the principle of Italy’s unconditional surrender had been confirmed, but it had been conceded that this might be modified according to how much help the Italian Government and the Italian people were prepared to afford the Allied. While the popular excitement was at its height and during the course of a widespread strike, the Committee of Opposition met in Milan and decided unanimously to demand the total liquidation of Fascism, the signing of an armistice, the restitution of all civil and political rights – particularly that of freedom of the press, the release of all political prisoners, and the formation of a government which would include representatives of the anti-fascist parties.

In Sicily the first fires of revolt blazed up, kindled by the arrogance of the Nazis who had discarded the mask of ‘allies’ during the retreat from Catania to Messina. On 2 August the people of Mascalucia, a municipality of Catania, rose up, and on 12 August, Castiglione, another municipality, became the scene of the first German reprisals: sixteen unarmed civilians were executed in cold blood.

What was Badoglio waiting for, what promise had he made to himself? What action was he taking on the international plan? While certain semi-official Italian missions were trying to make contact with the Allies, General Castellano, the envoy of the Badoglio Government, was sent to Lisbon, arriving on 12 August. After preliminary talks, he proceeded to Madrid where he put before Sir Samuel Hoare the plan for an Italian campaign against Germany. The discussions which went on until 17 August proved fruitless; General Castellano’s overtures were met with the uncompromising words: “unconditional surrender”, the unconditional surrender which had been decided upon by the Allies at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943.

Badoglio continued negotiating with the Allies for an armistice. On 3 September 1943 the military terms of the Short Armistice were signed at Cassibile in Sicily by General Castellano representing the Badoglio Government and General Bedell Smith representing General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Mediterranean Forces. The only decision to be reached in the hours which followed was that of evacuating the Savoyard, his family and the Government to a place of safety in Southern Italy.

In the small hours of 9 September, the Savoyard and his family, with an escort of generals and functionaries, left Rome, without leaving orders, to travel to Pescara, where two corvettes were waiting. They stepped aboard, and left the fate of the nation hanging on mid-air. The Italian people were literally at the mercy of the Germans.

The Motorised Armoured Corps, commanded by General Carboni, and consisting of four divisions, the Piave, Ariete, Granadieri and Centauro divisions, was based in Rome. Despite all this, however, at about three o’clock on 9 September, the Motorised Corps, which had not yet seen action, was ordered by the Supreme Command to fall back on Tivoli in order to ensure the safe conduct of the royal cortege to Pescara. The Italian Army was now in desperate straits; abandoned by the Savoyard, nominally by the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, it had been left with no clear directives; it had no leaders capable of rallying it and taking the place of the Supreme Command. Each component of the Armed Forces acted independently, united only in hostility to the Germans.

On 8 September, after darkness had fallen, the main body of the Fleet, entirely unprotected by air-cover, left the ports of Genoa and La Spezia on a daring voyage to Malta. German bombers promptly attacked and, just off La Maddalena, the flag ship Roma was hit. It blew up with heavy loss of life; Admiral Bergamini and 1,500 of its complement were killed at action stations.

In the Dodecanese, Admiral Mascherpa, who was in command of the garrison of Leros, held out for fifty days against a devastating enemy attack. At Corfu the Resistance was led by Colonel Lusignani, who fought with the Greek partisans. He was captured by the Germans and shot. On 19 September, at Piombino, when a small German invasion force coming from Corsica threatened to land, Italian soldiers, sailors and civilians took matters into their own hand, seized and manned the coastal batteries and repelled the enemy with heavy losses.

In Piedmont, General Vercellino, in a vain attempt to extricate the Fourth Army Corps from the encircling German Armies, blew up the Mont Cenis tunnel. In Corsica, the Cremona and Friuli divisions, keeping their ranks unbroken and refusing to surrender their arms, joined with the French troops under General Louchet in the attack on the powerful German garrison.

But it is, perhaps, in the incident of Cephalonia that the tragic plight of the Italian Army is most clearly to be seen. There, on a tiny island, officers and men alike repudiated the surrender which had already been agreed to by the High Command, and far from handing over their weapons to the Germans, immediately opened fire on them.

At 2 a.m. on 14 September, the Acqui division organised a plebiscite and voted solidly for war to the end. The Germans attacked by land, sea and air: for seven consecutive days the Stukas zoomed incessantly over the island. On 22 September, 5,900 officers and men were assassinated by German forces. In the days which followed, the enemy captured and summarily executed hundred more. In all 8,400 Italians lost their lives on Cephalonia where the bodies were left to rot. “Burial is too good for the rebel swine,” said the German Major Hirschfield. It would be for the Greek partisans reverently to raise rough mounds over mangled flesh and whitening bones.

In Albania, in the Balkans, in France and in Greece, what was left of the Italian divisions threw in their fortunes with the partisans. In Montenegro, on 2 December, the survivors of the Ferrara and of the Emilia divisions banded themselves together and formed the Garibaldi division a formation which was strictly partisan in character.

Still, the most outstanding proof of the feeling of the Italian people was given by the 710,000 Italian prisoners-of-war in Germany – most outstanding because their suffering was unwitnessed. Some forty thousand of them died in the camps. The survivors were offered their freedom by the Germans on condition that they would join the forces of the Italian Social Republic of Mussolini; the fact that only 1.03 per cent agreed to do so was incontrovertible evidence that the people of Italy had condemned out of hand the Nazi-fascist pseudo-Republic.

On 19 September 1943, some thousand men of the Fourth Army who had succeeded in establishing themselves in the mountains above Boves, in the province of Cuneo, were attacked by the Germans. The Italian gold braid instantly melted away, but junior officers took over the command, and rallied their troops so effectively that the battle was far longer and fiercer than the enemy had anticipated. The Nazis vented their full spleen on Boves, reducing it to ashes and burning alive 32 of its inhabitants, among whom was the parish priest. This was but the beginning of the long series of massacres which marked the German occupation of Italy, the most savage of which would be those at Marzabotto, Sant’Anna and Vinca.

When the fighting was over at Boves, a number of subalterns decided to remain in the mountains and organise Resistance groups. By 15 September, they had been joined by 2,000 men. These bands formed the nucleus of one of the largest partisan formations in Piedmont, the Autonomi. Another incident took place hundreds of kilometres from Boves. In the Abruzzi mountains, at the extreme limit of German-occupied territory, some 1,600 men had gathered beneath the overhanging massif of Monte Bosco, some forty kilometres from Teramo, in the hope of retaining their formation until such time as British and American troops arrived. Only 320 were regulars, however; about 100 were British and Slav ex-prisoners of war, while the remaining 1,200 were young men from Teramo who had instantly made up their minds to join the force in the mountains and support it to the full.

On 25 September a German column made its appearance, preceded by a hostage, a high-ranking Italian officer. If the Nazis believed this would prevent their adversaries from opening fire, they were soon disillusioned: the patriots suddenly swooped down, rescued the hostage, and killed the major in charge of the column. At the end of the day, they were decidedly in the better position: they had killed 57 Germans and lost only six of their own men. Fighting was resumed on the 26, but the tide turned when enemy reinforcements arrived, and the Germans threw another thousand men into the battle. The patriots were compelled to withdraw, but before doing so, they set fire to their supplied and put their artillery out of action. Unable thought they were to retain their formation, they split up into bands and remained in the mountains. Should it be thought for a moment that anything was better than falling prisoners of the Germans, consider the other contribution to the partisan war – that of the volunteers.

Four female Italian anti-Fascist fighters taking a break (image from Pinterest)

The Partisan Movement, far from being an offshoot of the regular army, was an entirely new and independent growth. On 8 September 1943 no-one sounded the call to arms. A country which already bled 400,000 lives – the youngest, and the most promising, in France, in Greece, in Yugoslavia, in Russia, in Africa – everywhere Italians had died for nothing, a prostrated country like that, was capable of something mysterious, which defied human explanation.

It began, perhaps, in the province of Cuneo. A dozen men took to the mountains. They were peaceful people: lawyers, a judge, a typographer, some craftsmen. They seemed not to know what they wanted; what they knew was that it was time to take to the mountains. Ten of them met on 13 September in the rectory of a little church, La Madonna del Colletto, where there is now a stone which remembers their gathering. They were ten, they shook hands and spoke briefly: “We are here to make war on the Germans and the Fascists.” This is what Duccio Galimberti and Dante Livio Bianco said. Ten – and they wanted to make war against the Germans. Two years later they had become the partisan army which would take the surrender of 825,000 Kesselring’s barbarians.

Meantime, in the south, the British and Americans were moving slowly forward in the Salerno sector where, but for massive air-cover, they would have been thrown back to the sea. Soldiers and civilians alike were fighting throughout Southern Italy to liberate their cities and prevent the retreating Germans from carrying out their threat of leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

From the end of September until the middle of October, that is until the front was stabilised and consolidated at Cassino, the much over-looked “Revolt of the South” increased in tempo, blazed up more and more fiercely until it culminated in the Four Day of Naples (28 September – 1 October) and the Three Days of Lanciano (4-6 October). Other names though must not be forgotten: Capua, Matera, Santa Maria Capua Vetere. Naples had become the city of more than a hundred raids, some of the heaviest of which – notably that of 5 December 1942 – had caught it by surprise owing to the inadequate warning system, causing thousands upon thousands of casualties. The Neapolitans had undergone such fearful hardships they were in no mood to listen submissively when, on 12 September, the German Governor of the city, Colonel Scholl, ordered all able-bodied between the ages of 18 and 33 to report for service with the labour battalions on 22 September, making it abundantly clear that failure to do so would be followed by direct reprisals. Naples had already had a taste of Scholl’s savagery: one of the first acts on taking the city had been to burn the University to the ground, a flagrant example of sheer vandalism, in addition to which, at his command, scores of soldiers, sailors and civilians, women as well as men, had been summarily executed. The compulsory enrolment was followed on 23 and 24 September by the forced evacuation of certain quarters of the city, as a result of which 200,000 people were rendered homeless.

The Neapolitans had reached the limit of their endurance. During the night of 27 September, they raided those arsenals which had been left unguarded because the Germans held the people of Naples in such contempt that the idea that they might rise had never entered their heads. On 28 September the people suddenly flung themselves upon their formidably-armed oppressors. They opened fire on the Germans with their antiquated rifles, and hurled hand-grenades at their tanks. In the front ranks were the ragamuffins, the sloe-eyes urchins of Naples, who proudly took part in the bitter fighting which raged on the Vomero and from the Via Chiaia to Piazza Nazionale.

On 29 September numbers of patriots banded themselves together and joined in the battle. The fighting on the Vomero reached such a pitch that the Germans were finally compelled to raise the white flag. Scholl, after he had agreed to release 47 hostages he was holding, on condition that his life and those of the officers of his staff be spared, was allowed to withdraw from the Stadium. By 30 September the greater part of the enemy force was retreating from the city, massacring unarmed civilians on the outskirts and carrying out wholesale destruction as it withdrew. At midday on 1 October, the German batteries masked in a wood at Capodimonte bombarded Naples, causing thousands of casualties. As a final act of vengeance, the Nazis set fire to the famous Library which housed a unique collection of archives of medieval life in Southern Italy; all these irreplaceable records were reduced to ashes.

Lanciano, on the other side of the peninsula, seems to have modelled its revolt on that of Naples. Here, too, German arsenals were raided and while the main attack was made as usual by the younger men and boys, the whole population joined in as best it could. At Bellona, 35 kilometres north of Naples, as a reprisal for the killing of one German soldier, 54 civilians were lined up on the edge of the cliff and sprayed with machine-gun bullets till they toppled dead or dying into the void. Kesselring’s army, on its retreat from the south, left behind it a wake of terror and inextinguishable hatred.

The Allied armies arrived on 1 October, in time to succour the less severely wounded. They brought with them the cumbrous apparatus of the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories, prepared at leisure by military bureaucrats in London, Washington and Algiers. Administrative generals were even less inclined to trust Italians than were operational ones. A.M.G.O.T. officers took over the whole business of food supply, drainage, health, currency supply, traffic control and the maintenance of public order:  only gradually did A.M.G.O.T. take in; Italians were looking forward to a chance to govern themselves again, had not loved dictatorship much, and were trying to shed their bureaucracy, not longing to be directed – either by it or by anybody else’s.

On 20 October 1943 Edgard Erskine Hume, Colonel, General Staff Corps, United State Army, Chief of Military Government, reporting to The Hon. Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury, c/o Lieut. General Mark W. Clark, U.S.A., Headquarters, Fifth Army, Naples, wrote:

“In compliance with your request I give you herewith a brief report of acts of German cruelty and wanton destruction committed in Naples, chiefly during the three weeks before our capture of the city.

The things that I list were unnecessary from any military point of view.

Offences against the city as a whole

Water supply: … The Germans had blown up the main aqueduct in seven places and all of the reservoirs save one had been drained. … The Germans were well aware that there was ample facility for bringing in water for the troops, as was done in the desert campaign, so that this destruction of the city supply was an act of cruelty against civilians, young and old. … The water mains in many parts of Naples were deliberately cut.

Sewage System:  The pumping facilities of the sewage disposal system of Naples were destroyed. …

Electricity Light and Power Systems: Naples was in darkness when we took over. The Germans had destroyed both the generators of the current and likewise the transformers. …

Transportation System: The street car system was wholly out of commission both because the electric current had been cut off (see above) and because the Germans carried away or destroyed the greater part of the rolling stock. … The Germans carried away every automobile, both passenger and truck, that they could find. In some instances, they took only the tires and destroyed or abandoned the bodies of the cars. Ambulances and fire-fighting vehicles were not spared.

Communication Systems: The telegraph lines were put out of commission. The main telephone exchange was blown up.

Demolition of Hotels: The group of magnificent hotels along the via Partenope, facing Vesuvius, used to be one of the outstanding groups of such institutions in the world. Such names as the Excelsior, Vesuvio, Santa Lucia, Royal etc., are known to travellers everywhere.

Blocking of Tunnels: There are a number of tunnels in Naples built to give ready access from one quarter to another at saving of much hill climbing. These were blown up.

Demolition of Flour Mills: … all of the large mills were wrecked by the Germans.

Destruction of the University of Naples and of it Famous Libraries: The University of Naples is one of the oldest and most famous in existence. The library of the Royal Society of Naples was put to the torch on 12 September, a little more than a fortnight before we took the city. Several witnesses agree that the notorious Col. Scholl, Commander of German troops garrisoned in Naples, arrived in person when the work was finished and read a proclamation in German and Italian announcing that the university had been wrecked as punishment to Naples.

Continued tomorrow …

Previous instalment

1943 – AN EPIC YEAR: Turning the Nazi-fascist tide (part one)

On 25 July 1943 – as Primo Levi recalled – came the internal collapse of Fascism, the piazzas jammed with happy, fraternal crowds, the spontaneous and precarious joy of a country to which liberty had been given by a palace intrigue’: the king, who had made Mussolini his cousin by conferring on him the Collare dell’Annunziata (a Catholic ‘gong’), betrayed the Duce and later abandoned the country to the Germans. Outsider remembers: ‘Italy comes back to smile’ edtorialised the Corriere della sera that day.

The Resistenza against the Fascists, which had begun in 1919, turned against the invading Germans. The partisans acted with a solemn commitment: ‘To suffer, to die, never to betray’, in the name of Justice and Liberty. Liberation in April 1945 cost 100,000 dead.

By Outsider

(Go raibh maith agat, Macushla!)

Consider this: by the middle of 1942, the Germans had overrun the bulk of continental Europe; only Andorra, southern France, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland remained unoccupied. The U.S.S.R. was unconquered, but in dire peril. Leningrad and even Moscow were under siege; the Ukraine, Byelorussia and the Don basin were in enemy hands; there were Germans on the right bank of the Volga and thrusting towards the Caucasus. Western north-Africa had preserved a precarious neutrality under the regime of Vichy France. In eastern north-Africa, Rommel was preparing to pounce on Alexandria. German submarines controlled much of the Atlantic and even of the Caribbean. Japanese submarines were raiding across the Indian Ocean; the Japanese navy controlled the western Pacific, the army most of coastal China and of south-east Asia.

From this nearly catastrophic degree of defeat the Allies managed, in a little over three years, to recover. The naval battle of Midway in June and the officially still unrecognised first battle of El Alamein early in July raised hope of a change of fortunes; but only the epic defence of Stalingrad in the late autumn of 1942 encouraged such hope.

The year 1943 opened with an event which radically altered the whole course of the war: the defeat of Hitler’s army at Stalingrad. It became immediately apparent to all that the tide of hostilities had decisively turned against the Tripartite forces (Germany, Italy and Japan) and that their fate was sealed. The Germans, who had continued their victorious advance up to the end of the summer of 1942, now began the long retreat which was to end in 1945, in Berlin. By then victory over Japan was a question of time. When the battered remains of the Italian Expeditionary Force to Russia, reduced from 220,000 to only a few thousand men, straggled back to Italy after the appalling disaster of the Don, hatred for the German ‘allies’ began to seethe. It was hatred for those who, according to a statement issued by the Italian Supreme Command, had “not only refused all help to Italian troops, but had seized every available armoured car and truck, and had abandoned Italians wounded, leaving them with no means of transport, no provisions, and no medical supplied.”

In November 1942 had come the Allied landing in North Africa, in December came the Russian and finally victory at Stalingrad, and – as Levi would write in The periodic table: “we realised that the war had drawn closer and that history had resumed its march. In the space of a few weeks each of us matured, more so than during the previous twenty years.” “Out of the shadows came men whom Fascism had not crushed – lawyers, professors, and workers – and we recognised in them our teachers, those for whom we had futilely searched until then in the Bible’s doctrine, in chemistry, and on the mountains.” … “Fascism had reduced [those men] to silence for twenty years, and [those men] explained to us that Fascism was not only a clownish and improvident misrule but the negator of justice; it had not only dragged Italy to an unjust and ill-omened war, but it had arisen and consolidated itself as the custodian of a detestable legality and order, based on the coercion of those who work, on the unchecked profits of those who exploit the labour of others, on the silence imposed on those who think and do not want to be slaves, and on systematic and calculated lies.”

When Levi first connected with member of the Resistance is hard to establish. The only precise reference in The periodic table is victory at Stalingrad: 2 February 1943. When Levi writes of  “the men whom Fascism had not crushed: and how they talked to us about unknowns: Gramsci, Salvemini, Gobetti, the Rosselli brothers: and asks ‘who were they?’” the question must be taken as rhetorical. It must be read for the purpose of introducing the next question: “So there actually existed a second history, a history parallel to the one which the liceo had administered to us from on high?”

The battle of Stalingrad had been very long and divided into two periods: the defensive period (17 July – 18 November 1942) and the offensive period (19 November 1942 – 2 February 1943). The objective of the German command for the summer of 1942 was to crush Soviet forces in the south, take the oil regions of the Caucasus and the rich agricultural regions of the Don and Kuban, cut the lines of communication connecting the centre of the country with the Caucasus, and create conditions for a favourable conclusion of the war. By 17 July the front assumed the defensive on a 530 kilometres zone. In all the Soviets deployed more than 1 million troops, 13,500 guns and infantry mortars, more than 1,000 anti-aircraft guns, 115 rocket artillery battalions, about 900 tanks, and 1,115 aircraft. The main invading forces, which had operated in the Middle Don-Stalingrad region and areas to the south, included the Italian Eighth Army, the Rumanian Third and Fourth Armies, and the German Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army. The grouping had more than 1 million troops, 675 tanks and assault guns, and more than 10,000 guns and infantry mortars. They were supported by more than 1,200 aircraft.

From 24 to 30 November the forces of the Don and the Stalingrad fronts, waging bitter battles against the surrounded German forces, had reduced the area they occupied in half, forcing the enemy into an area 70-80 kilometres from east to west and 30-40 kilometres from north to south.

On 8 January 1943 the Soviet command sent the German Sixth Army commander an ultimatum to capitulate, but under orders from Hitler the ultimatum was rejected. In the course of the counteroffensive two Rumanian armies and one Italian army were crushed in addition to the two German army groups.

Total losses for the invading forces to 2 February 1943 were more than 800,000 troops, nearly 2,000 tanks and assault guns, more than 10,000 guns and infantry mortars, up to 3,000 combat aircraft and transports, and more 70,000 motor vehicles. As many as 1.5 million invading soldiers and officers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

1943 became a year of re-dedication to the case of freedom – both at the individual and at the collective level. In January the Jewish Fighting Organisation, which had been formed in the Warsaw ghetto, declared that those who had been spared from deportation would rather fight and die. German attempts to enforce a second wave of deportation would be met with armed resistance.

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by one ineffectual, but wholly honourable resistance movement, the ‘White Rose’ group, led in Munich University by Hans and Sophie Scholl, sibling students who were better Christian than they were Nazis. Thus they too saw Hitler as Antichrist. They circulated anti-Nazi letters around a group of friends. After Stalingrad, on 1 February 1943 the Gauleiter of Bavaria who had seen some of these letters – for the hand of the secret police reached everywhere – addressed the student body with his habitual coarseness; and was shouted down. The Scholls had a leaflet printed, denouncing him and his master, and distributed it between lectures three mornings later. They and over a hundred of their friends were all dead within ten days, most of them after torture; at lease they had spoken up for what they believed in.

In faraway Norway, on 27-28 February 1943, one party of nine men carried out what was reasonably to be claimed as the most important act of sabotage of record. Succeeding where a large part of airborne commandos – whose glider crashed far off the target – had failed, they attached the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant in a gorge at Vemork, near Rjukan, some 120 kilometres west of Oslo. With a few well-placed plastic bombs, they destroyed several months’ production of heavy water, and incapacitated the plant. A further large stock of heavy water was destroyed, by a separate operation, in its way to Germany.

In Italy, in March 1943 there were some important protest strikes, particularly in Turin, followed by others in Milan. They were to be renewed in November that year, and in Genoa in December, under German occupation. The March strikes dealt Fascism the first deadly blow. They were the outcome of the economic chaos into which the war had plunged the country, the ever-growing disparity between wages and prices, the worsening of conditions in the factories, the exhaustingly long shifts, and the powerlessness of the workers to protect their families from the devastating raids carried out by British and American bombers. None of the resulting grievances in themselves, however, either singly or together, accounted for the sudden upsurge of feeling which had led to the mass downing-of-tools.

At 10 a.m. on 5 March 1943, even though the management had prevented the siren – which was to have been the signal for the strike to begin – from sounding, the operatives of the Fiat-Mirafiori Works downed tools and walked out, demanding full payment of the sum which had been promised to them for the cost of evacuation, and shouting in unison: “We want a subsidy for the high cost of living! We want peace!” We want peace – this was the ardent wish of the majority of Italians, at home and abroad, irrespective of whether they were working in the factories and offices or fighting on the various fronts.

It was in part the regime’s attempts to keep the news of those strikes off the press which gave a young student then at senior high school and not yet fifteen a special meaning to the word connect.

News of these strikes, passed on by mouth, magnified the events, built up hope, increased the commitment to liberty. One day my school was inundated with the copy of a poem, attributed to this Paul Éluard. Who was he?  What did it matter?  Remember?

Sur mes cahiers d’écolier

Sur mon pupitre et les arbres

Sur le sable sur la neige

J’écris to nom.

 

Sur toutes les pages lues

Sur toutes les pages blanches

Pierre sang paper ou cendre

J’écris ton nom.

 

Et par le pouvoir d’un mot

Je recommence ma vie

Je suis né pour te connâitre

Pour te nommer

Liberté.

 

That was enough.

We were studying French, but had never been told about Éluard, of course. Too many things we would come to know only after the war.

We had never heard of the Jewish Fighting Organisation. German attempts to enforce a second wave of deportations from the Warsaw ghetto were met with armed resistance. For twenty-eight days, 19 April to 16 May 1943, SS units sent in with tanks and flamethrowers destroyed and burned the ghetto. Those days of absolutely hopeless, absolutely heroic revolt provided a passionate denial of that other stereotype: of Jews who shambled off unprotesting to their destruction.

That was what Jews had often – not always – done before, over twenty centuries of persecution. This time they fought back. And of that we heard from Radio London as we were preparing for the onslaught in and on Italy.

What we did not know had to wait for the end of the war: in time, besides Warsaw, sixteen Polish ghettos would rise against the oppressor.

Radio London did not tell us, of course, that solidarity with the Resistance was growing everywhere overseas – even in far away Australia. In April 1943 some Melbourne citizens had joined Omero Schiassi and Massimo Montagnana in the founding of Italia Libera, the Australian-Italian Anti-fascist Movement.

We had never heard of the Raad van Verzet (Dutch, of course, for Resistance Council). In March 1943 it had brought off an interesting coup when it raided Amsterdam Town Hall and destroyed most of the register of births: an aid in hindering German search for Jews. They also took the leading part in organising the great strike of April 1943. This was in protest against an order that all Dutch who had been taken prisoner in 1940, and had later been released, were to report for labour service in Germany. The strike covered most of the eastern Netherlands, and was forcibly repressed, with 150 deaths. But the order was rescinded.

Nor would we be told of Jean Moulin. In 1940 he had not only been the youngest Prefect in France; he had become an early resister. On being arrested soon after the German invasion, he cut his own throat, lest he may talk. He was able to escape to London, and returned to France to fight in the Resistance. We learnt after the war of how he was captured in June 1943, was tortured to the point where he could no longer talk. On being handed a pencil and paper by a Gestapo agent, Jean Moulin scribbled a caricature of his tormentors. Here was this new Daumier – a beaten man perhaps, but with absolutely silent lips.

As the war ground on, and Italy’s unreadiness for it and incompetence at it became clear for all to see, resisters grew more vocal. On 9 July 1943 the Allies landed in Sicily; three days later Rome was bombed for the first time. The Allied landing and the rapid advance to Palermo – liberated on 22 July – had created an anomalous situation: while the position of the Fascist regime was rendered extremely precarious, the danger of a national revolt, which might have resulted in the overthrow of the ruling-class as well as that of Fascism, was definitely averted.

The international situation, the action taken by the workers, and the Allied landing in Sicily were the determining factors in what took place on 25 July. And this is how the coup d’etat came about.

On 19 July Hitler and Mussolini met at Feltre (Belluno). All hoped that the latter would succeed in saving the situation, in extricating the country from the deadly embrace of its Nazi ally. When the two dictators met face to face, however, Hitler ranted and raved to such an extent refusing point-black to send even one German division to the aid of Italy in her extremity, that Mussolini remained completely tongue-tied. That same day, one thousand civilians were killed in Rome during a massive Allied air-raid; the tragedy of other Italian cities was being repeated in the capital where, as elsewhere, terrified people could do little to save themselves from the death which rained from the skies. Two days later, when the king (henceforth let me refer to him as the Savoyard) visited the devastated quarters, angry crowds threw stones at this car, and shouted: “Tell him to come along and see us”. (Him was Mussolini, by now the most hated man in Italy).

In the tragic irony of history, the same Minister Grandi, who had earlier enjoyed Mussolini’s confidence as leader of squadristi in the province of Bologna and subsequently as Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Grace and Justice, proposed a motion – the Bottai-Grandi-Ciano motion – of no-confidence in the Duce before the Grand Council of Fascism, the supreme body of the regime. The motion called upon the Savoyard to resume command of the armed forces and to carry out his constitutional duties. The leaders of industry had actually, since the beginning of 1943, begun attempts to approach the Allies, principally through the medium of Ciano, who had been appointed Ambassador to the Holy See. In addition, the magnates of the hydro-electric enterprises had made it abundantly plain that they would not tolerate the Funk Plan, a kind of economic pool which entirely subordinated the financial interests of Italy to those of Germany.

The strikes of March had put industrialists and politicians on the horns of a dilemma: while they now realised that the time had come to liberate themselves from Fascism, they were mortally afraid of the large part that people would play in this liberation. As usual, they were afflicted by the hereditary disease of the Italian ruling-class: mental palsy, which made it impossible for them to grasp to the full what it was that the people really wanted. Hence, they were to shilly-shally until the anti-fascist parties reached an agreement and set up in Milan the so-called Committee of Opposition which represented the Action Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Christian Democrat Party.

The monarchy and the ruling-class which gravitated around it, Fascist through and through up to this moment, suddenly decided to act at once. Probably none of the members of the Grand Council had any clear idea of what the outcome of the passing of the Bottai-Grandi-Ciano motion would be, least of all Mussolini himself. At five o’clock on 25 July the Duce had an audience with the Savoyard, and informed him of the Grand Council’s decision; plainly, however, he still counted on remaining in office. When Victor Emmanuel curtly informed him that he would be replaced by Marshal Badoglio, Mussolini’s sole concern was for his personal safety. When he was stopped by a Carabinieri captain as he was leaving Villa Savoia, and invited to step into the ambulance which was waiting outside, he did so without hesitation, fully believing the captain’s assurance that this was purely a measure taken for his protection. The Savoyard put Mussolini under custody, and formed a new government under Marshal Badoglio. Mussolini sent a note to Marshal Badoglio, still blissfully unaware of what was in store for him. “It is my earnest hope that success will crown the grace task which you are undertaking by order,” he wrote. The institutions of the Fascist regime were suppressed as much as possible.

Between 25 July and 8 September, the fascists, or rather those fascists who were most deeply compromised, vanished entirely from sight.  But, the moment Badoglio announced that the Short Armistice had been signed, they immediately began to show signs of life, mainly because of the oxygen supplied to them by the Germans for reasons of their own. The Savoyard’s chosen man made a mess of things. First he proclaimed that the war would continue, then – secretly – he concluded an armistice with the Allies which was rendered public on 8 September 1943. During the night of 8 September, the Savoyard and Badoglio ran away – without leaving orders.

Quite the contrary had done the king of Denmark. When the Germans let it be known that they intended to deport all Danish Hews, Christian X placed the star of David on his uniform and went out on his horse among the Danes. Of 7,000 Jews only 50 lost their life; indeed only 800 were arrested. All the rest were either hidden in the Dutch fashion, or smuggled across to Sweden – not an impossibly difficult journey.11,000 other Danes made it as well. In a cold midwinter, when the Baltic was frozen if one had the strength and the courage one could walk: the Sound is in places under six kilometres across.

Levi remembered that time in The periodic table: “on July 25 came the internal collapse of Fascism, the piazzas jammed with happy, fraternal crowds, the spontaneous and precarious joy of a country to which liberty had been given by a palace intrigue; … At 10.45pm on 25 July, it was announced over the radio that the king had assumed the Supreme Command of the armed forces and that Badoglio was now the military governor of Italy with full powers. Listeners could hardly believe their ears when, a few minutes later, they heard the famous, the fateful, words that killed so many hopes and heralded a new and far more terrible phase of the struggle, “The war continues”. For the time being, however, the future was lost sight of in the wholehearted rejoicing which greeted the news that the twenty-year dictatorship had at last come to an end.”

I vividly remember those events. And I remember the Corriere della sera coming out on 25 July 1943 with an editorial headed L’Italia torna a sorridere – Italy smiles again. I will come back to that date.

While the anti-fascists were doing their utmost to save Italy from total ruin, the Badoglio Government was attempting to reassure the people by reiterating that the situation was in hand. This reassurance only added to the general and mounting confusion; it was taken to mean, it could only mean, that the Government had a secret plan in readiness for the salvation of the country, but the question was: what plan? Surely, it was argued, it would not allow without protest, almost lying down, as it were, the mass influx of Hitler’s troops unless it had some trump card up its sleeve.

On 25 July there were seven German divisions, a total of 100,000 men, in Italy; in addition, the Nazis occupied all the airfields. As for the Italian Army, the larger part of it had been scattered to the four winds; it now had only seven effective divisions, and two were in process of formation. Even then a further eighteen German divisions descended. These constituted Armoured Group B and Armoured Group A which established themselves respectively in the north and in Central and Southern Italy. The Badoglio Government did not increase its forces to any appreciable extent.  During the following months the German consolidated their position and moved in fresh troops.

“[A]nd then – as Levi reminds us – “came the eighth of September, the grey-green serpent of Nazi divisions on the streets of Milan and Turin, the brutal reawakening: the comedy was over, Italy was an occupied country, like Poland, Yugoslavia and Norway.” Then the regime was to resurrect itself with the liberation of Mussolini by the Germans. His ‘Quisling’ regime continued to cooperate with the Nazis. Its November 1943 political manifesto declared that Italians Jews were enemy aliens; a December 1943 police order called for the internment of all Jews. The same ferocity was applied as had fallen upon Jews in the rest of Europe, from Poland to Norway to Greece. Jews had lived in Italy since before the Christian era. Of the 45,000 in 1943, more than 6,800 – 15 per cent – would lose their lives in the Holocaust.

Meantime, from 25 July onward, with the exception of a brief lull, the British and American intensified their bombing of the peninsula. This was the prelude to ‘operation Avalanche’, the object of which was the capture of Naples by a British and U.S. army corps landing on the beaches of Salerno. Salerno had been chosen because it was at the extreme range of fighter cover from the captured Sicilian airfields. Once the Naples-Foggia line was in Allied hands, air attacks could be launched on the Balkans. A landing further north had been ruled out, partly because of the danger of being caught between two fires, but chiefly because of the new disposition of troops: part of the Sicilian Expeditionary Force was earmarked for the opening of the Second Front, so long awaited, so often deferred, and now imminent.

Continued tomorrow …

Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off

Even before the single ball was kicked at the FIFA World Cup in Russia, there were threats, promises and suggestions from various governments about how best to cope with Vladimir Putin and his designated fiendish circle of authoritarians. In March, the then UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson opined that President Vladimir Putin would make much hay from the event, in the manner as Hitler had done during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

In fairness to Johnson in one salient respect, games of such scale are bound to be the stuff of high floating praise and fluffy imagery; no state, whatever the vicissitudes of their political system, is ever going to let such an event pass into the realm of pure sport. It is axiomatic that self-advertisement will duly follow.

Russia furnishes us a particularly difficult example. The history of Russia for the west is a history of tailored, carefully packaged images, a process of management with various degrees of severity and enigmatic delusion. When the Soviet Union was bloating with corpses in the aftermath of the famines of 1932 and 1933, a result of catastrophic collectivisation, certain journalists, foremost amongst them Walter Duranty of The New York Times, swallowed the necessary consequences. The modern Bolshevik, so went this particular argument of modern development, was bringing discipline and order to the barbaric yeomanry of the steppes. “They lived in gutters and pigsties for centuries, and the Bolsheviks have shown them that the way out and up is by education.”

Attempts to place Putin upon a pedestal of unvarnished brutality, the leader of a vast kleptocratic enterprise, have been made with varying degrees of success. Admittedly, being a scribbler in Russia, notably a dissentient one sniffing with disdain at the president’s politics, is a hazard of the job requiring decent life insurance. So when it comes to such grand shows as the World Cup, how would the Putin state come across?

All in all, it was theatre, appearance, show. The players did what they were meant to do, and even better than that, for the most part play absorbing football culminating in one of the most prolific finals in the tournament’s history. The events, for the most part, went smoothly. Long term residents in Moscow such as the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg saw this as a “land of Oz, otherwise known as ‘World Cup Russia’, football fans from across the globe” thronging the streets of the city. “In more than 20 years of living in Moscow, I cannot remember a time when the city has felt more relaxed, more cosmopolitan, more welcoming.”

Such events tend to be costly affairs, and it was a point that protesters in Rio 2014 were keen to impress upon visitors, indignant at the amounts forked out for hosting the event. Better stadiums may have encouraged officialdom to flash some good plumage but this did not improve living standards. In Russia 2018, there was barely a murmur. The stadiums impressed; there was gratis train travel to venues; there was good order.

Paradoxically, Putin, in making a pact with FIFA President Gianni Infantino to keep politics out of the tournament, had permitted the tournament to become a glitzy exposition of a political vision: a show to debunk Western narratives of Russian surliness and brutality. His audience has been duly receptive. “I was told people, police in Red Square are smiling,” remarked Infantino to Putin. “This is great. This is exactly what Russia is. This is the new image that we have about Russia.”

The World Cup has been something of a mammoth alibi for Putin’s state, a means to buffer it against criticism that can be primed against opponents in this scrap of images. “As a historian of Russia specialising in Kremlin media strategy,” wrote Cynthia Hooper, “I see confirmation of a Putin public relations victory in headlines around the world.” For the usually circumspect German news magazine Der Spiegel, the event had “shown Russia in a new light.”

Russia’s critics, explained a contented Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, “failed. We are happy that so many people in the UK and in other countries had a unique chance not to see channels like BBC telling stories about Russia, but to see the real Russia with their own eyes.” As for Putin himself, he was contented at those “so-called bloggers – people working in social media [who] helped tear down numerous stereotypes about Russia.”

But such is the nature of hunting for the authentic – it can be all and nothing, absence and presence. Police with instructions to smile genially towards football supports can just as well engage in a crackdown on orders. The authentic can be both generous and brutal.

This supposedly apolitical World Cup has also inspired willingness on the part of other powers to accept, at least in some measure, Putin’s standing. Efforts to box the Russian leader in hermetic opprobrium have essentially fallen over.

Despite being a critic of Russian foreign policy, French President Emmanuel Macron would still announce that he would meet with Putin at the final itself. For all the tense relations between Bonn and Moscow, both have taken time to conclude the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal, a point that interested US President Donald Trump enough to issue an outburst that Germany was “totally controlled” by the Russian behemoth.

The hardline from Washington, obsessive about sanctions, is also being viewed by some European states as unproductive and self-interested. While Russia remains, on the surface, a traditional unifying bogey, the oppositional front, as with much in Europe these days, is wobbly.

Putin will take some time to bask in the afterglow, but it would be foolish to assume that much has changed. Theatrical shows are of finite duration, escapist punctuations of the tedium. The curtains eventually come down; audiences go home to mull over the direction. Some might well remember it. But these are not cases that tend to put food on the table, nor restore peace. The football show moves on to the improbable Qatar, a reminder that FIFA is less a body of football than a body of deals and transactions in search of appropriate sponsors for the Cup.

The Woes of Luka Modrić: Croatia, Nationalism and Football

Juraj Vrdoljak of Telesport was convinced. “I think half the population didn’t show up to work on the morning after the win against England.” The victory had inspired early shop closures, a feeling of rampant escapism. “Croatia is a country with a deep economic crisis. Every day, life is really hard. It’s full of bad stories and tough times. There is lot of poverty. A lot of people are emigrating.”

Members of Croatia’s football team have become national talismans of endurance, the shock troops of resilience and hope. Ivan Rakitić, when he takes the field against France, will be playing his 71st match of the season, the most than any top-flight player this year. Luka Modrić remains unflinching in the midfield as the team’s general. Domagoj Vida has been granite in defensive solidity.

Football teams can be held up as mirrors of the nations they represent. This sociological gazing can always be taken too far, a scholar’s fruitless pondering, but Croatia’s national side is instructive. It was Dinamo Zagreb’s Zvonimir Boban who stirred matters with his heralded assault on a police officer engaged in a violent scuffle with fans in a match against Red Star Belgrade. Croatian football was fashioned as a vehicle of protest and dissent against what was seen as a Serb-dominated federation.

In time, football kicks became shells and bullets in the murderous dissolution of Yugoslavia. To this day, a legend stubbornly holds that the truculent Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo and the countering Deljie of Red Star precipitated the first shots of that war.

Starting with its current inspirational captain, the link between social ill and patriotic performance can be seamless. When he finishes the tournament in Russia, Modrić will have to turn his mind back to his relationship with mentor and former Dinamo Zagreb executive Zdravko Mamić, a towering figure who finds himself facing a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for corruption and fraud. From Bosnia and Herzegovina, he does battle with the authorities, attempting to avoid extradition after fleeing Croatia.

A bursting feature of the case mounted against Mamić involved claims of ill-gotten gains from transfers of Modrić from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008 and Dejan Lovren to Lyon in 2010. Modrić, it seemed, was implicated in signing an annex to his Dinamo contract, suggesting a 50-50 split of any future transfer fee. What was significant was the timing – 2015 as opposed to any earlier dates. Through his tenure, suggestions that Mamić had conducted a “silent privatisation” of the club were rampant, producing inflated transfer prices and a cult of acquisitiveness.

Modrić, having been billed as a star witness who initially supplied anti-corruption investigators with gold dust on Mamić’s penchant for cooking the accounts, notably in terms of pocketing millions of euros of the transfer fee, froze in the dock. His memory, it seemed, had failed him; the contract annex was not signed, as he initially claimed, in 2015 but 2004. This testimony was effectively rendered worthless. Croatia’s captain now faces the prospect of a perjury charge that carries a possible sentence of five years in prison.

The Croatian Football association, in an official statement in March, was not having a bar of it, unsurprising given the powers that be within the country’s football hierarchy. The body insisted upon “the principle of innocence and considers every person innocent until proven otherwise.” It was also “deeply convinced of the correctness of Luka Modrić’s testimony before the court in Osijek, and especially because of Modrić’s behaviour since his first appearance for the Croatian U-15 team in March 2001 to date.”

While every inch the commander in the field, with his team keen to impress in their following, not all Croatian supporters are in the Modrić tent of fandom. The Bad Blue Boys have found themselves split in loyalties over the years, with some, such as Juraj Ćošić, forming a breakaway team, Futsal Dinamo. “Zdravko Mamić,” claims football sociologist Ben Perasović, “is a typical member of the new rich class.” It is a class that continues to afflict Croatian football with their depredations, a looting tendency that is only now being reined in with mixed success.

The other team members have also shown this side to be rather prickly. Vida, and the now sacked assistant coach Ognjen Vukojević, were caught on film making comments supportive of Ukrainian nationalists in the aftermath of the side’s defeat of Russia in the quarter-finals. FIFA’s benevolence prevailed, and the centre-back was permitted to play in the semi-final against England.

Such a background adds more than a touch of complexity, with all its discomforts, to the World Cup final against France. Croatia’s team will not merely be facing their opponents on the field in a battle of wits and tenacity. Off it, pens and knives are being readied and sharpened, with prosecutions being prepared.

Even now, the team is being written off by the smug pundits of football orthodoxy, though with less disdain than before. Three matches on the trot into extra-time suggest imminent exhaustion, a possible overrunning by a more refreshed French team. But desperation, in meeting talent, can be the most potent of elixirs. This Croatian team has pushed the sceptics to the edge, and threatens to leave them there. And with players like Modrić, adversity remains their closest companion.

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