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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!)

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  1. New England Cocky

    “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.””

    Lest we forget.

  2. Joseph Carli

    A very neat final supplement to a wonderful slice of history..A good history is not necessarily just the recording of exact dates and events, but rather pulling together of those moments..the “threads” of the times and the peoples to re-weave the cloth, the tapestry of the history and with the personal anecdotes..the “people stories” layered like paint on canvas on top of the fabric, we can see the final pattern of events that unfolded with the human drama…Thank you “outsider”..

  3. corvus boreus

    Your writing is superb, telling of a human history that runs far deeper than the allegiances of leaders and nations, and the dry accounting of the movements and clashes of military divisions and tallies of collateral, both human and material.
    You give a moving recount that reflects moments of small beauty within the broad brutality of that a slice of history
    People who should not be forgotten are well remembered as their voices leap out of the tales that you tell.
    The meaningful deeds and blood sacrifices of Cinzio Belletti, Girolamo Savonuzzi, Arturo Torboli, Mario Hanau, Vittore Hanau, Alberto Vita Finzi, Emilio Alloti, Giulio Piazzi, Ugo Teglio, Mario Zanatta and Pasquale Colagrande, the courageous members of the Cervi family, and so many other human beings, remembered and acknowledged, to be rightfully included in toasts to the fallen, strengthening the meaning within the utterance of the words ‘lest we forget’.

    Go raibh maith agat, agus mo sheacht mbeannacht ort, macushla.

    Ps, I comprehensively agree (mark this time and date) with the statements of Joseph Carli in a previous installment regarding the disturbing decline in the broadly viewed importance of learning both of and from history.
    In the car-driving analogy, historical scrutiny is not just the sensible glances in the rear view mirror to make sure there isn’t a truck barreling down on you, it is also part of the shoulder-check that is strongly advised before changing lanes.

    Pps I have not read any of the works of Cesare Beccaria, but I I shall now most certainly do so.

  4. wam

    An horrific story of what europeans did to europeans what chance did Aborigines have in the years of beccaria and bentham? Or even now under today’s conservative canberran ‘fascisti’?

    In 1990, I saw jeremy ‘stuffed’ behind glass and have understood a little of bentham, but loved his anti-lawyer and anti-conservative stupidity. Who does not agree with ‘dick the butcher’???

    Hanging for a handkerchief and a handless thief
    Self preservation gives the lawyers hope
    did kapo show that life is chief?
    or up the long ladder and down the short rope.
    deterrence happens at the point of a sword?
    or vengeance comes at the sight of the lord?

    celerity – severity – certainty?? hobbes????

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