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.
(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
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.