by Anne Colamosca
In 2020 the rising angst against a resurgent fascism took on an urgency not seen for a century. In the U.S., Brazil, Hungary, India and Italy, fascism was appearing in various forms, all of them profoundly worrying. And in some of these countries, a familiar angry cry went up: “Antifa!” One hundred years earlier — where fascism first appeared, that same chant rang out in most northern cities of Italy in postwar anger. Great War veterans were disenchanted, angry, disabled and broke. Many promises Had been made to them. None were kept. They came to be known as “fasci.” They were supported financially in many local clubs by those who were afraid of a rising leftist tide. Retired military officers, local police, and agents of landowners and industrialists stood behind the “fasci”. The antifa were most often union members who worked at northern factories pushing for higher wages and better conditions. In 1920, the “biennio rosso,” two ‘red years’ of occupation and strikes, had raised hopes of the antifa.
But the fascists coalesced quickly in response and their physical brutality was immediate. A “warm-up” session had occurred in the city of Fiume, adjacent to Slovenia. Gabriele D’Annunzio, a middle-aged, cocaine-fueled writer and aviator led a 1,000-man paramilitary operation into Fiume in 1919. Political leaders at the Treaty of Versailles decided against giving Fiume to Italy as they had vaguely promised. D’Annunzio’s men stayed for over a year, “setting the stage for an extraordinary drama…one in which some of the darkest themes of the next half-century’s history were announced,” wrote Lucy Hughes Hallett, author of Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War.
“The fascists were not really Mussolini’s creation,” explained the noted Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini in his 1927 book, The Fascist Dictatorship in Italy. “The local groups prepared the fasci veterans. The military armed and drilled them. The big war profiteers subsidized them. The police and the magistrates assured them of impunity.” Within months, in 1921, the Fascist Party was born and by 1922 Mussolini had taken over the Italian government in a rapid coup d’etat.
Mussolini would quickly replace an aging and ill D’Annunzio. A well-known speaker and newspaper editor who had moved from socialism to fascism, Mussolini was a gifted public relations man, convincing many public intellectuals such as Winston Churchill that Fascism was a gift to Italy. From the beginning, though, Mussolini picked up where D’Annunzio had left off — with unspeakable violence against the left. By 1924, the fascists were so confident that they kidnapped and murdered a popular socialist deputy, Giacomo Matteotti. He had bravely spoken out against Mussolini who sat at the back of the Parliament hall. Matteotti’s death was a calamitous defining moment for leading anti-fascists, according to Salvemini. They had been conflicted by internal fighting and were totally unprepared for the rapid takeover of the fascists.
It would be 21 years under fascism before a coalition of top military men backed by the Italian monarch, toppled Mussolini on July 25, 1943. The Germans would immediately set up Mussolini in a “rump” government in the north until he was eventually captured and killed by the Italian Resistance movement, made up of a range of leftwing soldiers, the majority being communists. Allied commanders would attest to the fact that the Resistance movement had helped them tremendously, actually substantially shortening the war against the Nazis taking place between 1943 and 1945.
And when the war finally ended, many antifascists returned to Italy after many years in exile. Among the most high-profile were Gaetano Salvemini; world-famous novelist and socialist, Ignazio Silone; and Italian Communist party chief Palmiro Togliatti. Their transition to life in Italy after World War II was often dramatic, disappointing and unexpected. The trio had devoted much of their lives — even in exile — to saving Italy from the fascists. What they discovered on their return was a totally reordered political landscape — led no longer by the fascists, but the Americans, intent on imposing their will on this country which they had fought to free from the Nazis and which had a two million strong Communist party, directed from Moscow, putting Italy at the vortex of the newly emerging Cold War. The Christian Democrat Party, backed and financially supported by the Americans, emerged as the major political force, buoyed by the Catholic Church, the Italian right, and both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.
Italy had only been unified as a country for fifty years — since 1870, compared to the 250-year history of the United States, with its often cumbersome rules of checks and balances. In the era of Donald Trump, though, those checks — especially because of the Supreme Court, were prohibiting him from sliding into an even deeper authoritarianism than he had already moved the country into as he closed into four years of being in office. The three high-profile anti-fascists — Togliatti, Salvemini and Silone — as hard as they had tried, had no control over the physical assaults, arson and murders committed by the Fascists very early into Mussolini’s dictatorship. And in 2020, a spate of physical assaults throughout the U.S. had awakened fears of encroaching fascism. There was an anguishing increase in violence as the Trump era progressed. Cars racing down avenues murdering demonstrators in unrepentant rages, local police hanging out with alt-right groups, Ku Klux Klansmen returning to their old haunts in southern towns that did reawaken Fascist horrors of a century ago.
Togliatti had spent much of his exile in Moscow as a key Comintern member, managing to survive Stalin’s bloody purges year after year. Yet he bucked Comintern policy in one ongoing way. Despite Stalin’s anger, Togliatti would always insist that Italy had a unique political trajectory: “The Italian Road to Socialism,” that would lead to some model of socialism that was less austere than that imposed on eastern European countries. At the same time, Togliatti, known as “Stalin’s man,” would carry out some of Stalin’s “darker” assignments, including shooting rival POUM leftists in the Spanish Civil War, a scenario that George Orwell dramatically describes in his book Homage to Catalonia. “They (the PCI) remained ardent communists,” explains Joan Barth Urban in her critically acclaimed book, Moscow and the Italian Communist Party, “working within a movement brutalized by Stalin.”
Togliatti had made it through law school as a scholarship student, graduating from the prestigious University of Turin, as a lawyer. He, along with academic Antonio Gramsci and the audacious recent high school graduate, Silone (leader of the youth movement), would form the Italian Communist Party, or the PCI. When Gram- sci was imprisoned in 1927 by Mussolini, Togliatti would become general secretary of the party, holding that job for four decades until he died in 1964. He would become known in Italy for his conciliatory stance towards the Christian Democrats, angering many on the left. Each conciliatory move seemed to consolidate the Christian Democrats, and after a very short time as part of a coalition government just after the war, the socialists and communists were expelled from the new government formed in 1947. The following year, 1948, things became worse, when the newly formed CIA on “its maiden voyage” interfered in a massive way in the Italian national election, buy- ing votes for a Christian Democrat win by using mafia members to distribute large sums of money to buy votes. When Togliatti was shot after the election, he solemnly directed his party members not to take up arms. Many thought an Italian civil war could have easily broken out at this time.
Compounding the problem, the American foreign policy establishment, in both administrations, concentrated on eradicating the communists, leaving the fascists in place. Italy had no Nuremberg trials or Truth and Reconciliation committees. Many returned leftists found they were immediately fired by fascist bosses only too happy to get rid of them. And, as University of Florence historian Paul Ginsborg points out in his classic, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988, “Togliatti… was minister of Justice from June, 1945 to October 1946. During his tenure… he made no serious effort whatsoever to reform the judiciary or purge it of its fascist elements.” “If there is a single, recurrent, almost obsessive theme in the political history of postwar Italy,” adds Ginsborg, “it is that of the need for reform and of the failure to achieve it…. [T]he years from 1943 to 1945… offered possibilities that were unrepeatable.” Workers suffered repressed wages, poor housing, and poverty in general. Cold War policies in the first part of the 1950s were especially repressive as Americans signaled that the industrial unions with legions of communist members had to be broken and financial assistance was withheld if this goal was not realized. Even in an internationally touted Italian miracle in the 1950s, wages were repressed, producing long years of cheap labor to make that “miracle” possible.
Salvemini returned to Italy in 1947 after living first in Europe and then teaching at Harvard for 14 years. He was always seen as a particularly gifted and committed teacher. He began his first lecture back at the University of Florence in a gentle, teasing way by saying, “as I was saying in the last lecture….” But by this time he was 74 years old. He taught for a few years, spoke out aggressively against American interventionism and ultimately retired to Sorrento, in constant touch with many anti- fascists until his death in 1957. He had done much for the antifascist cause, publish- ing a second book while at Harvard, Under the Axe of Fascism, a scathing account of what the “economic miracle” was actually like for workers, and a derisive segue into Mussolini’s egotistical foray into Ethiopia to divert world attention from Italian domestic woes. In the mid 1920s, Salvemini had been imprisoned, sent to court in an iron cage where he was described by a friend as “big, hirsute, with his wild gray beard covering most of his face, pacing up and down, cheerful, chatting, reminding people of a bear on a chain.” Amazingly, the judge acquitted him. He escaped a group of blackshirts outside and made it to Europe. His lecture room had been haunted daily by blackshirts with truncheons shouting, “The Ape of Molfatta!” while students tried to protect him. He said during those days he never knew if he would make it out alive after his classes.
Ignazio Silone, one of Salvemini’s many long-term friends gave the major eulogy at Salvemini’s funeral in 1957. The two were unusual — both having been born in small southern villages of very modest means. Most socialist leaders at the time hailed from the north and were fairly well-to-do. Silone would speak fondly of his fellow “cafoni,” a somewhat derogatory term for peasant. Both men had suffered devastating personal losses in two separate earthquakes — Silone losing his beloved mother, Salvemini losing his wife and five children. Silone would write afterwards that what surprised him “was the matter-of-factness with which the townspeople seemed to accept the catastrophe.” “It was this eternal resignation that Silone found hard to bear,” writes Stanislao Pugliese in his brilliant, prize-winning biography, Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone. Silone’s mother had been a weaver and he had grown up very close to her and his grandmother. As Pugliese explains, “he listened with fascination to the stories and later likened the art of storytelling to weaving…. [H]e would write that ‘the mountains, the fables that the peasants lived by, their deep stubbornness and sudden thrusts of integrity,’ was embedded in his deep memory of his village Pescina dei marsi.”
Later, in Moscow, meeting with the leaders of the Russian revolution — Silone would get disgusted at their insistence on patronizing the communist Italians, while knowing nothing about Italian politics themselves. He would later write that they would never tolerate anyone with a different point of view. “Silone refused to be cowed by the prestige of the Russians,” writes Pugliese. “When Lenin took to the podium to criticize the Italians, Silone… defending his colleagues… was called to task by Trotsky.” In 1927, Silone refused Stalin’s order to condemn Trotsky at the historic meeting in which Trotsky was denounced and banned. Silone would be expelled from the Communist Party in 1931. He would write that “it was a very sad day for me, a day of mourning. I was once a communist; I am not ashamed of it.” He insisted that “Marx had gained entrance to the pantheon of modern thinkers who have transformed our consciousness… [N]o one could argue that Marxism was not a necessary tool for a proper understanding of the world; no one could escape Marx’s influence.” Yet he had come to see Soviet communism as just another form of totalitarianism. Importantly, Silone did not move to the political right as was common in those days among ex-communists such as Arthur Koestler. He remained, until his death, a nominal socialist. As he expressed it, “a socialist without a party, a Christian without a church.”
Silone’s life would take a totally unexpected, iconoclastic turn in the early 1930s when he moved to Zurich, Switzerland, ill, broke and deeply depressed. He became involved with the circle around the psychologist Carl Jung and found, amazingly in Jung’s work, an answer to his own questions surrounding his birthplace, politics and Italy’s destiny. It involved Jung’s work involving “archetype,” that not only a person, but a nation such as Italy had to be true to its own essence, not something alien imposed on it. Jung had written that the ultimate aim of every individual was to achieve a state of selfhood…and he argued that “many of the problems of modern life are caused by man’s progressive alienation from his instinctual foundation.”
So, Silone returned psychologically to Pescina, and amazingly produced what would become his world-famous “exile trilogy,” three books: Fontamara, Bread and Wine, and The Seed Beneath the Snow. Trotsky wrote, “From the first to the last line Fontamara is directed against the Fascist regime in Italy, its acts of violence, and its atrocities…. [I]n it, the revolutionary passion is raised to such a height that it becomes a work of art.” Others wrote that Silone’s trilogy was the most powerful and influential work of antifascist literature of the 1930s. “Look at Silone,” wrote Albert Camus, “he is radically tied to his land but is the most European of writers… Silone speaks to all of Europe.” And William Faulkner thought Silone was Italy’s greatest living writer, as writers, comments Pugliese, “as diverse as Thomas Mann, Graham Greene and Edmund Wilson agreed.” And Silone would benefit greatly in the early 21st century when Pugliese, a biographer who wrote important historical narrative and was somehow able to intuit his totally remarkable transformation in Zurich, would explain his psychological transformation with Jungian help. “Benedictine and Franciscan monks, hermits, apocalyptic orators, visionaries and alms seekers wandered the countryside (in Pescina). Local fables stressed the deep mysticism and frail humanity of believers,” wrote Pugliese. Silone would explain his deep feeling about a “primitive Christianity,” based on a wholly different concept of socialism involving the peasant, Jesus and his teachings about poverty, misery and suffering.”
But things were vastly different for Silone when he returned to Italy in the mid 1940s and began living in Rome. Literary critic Alfred Kazin would comment, “You couldn’t find Silone’s books anywhere,” explaining that every Italian literary critic he met “goes out of his way to disparage Silone.” It was said that Silone didn’t write ‘proper Italian,’ and that his subject matter — the rural Abruzzo peasant wasn’t a fit literary subject. And Silone would respond years later, saying that this criticism was due to the fact that many in the literary establishment had been fascists and hated his critics. But he had many other enemies: the Communists still disliked him for dissenting from the Russian revolutionaries; the Americans were annoyed because he helped out the OSS during the war to fight the Nazis, but that he had instantly resigned when told that the CIA had been financing his newspaper; and the socialists were furious when he did everything in his power to ruin a proposed merger with the Italian communists as soon as he returned from exile.
Interestingly, Salvemini and Silone — with vastly different life experiences as adults — ended up politically in much the same place. As they both aged — they were nominal socialists, no longer wanting to be involved in party work, but both using their immensely powerful professional platforms to influence situations whenever they could. Silone had served in the Italian parliament for two years from Abruzzo from 1946-48 and was able to help craft a new constitution and vote to make Italy a republic and oust the monarchy. But after one term, he resigned, claiming that the “pettiness, venality and corruption of the postwar period sent him into serious despondency.” And, of course, American intervention in that election, and many others to come, would ensure that Christian Democrats would stay in power for many years. The antifascists had worked incredibly hard to rid themselves of Mussolini, using all of their own individual gifts, but found themselves perennially in the locked jaws of the insidious Cold War.
Anne Colamosca is an independent writer and book critic.
Editor’s Note: A little-known background to Anne Colamosca’s article is the successful CIA intervention in the Italian elections of April 1948. Indeed, CIA election operations are the oldest trick in the tool box of the agency dating back to its founding in 1947 with the National Security Act. The CIA’s Italian election operations were likely its very first significant election operation. President Truman’s National Security Council, which was established by the same National Security Act, immediately set about to tackle the question of the Italian elections and proceeded to set aside a large sum of $10 million for secret CIA intervention in those elections with the aim of securing a victory for the Christian Democrats and defeating the coalition of socialists and communists who had been the backbone of the anti-fascist resistance during the Mussolini years. The agency continued to support the Christian Democrats with on average $5 million per year into the 1960s.
Fascism was a counter-revolution against a revolution that never took place.—Ignazio Silone, Italian author