One of the greatest myths about the Second World War is that Allied armies liberated Europe from Nazism on their own. The truth is that many national liberation movements played a key role in driving the Nazis out of their own countries.
One of the most inspiring stories comes from Italy, where a guerrilla army, known as the partisans, of up to 300,000 harried the German Nazis and Italian fascists behind the front lines. Not only were bridges, power stations, telephone and railway lines all repeatedly hit, so too were military barracks and even military columns passing through towns and cities.
The Nazi commander Field Marshal Kesselring admitted that he had to use more troops to deal with the guerrilla fighters than he had put into the front line to fight the Allies.
Yet the national liberation movement of 1943-45 was also a civil war, with Italian fascists fighting anti-fascists. It still echoes strongly today — many of the commemorations this year are being led by Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who fought in the resistance movement.
But the current Italian government is led by Silvio Berlusconi. His coalition partners, the “post fascist” National Alliance, are engaged in a concerted campaign to wipe out the memory of that experience. It recently cut the budget of ANPI, the ex-partisans’ association, by 85 percent.
Francesco Storace, the National Alliance governor of the Lazio region, which includes Rome, wants school history books to reflect “both sides” of the war. The government is currently passing a law through parliament which allows fascist fighters to be treated as “military combatants” and therefore to receive war pensions and other benefits.
It’s nonsense to pretend that both sides in a civil war should be treated as equal — so what is it about the anti-fascist war that the government wants to bury? The most subversive idea of all is that you can use guerrilla warfare to successfully fight a military force far more powerful than yourself.
When the Italian government signed an armistice and then collapsed in September 1943, the Nazis brought large numbers of soldiers over the Alps in a great rush to occupy the country.
The Nazis wanted to block the Allies, who were already in the south of Italy. The idea that the ruthless and efficient German army could be fought to a standstill seemed like a joke. Yet less than two years later a German field marshal was forced to surrender to a Communist car worker in Turin.
The Italian guerrilla groups grew quickly. The situation was so bad many people felt they had nothing else left to lose. The Allies were bombing many cities nightly and jobs were becoming scarce, as was food.
Mario Vezzoni, a young worker at the TLM factory in Milan, recalled, “Parents’ body weight fell to 40 or 50 kilos, so they could give what little they had to their children. You reached the point that out of dying of hunger or dying from a bullet, it was better to die from a bullet.”
Many families had loved ones, who had either been killed, wounded or captured fighting in Italian fascist dictator Mussolini’s army. The idea of fighting alongside the invading Nazis, or dying for Mussolini’s puppet regime which now existed thanks to the German military machine, was a non-starter for many.
Soldiers took to the mountains and formed or joined a democratic guerrilla movement. As opposed to a conventional army, the resistance movement had no hierarchy of ranks.
Commanders were elected and their powers could be immediately revoked. The main political influence over these new formations was the Communist Party (PCI), the only organisation that had maintained a small presence during the 20 years of Mussolini’s dictatorship.
It was the only party that had any experience of fighting a guerrilla war — a number of its militants had fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Although it had many illusions in parliament and Stalinist Russia, what was attractive about the PCI was that it didn’t compromise on driving out the Nazis and defeating Italian fascism.
Even though the leadership were quite cautious, many of the rank and file wanted a revolution. The party grew massively — from 6,000 in September 1943 to 70,000 a year later.
The beginnings of resistance in remote areas led to an increase in confidence in the cities and therefore resistance within workplaces.
Communists in particular managed to bring together economic and political demands — payment for working hours lost due to bombing, partial payment in foodstuffs due to shortages, wage increases and calls for an end to German occupation.
Guerino Turati, who became a PCI member at the OM engineering factory in Milan, recalls how he bravely started one protest: “It was at the start of January 1944 — I remember it was a freezing cold day. In the canteen at lunch we were given a bowl of rice and a plate with two dry sardines on it. Everybody muttered and said, ‘This ration isn’t enough for 8 to 10 hours’ work, it’s just enough for us not to die of hunger.’
“There were 500 to 600 workers in the canteen. From my table I started to tap my spoon on the tin plate. In an instant the canteen was a madhouse, nobody was eating — and we kept on tapping our spoons on the plate in rhythm. It was at this point that a furious management representative turned up and said, ‘If you don’t want to eat, go to work without eating!’
“Nobody made a move or even listened to him. The pandemonium increased and he went away. It was decided to give all workers a ration of cheese. Some workers were in the courtyard waiting to learn the outcome of the delegation. Others were in the canteen.”
Strikes became more militant and frequent, despite the fact that German armed guards patrolled factory floors. Workers began to collect their own weapons, often disarming fascist militia men from behind, pretending to have a gun — “If they had the nerve to turn round they would have shot you dead,” Guerino remembers.
But as Dante Savigni, of the TIBB factory in Milan, explains, “The militia were all cowards. When you got hold of a few guns it seemed like you’d conquered the world.”
Workers could now engage in armed propaganda, strike action or military actions, keeping their weapons inside their factories. Italy was the only European country that witnessed repeated mass strikes under Nazi occupation.
In the mountains, some independent democratic republics existed for several months, printing their own currency and newspapers.
Most major Italian cities — such as Naples, Florence, Bologna — liberated themselves as the Allies slowly moved northwards up the country. The three major industrial cities — Milan, Turin and Genoa — rose on 25 April 1945, quickly defeating the Nazis and the Italian fascists.
In Milan the insurrection began on 24 April. One resistance commander wrote, “All tram drivers stop work; in the afternoon Milanese workers occupy their factories; at Pirelli workers capture the German command post. The following night partisans and patriots occupy the regional government buildings and barracks.”
A report came from the Motomeccanica factory, “Towards evening all the factory was occupied by the workforce, whilst socialists and communists organised internal resistance by barricading doors and windows and taking up battle stations on the roof.
“The Nazis and fascists reacted immediately and besieged Motomeccanica from the early hours of 25 April. Towards 1pm the militia attacked the via Mincio gate. Reinforcements arrived in the shape of the Vanzetti workers with two tanks, who forced the attackers to flee.”
Some 600 partisans from the “Gramsci” Garibaldi Division arrived in the city on 26 April. The next day the main partisan columns broke through the German line to reach the city’s outskirts where Communist leaders greeted them.
A captured German fighter plane was flying above with “Valsesia” written on its wings. This was the area where the fighters were based. The pilot dropped leaflets greeting the crowds below.
Preceded by seven captured tanks the column entered Milan, winding through the city’s streets and briefly stopping at the Piazzale Loreto, the square where the bodies of 15 resistance fighters had been displayed by the Germans a year before.
The corpse of Mussolini was strung up in the square above jubilant crowds the next day. It took four hours for the resistance fighters to reach the cathedral square. Allied troops were still a day away. The city belonged to its people.
But the hopes of the resistance movement — 80 percent Communist — were dashed. Russian dictator Stalin had made a deal with the Allies that kept Italy within the Western camp.
PCI leaders followed Stalin’s line and discouraged their members from moving towards something more radical than parliamentary democracy.
Factory owners — terrified for their own safety, given that many of their workers now had guns, and worried about how far they would go — became very friendly towards the resistance movement in the closing months.
Once the new right wing Christian Democrat party was established, and the Allies had gained full control, bosses turned on their workers.
Despite the bitter fruits, this is an inspiring story. A largely inexperienced movement took on vastly superior military and economic forces and fought them to a standstill.
Not for nothing has the most famous resistance song, Bella Ciao, become the most well known song of the anti-capitalist movement in Europe.
And not for nothing do politicians like Silvio Berlusconi and his partners want this story buried. You can bet — given its echoes with the Iraqi resistance today — that when Tony Blair or George Bush celebrate “their” victory over Nazism, they won’t talk about the Italian resistance movement.
Tom Behan’s book The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop for £8. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com