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Giovanni Pesce: partisans and liberation from below in 1944-5

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It wasn't just US and British tanks that freed Europe from Nazism. Giovanni Pesce, an Italian partisan fighter, describes his experiences and the mass resistance to fascism
Issue 1906

VETERANS OF the Second World War rightly remembered this month the suffering in the D-Day landings 60 years ago. But the official D-Day celebrations peddled a double myth. First, that the leaders of Britain and the US were driven by principled opposition to fascism. Second, that it was the intervention of the British and the US military that was decisive in beating Germany.

Sixty years ago, far from passively waiting for British and US troops to arrive, courageous partisan resistance movements erupted in much of occupied Europe. Giovanni Pesce, interviewed below, was one of the key leaders of a resistance movement in Italy that numbered probably over 100,000 active members, with many thousands more providing aid. He is one of only five partisan fighters to have been awarded the Gold Medal of the Resistance.

In Italy the resistance liberated the northern city of Florence in August 1944. Paris was freed by a mass uprising in August 1944, before the Allies arrived. Of the 100,000 partisan fighters, 35,000 were killed, 21,000 were mutilated and 9,000 were deported to camps in Germany.

After the war the Hewitt Report, written for the British government, acknowledged that ‘without these partisan victories there would have been no Allied victory in Italy so swift, so overwhelming or so inexpensive’. The Communist Party was at the heart of the resistance movement. The Allied invasion of southern Italy began in 1943. When key establishment figures turned against Mussolini he was forced to flee north and set up a puppet regime that was dependent on the German army.

By the summer of 1944 resistance was raging across northern Italy. In some areas partisans and popular liberation committees had taken control. Workers struck in key industrial centres such as Milan, Genoa and Turin. In the south there were spontaneous land occupations and bitter battles against landlords.

There were widespread expectations of a general insurrection across northern Italy. Then the Allies announced they would advance no further until the spring of 1945. None of the powers in the Second World War wanted to end up occupying areas where popular forces had taken power. Instead they were looking to redivide Europe into rival spheres of influence. Italy had been earmarked for the US and British sphere.

The instructions from Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, to the Italian Communists were to limit the aims of the resistance to opposing the Nazis. The resistance movement survived the winter of 1944-5. The following spring the Allies began an advance.

But the movement rose again as the Allied advance got bogged down in early April 1945. In Genoa and Turin an insurrection began. The people of Turin, particularly the factory workers, bore the brunt of the fighting against the Germans. They were eventually able to combine with the partisans and force a German surrender.

By 1 May the whole of northern Italy was free and resistance fighters, ignoring orders from the Allies, had executed Mussolini after they captured him trying to flee.

Giovanni Pesce told Tom Behan of his experiences as an anti-fascist partisan:

‘I WAS born on 22 February 1918. We emigrated to France in 1922, when Mussolini took power. Dad had to leave because of his politics. We moved to a pit village. There was nothing inside our house, just one big room where my parents and their three kids slept. I could see the living and working conditions of miners. What struck me were the wooden shacks in which five or six migrant workers lived, mainly Algerians, Moroccans and people from the Balkans.

When I left school, aged 13, my parents sent me out to work and I went down the pit. I joined the union and the French Communist Party and took part in all the struggles of the popular front period.

I developed political awareness. I began to understand that if you wanted to change people’s minds and improve their living conditions-whether it was migrant or French workers-you had to get organised and unite. You needed to take part in struggles, and I experienced my first battles and demonstrations. Our first victory was the election of the left wing popular front government in 1936.

Then General Franco launched a coup in Spain in 1936. I can remember huge demonstrations throughout France demanding help for the Spanish people. Then the issue of sending volunteers to Spain came up. A group of Italians had left immediately-communists, socialists, anarchists and republicans.

Many Italians, including me, asked to be sent to Spain. Not only was I just 18, but my party didn’t want me to go because they said I was too young. I went to another town and joined up.

For me it was a school of anti-fascism and democracy. I discovered the huge Italian contribution in the fight against fascism-it was virtually a university. I was wounded three times. I took part in all the battles for the defence of Madrid. The battle I’m proudest of took place at Guadalajara, where we defeated the Italian army.

Lots of us were confused and worried, because many of those people were unemployed or very poor, and had been forced to come to Spain. We talked to them across the trenches, using a megaphone to try and persuade them that they should surrender.

Many of them had gone to colonise Abyssinia, but it had been a disaster, and we explained they had been used. I think all this helped to lower their level of confidence. These years were a real leap forward for me. We still felt strong and committed even after we had lost the war. Even when you’re defeated, the fact you’ve fought is a learning experience in itself.

We showed you could fight fascism. Spain was a huge moral, political and military training ground. It gave experience to thousands of people who then led the European resistance.

In 1940 the party sent me into Italy. Nobody knew me. I was meant to join the army and start to organise resistance against fascism. However, I was arrested quickly, spent six months in jail, and was then sent into internal exile on the island of Ventotene. I got released a month after Mussolini was first arrested.

I went back to the town where I was born and knocked at my auntie’s door. I had left town when I was four or five, but she recognised me and took me in. I got involved quickly, setting up a local National Liberation Committee. Then the party sent me to Turin.

I had two or three safe houses, an arms dump, and a group of partisans who carried out attacks. Our job was sabotage actions, and to strike back against spies and their meeting places. Nobody knew where I lived. It was terribly lonely. Nobody was meant to see me. More than anything else, our actions had both political importance and an impact on morale. The vast majority of Italians were passive and frightened. Deep down they hated the Germans. So the important thing was that every time there was an attack it gave people hope and confidence. The second aspect was that these actions created links with the strikes which workers were leading in the factories.

The important thing wasn’t killing a spy, but the repercussions this had. I’ll give you an example-the Caproni factory in Milan. The boss had got more than 150 workers deported to Germany, where about 70 died in concentration camps. These workers were really frightened-they never went on strike. I was ordered to kill him. So on my own-I was crazy-at 7.40 in the morning I went up and killed him and two other managers.

All the workers getting off the tram for the shift change started shouting, ‘Well done!’ The very same day the entire factory went on strike. That factory was ‘strike happy’ until Liberation Day. The important thing wasn’t the killing, but the effect it had.

After liberation there was a huge hope for a better world-work for everybody, an end to hunger. The conditions could have been created for us and our children to live in peace. But this didn’t really happen, above all because of the Americans.’

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