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The Uncivil Servant: Fighting Fascism in Italy

Mitchell Abidor
December 25, 2017

Discussed in this essay: A Bold and Dangerous Family by Caroline Moorehead. Harper Collins, 2017, 432 pages.

IN THE MONSTROUS hecatomb that was Europe from the 1930s through 1945, the murder of the Italian anti-fascists Carlo and Nello Rosselli can and does pass unnoticed in histories of the era. So we owe a debt of gratitude to Caroline Moorehead for her lively, loving, and immensely readable account of the lives of the martyred brothers and their mother in A Bold and Dangerous Family.

The Rossellis were an old, Sephardic family, connected to many of the most important Jewish families in Italy. Though not as wealthy as the fictional Finzi-Continis of the Giorgio Bassani novel and the De Sica film, the Rossellis were wealthy nonetheless, and their wealth helped provide them with a more than comfortable lifestyle, which would come in handy when the brothers were arrested under Mussolini. They were also an immensely cultivated family, with Amelia, the mater familias, a playwright and writer who’d experienced a certain amount of success.

If the brothers (a third brother, Aldo, the eldest would be killed at the front in World War I) developed cultivated tastes through their upbringing, they also imbibed a love for the Italy that grew out of the Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement, a love that ruled over all their actions. A constant theme of A Bold and Dangerous Family is the primacy of Italianness over Jewishness in the family which, though it never led to the rejection of the latter, always took a back seat to the former. The life of the great Mazzini, about whom Nello, a historian more than a political figure, would write a biography, served as a guide to action for the Rossellis. Their battle against fascism was fought from love of a certain Italy, and not based on Jewish traditions, of which they were totally ignorant.

ALTHOUGH THEIR CLASS might have dictated support for fascism when it appeared on the scene (and we should never forget that Italian fascism only developed an antisemitic component later, and that 230 Jews participated in the fascist March on Rome in October, 1922), everything in the Rossellis’ upbringing made them implacable opponents of fascism, while everything in that same upbringing made their commitment to revolutionary socialism or communism possible. Their family had in its circle many of the great figures of liberal and reformist socialist anti-fascism, men like Gaetano Salvemini and Filippo Turati. There is thus nothing surprising that Carlo Rosselli’s main work of political theory was called Liberal Socialism, and that in all he did he sought the elusive “third way” between communism and fascism.

However reformist the Rossellis’ ideas might have been, their actions were anything but, and Carlo, in particular, was an advocate of tyrannicide and of any violent act that might bring the dictatorship down, though there’s no indication of he or his comrades ever having been involved in any such activity.

Rather, Carlo put his wealth at the service of anti-fascism, using it, for example, to purchase a plane to toss flyers down onto Italian cities, but even more to found the group for which he is best known, Giustizia e Libertà, whose name (Justice and Liberty) concisely sums up its entire program. (In the untranslated memoirs of another of the party’s founders, Emilio Lussu, we learn that there was enormous debate within the founding group as to which noun should be placed first, liberals preferring liberty, socialists justice. After much argument, the socialists won out.)

Notorious as among of the most outspoken voices against fascist rule, Carlo and Nello would be captured and sentenced to “confino,” internal exile, in a distant corner of Italy, in Carlo’s case to Lipari, off the coast of Sicily. If for some this punishment was a harsh one that led to living in pest-infested dormitories, Carlo (and Nello when he, too, suffered confino) was able to bring his wife to join him, and while there “Carlo sat in his little house and played Beethoven and Chopin [on his piano], read Marx, worked on his new political theory.”

After a bold escape, Carlo settled in Paris, where he waged incessant war on Mussolini — which became literal as the Spanish Civil War began and the fascists entered n the side of Franco, whereas Carlo almost immediately joined the Republican forces, fighting in an anarchist brigade.

BACK IN FRANCE at the end of 1936, his Spanish experiment having been something of a fiasco, Carlo stepped up his activities within Giustizia e Libertà, which continued to aggravate the fascist authorities. They had little difficulty finding French agents to rid them if this pest, and thugs of the fascist force La Cagoule ambushed the brothers along a country road in Normandy, killing them both.

Although Giustizia e Libertà played a not-insignificant part in the Italian Resistance and had some success immediately after the war, it soon fizzled out, and the memory of the Rossellis, though never extinguished, received its widest circulation in literature and film in the form of the novel and adaptation of the novel The Conformist, written by the Rosselli’s cousin Alberto Moravia, in which the murdered anti-fascist character is based on Carlo — although his companion in the ambush is changed from his brother to his wife. Carlo and Nello’s survivors hated the book and had little use for Moravia, who they thought compromised to readily with fascism in order to be published.

Moorhead tells this tale well, and her admiration for the brothers and their mother is from first page to last. This leads, however, to a few flaws.

Hers is most definitely a bourgeois-eyed view of the anti-fascist movement. She writes that “Unlike the women, the farmers, the teachers, the factory- and farm-workers, the civil servants, all crushed and supervised, [the Rosselli brothers] remained not only alive and still inside Italy but also vocal and absolutely determined; and thus extremely dangerous.” This gives a false picture of anti-fascism as being all but dead among the working class and peasantry, sustained only by the heroic Rossellis and other intellectuals like them. In fact, Moorehead’s pages on the confino belie what she has to say, as the islands and other locations were filled with communist, anarchist, and socialist workers, as well as Freemasons. If by 1928 there were 900 confinati, this bespeaks a movement far larger than the two brothers, and she writes that by regime’s end “13,000 people, among them a generation of Italy’s cleverest and most promising men, had spent many years on the penal islands.” Though the final clause is certainly true, that number includes many heroic workers who were perhaps not “Italy’s cleverest and most promising men,” but they were the bravest and most politically lucid.

This is not a scholarly volume, but even so some analysis of the small Italian Jewish community, one of only 50,000, might have been of some use. The Rossellis had no use for the Jewish religion, didn’t practice it, and rejected Zionism, yet their circle was largely Jewish, and only Carlo married a non-Jew. Giustizia e Libertà had a large and impressive Jewish component, and when the Milan branch of the movement was put out of action the focus shifted to Turin, where the Jews had an even stronger presence, among them men like Primo Levi and the important Jewish intellectual (and martyr of the Resistance) Emmanuele Artom . The names most closely attached to Rosselli’s movement were men like Carlo Levi, author of Christ Stopped at Eboli, and Primo Levi, and Artom, whose diaries are a minor classic. Of Jews there were many in Giustizia e Libertà; of intellectuals many more; of workers there were few.

THIS BOOK IS A GRIM reminder of one of the greatest ironies of the inter-war years, and that is that a Communist or indeed a leftist of any kind stood a better chance of survival in Mussolini’s Italy than in the Soviet Union. Moorehead incorrectly counts the great Antonio Gramsci among those “murdered” by Mussolini. Though his health suffered in imprisonment, when it reached its low point, Mussolini had the great Marxist and founder of the Italian Communist Party released. And if the reason for his imprisonment was his politics, while he was behind bars he had a right to books, a right he fought to insist was met and which, when he issued formal protests, was in fact met.

The brutality and murderousness of the fascist rise, with back-shirted squadristi beating, killing, and pouring castor oil down the throats of opponents and more than 8,000 people dying before Mussolini’s definitive establishment in power cannot be underestimated. It was, in fact, worse than the Brown terror of the period prior to the Nazi assumption of power. But unlike the Nazis, once in power, with certain rare exceptions (like the Rossellis) and only up until the Social Republic of Mussolini’s final period, fascism’s repression was by far the mildest of that the three totalitarianisms (the latter word, intended positively, was invented by Mussolini).

To be sentenced to the confino was in no way a death sentence, and it was possible to be released from it by writing a letter of apology to the Duce. In the case of Nello, when he refused to do so, he was released anyway. The conditions under which the prisoners lived was in no way comparable to those sentenced to the gulag or Hitler’s concentration camps, as the image of Carlo playing the piano and reading Marx invoked above amply testifies. Moorehead informs us that there were 13,000 people sentenced to internal exile and that “dozens” died. To put this in perspective, in Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government (to be reviewed here in the near future), his telling of the story of Soviet Russia through the inhabitants of one apartment complex, he reports that of 2,655 residents in 1935, 347 were executed. This in one housing complex! Fascism was a horror, and Mussolini a vile mountebank, but if there is a scale of horror, he figures far behind Stalin and Hitler.

A Bold and Dangerous Family, the fourth in a series of books by Caroline Moorhead on people who fought fascism, is an important addition to the literature, a worthy monument to the book’s subjects.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.