Contributed by Niamh Cullen
Today is the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Italy from fascism and German occupation. A national holiday in Italy, the day will be marked with both commemoration and celebration – from solemn ceremonies of remembrance to parades, speeches and open air concerts in Italy’s piazzas. The biggest ceremony is held in Milan, the site some of the fiercest fighting, and of the grotesque public display of Mussolini’s body in the days that followed. However, despite the numerous events planned to mark the occasion at national and local level, the ‘festa della liberazione’ has never been a straightforward day of celebration for all Italians.
The date marks the end of almost two years of ferocious civil war and foreign occupation in Italy, as the collapse of fascism turned the country into a battleground between the Allies, advancing upwards from Sicily, and the Germans who occupied Italy in September 1943 to prop up Mussolini’s dying regime. While Rome was liberated by the Allies in June 1944, the tug of war continued in northern and central Italy for almost another year. Numerous groups of resistance fighters, dominated by the Italian communists, were formed in the occupied areas, and the German and fascist position was gradually weakened by guerrilla warfare, in preparation for the long awaited Allied surge. Finally, 25 April 1945 was decided on as the Italian ‘D-Day’. A mass popular uprising was to take place across the northern Italy, to prepare the ground for the Allies. Mass strikes paralysed the industrial cities of Milan and Turin, destroying what little authority the fascists still retained, and days of street fighting forced the Germans into retreat. Often, towns and cities were already out of German and fascist hands by the time the Allies arrived to ‘liberate’ them.
The leaders of the Resistance were deeply idealistic and believed that the liberation offered the opportunity to bring about meaningful change in Italy, addressing the many social and political problems that predated fascism, instead of a simple return to ‘business as usual’. In the writer Calvino’s words, partisans had “a sense of life being something which could begin again from scratch, a feeling of public outrage against injustice”. However, their left wing ideals appeared deeply threatening to a country that was still essentially conservative, Catholic and heavily reliant on American support for the post-war reconstruction. Moreover, it was really only the northern and central regions that had known both the terror of occupation and civil war, and the radicalising experience of fighting in the Resistance. The South had remained largely untouched by it. Conservatism and fear of Communism prevented the leaders of the Resistance from playing any meaningful role in Italian government from the late 1940s onwards. However, since many of Italy’s best writers, film-makers, journalists, editors and academics – from the writer Italo Calvino to current president Giorgio Napoletano – had fought in the Resistance and remained deeply marked by their experiences, the antifascist struggle still looms large in Italian culture.
In a country that is still deeply divided along regional and political lines, 25 April is still far from becoming the national day of celebration that the official ceremony in Milan might suggest. It is only since last year that Prime Minister Berlusconi began to participate in the annual ceremony and he makes no secret of his views on antifascism and the Resistance. The past decade or so has seen a surge in publications challenging the accepted – antifascist – memory of the Resistance, with many pointing out atrocities committed by the partisans and even going so far as to suggest moral parity between the fascists and anti-fascists, something which was considered political sacrilege in Italy until recently. While some of these are solid histories based on real research – and the partisans did undoubtedly commit atrocities too – many are also part of a politically motivated attempt by the Right to discredit the Resistance and recuperate the memory of fascism. Last month’s regional elections saw the far right separatist Northern League party make significant gains and its leader Umberto Bossi declared – according to one magazine’s cover story – the new ‘king’ of Italy. Those who closely guard the memory of antifascism seem to fight an increasingly difficult battle each year, as they try to convince the younger generations that the 25 April is still relevant to their lives, and to twenty-first century Italy.
Niamh Cullen is an IRCHSS postdoctoral fellow at the School of History and Archives, UCD. She specialises in modern Italian history and her book on early antifascist culture in Turin is forthcoming.