Divisive memories. 25 April 1945, Italy’s ‘day of liberation’

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.

7 Responses to “Divisive memories. 25 April 1945, Italy’s ‘day of liberation’”

  1. dfallon Says:

    A very interesting read, and I’d agree with you too in so far as the limitations for the resistace movement post war went.

    This brief piece on Fedi Silvano, an anarchist within the resistance, makes for great reading. http://libcom.org/history/fedi-silvano-1920-1944

    “Fedi made it clear that he was not prepared to disarm when the Anglo-American forces arrived and that the armed resistance must lead on to social revolution”

    As with the Spanish political activists who participated in the French Resistance, I think it highlights the fact that the desires of the (proportionately small) resistance movements were out of sync with the feeling on the ground among the general populace, not least after years of occupation and war weariness.

    I think the Italian elections of 1948 are most worthy of study too though in so far as the study of social revolutionaries in post WWII Italian society goes. Unlike in the *immediate* aftermath of the war, I believe there was some potential there for the Communist Party to come to power. The covert actions of the CIA in that election are well documented. With one CIA officer (Mark Wyatt) admitting years after that “We had bags of money that we delivered to selected politicians, to defray their political expenses, their campaign expenses, for posters, for pamphlets”

  2. Niamh Says:

    Thanks for the comments dfallon. A large part of the reason for the lack of support for antifascism after the war was war weariness as well as, I’d say a general distrust of political ideologies and ‘isms’ of right and left. People wanted a return to normal instead of more change.
    By 1948 the brief window of antifascist unity was truly over and the antifascists were being frozen out of politics. Italy was the most important cold war front in Western Europe because of its border with Yugoslavia, as well as having the largest communist party in the West, so the US had a very close eye on the elections. Quite apart from any covert CIA action, the US was quite open about its stake in the 1948 election. Marshall Aid was made conditional on Italy forming a government that didn’t include the communist party, and election posters reflected this. The Catholic Church also put their weight behind the Christian Democrats, with slogans such as ‘In the secrecy of the voting booth, God can see you. Stalin can’t’. In this kind of climate. where Marshall Aid was desparately needed for reconstruction and the Church still held very considerable weight in society, the communists stood little chance.

  3. racfleming Says:

    Quite fascinating, and very well written, although as someone who has a Neapolitan partner, I think she might challenge the following assertion:

    ”..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. ”

    Especially as it was a largely unarmed, and sometimes underage Neapolitan Community that ejected the Germans from Napoli in the brutal uprising known as Quattro Giornate di Napoli – the Four Days of Naples.

    The Germans were quite ruthless in their reprisals against Neapolitan men, conducting executions without trial, trying to create enforced labour squads amongst military aged men, and even looting the city. It should be remembered that the city had suffered nearly three years of relentless bombing from the Americans from 1940 to 1943 prior to this, with over 20,000 killed in those raids. Certainly it is true that the largest groups of the Resistenza fought from bases in the Alps and Apeninnes, but some of the more famous anti-fascist Neapolitans, such as Fausto Nicolini, Claudio Ferri, and Adolfo Omodeo, had been leading an underground resistance against Mussolini well before the German occupation, so it is harsh to suggest the south remained untouched by the resistance.

    By the time the Americans and British had managed the breakout from the Salerno beachheads to the south after some intense battles, they arrived in Napoli to find the city already freed by the sheer determination and will of a Neapolitan people who would not be told what to do. The city was awarded the Medaglia d’oro al Valore Militare, the gold medal of valour, for the incredible uprising, the only time it has been awarded other than to individual heroes.

    If you haven’t seen it, Quattro Giornate di Napoli (1962) by Nanni Loy is an incredible telling of this – it is hard not to feel your eyes moisten when the ten year old boy is machine gunned to death by a Panzer as he attempts to throw a molotov cocktail at it….

  4. fiona Says:

    also ich find scheiße was ihr hier über italien schreibt

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    […]Divisive memories. 25 April 1945, Italy’s ‘day of liberation’ « Pue's Occurrences[…]…

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  7. il neige sur Liège Says:

    How simplistic an analysis, though the article is decently written, and how in part removed from the reality of what really happened, and of how much was hidden or swept under the rug, as the saying goes… April 25th… divisive it was, it is, and it will be, until Italians first, and the world later, will look at facts and truth in the face without anger and without shame, and above all without ideology… How about starting by reading Pansa’s “Bella Ciao”, among the ‘less heavy’, impartial, historical accounts?

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