The end of fascism in perspective (Elena Agarossi)

The end of fascism in perspective

By Elena Agarossi

Renzo De Felice, Mussolini l’Alleato, Part II, La Guerra Civile, 1943-1945 (Turin: Einaudi, 1997), 768 pp.+xii.

The first volume of Renzo De Felice’s biography of Mussolini appeared in 1965. Now, after 30 years, the eighth and last volume finally appears, unfinished because of the author’s death. The narrative stops in mid-1944, but the first four chapters, which had been completed with an appendix by De Felice himself and have been published by his friends and colaborators, Emilio Gentile, Giorgio Goglia and Mario Missori, constitute the first non-partisan history of the beginning of the resistence movement and the Social Republic, as well as the the first comprehensive study of the populations’ attitude in a country devided between the Germans and the Anglo-Americans, and torn apart by civil war.

This volume thus marks the conclusion of an opus which over the years has become an indespensable reference not only for the Mussolini’s life, but for fascism, of which De Felice is considered, both in Italy and abroad, the most important historian. Yet, every volume has generated polemics, even violent attacks (even his history of Italian Jews under fascism(n1) generated a scandal), and the persistent accusation of wanting to rehabilitate Mussolini — so strong has been the refusal in Italy to come to terms with fascism and go from its demonization to a detached analysis. De Felice has systematically demolished the grand myths developed by Italian historiography during the post-WWII period, especially the myth of a broad opposition to the regime, which would have become evident with opposition to the racial laws and up to the adherence to the “people’s war” of resistance. The thesis that the regime was not based on consensus but only passive acceptance still has important supporters, who seem to forget one of the most terrifying lessons to emerge from the study of 20th century history, i.e., the popular support for totalitarian regimes — a major theme in the current reconstruction of Nazism and Stalinism. The question concerning this consensus also comes up with the 1943-45 period concerning which there is still no widely accepted interpretation. In fact, there is an extensive literature concerning the Resistance which, however, deals very little with the Social Republic (the only useful reference here is F. W. Deakin’s 1962 book on the subject(n2)). At any rate, the various studies have been limited to interpreting this period as a political and military contraposition between fascism and anti-fascism. De Felice rejects this approach as too limited to grasp the population’s “human condition” — a theme which is the focus of the book’s central chapters. This is clear in the second chapter, dealing with the moral crisis after the September 8, 1943 collapse (when, according to De Felice, there was a loss of national identity). It is even more developed in the third, titled “The Drama of the Italian People — between Fascists and Partisans,” which confronts the problem of the diversity of behaviors and motivations resulting in support for either side as well as their evolution over time, focusing on the population state of mind concerning the partisans’ movement.

The central thesis of De Felice’s last volume is that the Resistance, as well as support for the Social Republic, were the work of a minority. The claim that the majority of the population sought to remain out of it all, embroiled as little as possible, absorbed as it was in the struggle for survival, would seem almost obvious. If the active anti-fascists were a few thousands in 1943 (a figure accepted years ago even by comminist historians and confirmed by recent studies), vast participation in the Resistance was not possible and was not the case in any European countries, with the possible exception of Yugoslavia. Yet, in order to support this claim, De Felice has accumulated an extremely vast documentation, primarily anti-fascist sources such as the correspondence, memoirs and documents of the partisans’ cadres. The picture that emerges is rather different from the traditional one. Considerable attention is devoted to the complex relation between the Resistance and the population — one initially of solidarity, but which in many places deteriorated following instances of violence and the forced requisition by the partisans, but most of all in the wake of the Germans’ retaliations where and when civilians were blamed for the partisans’ actions.

This volume contains so many new details concerning power relations within the Resistance that the narrative is very dense and difficult to follow. While the marginal role of soldiers in the organization of the first partisan groups has already been pointed out by other scholars, along with the spontaneous and apolitical motivations of many of them, it has always been argued that the soldiers had for the most part “come back home.” The prevailing view was of a Resistance dominated by members of the Action Party and the Garibaldi Brigades. On the basis of late 1944 data gathered by the SIM — the military information service reconstituted by the Badoglio government — it seems that even in that period the absolute majority of the formations were “a-political.” De Felice documents the harshness of the communists’ straggle for political hegemony, which often led them into conflict with the other groups.

De Felice’s attempt to reinsert the history of these years in Italian history and to find in the dramatic events of that period the explanation for the Italians’ subsequent political choices risks clashing with the lingering refusal to come to terms with Italian history, both of the 1943-45 period as well of the fascist era, which has blocked every attempt at historiographical renewal. Lack of consensus concerning the meaning of those events continues to divide historians and public opinion. !t is increasingly necessary to inquire more deeply into the transition from the fascist regime to the party-system in order to understand the uncertain bases upon which Italian democracy was founded. This would make it possible to recapture a unified idea of Italian history by leaving behind the myths concerning the Resistance and the foundation of the First Republic. This can result only from acceptance of the past, which means also acceptance of complicity with fascism — a process similar to what has unfolded in Germany concerning Nazism and which is still taking place in France in relation to Vichy.

(*) This is an edited version of a review which originally appeared in Ideazione (May-June 1997).

(n1.) Renzo De Felice, Storia degli Ebrei ltaliani sotto il Fascismo (Milan: Mondadori, 1977).

(n2.) Frederick William Deakin, Brutal Friendship. The Last Days of Mussolini (Harmondnsworthy: Penguin, 1966).

[Telos; Spring98 Issue 111, p189, 3p]


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