The thorns in Mussolini’s side: the anti-Fascists who opposed the Italian regime

During the early years of Mussolin's dictatorship, brutal blackshirt militia and Italian state forces attacked, exiled and murdered his opponents - yet resistance burgeoned. Caroline Moorehead recounts the stories of brave anti-Fascists who opposed the regime in the face of violent repression

Benito Mussolini with members of the Black shirt Legion

At 3.30 on the afternoon of 10 June 1924, a small boy playing near the river Tiber in Rome saw a man leave his house and walk along the road. This was Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist deputy (member of the Italian parliament) from the Po valley, setting off for his office. It was very hot, and the streets were deserted. A black Lancia pulled up alongside Matteotti, and the boy watched as a man got out of the car and hit the deputy in the face then dragged him, struggling, into the car, which drove off.

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The following day, Italy’s Fascist prime minister, Benito Mussolini, publicly denied all involvement in the crime. He told journalists that the attack was a “diabolical outrage”. A few days later, the Lancia’s registration number was reported to the police by a resident in Matteotti’s street. The small boy was questioned, and the car was traced; when located, it was found to be spattered with blood. Matteotti’s trousers were discovered in the briefcase of a man called Amerigo Dumini, who was leader of a semi-official terror squad with a string of political murders to his name, and who was known to have contacts with Mussolini’s men.

Two months later, a road mender inspecting pipes on the Via Flaminia, just outside Rome, found a jacket. On 16 August Matteotti’s body was discovered in a small ditch nearby, punctured with stab marks. His mother, Isabella, identified her son’s corpse.

A sense of horror and disgust spread across Italy. The Italians had grown accustomed to daily violence, but this cold-blooded assassination was something different. For a moment, it seemed as if Fascism itself might fall.

Tide of disgust

By the summer of 1924, Mussolini had been prime minister of Italy for 20 months. Brought to power on a tide of disgust at the violence that had engulfed Italy after the First World War, and amid fears that the country might be taken over by Bolshevism, his grip on the country was growing steadily stronger.

Demonstrations by war veterans, factory workers and peasants against powerful and unyielding industrialists and landowners had been met with brutality and intransigence. Spedizioni punitive (punitive raids) by ‘blackshirts’ – the violent militia of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party – against these people and all suspected opponents of the regime had seen scores injured and killed, their houses burned down, their offices ransacked. Even as many in the rest of the world expressed admiration for Mussolini’s strong leadership (British rightwing newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere called him “the greatest figure of our times”), his Fascist followers were on the rampage.

Eleven days before his abduction, Matteotti had announced in the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian parliament that he had assembled a detailed dossier on Fascist crimes – including evidence of bribery by Mussolini’s brother – and that he was intending to present it to parliament.

Thousands of blackshirts converged on the city with rifles,and knotted staves, many tipped with lead

Matteotti was not without friends and, galvanised by his murder, they grew bolder. They met to plan and distribute clandestine papers attacking Mussolini, and to put up accusatory posters on city walls. In Florence, a group of young republicans calling themselves Italia Libera (‘Free Italy’) plastered the city with photographs of the murdered deputy. “We do not wish to be thought of as a race of slaves,” they declared, “worthy only of being dominated and humiliated by violence and intimidation.” Among them was a highly respected historian, Gaetano Salvemini, and some of his young students, including brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli and a wounded war veteran, Ernesto Rossi. They had set up a club, the Circolo di Cultura, holding debates on Saturday evenings about the chaos menacing Italy. When Salvemini led a march of Italia Libera members through the streets of Florence, the police stood by – but they were watching, biding their time.

On 30 December 1924 the seconda ondata, a second wave of Fascist violence, was unleashed. It struck all over Italy, but its epicentre was in Florence. Here a profoundly corrupt soldier and Fascist official called Tullio Tamburini led his 2,000-strong 92nd legion of the militia in a series of attacks on rebellious Florentines. When he called for a general mobilisation of Fascists, thousands of blackshirt squadristi began to converge on the city by bus, train, lorry and car, carrying rifles, sticks, agricultural implements and manganelli – knotted staves, many tipped with lead.

Marching through the hastily deserted streets and chanting Fascist songs, the militia broke into the offices of an opposition paper, destroyed its printing presses and set fire to the building. Then they looted the offices of local freemasons, widely regarded with suspicion by the Fascists, and of any lawyer they perceived as hostile. Towards dusk they reached the building used by the Circolo di Cultura. No one was in, but the Fascist mob succeeded in knocking down the door; the furniture inside was thrown out of the windows into the square below, piled up into a pyre and set ablaze. The Rossellis’ house nearby was also mobbed, but the squadristi were unable to get inside. Anyone they caught was forced to drink castor oil – a favoured punishment meted out to opponents by Mussolini’s blackshirts.

Coup de théâtre

It was at this point, with Italy in turmoil, that Mussolini staged his most brilliant coup de théâtre. He recalled parliament, which had been closed for the Christmas holidays. On 3 January 1925, before a largely silent Chamber of Deputies, he announced: “A me la colpa” – I am to blame. He would take personal responsibility for everything – for the beatings and the castor oil, for the ruined offices, for the casualties, even for Matteotti’s death (in which, of course, he claimed to have had no part).

Italy, he told the cowed deputies, needed a firm hand – and he alone was capable of providing it. They listened, but they said nothing. In the days that followed, 95 suspect clubs and associations were closed; 150 ‘public establishments’ were suppressed; 25 ‘subversive’ organisations were disbanded; 111 ‘dangerous’ people were arrested.

Eighteen months later, his reputation boosted after surviving four assassination attempts, Mussolini introduced a series of “exceptional”, “most Fascist” laws. All parties except for the Fascist Party were dissolved. Passports were withdrawn, and police were ordered to shoot anyone trying to leave Italy clandestinely. A Special Tribunal for the Defence of the State was established with the power to send suspected opponents to the confino – internal exile in the far south of Italy, or on one of the newly declared penal islands, most off Sicily.

Chained and manacled detainees – communists, socialists, journalists, lawyers – become a familiar sight

Before long, lines of chained and manacled detainees – communists, socialists, independent-minded journalists, magistrates, editors and lawyers – had become a familiar sight on trains trundling south, to be decanted on to boats to be ferried to the scorched volcanic islands of Ponza, Lipari, Ustica and Favignana. There, highly educated professors, engineers and writers would languish, in extremes of heat and cold, without sanitation or medical help, deprived of proper food and with very little to do, for months and years on end. Only by submitting abject petitions to Mussolini could they hope for release.

It could, of course, have been otherwise. The opposition could have formed a common front to unseat Mussolini; the king could have insisted on the prime minister’s resignation; the army could have stepped in. After Matteotti’s murder by the Fascists, his opponents were in a strong moral position, but they remained indecisive, at odds with one another – too cautious and seemingly without the will or the courage to translate this moral advantage into a political one. Mussolini was allowed to win.

“Do not give up”

Mussolini’s opponents were not, though, entirely without agency. They had been assaulted, injured, humiliated and imprisoned, but they had not been crushed. On the contrary, the Matteotti murder marked a turning point for Mussolini’s enemies. Until that moment they had been scattered, uncertain, unco-ordinated. With the dictatorship plainly in view, a new resolve entered their spirits. It was as if the political map of Italy had been abruptly altered.

In Turin, the young writer and editor Piero Gobetti – who looked little more than a boy – gathered around him a circle of bold and determined writers, and began to publish sustained attacks on Mussolini and his coterie. In Rome, Giovanni Amendola, an austere and conscientious member of parliament, kept up a steady stream of criticism and protest. And in Florence, Salvemini, the Rosselli brothers and a number of their friends decided to start a clandestine paper with the title Non Mollare – “do not give up”. Matteotti, they declared, would be their inspiration: the man who had shown the world to non mollare.

The first four issues were duplicated by cyclostyle [a stencil copying machine], then passed from hand to hand. Like Matteotti’s dossier, they chronicled the crimes committed by the Fascists all over Italy. In February the fifth issue contained a memorandum written by the owner of the infamous Lancia, including a precise description of Matteotti’s abduction and murder. More incriminating articles followed.

Non Mollare was distributed throughout Florence by a network of brave young anti-Fascists. One young doctor hid the proofs in his hospital morgue. Carlo Rosselli’s girlfriend, Marion Cave, hid the finished pages under her skirts. Friends copied and recopied each edition, entrusting them to friends working on the railways for distribution across Italy. The Fascists were outraged, and a hunt for the mysterious writers and distributors was launched.

Salvemini was arrested and sent for trial for his part in Non Mollare but was acquitted. That maddened the blackshirts in the court, who attacked his supporters, badly wounding several and killing one. Salvemini himself was saved only by taking refuge in the Rossellis’ house, then escaping to southern Italy and from there into exile. The house was ransacked, but the two Rosselli brothers managed to flee and go into hiding. Ernesto Rossi fled Italy.

Carlo Rosselli, though, was not to be cowed. He continued to produce Non Mollare until a crescendo of violence came to a head. One of the paper’s supporters, a train driver called Giovanni Becciolini, was battered and stabbed, and his head was held underwater in a fountain; he later died in hospital. Around the same time Gustavo Consolo, a lawyer accused of keeping copies of the paper, was shot dead in his house by squadristi while his wife pleaded on her knees for his life.

A third anti-Fascist, much-loved local builder Gaetano Pilati, who had lost the use of one arm in the First World War, was shot while trying to protect his sleeping son. When he was treated in hospital, Pilati was found to have been wounded in his face, leg and shoulder; his intestine had been perforated in five places. Before dying three days later, Pilati said to his wife: “The Austrians disabled me, and the Italians have killed me.” Though Signora Pilati later insisted on appearing in court to testify against the men she identified as her husband’s killers, they were acquitted; indeed, local Fascists held a banquet in their honour. Signora Pilati and her son emigrated to South America.

Lethal violence

Far from stopping, the violence became more precise, more lethally targeted. Mussolini appointed a former prefect, Arturo Bocchini, as his chief of police. This big, flashy, cynical, sharp-tongued man had a gargantuan appetite, a taste for pornography and a prodigious memory. His house outside Rome featured fountains in which statues of naked girls squirted jets of coloured water from their nipples, and its entrance hall was crowded with smiling wax dolls in different costumes whose physical charms were exposed at the press of a button.

A new generation of bold young men and women harried the dictatorship, often at great personal cost

Bocchini had inherited an antiquated police apparatus far removed from the highly efficient force that was needed, he declared, to run an efficient dictatorship. The system of repression he established was many-layered, with several competing and interlinking departments devoted to tracking down, keeping watch over and building up files on all suspected opponents of the regime. Before long it had recruited large numbers of spies, informers and agents provocateurs, and the police archives in Rome bulged with the details of possible enemies.

Over the following 15 years Bocchini and his men would dispatch some 10,000 Italians to the penal islands via the Special Tribunal. The boyish Piero Gobetti in Turin was beaten up, and by the age of 25 was dead of his injuries, leaving a young widow and a six-week-old son. Amendola was attacked by squadristi so repeatedly, and hurt so badly, that he left for the south of France, where he died soon afterwards.

But the anti-Fascists fought on. Many of Mussolini’s older opponents were driven to exile in France, the United States or South America, there to keep faith with their ideals and plot their return to Italy. However, a new generation of bold young men and women continued to harry the dictatorship, often at great cost to themselves and their families. With the deaths of Matteotti, Gobetti and Amendola, the baton was passed to Carlo Rosselli, who spirited wanted men out of Italy under the noses of the border guards. When he was caught, Rosselli turned his trial into a much-publicised attack on the regime, making eloquent speeches that were relayed around the world, before he was transported to the island of Lipari in 1927 for indefinite detention.

No one had ever escaped from the islands of the penal islands. Lying far out in seas patrolled by fast motorboats with machine guns, inmates guarded by militia, police and carabinieri (military police), and infiltrated by a sprinkling of informers to report every rumour, they were considered impregnable. The islands’ invulnerability to escape remained intact until Carlo Rosselli, with two friends, devised an extraordinary escape plan, swimming far out to sea to be picked up by a pre-arranged motorboat.

Fleeing to Tunisia and on to France, Rosselli lived in exile in Paris, from where he led a sustained attack on Mussolini, and where he formed the political movement Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom). He remained, as spies reported to Bocchini, pericolosissimo (most dangerous) to the regime. In 1936 he led a brigade of anti-Fascist Italian volunteers to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War, hoping that the model of the Republican army might inspire Italians to rise against Mussolini.

But by then Italy had long been a police state, and Mussolini had spies everywhere – even in France. In 1937, in a spa town in Normandy where the two brothers were meeting for the first time in several years, Carlo and Nello were murdered, stabbed by a group of French Fascists, probably at Mussolini’s behest.

By the 1930s, Italy was cowed and regimented into subservience. The squadristi were enrolled as militiamen, their excesses curbed. A whole generation of Italian children grew up to the sounds of Mussolini’s hymns of praise, to see his photographs on every wall, their schooling and leisure activities regulated. The anti-Fascists never succeeded in bringing down Mussolini, but the fact that they were defeated by his vindictiveness and by Bocchini’s ruthlessness does not diminish their effort. For the 20 years of the Fascist regime, they gave their youth, their family happiness and sometimes their lives for a cause whose moral clarity seemed to them imperative.

Caroline Moorehead is a journalist, biographer and author. Her latest book, A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Rossellis and the Fight Against Mussolini, is published by Chatto & Windus on 15 June

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This content first appeared in issue 4 of BBC World Histories magazine