An extensive historical debate has taken place in Italy concerning the relationship between the Italian nation, World War II and the Resistance. The drastic language of this debate – with its claims that the nation ‘died’ in September 1943, or was ‘re-born’ at the very same time, reveal the deep-rooted divisions created by fascism and by intervention in the war. In many cases these divisions went right back to the bitter social struggles of the later nineteenth century in areas as diverse as the Po Valley or the great estates of Apulia and Sicily.
World War II was presented to the Italians as a heroic moment, and opposition to Italy’s entry into the war (late, as with World War I) was muted, not least because the country had been under a dictatorship for the previous twenty years. Yet, after an initial sense of ‘victory’, defeat and disaster came rapidly – first in Greece, then in Africa, then in Russia. The catastrophic Russian campaign (1941–3) involved over 230,000 men. Thousands of Italian troops were more or less abandoned (and surrounded) on the freezing banks of the Don River without backup or proper equipment, subject to constant bombardment from Russian tanks and planes. As with the high mountain ‘battles’ of the First World War (the so-called ‘white war’), more soldiers died from the cold than in actual combat. Nuto Revelli’s memories reveal his own personal odyssey, from convinced fascist to anti-fascist, via the terrible experience of the retreat from Russia. ‘And my country?’ he writes: ‘The only country I believed in was that of the poor beasts who paid with their lives the mistakes of the “others”…the 8th September moved me, and my choice was immediate, instinctive. As soon as the Germans arrived in Cuneo I ran home, gathered up my three automatic weapons…and put them in a rucksack. Then I went to my first partisan base.’
The war itself rapidly became unpopular at home as news filtered back of death, imprisonment and defeat abroad, and the economic and social effects of the conflict began to hit hard. Military hubris led to the desperate decision by the king and the Fascist Grand Council to arrest Mussolini, replace his administration and dissolve the Fascist Party. Wartime defeats had brought down the regime, just as Caporetto had indirectly led to the collapse of Liberal Italy. The forty-five days that followed have been analysed and re-analysed by historians, politicians and others ever since. Italy veered between its allies and the Allies, as the Pact of Steel came apart. Finally, as the army itself was dissolving before his eyes, and the situation was becoming ungovernable on the home front, Badoglio (a veteran of the First World War, like Pétain – the ‘victor of Verdun’) was forced to sign an armistice with the Allies.
This was on 8 September 1943 – a date over-loaded with meaning which has pivotal importance for the history of modern Italy. The Italians had changed sides, mid-conflict. Many soldiers deserted, and were faced with a series of acute choices. Should they take to the hills, becoming partisans and forming what was to become known as ‘the Resistance’, should they join the Fascist armies in the Republic of Salò, or should they try to avoid the conflict altogether? Many other ex-POWs from various armies tried to escape into Italy, often finding help amongst peasant families. Many units were left without orders, others were ordered not to resist the Germans. Radically different conceptions of the nation, duties and obligations, and the state came into play. The response to this choice cannot be reduced to simple fascist/antifascist, nationalist/anti-nationalist or left/right dualisms. Many monarchists (who had backed fascism) supported the Resistance, as did many Catholics. The rhetoric of the nation and of national liberation formed a strong part of the ideology behind the partisan groups, even those organized by the Communist or Socialist Parties. Within the broad alliance that made up the Resistance, there was little agreement about the shape of a future Italian nation, and a (fragile) unity was achieved only through the common struggle against a common enemy – the Nazis and the Italian (fascist) army.
The main effect of 8 September on the official Italian army – another key component of certain national myths, particularly that of fascism – was one of collapse. Official orders called on Italian troops only to respond if attacked. Some (a small minority) disobeyed, and fought the Germans in open battle, refusing to surrender – as in Rome or, most famously, at Cephallonia in Greece where over 5,000 Italian soldiers were wiped out by the Nazi forces. In short, ‘on the 8 September, everything that could have happened, happened’. The major representatives of the state and the nation hardly provided an example of resistance, as the king and the prime minister fled to the south, leaving the capital in the hands of an invading army.
The events of 8 September have inspired considerable discussion as representing a singular moment in Italian history, with particular focus on the role of ideas of national identity before and after that date. Galli della Loggia has interpreted the armistice and the dissolution of the Italian army rather grandly as The Death of the Nation. The whole idea of the nation, he argues, collapsed in the shame and collapse of the Italian army (and state). Whilst this intelligent polemic carries a certain force in its depiction of the extremity of the events of 1943, the argument is based on an extremely specific idea of ‘the nation’ and on a series of hypotheses which bear little relation to history. If the Resistance had combined with the Italian state, if the king had resisted, etc., etc., then the nation would have been preserved. Above all, however, such extreme conclusions rest upon a highly controversial idea of what national identity should be and, in this specific case, on a gross exaggeration of the ‘consent’ achieved by fascism at the moment of entry into war.
Others have traditionally viewed this moment in positive terms, as a moment when Italy (and the nation) was re-born through armed resistance to the Germans and the fascists. Thus 8 September is presented in ways that cannot be reconciled – as death and birth at the same time – as ‘symbolic of disintegration and at the same time a prelude to a revival’. The fascists also saw 8 September as a moment of possible revival, with the origins of the Republic of Salò and the decision to fight on with the Germans against the Americans and the ‘Italian’ army. For nearly everyone, 8 September was a complicated and confused moment – a time of defeat, of new allies and of momentous choices, which were to have life-changing consequences. For the Communists, the choice between the Red Army and Mussolini’s (or Badoglio’s) Italian army was no choice at all. Togliatti, the leader of the PCI, was still in Russia when it was invaded by Mussolini. Many Italian nationals simply did not identify with the Italian army, as it was constituted. As Pavone noted in 1991, ‘even today, to look on September 8 as a tragedy or the beginning of a liberation process is a line which separates interpretations by opposing schools’.