Claudio Pavone’s classic history rescued the real history of the Italian resistance, and is still an essential counter to revisionist narratives, argues David Shonfield

Claudio Pavone, A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance, ed. with introduction by Stanislao Pugliese, trans. Peter Levy (Verso 2013), xxiv, 744pp.

Every great struggle for freedom leaves us its songs, sometimes anthems like the Marseillaise and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, sometimes popular songs such as the Carmagnole and the Cucaracha.

Two such songs emerged from the Italian resistance in the Second World War. Bella Ciao is the one everybody knows. It has been translated into more than thirty languages and sung during protests and uprisings the world over, most recently on the demonstrations against the government in Istanbul. Bella Ciao originates with a protest song of the mondine, the women rice workers of northern Italy where the opposition to fascism was at its strongest. But curiously the song itself only became popular after the war.

The song that was definitely sung by the partisans came from Russia, or rather the tune did. Katyusha is a sentimental ballad written in 1938 about a young girl and her soldier boyfriend away guarding the borders. Not exactly a song of resistance, but during the war it became one of the most popular songs of the Red Army, providing a pet name for the rocket launchers with which they broke the German advance. Broadcast by Radio Moscow, its catchy tune then inspired Felice Cascione, a young communist doctor from Bologna, to write Fischia il vento, the song that became the anthem of the Garibaldi Brigades in 1944.

The resistance movements in World War Two were based on patriotism and resistance to the invader, and naturally this is reflected in their songs. Fischia il vento is different. The invader is not even mentioned. The words are about rebellion, betrayal, red flags, the overthrow of fascism and the coming revolution:

‘The wind whistles, the storm rages

Broken shoes, but we must go on

To conquer the red spring

Where the sun of the future rises’.

It is the language of civil war, and civil war was the accepted reality of Italy seventy years ago, both on the left and on the right. It seemed obvious to everyone that this was the reckoning for two decades of dictatorship as well as a war against Nazi occupation. It was also an uprising of the people, however defined, even if mostly confined to the northern parts of the country. Italy was split into two, politically as well as geographically, as the Allied armies struggled to break through against the dogged German retreat. As the Allied advance was held up, so behind the German lines the resistance – whether communist, socialist, autonomist, Catholic or conservative – had to confront the forces of Mussolini’s puppet regime, the Italian Social Republic, as well as the Nazis.

Fascism first fell apart in July 1943 with the coup against Mussolini but then like some monstrous creature from a horror movie it was revived by a Nazi transfusion in September, and as in every horror movie the creature revived was even more monstrous than before. The Allies took four months to defeat the Germans at the Battle of Monte Cassino on the Gustav Line eighty miles south of Rome. Then their rapid advance ground to a halt on the Gothic Line in the mountains north of Florence and it took another eight months before they reached the plains beyond.

The first partisan groups were formed in September-October 1943 and for many of them the fighting continued till end of April 1945, culminating in the strikes and insurrections in the northern cities of Genoa, Turin and Milan. The reckoning with fascism extended into that summer and even beyond. Compared to the barbarism of Russia or Poland, or the ferocity of the war in Yugoslavia, the bloodshed was relatively small. Nevertheless, around 45,000 partisans were killed in action or after being taken prisoner; and about 10,000 civilians were killed by the Germans and fascists in reprisals and massacres aimed at terrorising the population. How many fascists and Germans were killed by partisans is not known but in the settling of accounts in April-June it has been estimated that about 15,000 died. Perhaps a further 15,000 people – not all of them fascists – were killed by Yugoslav forces in Trieste and the surrounding area.

But in the years after 1945 the idea that the country had gone through a civil war became anathema, both to the Communist Party and Christian Democrats. For different reasons it was in the interests of both the dominant political forces in Italy to play up the theme of national unity, even if the Communists were excluded from any part in national government after 1948. The new Constitution represented a significant advance – it was anti-fascist and provided guarantees to workers and their organisations. Even though the regime that eventually emerged in the early 1950s was implacably anti-communist and persecuted former partisans of the resistance, there was still the so-called Constitutional Arch.

The only people who used the term ‘civil war’ were in fact the fascists, gradually creeping back into political life as the MSI (the Italian Social Movement), even though reconstituting the fascist party was (and is) illegal. For obvious reasons the fascists had to insist that they were a legitimate political force and that their government had only been overthrown by invasion and rebellion. By contrast the left wanted to consign fascism to oblivion.

The greatest merit of Claudio Pavone’s monumental work about the resistance and the downfall of fascism is that it rescued the reality of the civil war as well as the words from the fascists. In doing so he defined and described three separate but interrelated wars that took place between 1943 and 1945: the war of national liberation against the Germans, the civil war against fascism and the class war that underpinned both.

Pavone’s book was many years in the making. In 1943 as a young man of 22 he was involved in the resistance and jailed, so he had a direct experience of the brutality of the fascist regime in its death throes. After the war he took a job helping to reorganise and catalogue the state archives in Rome, which brought him into contact with all the vast documentation on fascism and anti-fascism both in the official archives and in the network of national and regional institutes for the history of the resistance which were set up after 1947.

He then became a teacher and professor of history but it took another fifteen years before his masterpiece appeared in 1991, modestly subtitled as saggio storico sulla moralita nella Resistenza:

a historical essay on morality in the Resistance. The subtitle is, perhaps understandably, missing from this English translation which otherwise is very faithful to the original, in a way too faithful, because Pavone’s style is erudite and sometimes opaque, even for an Italian reader.

However, the subtitle also explains the special nature of this book. It is not a narrative of the resistance; it is about why people fought, those on the fascist side as well as the partisans, about their personal conscience as well as their political consciousness. It is about how attitudes and mindsets changed and hardened as the struggle became deeper and bloodier. It is also about the crisis of a society emerging from twenty years of dictatorship during which millions had apparently supported, or at least accepted, the regime.

The sense of betrayal is especially powerful: the betrayal of the country by the King, the betrayal of the armed forces by the generals, the betrayal of the people by fascism, the betrayal of Mussolini by his fellow-fascists, the betrayal of Germany by Italy. The book is full of revelations about how events change people’s minds: one example being how Italian soldiers and officers returning from the fighting around Stalingrad or from the butchery in Yugoslavia joined the struggle against the Nazis and fascists. A notable example is Potente (real name Aligi Barducci) who led the Arno division of the Garibaldi partisans in the mountains to the east of Florence and was killed in the combined Eighth Army/partisan operation to liberate the city.

It is hard to convey the incredible wealth and detail of the material Pavone draws on, and that it is only a small fraction of what is available. Momentous events such as the four-day uprising in Naples and the partisan war in the mountains of the Abruzzi and Tuscany get mentioned only in passing. Most of his material is inevitably drawn from the war in the north because it was there that the struggle was most prolonged and bitter: in cities such as Bologna, Genoa, Turin and Milan, in the hills and mountains of the northern Apennines and Liguria, in the Alps and the Dolomites, and in the frontier zones bordering Austria and Yugoslavia.

There are several tremendous histories of the resistance in Italian, and there have also been countless remarkable books and testimonies, many of which Pavone draws on. Since his book came out a vast amount of further material has been published and continues to appear. Resistenza Italiana on You Tube produces nearly 11,000 results. But his own book was and remains unique in changing the way that history is now written.

Yet, if anything, the term civil war is even more abused today than it was in the 1960s, or the 1990s.

Every time 25 April comes round – the anniversary of liberation – there are calls to abolish the public holiday, or to commemorate ‘the dead of both sides’. On the bookstalls, there is usually the latest book by Giampaolo Pansa, a journalist who has made a speciality of ‘revisionism’. His most recent volume is La Guerra Sporca: ‘the dirty war between the partisans and the fascists’.  Theme: there was no difference between the two sides. ‘The dark side of the years between 1943 and 1945; Millions of defenceless people caught in the vice between two pitiless factions …’ and so on.

There were of course atrocities on both sides, as there are in every civil war. And revision is what history is about: the re-evaluation of events as new information becomes available, with the aim of getting closer to the truth, while recognising that the ‘absolute truth’ is a meaningless concept. History is not an exact science, but then neither is quantum physics. Yet, there is all the difference in the world between revision and revisionism.

The really dark side of the Italian civil war is what happened before it broke out. The war crimes committed in Libya, Ethiopia, Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia have never been fully investigated and those responsible have never been brought to book. For the most part they remain a taboo topic. Nor has there ever been a proper accounting for the violence that brought fascism to power in the first place and the murderous repression that followed.

In the reckoning that followed liberation, the most notorious reprisals almost all took place in the areas where the regime had been most brutal – for example in and around Milan – or in areas where the landowners and their supporters had been responsible for the most violent acts of repression in the past, such as the so-called Triangle of Death to the north of Bologna.

As Pavone himself observed in a recent interview – aged 93, he’s decided to write his memoirs – ‘People thought that by using this expression I was wishing to justify the fascists. In reality by using the term “civil war” I intended not to make two sides equivalent but rather to emphasise the differences.’ Twenty-three years later that battle of ideas continues to rage.