David Broder’s The Rebirth of Italian Communism reveals the important story of the dissident Italian communist resistance in Nazi-occupied Rome, finds Chris Bambery

David Broder, The Rebirth of Italian Communism, 1943–44: Dissidents in German-Occupied Rome (Palgrave Macmillan 2021), 258pp.

From the close of the Second World War until it voted to dissolve itself in 1991, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was unique in being the largest Communist Party outside the Stalinist states. Its membership approached two million at its peak, and it exercised hegemony over the wider left and the working class. Its strength lay, in large part, in its role in the resistance movement to the Nazi occupation, which followed the collapse of Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in the summer of 1943. This resistance was the biggest and most successful in Western Europe.

When the Italian resistance to the Nazi occupiers and their fascist cronies is talked about, attention focuses on the industrial cities of the North: Turin, Milan and Geneva, or the hills of Tuscany. That is not surprising, given that those northern cities were liberated by the partisans, as they were known, before Allied forces arrived. Florence saw the resistance lead an insurrection as Allied forces reached the city limits. To the south, there was resistance, but it was not on the scale of the north because Allied forces arrived earlier. In Naples, a four-day insurrection did liberate the city in September 1943, but that was an exception.

David Broder’s book looks at the resistance in Rome. What is written about it tends to focus on the actions of Communist Party fighters, in particular the bomb attack in the Via Rasella, the biggest loss of life Nazi forces suffered at the hands of the resistance in Western Europe. However, little has been written about the resistance mounted by dissident Communists, who rejected the official Party line, and in late 1943 and early 1944 were greater in number within the city.

Rome was not Turin or Milan, both home to an industrialised working class. Industrialisation in Italy was largely concentrated in the great cities of the North, with the capital, Rome, having a working class largely concentrated in the service sector, transport, and artisanal production. But the city had a proud tradition of anti-fascist resistance.

The rise and fall of fascism

In November 1921, Mussolini’s Blackshirts had tried to take control of the city. They met with serious resistance from the working class who drove them out, forcing the army to escort the fascists from the city (see Tom Behan’s The Resistible Rise of Mussolini, Bookmarks, 2003). Veterans of that resistance would be active when a new, greater wave of resistance arose in September 1943.

Mussolini took power in October 1922 because the established ruling-class parties had given up on ruling a seriously divided country, and because the left, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, had dismissed fascism as a danger and failed to unite to stop fascism. The myth was that the March on Rome had brought Mussolini to power, but in fact this was no kind of revolution. The army was in control of the situation, and only allowed the Blackshirts into the city when the King decided to appoint Mussolini premier. He arrived by sleeper train, and quickly ensured his followers left for home.

Within the young Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci strove to overturn the party’s sectarian line and to commit it to an anti-fascist united front. Gramsci succeeded in winning the party to this position at a congress held in January 1926 in the French city of Lyon. However, as Broder points out, Gramsci’s arguments ‘could not be debated or agreed by the mass of members, and by November the party was finally crushed by Mussolini’s leggi fascistissime [fascist laws]’ (p.3).

The repression ensured the PCI was largely a party of exiles and prisoners. Cadre sent into the country were quickly arrested. Supporters within the country kept their heads down, discussing their beliefs within their family or with a few trusted comrades.

Defeat in North Africa, Allied bombing, and the June 1943 Anglo-American invasion of Sicily brought fundamental change. Resistance on a major scale began in March, with a general strike in Turin which the regime could not suppress. Then in July, the king dismissed Mussolini, appointing General Badoglio in his place.

Badoglio had been in charge of the brutal 1935 invasion and occupation of Ethiopia. Like the king, he had no problems with Mussolini until it became apparent Italy was losing the war. They quickly became concerned when, as news of Mussolini’s fall spread, crowds stormed fascist offices and attacked secret policemen and informers. In Rome, 1000 prisoners broke out of the Regina Coeli prison.

The new government wanted to switch sides to make peace with the Allies so they could prevent chaos. They hoped Hitler would allow them to do so. It quickly became apparent the Fuhrer was not going to do that. In September 1943, when the new Italian government signed an armistice with the Allies, German troops flooded south, occupying Rome. The king and Badoglio fled to Allied forces in the south of the country, leaving no orders to resist the Germans. Rome did see fierce fighting as leftists and certain army units tried to stop the Germans entering the city, before being outgunned. Mussolini was rescued by the Nazis and installed in nominal charge of a fascist Social Republic based in the north.

The PCI and the dissidents

The PCI had now some 5000 members, but as far as the Party’s leader, Palmiro Togliatti, saw it from exile in Moscow, they were dangerously off message, still believing that the goal was revolution and socialism. What David Broder’s book centres on are the dissident Communist groups which emerged in Rome during the period of resistance, from September 1943 until the arrival of the Allies in June 1944.

These groups, in the main, would come together in the Communist Movement of Italy, MCd’I, which rejected Togliatti’s message coming over the radio from Moscow. He urged all anti-fascists to rally behind the newly created National Liberation Committee, CLN, bringing together the PCI, socialists, liberals and Christian Democrats. The MCd’I rejected such an alliance as breaking with Marxist principles, claiming that they were defending the party’s revolutionary traditions against Togliatti’s reformism. It was not just the dissidents, but many PCI members who also believed in ‘doing what they did in Russia,’ using the fact they were the majority in the growing partisan forces to seize power by force, following Lenin’s stress on ‘turning war into revolution’ (p.149).

In previous accounts I have read of these dissidents, they have been portrayed as Trotskyists or supporters of the PCI’s first leader, the intransigent Amadeo Bordiga. These writers echoed the attacks made on the dissidents at the time by the PCI.

What Broder’s research has found is that instead they were loyal to Joseph Stalin, believing that he was wrongly informed about the situation in Italy, and that he was out to bring socialism to the country. They identified Soviet Russia with the state they remembered from before fascism. This was helped by Mussolini’s propaganda which conjured up the spectre of Stalin exporting revolution, in order to frighten his middle-class base and to keep them in line. The dissidents’ illusions in Stalin and the Soviet Union were to be their fatal weakness.

The MCd’I began in late 1943 to build in the borgate, the shanty towns housing former residents of inner-city areas, which had been demolished to provide ceremonial routes for Mussolini’s parades, and migrants new to the city. These borgate often lay along the key routes carrying German forces to and from the front line. They also provided shelter for young men avoiding being conscripted as labourers in German factories, soldiers who had fled after the Germans arrived, and escaped Allied prisoners. Food and weapons were provided by carrying out expropriations from the rich, and from shops and warehouses.

Because Rome did not have much industry, organising in workplaces was not a central concern for the MCd’I. Instead they concentrated on mass organisation in the borgate: ‘Members’ accounts tell of a near-open-door recruitment policy, printing 4000 membership cards’ (p.97). The aim was to organise a ‘red belt’ around the city from which to launch an insurrection as the Allies neared. In contrast the PCI organised the Gruppi di Azione Patriottica (Patriot Action Groups, the GAP), based on a very tight cell structure, which carried out armed attacks on German forces and their fascist allies. In Rome they concentrated on the city centre.

Liberation and betrayal

By January 1944, the hour of liberation seemed to be at hand. Allied forces landed at Anzio, some sixty kilometres south of Rome, bypassing German defences. The road to the capital was open, with no German forces at hand. However, the American commander dug in, instead of advancing on the city, allowing the Germans to rush units in and to pin down Allied forces. At the beginning, with the sound of artillery being heard in Rome, it seemed certain the Allies would arrive soon. When it became clear this was not going to happen anytime soon, the liberated borgate were left dangerously exposed.

On 23 March 1944, the GAP carried out an attack on an SS unit in the Via Rasella, killing 32 of them. An enraged Hitler ordered mass reprisal killings with 355 Italians being rounded up, including 68 MCd’I members, several key leaders among them. They were taken to the Fosse Ardeatine caves to the south of the city and slaughtered. The dissident Communists’ military leadership was decapitated. The scale of the reprisals shocked the city’s population. Supporters of Badoglio and the Christian Democrats, backed by the Vatican, forced both the PCI and the dissidents to cease further attacks.

At the same time, in March 1944, Togliatti returned to Italy, arriving at Naples. He came from a meeting with Stalin who pressed him to follow a new line, which the Italian quickly outlined in what became known as the ‘Salerno turn’. The PCI, Togliatti declared, was prepared to join the royal government of Badoglio to achieve maximum anti-fascist unity. Institutional questions, such as the future of the monarchy, would be put on ice until after the war. Any idea of revolution accompanying liberation was off the agenda. For Stalin, this shift, it was hoped, would allow Moscow to achieve cordial relations with the Italian government, and to stop it being 100% committed to the USA and UK, and hopefully to break the latter’s control of the Mediterranean.

For the MCd’I and the dissidents, the initial response was to accuse Togliatti of betraying Stalin, but it would quickly become clear that Moscow was fully behind the new line. Both the Allies and the Badoglio government were happy to ensure the Russian view was heard on the airwaves. Moscow’s approval of the ‘Salerno turn’ also bolstered Togliatti’s ability to enforce it, because loyalty to the Soviet Union ran deep. In the course of 1944 and the first half of 1945, the PCI achieved hegemony on the Italian left, which would last until the party committed suicide in 1991 as the USSR collapsed. While the PCI was forced out of government in 1947 with the onset of the Cold War, it always defended the constitution drafted in 1946.

The Germans and the Italian fascists had their spies in the borgate, plus they tortured captured dissidents to acquire information. They now began sealing them off, one by one, and entering in force to carry out mass arrests.

Repression and political confusion reigned in the MCd’I. When the Allies did break through German lines and advanced, there would be no insurrection in the city. After liberation, the Allies, the Italian government, and the PCI worked hard to eliminate the MCd’I and other dissident groups, leading to a wave of arrests and trials after the latter continued with expropriations and refused to hand over their weapons. Subsequently, many of their members, demoralised and disorientated, joined the PCI.

Post-war, these dissident Communists were left out of the history of the Italian resistance, one carefully cultivated by the PCI. David Broder has done a fine job in rescuing their contribution to that resistance in a book that is well written and well worth reading.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.