Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2016-018
15 Feb. 2016
Review by Richard Hammond, Joint Services Command and Staff College
A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance
By Claudio Pavone
Ed. Stanislao Pugliese. Trans. Peter Levy and David Broder. New York: Verso, 2013. Pp. xxiv, 744. ISBN 978–1–84467–750–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2016, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

The period from the Italian armistice (8 Sept. 1943) to the end of the Second World War in Europe (8 May 1945) is a highly controversial one in Italy's history. It is not easily studied without a reading knowledge of Italian. This translation of Claudio Pavone's seminal study[1] now makes accessible to Anglophone readers a history of the Italian anti-fascist resistance told primarily by individuals, often in an anecdotal style. This manner of presentation reflects Pavone's own service in the resistance before he became a professor of history (Univ. of Pisa). His aim is "not to reconstruct once again the history of the leading organisations ... but to see how the general directives were received and acted upon at various levels" (2). An interesting introduction by Stanislao Pugliese describes the reaction to the original publication and its subsequent influence on the historiography, as well as providing a useful glossary and chronology of key events.


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The book comprises eight chapters. The first, entitled "The Choice," concerns the question of whether and for which side to fight after the fall of Fascist Italy. It opens with a clear description of the collapse of much of Italy's armed forces and the effect this had on some servicemen, including their subsequent distrust of the formalized institutions like Marshal Pietro Badoglio's "Kingdom of the South." One soldier called the collapse of the Fourth Army "one of the saddest and most humiliating [spectacles, bringing] pain that wrung our hearts and the shame burned us" (21). Pavone next examines the various motives for the choices made by individuals: for example, a strong commitment to fascism (or Benito Mussolini personally[2]) or to anti-fascism; a determination to drive the Germans from Italian soil; a wish to keep faith with former comrades or some ideal of Italian honor; and the concern to keep loved ones safe.

Chapter 2, "Paths to a New Institutionalisation," describes the structure and ethos of several partisan bands, stressing their diversity and informality. Pavone also carefully distinguishes partisan leadership and loyalties from those of conventional military units. As one female partisan put it, "While the bureaucratic assignment of commanders may be all right for a regular army, it might mean the downfall of a partisan formation whose cohesion is due above all to the prestige enjoyed by the leader" (158). This may explain the rarity of successful interactions between the Allies and resistance groups, but the author does not directly explore the issue. He does note later that British propaganda invoking a "second Risorgimento" did little to inspire new partisan recruits or to further British aims (217–18). Indeed, Gen. Harold Alexander's attempt to order partisans to cease their offensive in November 1944 was met with outright scorn (236).

In chapters 3–5, representing his most recognizable and original contribution to the history of World War II partisans, Pavone isolates three discrete wars—the "Patriotic War," the "Civil War," and the "Class War." In chapter 3, he asks "Who had been defeated in the Fascist war fought between 1940 and 1943? Only Fascism? Or the Italian State with which Fascism had identified itself? Or even Italy herself, as an historically defined national entity?" (205). Not only the British but Italian fascists and anti-fascists alike invoked the spirit of the Risorgimento (205, 220–21). The fascists stressed ideals of honor and martial strength, while the anti-fascists emphasized freedom.

The "Civil War" chapter offers a striking demonstration of the widespread efforts at reconciliation in the immediate post-armistice period. Many local and regional nonaggression pacts were signed as well as more informal deals. Pavone pinpoints the decisive turn toward civil war to the period after the Congress at Verona in November 1943 (283–86). He makes ample use of fascist sources to show that, in the early days of civil war, the fascists were surprised by the courage and competence of the partisans. There was no rerun of their easy victories over the socialists in 1920–22 (291). Identity plays an important role in this chapter as well. Anti-fascist propaganda portrayed Italian fascists as cowardly lapdogs of the Germans. For their part, the fascists portrayed the entire resistance as communist, and thus unItalian (291, 301–3). Pavone adduces ample and persuasive evidence that both sides perceived their struggle as in fact a civil war. Many partisans believed their true enemies were the Italian fascists and that the Germans should be left for the Allies to deal with (320–27).

The "Class War" chapter treats endeavors by resistance members to cast the war itself as a class struggle by linking the fascists with big industrialists and combining the struggle against fascism with a fight for higher wages. In fact, in at least one case, the Germans raised workers' wages after discovering that their strikes were not motivated by anti-German animus (406). The communist groups were, of course, the most likely to appeal to class struggle during the civil conflict. They also looked to the Soviet Union as a potential liberator (482–84).

Chapter 7, "Violence," focuses on the use of violence, both legally and illegally, by the forces of the Italian Social Republic to achieve fascist ideals and to make the Germans take them seriously as allies (520–22). Pavone's examination of the motives of resistance fighters is more detailed and nuanced. He distinguishes factions within the resistance (Communist, Christian Democrat, Actionist) and addresses the views of female fighters, the use of reprisals, and the partisans' self-policing tactics. It is unclear why this material warrants a separate chapter, rather than integration in the preceding ones where appropriate. (For instance, the discussion of women's motivations belongs in chapters three and four.)

The eighth and final chapter, "Politics and Future Expectations," highlights differing political aspirations, identities, and plans for postwar Italy. Again, much of this repeats material presented piecemeal in earlier chapters, though the author's analysis of different generational attitudes offers something new (656–68).

Claudio Pavone certainly achieves his aim of explaining the resistance at its mid-lower levels. Moreover, his handling of the conflict as a civil war (a controversial designation previously used only by fascists) is convincing. Unfortunately, frequent repetitions, a mass of minute detail, and a plethora of individual vignettes make the narrative indigestible. And, too, readers will need a prior good basic knowledge of events in German-occupied Italy, since the author is wont to mention incidents like the "four days of Naples" or the Ardeatine Caves massacre without elaboration. In short, only specialists and serious students will easily appreciate Pavone's new take on the conduct and perception of the Italian "civil war," with all its fascinating personal stories.[3]

[1] Originally, Una guerra civile (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1991).

[2] See Christopher Duggan, Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini's Italy (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2013) 384–417.

[3] A good companion volume to Pavone's book would be Ada Gobetti's classic Partisan Diary: A Woman's Life in the Italian Resistance [1956], trans. Jomarie Alano (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2014).

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