the Italian brothers who resisted Mussolini

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In 1929, Italy’s most influential anti-fascist, Carlo Rosselli, founded the underground Justice and Freedom movement, then the country’s most serious threat to Mussolini. The members were known as giellisti after the initials of the movement “g” and “l” (for Giustizia e Libertà); they espoused an ideal of democratic socialism and led the propaganda against the Italian Savoyard monarchy (then cowardly pro-fascist), as well as Mussolini. By the early 1930s however, with Marxist Antonio Gramsci in prison and other prominent anti-fascists (Giacomo Matteotti, Giovanni Amendola) assassinated, all of Italy was under the dull hand of fascist conformism. Anticipating their arrest, Carlo and his younger brother Nello fled to France.

One spring day in 1937, they were found murdered on a country road in Normandy; their carotid arteries had been severed. Suddenly, Italy was deprived of two intransigent and courageous resistance fighters. Their funeral procession was followed in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris by more than 200,000 mourners. Justice et Liberté was forced into hiding, but five years later it reformed as the Action party, which was feared and hated by black shirts. Its cautious socialism and intellectual integrity would vitally influence Italy’s armed resistance to German occupation in 1943-45.

Fourteen years after the murders, the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia – best known for Women of Rome (1947) – published his extremely disturbing novel about the Rosselli murders, The conformist. Although Moravia, who was related to the Rossellis through their mother, reluctantly undertook underground labor for Carlo Rosselli in Paris, her attitude towards Mussolini remained one of patrician condescension. (Fascism, Moravia told me in an interview in Rome in 1985, was “really a very boring movement”). He avoided Mussolini’s nets at home in Italy by traveling abroad in a certain style. This was not Rosselli’s way of undertaking the anti-fascist struggle.

Moravia gets rather bad press from Caroline Moorehead in this captivating biography of the Rosselli brothers. Coming from the Pincherle Venetian Jewish family, Moravia was barely 21 when his first novel, The time of indifference, published in 1929. The book angered the fascist authorities for its portrayal of complacency and double play in Mussolini’s Rome. Its assault on bourgeois morality was courageous for the time, but for many years Moravia was silent about the Rosselli murders. Why? The brothers’ mother, Amelia, was convinced that Moravia had done it out of “opportunism”, if not out of “weakness”.

Amelia had her own literary pretensions, writing a number of successful plays and children’s books. She presided over a distinguished intellectual milieu in her native Venice and, later, Florence, where she aligned herself with Filippo Turati, the “great old man” of Italian socialism, and the austere moralist Piero Gobetti, founder in 1922 of the first anti – Fascist weekly, Liberal rivoluzione. Gobetti’s bugle call for “freedom” dated back to the 19th-century Risorgimento Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, whose visionary writings defended the submissive peoples of Europe against foreign domination. Exiled in London for 25 years, Mazzini had moved from one boarding house to another, keeping the curtains drawn in the light of day for fear of being discovered.


By the early 1920s, the Rossellis were also seeking security and patronage in London, mingling with hostesses of the Left Society and members of the Fabian Society (including George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Sidney and Beatrice Webb). The Rossellis were now convinced Anglophiles; England was seen as a bastion of civil liberties, equality and reason. While in London, Nello researched a biography of Mazzini, which was published in 1927. Mazzini could easily have been caricatured as an evil man in the face of El Greco. guastafeste (killjoy); Rosselli exalted him as a Voltaire of a new age of national liberation. Without Mazzini’s political ideas on free nationality and nationalist awakening, the organization of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries (from the dissolution of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires to the unification of Germany) could have followed a different course.

Moravia, generally, had letters of introduction to Lady Ottoline Morrell and others throughout Bloomsbury, then almost extinct. He met Nello and Carlo in London, as well as Turin artist and doctor Carlo Levi, who later rose to prominence as the author of Christ stopped at Eboli. Spies were everywhere. The first nucleus of British Italian fascists was founded in London in 1921, says Moorehead. Members saw the worship of ducism as a more virile alternative to the “effeminate” world of flappers, leftist poets and hesitant parliamentarians.

Cosmopolitan and polyglot Jews such as Moravia and the Rosselli were viewed by Mussolini and his followers as selfish supranational types hostile to the strong blackshirt race and nation bond. They should be eliminated.

By the end of his life, writes Moorehead, Carlo Rosselli had been watched by no less than 42 Mussolini agents. In 1927, he was sentenced to confino – internal exile – on the isolated prison island of Lipari off the coast of Sicily (now a holiday destination). He languished there for two years before fleeing to France via Cap Bon in Tunisia. Much of this is recounted by Stanislao G Pugliese, in his 1999 biography of Carlo Rosselli. According to Pugliese, Rosselli was less a political theorist than a “public moralist”; the betrayal of socialism in Stalin’s Russia was as odious to him as Italian fascism.

The Rossellis might have vanished from history altogether if Bernardo Bertolucci hadn’t turned Moravia’s novel into an acclaimed film The conformist, with Jean-Louis Trintignant in the role of a fascist police informant in the footsteps of Professor Quadri (a barely veiled Carlo Rosselli). Rarely has fascism come across as simply gruesome as in that 1970 film. The Rossellis had been murdered, it seems, by a group of right-wing French extremists baiting Jews, determined to politically “rejuvenate” their country through the jingoist trinity of work, family, homeland. The assassins actually belonged to a prototype formation of the National Front called the Cagoulards (some of whom were friends with the very young François Mitterrand) and, most likely, in the pay of Mussolini’s agents. As Stalin said: “No man, no problem. ” I

Ian Thomson is the author of “Primo Levi: a Biography” (Vintage)

A daring and dangerous family: the Rossellis and the fight against Mussolini
Caroline moorehead
Chatto & Windus, 448 pages, £ 20


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