When Mussolini took power after the March on Rome in October 1922, few thought he would hold office for long. Giovanni Amendola, a Liberal deputy first elected in 1919, failed to oppose the confidence vote on the new government. King Victor Emmanuel III had capitulated to the fascists, but Amendola had faith in Italy’s constitution and the strength of its democratic institutions. Like many other members of the liberal coalition that fell when Mussolini took power, Amendola hadn’t imagined the fascists would push on towards dictatorship, intimidating and eliminating their enemies as they went. Far from respecting the constitution, Mussolini set out to dismantle what was left of Italian democracy and to destroy the socialist, communist and trade union movements. After a change to the electoral law intended to boost the fascists’ power in Parliament – the Acerbo Law gave the party with the largest share of the vote two-thirds of parliamentary seats, as long as they gained at least a quarter of the vote – an election was called in April 1924.
At the last election, in 1921, fascist squads had intimidated voters, broken up opposition meetings, killed candidates and, after the vote, murdered a socialist deputy. This had not prevented a sizeable left-wing vote, but by 1924 the opposition had been all but wiped out. Many socialists and communists were in hiding or in exile. Trade unions had been cowed, their headquarters burned to the ground, their leaders beaten and threatened; union membership had plummeted. The fascists had made sure they were going to come out ahead, and the National List – a coalition of fascists and nationalists – duly swept the board. Two opposition deputies led the fight against the ratification of the vote: Giacomo Matteotti, leader of the Unitary Socialist Party, and Amendola, who now knew that his position in 1922 had been naive. On 30 May, Matteotti gave a powerful speech in Parliament denouncing the use of violence and intimidation during the campaign and calling for the election to be annulled. He was met with interruptions and insults, as well as open threats. Eleven days later, Matteotti was seized in broad daylight near his house in Rome and bundled into a car. The identity of the person who gave the orders, what those orders were and the involvement of Mussolini have been the subject of debate ever since. Matteotti was stabbed to death soon after his kidnapping. The gang then drove around for some time before burying him in a shallow grave not far from the city. His body wasn’t found until August.
It was at this point that Amendola came into his own. He called together a group of opposition deputies (including the Communists, among them Antonio Gramsci) and the decision was made to boycott Parliament in protest at Matteotti’s fate and Mussolini’s illegitimate rule. This political strategy, known as the Aventine Secession, made Amendola the de facto leader of the anti-fascist opposition. It was a delicate moment for Mussolini, the only crisis he would experience before the Second World War. There was widespread revulsion at Matteotti’s disappearance. Documents were leaked to Il Mondo, the newspaper Amendola helped found in 1922, alleging links between Mussolini and Matteotti’s kidnapping. For a short time, power seemed to drain away from Il Duce. But the king (in whom Amendola had pinned some hope) didn’t act to dismiss Mussolini, and there was no mass movement capable of acting decisively. The moment passed, and Mussolini took full control in January 1925, after a speech in which he claimed responsibility for the actions of the gang that murdered Matteotti and dared Parliament to indict him (something that was impossible without the 150 absent deputies). The last vestiges of democracy and the rule of law were swept away. Amendola was now in great danger. He had been attacked by fascists on a number of occasions, receiving a savage beating in Rome in December 1923; armed blackshirts hung around outside his flat. But he continued to publish and speak out against Mussolini. He probably thought they wouldn’t go so far as to murder him, that a second Matteotti case was a step too far, even for the fascists.
He was wrong. In July 1925, Amendola visited the Grand Hotel in Montecatini Terme, a spa town in Tuscany. By this time, most of the opposition was in hiding, in exile or dead. He was greeted at the hotel by crowds of angry black-shirted squadristi – armed fascist squads – who threatened him and smashed windows, demanding that he leave town. He was lulled into accepting the ‘protection’ of a local fascist leader, Carlo Scorza, but after being driven away he was viciously beaten by at least fifteen squadristi, some of whom had nails attached to their clubs. Only a chance passerby saved him from being killed there and then. He died in Cannes a few months later as a result of his injuries, aged 43. His eldest son, Giorgio, then 18, was by his side.
The attack on Amendola was, in political terms, unnecessary. By July 1925, the fascists were in near total control in Italy. But every dissenting voice had to be eliminated and they continued to destroy their few opponents, wherever and whenever they could, for the next eighteen years. Some prominent anti-fascists were murdered abroad (OVRA, possibly standing for the Opera Vigilanza Repressione Antifascismo, was created by Mussolini to spy on opposition figures). The Rosselli brothers, Carlo and Nello, were stabbed to death in 1937 in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne by thugs from the French fascist group Cagoule. Piero Gobetti, another liberal anti-fascist, died in France in 1926 of injuries sustained in a series of beatings. Other violence was more symbolic: oppositionists couldn’t see their families and struggled to get jobs. In 1928, Claudio Treves, a journalist and founder (with Matteotti) of the Unitary Socialist Party, wrote from exile in Paris: ‘We are the defeated, those who have failed.’ Leading socialists who had not managed to escape Italy had to beg in the streets, while others were forcibly sent to psychiatric hospitals. The regime was relentless.
Richard Bosworth’s family saga focuses on the two most famous Amendolas – Giovanni and Giorgio, who became a high-ranking communist, a leading figure on the left in both fascist and democratic Italy. Giorgio later claimed that he first understood ‘hard and degrading work’ while on holiday with his mother on Capri, where he saw women carrying coal to villages high up on the island. ‘Their faces were black and shining with sweat,’ Giorgio wrote. ‘Every now and again they stopped to spread their thighs and piss like horses. The effort demanded of them was bestial … The spectacle left me contemplating a confused and disturbing mixture of indecency and inhumanity.’ Giorgio joined the Communist Party in 1929, in what could be seen as a rebellion against his father’s legacy (his two brothers, Antonio and Pietro, joined him). He went into exile in France in 1931, before returning to Italy as a clandestine member of the tiny communist resistance. But it was riddled with spies and agents provocateurs, and he was soon arrested and sent to ‘internal confinement’ on the island of Ponza off the south-eastern coast of Italy. The process of ‘confinement’ (confino) required no trial or due process, and was carried out at the whim of the authorities, often at the behest of Mussolini himself. Prisoners were isolated from the general population, but their confinement together had the unintended effect of enabling them to organise. One leading anti-fascist, Leo Valiani, described confino as a ‘school of anti-fascism’. It wasn’t only prominent figures who were put in confino: a drunken song in a pub, a misplaced letter, a red tie on May Day could lead to confinement. A considerable amount of research has been carried out into the practice in recent years. Michael Ebner’s Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy (2010) used hundreds of archival files to piece together the experience of everyday Italians under the dictatorship and showed that torture and beatings were common in confino, food scarce and of poor quality. Many people died, though records were doctored or censored to hide this.
In 2003, Silvio Berlusconi caused outrage by claiming that Mussolini ‘did not murder anyone’ and sent his opponents ‘on holiday to confine them’. Bosworth writes of Giorgio Amendola’s time in prison, where he spent eleven months in solitary confinement before being sent to Ponza, that ‘Giorgio was pent up in solitary silence but not in the vicious, death-dealing manner familiar in the USSR’ and portrays his years in confino as a largely benign experience. While he admits that the ‘provisions’ of confinement ‘could be harsh’, Bosworth argues that ‘it was never as tyrannical as were imprisonment practices in Nazi Germany.’ Under a photograph showing Giorgio with his wife and daughter in Ponza, Bosworth writes: ‘Ponza, not quite Auschwitz, or Siberia’. At times, he stresses the violence of the regime, stating, for example, that more than one million people went to their deaths prematurely thanks to the actions of Mussolini and his dictatorship. At others, he seems to play it down.
More generally, Bosworth is sceptical about the extent to which the fascists had control over society, often using the term, ‘totalitarianism, Italian-style’. It is not always clear what ‘Italian-style’ means. He writes that fascism was ‘always potentially corrupt, Italian-style’. Is he arguing that there is an innate tendency among Italians towards corruption? Were Stalinism and Nazism (not to mention fascism in Spain and Portugal) not also marked by corruption, or clientelism? Bosworth describes the squadristi’s acts of violence, but jokes that they must have been too lazy to climb the six flights of stairs to Amendola’s apartment in Rome. He also claims that ‘the fascists were canaille who could easily have been dispersed by a whiff of grapeshot.’ If this is the case, how did the squadristi, despite their tiny numbers, not only destroy a vast socialist and trade union movement, but also many of the institutions of Italian democracy? Bosworth claims that ‘a historian might add, noting Mussolini’s efforts to give protection to Matteotti’s wife and children, that the Duce lacked the bloodiness of Stalin and other dictators in eliminating whole families of his opponents.’ This ‘protection’ entailed Matteotti’s wife, Velia, being kept under constant surveillance, something she compared to imprisonment or slavery. Her lawyer was attacked, and her fate became the subject of protests abroad. In 1932, an appeal appeared in the British press as part of a campaign led by Sylvia Pankhurst and Marion Rosselli (Carlo Rosselli’s wife), and signed by many prominent figures on the left, including Bertrand Russell, George Lansbury, Ellen Wilkinson and Jennie Lee:
We, the undersigned, appeal to the conscience of humanity against the cruel persecution of the widowed Velia Matteotti during the eight years since her husband’s murder, a persecution which keeps her and her children under perpetual police surveillance; cuts them off from all intercourse with their kind by punishing with imprisonment or internment all those who dare to visit them; forbids her children to bear their father’s name in school or to visit his grave; and imposes on the family a calculated system of intimidations and inhibitions which … has reduced them to the condition of prisoners.
Velia died in 1938 after an operation. Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, wrote in his diaries that Mussolini told him soon after her death: ‘My enemies always end up in prison, and sometimes under the surgeon’s knife.’
Bosworth also claims that while the ‘fascist administration could be ruthless … in 1933, as far as communists were concerned, its rule was loose and distant’. Gramsci, by then the most prominent communist in Italy, was imprisoned on trumped-up charges by a special court in 1926. Despite constant ill health, he was held in a series of island camps and prisons – he was transported between them in chains – and not given access to proper medical care. ‘His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food … he had convulsions when he vomited blood and suffered headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell.’ He died soon after being released in 1937, at the age of 46. Gastone Sozzi, another communist, was tortured and probably murdered in a prison in Perugia in 1928. He was 24. Romolo Tranquilli, the brother of the writer Ignazio Silone, who worked for the communists, was beaten on his back and chest with sacks of sand (so as not to leave marks), suffering injuries that eventually killed him in 1931. He was 28. And these are just the cases we know about.
Bosworth had no access to archives, presumably as a result of Covid, so his main sources are secondary: memoirs and published letters, as well as scholarly studies and biographies. The self-censorship that characterised the remarks of a leading communist such as Giorgio Amendola is never really examined, though there are hints that his ‘memory’ may have been ‘gilded’. Bosworth tends to take his memoirs, Una scelta di vita (1976) and Un’isola (1980) at face value, and to dismiss accounts that question their veracity. He rejects Ebner’s (mild) critique of Giorgio Amendola’s account of Ponza as rosy and partial. Bosworth’s own account makes clear that there was frequent violence in Ponza, including the beating of Giorgio’s pregnant wife, Germaine, and that Giorgio was constantly shifted between prison and confino. I wonder if Bosworth’s line here isn’t an example of what Ilaria Poerio, in her 2016 study, A scuola di dissenso: Storie di resistenza al confino di polizia 1926-43, describes as ‘defining [Italian] fascism by what it wasn’t, with respect to Germany, as part of a wider discourse on … fascism, Italian-style’ (my translation). As the historian Paul Corner writes, ‘it would be more useful to define the Italian regime on the basis of what it was, rather than on the basis of what it wasn’t.’
Giorgio Amendola was released from confinement in 1937 and exiled to France; he went on to Tunisia before returning to Italy, secretly, in 1943. He took part in the failed defence of Rome – the first act of the Italian anti-fascist resistance – in September that year and fought in the resistance for the rest of the war. He became a Communist deputy in 1948 and remained one until his death in 1980. His communism was orthodox and his break with Stalinism came very late, but he was still, as Perry Anderson put it in the LRB, ‘after the death of Togliatti [in 1964] the most formidable figure in the PCI’. He left no real theoretical or political legacy, although his memoirs, a key source for this book, are fascinating.
Giorgio and Germaine, whom he met while in exile in Paris, died within a day of each other in 1980. They were buried in the PCI area of Rome’s Verano cemetery, where the graves of party leaders are arranged almost as if they are still in a meeting. Only eleven years later, the party dissolved itself in the wake of the collapse of ‘real communism’. Today, communists are an increasingly marginal force in Italian politics, while the country’s prime minister heads a party – Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy – whose leading members see themselves as in clear continuity with Mussolini’s regime. The vice-president of the Senate, Ignazio la Russa, has a room in his house dedicated to the memory of Il Duce.
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