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They don't get
much attention, but Italy's partisans deserve some of the credit for the
defeat of Fascism in 1944 and 1945. One of the reasons they are so often
ignored, apart from the fact that few of them are any longer among us, is
that their role is frequently misunderstood. In Axis occupied territories
such as France, Greece, Albania and Ethiopia, underground resistance movements
existed almost from the beginning of armed hostilities. Initially, Italy's
partisans, who fought against other Italians (mostly the troops of the Nazi
puppet state called the Italian Social Republic), were not part of an established,
or particularly organised, armed resistance movement. Instead, they were
organised only when an Allied victory was almost a certainty. Politically,
however, they had existed as a distinct, if greatly overshadowed, political
opposition force for far longer than their Greek, French or Ethiopian counterparts,
consisting of Socialists, Communists, republicans and the occasional anarchist
opposed to Fascism from its earliest days. With a few prominent exceptions,
they hardly seemed like natural allies for the Americans or British who
were fighting their way up the Italian peninsula in 1944, but in time of
war "my enemy's enemy is my friend." The partisans entered into
action in full force early in 1944, after the Allies had taken Sicily and
the Kingdom of Italy had joined the United Nations' efforts as a cobelligerent.
Most of their operations, undertaken in loose collaboration with the Allies,
who provided arms and intelligence, were isolated guerilla attacks against
the already crumbling Fascist power base north of Rome, in Italy's industrial
heartland. That many of them envisioned a Communist form of government for
postwar Italy was a question to be resolved at a later time. For now, even
Stalin was a supporter of the Allied cause. One of the best-known of the
Sicilian partisans was Pompeo Colajanni, whose alias in the underground
was "Nicola Barbato."
Born in Caltanissetta, in central Sicily, in 1906, Colajanni joined the
Communist movement as a young man in the heady decade following the Russian
Revolution. An avowed Leftist, he opposed Fascism, generally considered
a right-wing movement with socialist underpinnings and a populist veneer.
Studying law only encouraged his convictions. There had been no resistance
movement in Sicily except for some Mafia cooperation with the Allies, but
in 1945 Colajanni found himself in Piedmont. His past experiences, including
harassment by the police and a stint in the army, were more than enough
to make him an activist. He was now the leader of a large partisan band,
freeing political prisoners in formerly Fascist territories as he made his
way to Turin. Entire towns were liberated as Fascist and German troops retreated
in the face of partisan attacks coordinated with heavy Allied bombing and
the threat of rapidly approaching American troops.
In some areas, the partisans were the vanguard for the approaching Allies.
In others, they attacked isolated pockets of Axis soldiers, sometimes obtaining
the surrender of Italians. Biella, Monferrato, Chieri, Trofarello and finally,
by 27 April 1945, Turin itself were freed of Nazi and Fascist troops, thanks
to "Barbato" and his fellow partisans. In their haste and anger,
Italy's partisans did not always take prisoners. Colajanni's command was
one of the more professional ones, but a band near Como caught and executed
the fleeing Mussolini and his mistress, Chiara Petacci, violating the agreement
that high Fascist officials were to be turned over to the Allied command.
The dictator had already escaped once, however, and war is war. Sometimes,
winning is everything.
A number of politically inconvenient realities of the partisans' battles
are often overlooked nowadays. Politically, the greatest problem with the
Italian partisan movement was that while the partisans clearly opposed the
Fascists and Nazis, and willingly cooperated with the Allies once victory
seemed certain, they did not really support any past or contemporary Italian
state. In the end, victory was costly. As many as thirty thousand partisans
and supporters perished, with some nine thousand civilians murdered in Axis
and partisan reprisals. That many overzealous partisans, especially Communists,
massacred clergy and other non-combattants, is one of the reasons many Italians
look upon the entire partisan movement with justified suspicion, if not
overt disdain. The partisan extremists, like most of the Fascists, went
unpunished, claiming to have been mere pawns in a "civil war"
that pitted one Italian against another, while many veterans who happened
to be in non-Fascist territory when the King switched sides in September
1943 conveniently identified themselves as "partisans" following
the conflict. Pompeo Colajanni was the real thing.
He served briefly as Undersecretary of Defence and then held various
elected positions in the Sicilian regional government, and local positions
in Enna and Palermo. Colajanni remained active in his party (and maintained
old Soviet ties) until his death in 1987. On Liberation Day (April 25th)
2000, a placque was dedicated to his memory in Palermo's English Garden
in a ceremony attended by Pompeo Colajanni's widow and children, the mayor,
local officials and numerous citizens, including representatives of the
National Association of Italian Partisans (ANPI). Like Barbato's battles
against Fascism, it was a testament to a free Italy.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.