Chapter 14: World War II and its aftermath

14.1 Going to war, Italian ambitions, and the alliance with Hitler

As with World War I, Italy entered World War II late, in a way thinking, again, that it had already picked the winner. In the first war, it figured the fight would end within a year, but it dragged on for three years, draining most of the national resources and opening the gates to fascism, yet indeed it ended on the winning side. With the second war, Italy picked the loser and came out more separated than ever in a civil war that tore the social fabric of the nation apart, although as we shall see, thanks to the massive American support, it averted the economic crash it experienced between 1919 and 1921.

On May 22, 1939 Italy signed “the pact of steel” with Germany, designed for a joint struggle against France and England. When in September Hitler went to war in Poland with a partition pact with the USSR, Italy balked and remained neutral. Italian industry was relatively weak compared to other European major powers, not more than 15% that of France or Britain in militarily critical areas such as automobile production. The lack of a strong automotive industry made it difficult for Italy to mechanize its military. Italy’s proportion of GNP derived from industry was less than that of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Sweden, not to mention the other great powers.

That spring France and England were convinced that Italy could be nudged into neutrality with concessions. Rome’s military commanders were acutely aware that their equipment was outdated, and even if Italy had manufactured some prototypes of self-propelled guns or torpedoes, the bulk of the armaments were outdated.

Senior leadership was also a problem: Mussolini personally assumed control of all three military service ministries. The result was that there was no central direction for operations; the three military branches tended to work independently, focusing only on their fields, with little inter-service cooperation. But perhaps Italy believed these issues didn’t matter. On June 10, 1940, as the French government fled to Bordeaux during the German invasion, declaring Paris an open city, Mussolini felt the conflict would soon end and declared war on Britain and France. He said, “I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought[1].” Yet soon the offensive into southern France stalled at the fortified Alpine Line.

Italy’s difficult situation was saved by France’s surrender to Germany on June 24, 1940. Italy occupied a swath of French territory along the Franco-Italian border, but not Corsica or Tunisia, which were left to France by Germany. Berlin then was seeking the collaboration of the leftover French government.

Following that, the Italian military fared badly on all fronts despite the many heroic actions of single units or soldiers in Ethiopia, Yugoslavia, North Africa, and Greece. On the two latter fronts, German troops came to help in situations where Italians had stalled. The Italians, first alone then with the help of Germany, failed to take over isolated Malta. This island resisted bravely despite its proximity to Sicily and despite that fact that some of the local Maltese population, feeling Italian, were sympathetic to neighboring Italy.

This was to be expected: the army was ill prepared, badly commanded, and not motivated. Still, possibly one of the greatest surprises came from the navy, which although without an aircraft carrier was in theory larger than the English navy in the Mediterranean. In a daring operation, the English air force on November 11, 1940 launched the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship naval attack in history. It sent a small number of obsolescent biplane torpedo bombers from an aircraft carrier to strike the battle fleet of the Italian navy at anchor in the harbor of Taranto. The British attackers used aerial torpedoes despite the shallow water. The devastation wrought by the British carrier-launched aircraft on the large Italian warships marked the beginning of the global ascendancy of naval aviation over the big guns of battleships, which was to play a huge role in the Pacific theatre a few months later.

This operation cowed the Italian navy, already the least fascist of the three corps, and de facto limited its participation in the war. A year later, the operation was studied and replicated on a much larger scale by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor, thinking it would have the same effect on the US navy. The result, however, was opposite, as it prodded the US to an even greater war effort.

The moment of hope and glory for the Italian army was when the Germans sent their best general, Erwin Rommel, to Africa, reinforced by the power and ingenuity of German industry that adapted and manufactured arms for the desert war. Despite the initial success in Africa, the German-Italian forces were beaten by the even cleverer General Bernard Montgomery. Soon the English occupied all of North Africa and were poised to jump into Sicily and bring the war to Italy. This came after the devastating rout of the Axis forces in Russia. The small, ill-equipped Italian contingent in Russia fought as best as it could, but the withdrawal from Russia sent chills down spines of the fascists. They soon realized the war was not going to be short, as Mussolini had anticipated, but now they understood the Germans were possibly going to be defeated.

On July 10, 1943, Anglo-American troops landed in Sicily practically unopposed. The Americans had earlier sent in agents affiliated with the local families and Mafia organizations that had been cracked down upon by Mussolini. The work of these agents plus the total demoralization of the Italian troops and their lack of equipment caused the defense to crumble in a matter of weeks. If Mussolini was unable to defend Italy, he could not be supported, and Hitler refused to provide massive assistance to the Italians in the south. Besides, German forces were already overstretched and fighting on all fronts.

Italy had lost. In that moment the Italian generals and some fascist bigwigs sought the king, and on the night of July 24–25, they held a meeting that deposed Mussolini and chose General Badoglio as his replacement. The war was still officially going on, but in fact frantic negotiations soon started with the Allies, who were preparing to reach the mainland. On September 3, the Americans crossed to Calabria and on September 9 they landed in Salerno and Taranto unopposed. The same day the king and Badoglio left Rome and fled south. The Italian army, without commanders or orders, tried to hold out for a few days but eventually in most cases it surrendered to the Germans.

The Germans, now aware on the total collapse of Italy, promptly descended into the peninsula and took over all key positions. On September 11, the king sought peace and when the Americans were practically at the gates of Naples, he switched sides and allied himself to the Americans. A new government was set up in Brindisi, and Italy declared it would fight with the Allies.

14.2 The war of resistance, and the split of Italy along ideological lines

On September 12, 1943, a German paratrooper commando freed Mussolini, imprisoned in Abruzzo. The Italian soldiers who had been ordered to secure the prisoner by all means did not oppose the attack but rather saluted at attention the Germans and the departure of their special guest.

The episode shows all the contradictions of Italy at the time. The country was deeply divided, almost in its soul. Italy had joined the Germans when it thought they were winning, and as soon as it realized they were losing, it chose the winning side again. This flip-flop when the country was invaded and occupied by the Anglo-Americans in the south and the Germans in the north made some Italians feel this was a betrayal and showed a lack of honor, and they stuck with the Germans for this rather than other ideological reasons.

On the other side there was the internal opposition. In northern Italy, occupied by the Germans and the newly established Republic of Salò, headed by Mussolini, the Communist Party had preserved quite a large network and organization. This was the backbone of the guerrilla war that started in 1944 with the support of the Allies who dropped arms and radio equipment to them. In the partisan formations, there were also the liberal/ republican/ socialist units of Justice and Liberty and the Catholics, but the bulk of and main organizational drive of the forces were the communists. It was Italians against Italians, and yet both were acting under the protection and thumb of foreigners, German or Anglo-Americans, too weak to fight on their own.

Italy was mostly spared the horror of the Shoah. Most Italian Jews were protected in convents or by farmers in the countryside. In November 1943, Jews of Genoa and Florence were deported to Auschwitz. Primo Levi, from Turin, was to follow this destiny, survive the experience, and leave the world with some of the most striking works of literature about the harrowing imprisonment. It is estimated that 7,500 Italian Jews became victims of the holocaust.

After the first successful months, the Allies thought they would win in Italy without much effort. Yet the Germans stepped in and reorganized the rest of the Italian army, so the fight proved much more difficult than anticipated. Italy’s mountainous terrain and the fierce resistance of the Axis deprived the Allies of their two best weapons: the full deployment of mechanized forces and the carpet-bombing that were to cripple morale and industrial production in Germany.

At this moment, Mussolini was a pale shadow of himself. Shaken, ill, and in the hands of Hitler, a man he despised at the beginning of his career, he was really unable to make free decisions. In 1944 he staged a trial sentencing to death the traitors who had brought him down. Among them was his son-in-law, the former minister of foreign affairs and onetime consul in Shanghai and Tianjin, Galeazzo Ciano.

It was a few months before the Allies broke the Gothic Line defending northern Italy and flooded in. The partisan formations rushed ahead of the Anglo-Americans, and future socialist president Sandro Pertini headed the capture of Milan, with the German commander surrendering to him and not to the Americans. The Americans were also beaten in the frenzied haste to apprehend Mussolini.

Here the young OSS officers were running behind Mussolini but were anticipated by a communist commander with the nom de guerre “Valerio.” Valerio seized Mussolini and his lover Claretta Petacci as they were trying to reach Switzerland[2]. On April 28, Valerio shot Mussolini and Petacci on the spot, just minutes before the OSS reached them. Allegedly the communists seized the gold Mussolini had with him and used it to prepare for the confrontation that was to follow with the capitalist forces. Certainly, on April 29, the corpses of Mussolini, Petacci, and other fascists were carried to Milan, and after being shot, kicked, and spat upon, were hung upside-down on meat hooks from the roof of a gas station in Piazzale Loreto.

His humiliating death also started the series of mysteries that were to dot the post-war era. Even now the identity of Valerio is unclear. Some claim he was senior communist official Walter Audisio, other believe he was Luigi Longo, later a Communist Party leader.

Japan reacted with shock and outrage to the news of Italy’s surrender to the Allied forces in September 1943. Italian citizens residing in Japan and Manchukuo were swiftly rounded up and summarily asked whether they were loyal to the king or to Mussolini. Those who sided with the king were interned in concentration camps and detained in dismal conditions until the end of the war, while those who opted for Mussolini were allowed to go on with their lives, although under strict surveillance by Japanese secret police.

Italy began preparing for peace with several open wounds. The rift between fascists and anti-fascists was to fester for decades, as it touched a raw nerve of honor and reliability and on the many military failures during the wars of independence. Moreover, the neo-fascists felt honorable because they stuck with Mussolini through thick and thin; the communists also felt honorable because they had held out against Mussolini, undergoing decades of fascist repression. Those in the middle conversely were perceived by their adversaries and partisan allies as weaklings, neither fish nor fowl, changing with the way the wind blows.

However, a new, bigger rift was to keep Italy on its toes for decades: the Communists, that had greatly contributed to liberation, wanted to go on with their struggle fighting the liberals, some of whom had initially sided with the fascists and were now supported by the Americans.

And along with this wound another painful sore opened unbeknown to most Italians at the beginning as the country lumbered to peace, that of The Mafia.

14.3 The rebirth of the Mafia in Sicily and its role in the anti-communist fight

Mafia, as we saw, was active after the Garibaldi invasion in the south and had deep roots in eastern Sicily and Palermo, as the Sangiorgi report showed at the turn of the 20th century[3]. Its roots, Salvatore Lupo[4] argues, were in the gradual and violent acquisition of the monopoly on the water necessary to produce the gold of Palermo, the citrus fruit that would fetch exorbitant prices all over Europe. Following the Sangiorgi report and the acquittal of the vast majority of people involved, the Mafia continued to prosper in Palermo. The origin of the name mafia possibly comes from the Arab word mahyas (cocky).

At the same time in Naples a similar criminal organization, the Camorra (the name could come from ca’, con /with in Neapolitan dialect, and morra, a popular gambling game, indicating people organizing gambling), disbanded itself following the investigation into the assassination of Camorra member Gennaro Cuocolo and his wife. Another Camorra member, Gennaro Abbatemaggio, revealed all the inner workings of the Camorra, and in contrast to the inquiry in Sicily, in Naples the judges gave heavy sentences to all those involved. Therefore, on May 25, 1915 the Camorra, decimated by arrests and a serious police crackdown, decided on its dissolution. Its individual members could hope to survive better own their own rather than in an organization that was being exterminated by the state.

At the same time Calabrian bandits, brigands, and people living on the fringes of mountain towns got organized in gangs called ‘ndrine and created the phenomenon ‘ndrangheta (from the Greek aner andros, man, thus the society of men). But unlike the Mafia and Camorra, which were based in urban areas, Calabrian organized crime had its core in the mountainous countryside and remained largely marginal until the 1970s. The Camorra reorganized in the 1980s.

Only the Sicilian Mafia carried out its activities almost undisturbed, protecting and being protected by the interests of important families and people in eastern Sicily with political connections and complicity stretching back to the Garibaldi expedition and then to the Allied invasion of Italy. Moreover, as Sangiorgi noted, unlike its Neapolitan and Calabrian brethren, the Sicilian Mafia was not simply an organization of low-class people, workers, and peasants. It had landowners, professionals, and even priests among its members.

It is hard to gauge the impact of the Mafia, which was concentrated in eastern and central Sicily, at the beginning of the century. Definitely it must have had enough clout to kill New York police detective Joe Petrosino, who had come to Palermo in 1909 to investigate the mano nera (the black hand), the organization blackmailing and demanding protection money in America. Petrosino was killed on March 12, providing the first concrete proof of an important link that helped the growth of Mafia on both sides of the Atlantic. Sicilian and American Mafiosi collaborated and this, especially at the beginning, helped to bolster its grip on the Italian migrant community in America, something that in turn reinforced Mafia power in Sicily.

The Italian Mafia one of the many ethnic organized crime groups in America between the two wars competing for the fat profits from alcohol smuggling and sale. Their sprawling activities coincided with greater repression of Mafia activities in Sicily ordered by Mussolini and brought about by prefect Cesare Mori. Mafia in Sicily went quiet and underground until 1943. Then mafia members were sent to Sicily to prepare for the US landing and weaken the resistance of the Italian army—similar to what happened ahead of the landing of Garibaldi in Marsala almost a century before, in 1860, then aided by the English.

This gave the Mafia a new foothold and national and international levers, that were reinforced in those years of virtual absence of national government. Anglo-Americans officers were actually ruling the island and grew very dependent on the support of Italian-Americans who were sometimes complicit with or part of the Mafia organization.

Soon after the end of the war the picture of Italy was worrisome for many liberals and populists. In the north, the socialists and communists, who had led the resistance and were now reunited, were dominant and threatened to make Italy a socialist republic, despite the fact that the Yalta pacts gave Italy to the western sphere. They stashed weapons and prepared for a civil war that many saw as a continuation of the anti-fascist war. After the end of fight, in many places in north Italy fascist collaborators were rounded up and summarily executed, making many Italians believe this was a preview of what was going to happen if the communists came to power.

The clouds of the Cold War were engulfing the country, and the specter of a new civil war was clearly looming. In Greece from 1946 to 1949, a communist uprising supported by Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria (all firmly communist) was being firmly and bloodily repressed with the support of Anglo-American forces. A similar perspective was emerging in Italy, where thousands of militants were ready for a fight. Communists were organizing land distribution and mobilization among the impoverished Sicilian and Calabrian peasants, and increasing southern votes for the socialist-communist bloc looked likely to bring the communists to power in the momentous 1948 elections. But before that some factions and landowners wanted to make Sicily independent and join the United States.

In this situation, the Christian Democrats (DC)—the largest party in Italy of Catholic inspiration led by Alcide de Gasperi, who was born in Trento when the city was ruled by Austria—decided to clinch a pact with the Mafia. After all, if the Christian Democrats had not had this arrangement, the Mafia may have made deal with the communists, bringing them to power.

14.4 The first government of national unity and the Cold War in Italy

Italy came out of the war with many unsettled accounts. Recognizing his role in abetting the rise and establishment of Fascism, king Vittorio Emanuele III abdicated for his son Umberto II. Yugoslav communist partisans of Tito took over the Istria peninsula and ethnic Italians, who had sided with the occupying fascists were expelled and fled for their lives, fearing retribution. Trieste itself was disputed for about a decade. The wave of communism seemed unstoppable, and the June 2, 1946 referendum on the monarchy confirmed that impression.

With a 54% majority, Italians voted against the monarchy. The same day a Constituent Assembly of 556 members was elected: 207 Christian Democrats, 115 Socialists, and 104 Communists. That is, the Socialists and Communists had 12 more members than the anti-communist Christian Democrats. The possibility of a communist takeover seemed very real. A unitary government ruled Italy for about a year, but in 1947 the communists were expelled from the government under American pressure, while tension with the USSR was growing and the Cold War was getting hot.

In this situation, the assembly crafted a constitution through which it was difficult to gain or slide into absolute power. The deputies remembered how easily it had been for a tiny group of fascists to blackmail the parliament and eventually gain full power, and were also mindful that a possible electoral victory of the Communists and Socialists could very quickly move the country from a democracy to a dictatorship.

The constitution crafted a perfect balance of power, with laws passed in both the senate and the lower house, which were elected according to different systems: majority the former, proportionally the latter. All this was done to prevent a slide into tyranny.

The first general elections of the republican parliament of Italy were thus held in an extremely tense atmosphere on April 18, 1948. After the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the US became alarmed about Soviet intentions and feared that, if the leftist coalition of socialists and communists together were to win the elections, they would draw Italy into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. For the first time in decades the Catholic Church stepped in, urging people to vote against the atheist communists and also excommunicating the Communist Party.

The electoral campaign was an unmatched example of verbal aggression and smearing against political adversaries with the Christian Democrats (DC) leading the race and winning by far. The DC claimed that, in communist Russia “children send parents to jail,” “children are owned by the state,” and “people eat their own children,” and assured voters that if the left were to win, Cossacks would camp their horses in the holy space of Saint Peter’s Square.

All these were amplifications of reports coming from the Soviet Union, where children had been forced to denounce their parents, children were put in kindergarten at a very early age, and stark famines in Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s had children starved to death and then cannibalized. The ultimate warning was, “in the secrecy of the polling booth, God sees you; Stalin doesn’t.”

The socialist split into two branches, one led by Pietro Nenni, collaborating with the communists, another by Giuseppe Saragat, siding with the US.

The PCI had difficulties in restraining its more militant members, who, in the period immediately after the war, had engaged in violent acts of reprisals. The areas affected by the violence (the so-called “Red Triangle” of Emilia and parts of Liguria around Genoa and Savona, for instance). There were many episodes of brutality committed by the fascists and the partisans during the Allies’ gradual advance through Italy. But overall the PCI was not too keen on gaining power through a violent uprising.

The USSR aided the Communist Party, but the US had far greater resources and announced the Marshall Plan, a generous program of economic aid that was to help Europe recover and forget decades, if not centuries, of mutual strife and hostility. Elections in Italy—with the largest communist party in Western Europe, on the border with communist Yugoslavia and neutral Austria, just south of divided Germany—became a key moment in the ongoing Cold War.

On April 19, the Christian Democrats won by a landslide with an absolute majority in both chambers. The US magazine Time carried Alcide De Gasperi on its cover and as its lead story.

In this situation, the DC could have ruled alone but called on all other anti-communist and anti-fascist parties to govern together in an alliance that lasted until the end of the Cold War. Italy joined the western military alliance NATO and was one of the founding members in 1957 of the US-sponsored European Economic Community, which later transformed into the European Union (EU).

America at the time wanted to create a bloc of economic interest in contrast to the communist satellite countries growing around the USSR. Interestingly, the key people of the EEC were the Italian Alcide De Gasperi (born and raised in then-Austrian Trento), French Robert Schumann (born and raised in then-German Alsace), and German Konrad Adenauer, all three Catholics of German upbringing. This was maybe the long-term cultural legacy of Holy German Empire, trying to bind Europe together beyond the actual national borders drafted at the end of the Thirty Years’ War in Westphalia finding again a common Catholic root.

It also marked the return of a leading political role for the church, which was at the forefront of the anti-communist struggle. The Vatican encouraged Catholics and Christians all over Western Europe to unite against the threat of communism. Yet not only that: it reached out to Christians—Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox—in the Soviet bloc encouraging them to keep their faith and resist communist spiritual encroachment. Freedom of faith became a fundamental issue in the ongoing Cold War, and the Pope played a crucial role, often in agreement with Washington but never completely following the American line and sometimes making the US follow the guidance of Rome.

14.5 The birth of the Italian Neorealist cinema

The end of the war and the new unprecedented freedom, when all previous barriers were broken, brought an explosion of creativity that went mostly into cinema. On faith, the old aloofness of the Church from Italian politics was gone, and on census, the universal suffrage allowed the very poor and illiterate to vote for the first time. A generation of directors and screenwriters created a whole new genre called Neorealism that was very successful both in the American side of the world and the Soviet side.

Italian intellectuals managed to speak to all audiences, possibly because of being torn between split loyalties to Catholic tradition and the communist dream, the capitalist reality and the socialist aspiration, the market materialism of the rich and Christian mercy and charity for the poor. This, plus the new role of the church, created a new sense of cultural centrality for Italy, especially important as the world was divided.

Apart from the heroic celebrations of Hollywood and its paper stars, and the iron men of stuffy Soviet propaganda, Italian Neorealism found saints in the drab clothes of plebeians or petit bourgeoisie trying to eke through life. Everyday life—with its dire moments of poverty, oppression, injustice, and desperation—was the setting onto which Neorealist filmmakers projected their stories. It was a plain canvas that had been basically ignored by previous artists.

1948’s Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica depicted the fear, hope, desperation, and haplessness through the eyes of a child following his father in painful and heartbreaking pursuit of a stolen bicycle. The recovery of the bicycle, we know, would guarantee a job for the father and bread on the table for this destitute family after the war. Yet we also know that in the eyes of the child, the economic return is vague and foggy. What is concrete is the suffering of the father, multiplied many fold by the empathy the child feels for the parent, as he clings to his hand and turns time and again to check his father’s expression and feelings.

We don’t see the father’s mood, but we stare aghast at the child’s horror, reflecting and multiplying like a mirror the desperate situation. It was the roaming of Ulysses once again, not to go home but to find a promised small treasure, a tool to survival for his family, and told through eyes of the son Telemachus, and not the protagonist. The son is the one for whom the father toils and suffers to find the bicycle, but his very suffering for the suffering for the son make the son suffer even more as he witnesses his father’s pain.

These are not heroes; they are saints, victims of a drama bigger than themselves and yet which they manage to stand up to. In Roberto Rossellini’s 1946 Rome, Open City, the wife, bigger-than-life actress Anna Magnani, runs after the Nazi truck that is taking away her husband, yelling and shouting his name. We are already she is at the end of her rope, it is already too much, and yet the director has an anonymous Nazi machine gun strike and kill the running wife. It is the power of Greek tragedy finding a modern embodiment, and movies touching emotions and piercing through any veil.

These stories could be seen as an exaltation of poor people, bringing them to the forefront of life, as the communist tenets prescribed; or they can be considered tales of individual endeavor of resistance against all odds. Against either tradition, there is no salvific happy ending, and the audience, even now after so many decades, leaves the screen encumbered with a sense of uneasiness and disquiet.

The films had an explosion of success, for which critics found precedents for instance in French and Japanese directors such as Jean Renoir and Ozu Yasujiro. Some Italian conservatives branded those movies “dirty laundry that shouldn’t be washed in public.” For Italian intellectuals, it was a vindication after years of oppression. For many common Italians, still destitute and jobless, the global success of those films was a sign of hope for Italy.

After the initial success of the genre, the artists moved into a lighter zone. The horrors of poverty became a magic fairy tale in De Sica’s Miracle in Milan and then slid into the bitter-sweet Italian tragedy-comedy of 1951 Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima and 1957 Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. In 1948 director Pietro Germi explored a previously untouched subject, the problems in the south and with the Mafia, in In Name of the Law. The style, with horse-riding and shootings, presented Sicily like the American West, and thus inspired the future genre of the Spaghetti Western (the American Western movies produced in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s). Yet the subject touched for the first time a very raw nerve that affects Italy even now—the problem of the underdeveloped south.

14.6 Trying to solve the underdevelopment of the Italian south

Italy woke up after the war with new overlapping divisions between fascists and anti-fascists and communists and anti-communists, but it also found itself more than ever split in an older, deeper way: between south and north. Carlo Levi’s 1945 autobiographical novel Christ Stopped at Eboli for the first time strongly pushed the issue of underdevelopment in southern Italy.

Italy was made with the Garibaldi expedition to the south, when smaller Piedmont took over larger southern kingdom. The takeover, as we saw, was followed by a brigands’ uprising. Yet it was not until 1877, when Leopoldo Franchetti and Sidney Sonnino published their Inchiesta in Sicilia (Inquiry in Sicily) that the public paid attention to the tough living conditions in the south, especially in the sulfur mines.

After World War II, however, the feeling was deeper. During the fascist regime, many northern anti-fascists were interned in small towns in southern Italy and saw firsthand the miserable conditions of the countryside, and after the war, the parliament had a new sense of urgency about addressing the underdevelopment of southern Italy. The largest industrial companies were located in the north: car manufacturer Fiat in Turin; steel mill Italsider and equipment producer Ansaldo in Genoa; maker of typewriters and later computers Olivetti in Ivrea; Pirelli (tires), Edison (energy), Snia Viscosa (chemicals and plastics) in Milan.

To make up for the difference, in the 1950s parliament set up a special department modeled on Roosevelt’s programs for the New Deal, the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno (Fund for the South). It would construct public works, roads, bridges, hydroelectric projects, and irrigation that would better link the south (without much infrastructure) to the rest of Italy. The goal was to put 60% of all government investment into the south. Moreover, land reforms were promoted that created 120,000 new small farms. The dream was to make southern Italy as developed as the north, and thus make the country a real economic dynamo of Europe and the world.

As we shall see, an economic miracle did indeed take place in in Italy the 1950s and 1960s, making the country very industrialized and moving Italy from a backward, semi-agrarian status to being one of the leading powers in Europe. But the new Italian industrialization had little impact in the south, which still remained backward compared to the North.

A pervasive sense of optimism then descended on southern Italy, which for a few years felt confident it could catch up with northern Italy. But already in the 1960s, it was clear that most goals were largely missed. According to some calculations, already in the 1960s about one-third of all investments were squandered or ended up lining the pockets of local politicians.

Actually, while the government was pouring money into the south, many southern peasants started to migrate to then-booming northern Italy, which was closer than America, but possibly not less alien to them. The south is closer to Greece, Africa, and the Middle East, the north is nearer—physically and culturally—to Germany, France, and Northern Europe. The cultural pull of these two forces split Italy asunder for many centuries, and this can’t be repaired in few short decades of rushed policies.

Moreover, the huge outpouring of investments created an economy over-reliant on state subsidies. Investment and jobs were allocated not based on merit but on political patronage. A semi-feudal praxis of exchanging first jobs and then retirement benefits for votes came to dominate local politics and the economy in southern Italy. In this way the south became a double drag on the national economy: not only it did not produce enough to sustain itself, but also people who were previously working in the farms left their old toil to join the expanding ranks of local or state administration. Not only were farms left behind, but the state had also to cough up salaries for work of little or no value.

There is still debate in Italy about the deep origins of the apparent inability of southern Italy to catch up with the development of the north. Some point to the fact that capitalistic culture sprung up in central and northern Italy, divided into small statelets since the Middle Ages, but southern Italy, with a rather efficient unitary and centralized state, didn’t experience that culture. Some argue about the lack of civil ethics, characterizing it is the phenomenon of “familismo amorale” (amoral familism, i.e. stick with the family no matter what family members do). There is the issue of migration, taking away to foreign countries or simply to northern Italy the best and brightest of the south; and then the lack of roads: from Rome it now takes a three-hour train ride to cover the over 600 km to Milan, while the same distance to the south might take three times that time.

Yet all in all, after over 30 years the effort to lift the south up to the level of the north was concluded in the mid-1980s to be generally a failure. The Fund for the South stopped closed and its experienced shelved with mixed feelings. The south made some progress, but it was still far behind the north. An economy highly dependent on state subsidies resists productive change and drains productivity and resources from all of Italy.

The failure of these efforts eventually backfired in the early 1990s with the start of an anti-southern movement, the Northern League. In any event, both the northern attention on the south and the southern migration to the north, plus the later spread of radio and television, really created Italy in those years. At the end of the war, most Italians’ first language was their own dialect; 30 years later, it was Italian. A sense of genuine national identity was born out of the Fund for the South. For the first time Rome and northern Italians were really looking after the common people of the south, and whatever the other results, this intention impressed the people there.

On a personal note, in the 1960s my parents spoke a southern Italian dialect between themselves but forbid us children to use it and spoke to us in Italian. This gave me a sense of great pride in Italy, although Italian always felt like some kind of foreign language that actually deprived me of the uncouth, rough, wild, true root of my origins.

14.7 The re-launch of Italy and the economic miracle in 1950s and 1960s

After the war and until the late 1960s, Italy was a small China: it experienced a sustained economic development, then called a “miracle,” that radically transformed the country from an agricultural nation to one of the most industrialized in the world. Moreover, internal migration, mainly from south to north, reshaped the internal fabric of Italy and its culture like nothing before. The Catholics of the Christian Democratic (DC) party proved extremely capable of guiding the country, driving growth and change while keeping it safe internally and externally, as Italy lay dangerously at the fault line of the Cold War to the east and the south.

The Christian Democrats sponsored a complex plan to protect the property and development of private Italian companies through a web of financial and industrial cross-participation with a special investment bank at its center, Mediobanca, which would control the cash cow of Italy, the Generali Insurance.

The state sector had inherited from fascist times a large holding group, IRI, controlling most of the state-owned industries, and the oil sector organized the large and active company ENI under the leadership of former partisan commander Enrico Mattei. Mattei was to become one of the most powerful men in Italy, openly challenging the monopoly on oil pricing of the “seven sisters,” the largest Anglo-American oil companies.

Private and state companies also spawned a myriad of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) servicing larger companies in different capacities. These enterprises, especially at the beginning, had little access to bank credit. Banks were ill equipped to work with SMEs, which in turn were not well structured. But SMEs grew also thanks to the fact that the state turned a blind eye to their tax evasion, which especially at the start was massive and became a self-financing measure.

There were also external factors, however. After the end of World War II, Italy was in rubble and occupied by foreign armies, a condition that worsened the chronic development gap with the more advanced European economies. However, the new logic of the Cold War gave America’s former enemy Italy—a hinge-country between Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean—a special place in the American designs. Italy, now a new, fragile democracy threatened by the proximity of the Iron Curtain and the presence of a strong communist party, was considered by the USA an important ally for the free world. Italy was therefore afforded the generous aid provided by the Marshall Plan, receiving $1.5 billion from 1948 to 1952, a huge amount at the time.

The end of the plan, which could have stopped the recovery, coincided with a crucial point in the Korean War (1950–1953), which caused a demand for metal and other manufactured products that was a further stimulus to growth of every kind of industry in Italy. In addition, the creation in 1957 of the European Common Market, of which Italy was among the founding members, provided more investments and eased exports.

The combination of all these favorable historical factors, combined with the presence of a large, creative, and cheap labor force, laid the foundations for spectacular economic growth. The Italian economy experienced an average rate of GDP growth of 5.8% per year in 1951–63, and 5.0% per year in 1964–73. Italian growth rates were second only, but very close to, the German rates in Europe, and among the OEEC countries only Japan had been doing better.

Yet, unlike Germany or Japan, which had been subject to carpet bombings and whose urban structure had to be rebuilt anew, Italian cities were almost an unparalleled paradise of architectural beauty. In 1953 Hollywood celebrated this booming, charming Italy in Roman Holiday, a movie that became a classic and set the tone for American and Western fascination with Italy of the time.

Culturally, the impact of the economic miracle on Italian society was huge. Fast economic expansion induced massive inflows of migrants from rural southern Italy to the industrial cities of the north. Emigration was especially directed to the factories of the so-called “industrial triangle,” the region between the major manufacturing centers of Milan and Turin and the seaport of Genoa. Between 1955 and 1971, some nine million people, about 20% of the total population, were involved in these inter-regional migrations, uprooting entire communities and creating large metropolitan areas. As before the migration to America created an Italian identity just after an artificial unification, so the Southerners moving to the North mingled customs, languages, habits, families, and made for the first time really the Italians.

The needs of a modernizing economy and society created a great demand for new transport and energy infrastructure. Thousands of miles of railways and highways were completed in record time to connect the main urban areas, while dams and power plants were built all over Italy, often without regard for geological and environmental conditions.

A concomitant boom in the real estate market, increasingly under pressure by strong demographic growth and internal migrations, led to the explosion of urban areas. Vast neighborhoods of low-income apartments and public housing were built in the outskirts of many cities, leading over the years to severe problems of congestion, urban decay, and street violence. This created a new phenomenon: central areas were made beautiful and gentrified, whereas the outskirts were ugly glorified dormitories with no amenities.

The natural environment was constantly under strain by unregulated industrial expansion, leading to widespread air and water pollution and ecological disasters like the Vajont Dam, which was completed in 1959 and collapsed in 1963, killing about 2,000 people in their sleep in the valley below.

At the same time, the doubling of Italian GDP between 1950 and 1962 had a massive impact on society and culture. Italian society, largely rural and excluded from the benefits of the modern economy during the first half of the century, was suddenly flooded with a huge variety of cheap consumer goods, such as automobiles, televisions, and washing machines. From 1951 to 1971, average per capita income in real terms tripled, a trend accompanied by significant improvements in consumption patterns and living conditions. In 1955, for instance, only 3% of households owned refrigerators and 1% washing machines, while by 1975 the respective figures were 94% and 76%. In addition, 66% of all homes had come to possess cars. In 1954 the national public broadcasting network RAI began a regular television service.

The pervasive influence of mass media and consumerism on society has often been fiercely criticized by left-wing intellectuals who came to have a greater influence over society. They were encouraged and backed by the Communist Party, which by then was pursuing a strategy of seeking to gain a cultural upper hand and win cultural hegemony in Italy according to Gramsci’s terms.

14.8 The complicated ties of the Italian communist party with Moscow

After the war, Italy’s PCI was one of the largest communist parties in Western Europe, which was under American influence. Perhaps because of this, right from the beginning the PCI was extremely cautious. In 1944 its secretary Palmiro Togliatti returned to Italy from the USSR and agreed to take part in a coalition of anti-fascist parties, the monarchy, and prime minister Pietro Badoglio to set up a government of national unity and postpone institutional issues. It was “the turn of Salerno” (la svolta di Salerno), whereby the PCI committed to supporting democracy and abandoning the push achieve socialism by means of armed struggle.

It was not clear at the time whether this was a definite pledge or a temporary step back. The PCI agreed after the end of the war to disarm its members who had fought in the resistance, although many weapons were stashed anyway in secret locations. It also voted for the inclusion of the Lateran Pacts in the new Italian constitution, and in 1945, a PCI minister of justice agreed to a large pardon for former fascists. In 1947, like their French comrades, the communists were expelled from the government. The following April the communist formed an alliance with the socialists and were bidding for a major success, but were badly thrashed, achieving together only 31% of the votes.

The crucial moment, however, came months later. On July 14, 1948 Togliatti was shot three times by a fanatical anti-communist student. News of the attempt caused sentiments to flare up right and left in Italy. His life hung in the balance for days. The trade unions called for a general strike, the ex-partisans reached for their stashes of weapons, the underground body of the party readied for civil war, and the army and the police were mobilized and put on a red alert to intervene against the communists. As he was still in hospital and not well, Togliatti called off the protests and urged the military to go back home. In this way the Togliatti proved to be not as dangerous as some Western pundits may have thought, but the PCI also saved Italy from a blood bath.

There may have been other elements at work. As the PCI was heavily under Soviet control, Togliatti might have been wary of his own future in the case of a communist take over. In 1948 a military victory for the communist party in Italy was uncertain, as it was uncertain the degree of freedom Moscow would allow in case of a PCI victory. In this situation, Togliatti, the master tactician, knew he had more to gain with a wait and see attitude.

The party, though defeated in the general elections, had a strong base in three regions in central and northern Italy: Emilia, Tuscany, and Umbria. Here the communists ruled efficiently, collaborating de facto with the church and also the local gentry, some of whom had been previously fascist militants. This collaboration, in the long term, bit at the core values of the party, as with the help of the organization members started their own SMEs and turned from laborers into entrepreneurs.

In 1953 the party scored a major political victory by fighting the so-called “swindle law,” which would have given the DC an additional majority in case of overwhelming victory. The success was short lived, as the PCI had to brave the fallout from the Soviet crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The crackdown created major conflicts and split the left all over Europe. Some intellectuals also left the party in 1956, but most stuck with it thanks to Togliatti’s theory of polycentrism: there was and had to be unity in diversity within the communist parties in all countries.

In the 1958 elections, the number of communist votes was still on the rise. The Hungarian Revolution in any case broke the unity with the former socialist allies, who drifted toward the Christian Democrats. This in turn seeded some serious confusion in the ruling bloc and within the DC, which had many currents, left and right, in it. The right was concerned about the new socialist stand, suspecting a conspiracy or simply that the socialists would later revert to the communist alliance.

1960 was a momentous year, when Rome hosted the Olympic Games. At the prodding of president of the republic Giovanni Gronchi, a government headed by DC member Fernando Tambroni was voted in with crucial support from the MSI, the neo-fascist party. For the communists, that seemed a signal that old fascists were wrangling their way back into power. Besides, Tambroni allowed the national congress of the MSI to be held in Genoa, a bulwark of the communists. Riots spread all over central and northern Italy. The police intervened firmly, dozens were wounded, and in Reggio, Emilia, on July 7, 1960 five left-wing demonstrators were killed in clashes with the police. The Tambroni government resigned, and Amintore Fanfani replaced him, starting an external collaboration with the socialists.

In the following years, in the early and mid-1960’s the socialists joined the government, leaving the communists, who then had about 25% of the vote versus the socialists’ about 10%, isolated on the left. The DC, led then by Aldo Moro, sought to undermine left-wing opposition by opening to new social programs. It was basically the position that Giolitti had taken before 1915 that had brought Italy to a new stage of development.

At the same time, the right wing grew wary of this new collaboration with the left. In 1964, neo-fascists and the military tried to stage a coup d’etat, the Piano Solo. The coup attempt was folded, but the Christian Democrats soon found themselves in a political double vice. On the left, the communists, prodded by the USSR, were pushing for greater protests; on the right, neo-fascists and conservatives thought the only way to stop the red wave was to revert to a dictatorship.

In 1964 Togliatti died and his successor Luigi Longo grew concerned about the possibility of a coup, especially after the 1967 military coup in Greece. The PCI requested Soviet assistance to prepare the party in case of a similar event. Soviet intelligence drew up and implemented a plan to provide the PCI with its own intelligence and clandestine signal corps. From 1967 through 1973, PCI members were sent to East Germany and Moscow to receive training in clandestine warfare and information-gathering techniques by both the Stasi and the KGB. Some of these people later set up the communist terrorist organizations that sought to start a revolution in Italy.

But in 1969–70 Italy was in the middle of a massive surge in strikes and social unrest. This, plus the 1973 oil crisis, depressed economic growth and sowed further discontent among the people, who had less job opportunities. Then oil-producing countries organized a cartel called the OPEC, increased the price of oil, and put industrial countries like Italy that were dependent on oil imports under a great, new stress.

The communist party seemed poised to benefit from this situation, and the DC were under a huge strain, trying to hold the country firmly within the Western front without giving in to pressure from the extreme right. It was a challenge greater than that of any other Western country, since those other nations did not have a communist party loyal to Moscow, with an underground organization, and commanding almost one-third of the suffrage.

[1] Bauer, Eddy. The History of World War II. Revised ed. Ed. Peter Young. London: Orbis Publishing, 2000.

[2] This portion is based on personal conversations with some witnesses.

[3] The first report detailing the Mafia organization written in the 19th century.

[4] See for instance his Blocco agrario e crisi in Sicilia tra le due guerre. Napoli: Guida, 1981. Agricoltura ricca nel sottosviluppo: Storia e mito della Sicilia agrumaria. (1860-1950). Catania, 1984. La dimora di Demetra. Storia, tecnica e mito dell’agricoltura siciliana. Palermo: Gelka, 1989. Il giardino degli aranci. Il mondo degli agrumi nella storia del Mezzogiorno, Venice: Marsilio, 1990. I proprietari terrieri nel Mezzogiorno, in Storia dell’agricoltura italiana in età contemporanea II, Uomini e classi. Venice: Marsilio, 1990. Storia della mafia. Dalle origini ai nostri giorni. Rome: Donzelli, 1993.