Postwar Liberation and Reconstruction in Italy and France

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Authoritarianism in the Roman Catholic Church in France and Italy in the 1940s and Early 1950s

The primary function of the head of the Roman Catholic Church is to provide the means whereby the Christian message as contained in the Holy Scriptures and subsequent sacred writings is passed on to as many devout believers as possible, with the ultimate aim of the everlasting salvation of their souls. This salvation cannot be obtained without the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, mass, penance and extreme unction being performed by ordained priests of the Church. This function has never substantially altered in the two thousand years of the Church’s existence, and it is therefore not in the least surprising that in those two thousand years certain practices and traditions have been rather rigidly adhered to, giving the Church an outward appearance of illiberality of thought and of authoritarian conduct. The extent to which this outward appearance was a necessity for the Church’s continued progress during the time in question is a matter for some debate.

The first question we have to ask is what is meant by “The Roman Catholic Church”. Catholic dogma has it that the Pope is God’s representative on Earth, and thus the personality of the Pope himself has a hugely important influence on people’s perception of the Church. The Pope is elected by his fellow cardinals sitting in secret conclave, and has the job for the rest of his life. His authority comes directly from God and is therefore unchallengeable. One cannot therefore understand the actions of the Church in any given period without examining the character and instincts of the Pope, in this case Pope Pius XII.

Pope Pius XII Eugenio Pacelli was elected Pope in 1939, having been for nine years the Secretary of State (effectively the number two in the hierarchy) to his predecessor, Pius XI. He was thus Pope throughout the whole of World War II. He was a highly intellectual and ascetic man, but also a man of great charisma and charm. Some of his portraits make him look like a figure in an El Greco painting. He had a habit of going down nightly to the crypt of the Vatican to pray with his ancestors, and he demanded strict discipline from his Vatican staff. They were even expected to kneel when answering the telephone in his apartments. (When TV was introduced in Italy in 1954 he banned his priests from owning television sets or watching any programmes other than those with a religious content.) He had a profound belief in his own infallibility, and seems to have taken most decisions without much assistance. After 1944 he operated without appointing a Secretary of State.

After the liberation of France and the collapse of Fascism in Italy Pope Pius XII found himself in a very difficult position. As an international Church the tradition had always been that the Roman Catholic Church did not take sides during a war, particularly a global one. Bearing in mind its primary function, it was the role of the Church to ensure the continuation of Christian practice at the parish level in all countries. This often resulted in accommodating ruling regimes who may have had the power to order the total suppression of all Church activity. As an example, Pius XI had concluded a deal with Mussolini that the Christian doctrine could still be taught in Italian schools - a very important agreement in the eyes of Catholics. During the war itself, Pius XII’s condemnation of the Nazi Holocaust was considered remarkably coded and lukewarm, although he himself believed that in his Christmas messages of 1941 and 1942 his strong opposition had been specific. He and his fellow cardinals and bishops had done all they could on an individual level to alleviate the suffering of the persecuted, but the fact remains that at the beginning of the time we speak of he was deeply unpopular with many who claimed the resistance success for themselves, and sought to exclude the Church from having a role in post-war reconstruction.

Both in France and in Italy the best organised of the resistance groups had been the communists, but Pius XII looked upon Communism as a greater threat to the Catholic Church than any other political creed. His philosophy was always to stress the importance of the family and the individual, so the emphasis the Communists placed on the over-riding importance of the state, coupled with their extreme views about the churches, which were actively suppressed in Soviet Russia, made them enemy number one in the eyes of Rome. Such affairs as the arrest and torture of Cardinal Mindszenty by the Communist authorities in Hungary in 1948 added fuel to the flames.

In the individual parishes this mutual antagonism was probably not as fierce as it was in the corridors of power. During the 1950s a popular set of books of short stories by Giovanni Guareschi outlined the efforts of a village priest, Don Camillo, and the communist mayor Don Peppone, to do each other down, but without destroying the overall harmony of village life. These books were also the basis of a series of popular films starring the French comedian Fernandel, and probably reflected more truly the attitudes of ordinary people to Catholicism and communism. These attitudes made it all the more necessary in the eyes of Pius XII to enforce discipline from the top.

Rome was vigilant to the point of being authoritarian in its ceaseless efforts to oppose the spread of Communism. In France, for instance, there had been a long history of fairly unsuccessful attempts by The Vatican to impose its will on the French Catholic hierarchy. However in the affair of the worker priests the French bishops were emphatically forced to back down by Rome. The inspiration behind the worker priest movement had been the influential Dominican, F. D. Chenu. He had developed a Christian theory of labour and the proletariat, citing the works of St Thomas Aquinas as his authority. This theory was seen by Rome as being in sympathy with a communist theory of society, and therefore highly dangerous. The worker priests had been launched into careers alongside industrial and other workers in order to counter the growing lack of religious observance in some areas of France. Being close to the world of working-class politics, it is not surprising that many of them did indeed develop communist leanings, and several joined the communist-led trades union, the CGT. The limit in the eyes of Rome seems to have been reached when two priests were arrested during the communist-inspired riots at the appointment of General Ridgeway as NATO commander in 1952. The reaction of the papacy was forthright. In 1953 the papal nuncio summoned 26 members of the French hierarchy to tell them that the Vatican had decided that the experiment must be brought to an end, and to reinforce the discipline of the Church hierarchy, the measures had to be taken as if ordered by the French bishops. The French were forced to concur, and despite protests from the field the movement was effectively neutered. The Church was not only displaying its unswerving enmity to communism, but also its rigid discipline and concern for the integrity of the priesthood. The conclusion drawn by many was that Rome believed the isolation of the clergy was a value in itself, not to be risked even for the possible gain of a mass return to Roman Catholicism in France. An interesting side effect was that Cardinal Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, who was thought to be sympathetic to the worker priests, was removed from the Curia and downgraded in status.

This fixation about communism resulted in the Vatican becoming heavily involved in post-war Italian domestic politics. Officially the modern secular religiously pluralistic state was not recognised by the Vatican as a legitimate form of society until the Second Vatican Council in 1962, but there had been a long history of heavy involvement in the affairs of many countries. In the case of Italy, the Vatican saw as paramount the need to protect the Lateran treaty of 1929. This treaty with Mussolini, which interestingly included the brother of Pius XII in the church’s negotiating team, had set up the Vatican City as a separate state, and provided guarantees of essential services such as transport and post. At the beginning of his papacy Pius XII could argue that the importance of the arrangements made with Mussolini far outweighed any temporal outrages committed by the regime. But eventually the need to regain credibility after the fall of Fascism and fear of the rising popularity of the Communists drove the Vatican into outright support of the Christian Democrats (DC) under De Gasperi. Having made this crucial decision, Rome acted swiftly, authoritatively and decisively. The Pope declared that “the solemn hour of Christian conscience has sounded”. Cardinal Siri warned that it was a mortal sin not to vote, or to vote “for lists and candidates who do not give assurances of respecting the rights of God, the Church and mankind”. Catholic Action, the very powerful group of devout lay Roman Catholics, swung its 2 million members behind the new party, and parish priests were ordered to speak out in favour of DC from the pulpit. Not surprisingly all this had a marked effect on the support for De Gasperi, and contributed largely to his success in 1948.

Relations with the DC were, however, not always cordial. The Vatican put tremendous pressure on De Gasperi to drop all collaboration with the socialists and more particularly the communists. Montini told him that such collaboration would make the DC the “Pro-enemy” party, and the Pope himself gave a fiercely uncompromising sermon to 200,000 of the faithful in St Peter’s Square. “Either with Christ or against Christ” he thundered, “or for his church or against his church”. This had the desired effect, in that the Communists were dropped from the Italian government coalition, never to return. But even more astonishing, and certainly evidence of the Vatican acting in an authoritarian way, was the Vatican Decree of 1949 threatening excommunication for not only those who voted Communist, but also anyone who even read their publications.

Intervention by the Holy See in politics in France took a milder and less authoritarian form. The mainly Catholic MRP was not the only Catholic political party - a substantial number of French Catholics supported the RPF of General de Gaulle, himself a devout Catholic. When the Vatican daily newspaper urged voters to support the MRP and not desert to the RPF, de Gaulle was, with some justification, furious. It is interesting that with a less authoritarian approach from the Vatican, broadly the same result was achieved, in that from 1947 onwards there were no Communists participating in government in France. Perhaps the Vatican was only being authoritarian when it had to be.

Pius XII’s uncompromising ways were not, of course, directed solely at trying to weaken the influence of communism. At a time of great global trouble he was extremely anxious to maintain an iron grip on the discipline of the Catholic Church, relying for his authority on the holy scriptures and his own authority as the Vicar of Christ. This discipline not only applied to the clergy themselves, but also all groups including lay people who operated under the Roman Catholic banner. In 1943 he published a long encyclical, Mystici Corporis, in which he likened the Roman Catholic Church to the human body, all of whose constituent parts only functioned effectively when obeying orders from the head. They “walk in the path of dangerous error who believe they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth”.

In 1950 he went even further. In 1870 the First Vatican Council had declared that all theological pronouncements made by the Pope (and therefore by definition divinely inspired) could, at his discretion, be declared infallible. Pius XII is the only Pope since then to make use of this doctrine. He declared that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven should be an article of faith for all Roman Catholics. As there is no scriptural evidence for this it was a typically bold move, which won the hearts of the majority of devout Catholics (particularly the women), at the same time as making reconciliation with other creeds such as the Anglican community more difficult. Pius used the precedent of Mary to reinforce the traditional values of the family, with the duties of the mother in procreation and creating new life as paramount. “It is one of the fundamental requirements of the right moral order that, with the use of conjugal rights, there should correspond a sincere acceptance of the duties of motherhood”. Mary was a symbol of total obedience, in that she had unquestioningly accepted the will of God conveyed by the Angel Gabriel, so similarly all good Catholics must accept God’s will as conveyed to them by the Church.

Towards the end of his life Pius XII became more and more convinced of his own infallibility, and believed he was passing on the Word of God in pronouncing on a vast number of subjects, even those as far removed from religious practice as the gas industry. He died, poor man, after suffering a fortnight of uninterrupted hiccoughs.

Authoritarian he may have been in action and outlook, but the fact remains that at the end of his papacy he left a Europe whose western half was virtually free of serious communist influence, and a thriving and healthy church which under his successor was able to make great and far-reaching reforms.


Duffy, Eamonn, Saints and Sinners, a History of the Papacy Yale University Press (1997)

Ginsborg, Paul, A History of Contemporary Italy Penguin Books (1990)

Chadwick, Owen, The Christian Church in the Cold War Penguin Books (1992)

McKenzie, John, The Roman Catholic Church Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1969)

Arnal, O, Priests in Working-Class Blue: The History of the Worker-Priests (1943-1954) New York/Mahwah, Paulist Press (1986)

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Neo-realism in Post-war Italian Cinema

After the collapse of the Fascist regime and the end of the war the Italian film industry was in something of a shambles. Yet by the early 1950s some 40 or 50 so-called neo-realist films had been made, to much critical acclaim in Italy and abroad, although with mixed results at the box-office. Elio Petri said: “After the years of Fascist obscurantism and of provincial escapist films a cinema appeared which was looked on as a means towards liberation and to freedom.” This was certainly true in the minds of many people, but was probably something of an over-simplification.

Before the war the Fascist regime spent considerable time and effort to boost the domestic film industry. They founded a state film school in 1936 and built the Cinecitta studio complex in Rome - the largest in Europe - in 1937. Mussolini’s son Vittorio became the editor of the influential film magazine Cinema in 1938. But the output, with one or two exceptions that we shall mention later, was largely escapist entertainment in the form of costume melodramas, drawing-room comedies and bland musicals. Meanwhile the American cinema was reaching what some would claim as its finest years. By the time America entered the war Hollywood had set the pattern for domination of the world commercial cinema market with a string of successful films in many different genres. During this period they produced some of the finest films ever made, including Gone With the Wind (1939), Rebecca (1940), Citizen Kane (1941) and Casablanca (1942).

Meanwhile the exponents of neo-realism were learning their trade. Roberto Rossellini and Giuseppe Di Santis were both students at the state film school, Vittorio De Sica was a leading actor in many of the so-called “white telephone” films, and Luchino Visconti was a leader of opinion in the Cinema group of young intellectual writers. But why did this group of people turn to neo-realism for their guiding ethos rather than mainstream commercially successful Italian films (as several of them did in later years)? After all in France, the home of modern realism in literature, the film industry took a very different path. The most successful French film of the 1940s, Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), was far removed from realism. It was set in the theatreland of Paris in the 1840s, and the very first scene appears after the lifting of a theatre curtain on which the credit titles are displayed. An early shot shows Arletty in a bathtub as a fairground attraction advertised as the naked truth. She is naked to just below the neck and is glancing at her own reflection in a mirror. “Actors are not real people” says one of the main characters. Throughout the film the events portrayed on the stage have their reflections in the life that goes on round it. No neo-realism here, although the French intellectuals craved for liberation and freedom as much as their Italian counterparts.

The answer probably lies in the fact that the seeds of neo-realism had already been sown in Italy. It has been implied that it was Francesco De Sanctis and Giovanni Verga who had provided the main inspiration for this by reacting against the French overly scientific realism, which had built on the Aristotelian concepts of seeking in nature an ideal perfection in the world order. They sought to render humanity in the context of the material world in such a way that its innermost workings are revealed. De Sanctis complained that this led to “a certain pleasure today in cherishing more the animal than the human part, and by dint of wanting to prove that man was born from the monkey, we end up considering more the monkey than the man”, and Verga, while promising to execute analysis of naked facts with scientific scruples, nonetheless aims at emerging with a “science of the heart”. Importantly, Verga also promised to “give the representation of reality as it was, or as it should have been”. The term “neo-realism” may have been originally coined by Arnaldo Bocelli in 1930 in a literary context, and as early as 1933 Leo Longanesi was calling for a cinema “free of artifice, unhampered by fixed screenplays, inspired by real-life subjects, and resolved to tell the unvarnished truth”. In 1940 Umberto Barbaro cried: “If we in Italy wish to abandon once and for all our trashy histories, our rehashes of the 19th century, and our trifling comedies, we must try the cinema of realism”. In 1941 Giuseppe De Santis and Mario Alicata argued that realism should not be a slavish imitation of static objective truth, but a creative force in itself. Visconti wrote: “Go and find in our films if you can a man who is a bastard or a woman who is a bit of a whore. In Italian films they are all nice fellows, all honest, all above board .....The camera must probe wounds like a scalpel, must explore the darkness in the human heart, the pain of tragedy, the anguish of damnation, the screams of despair”.

The scene was thus set in Italy for the production in 1942 of what came to be considered the precursors of neo-realist films, the best known of which is Visconti’s Ossessione. A handful of earlier Italian films had used some of the techniques that came to be adopted by the neo-realists, such as location shooting, non-professional casts and showing contemporary problems in a working class milieu, but none achieved any great success. Ossessione is an adaptation of an American melodrama, The Postman Always Rings Twice, but re-written by a team of writers that included De Santis, Alicata and Visconti himself. Several of the techniques later codified by Cesare Zavattini are evident in the finished film. It is set it in a contemporary working-class background, maintains a continuity of time and space, and contains implied social criticism which angered the Fascist regime. It employs many medium and long range shots to set the action firmly in its given location, but employs professional actors in the leading roles. It is a well acted and interesting film which met critical acclaim from the intellectual left - there was no Fascist obscurantism or provincial escapism here.

The seed of neo-realism was therefore already alive and well before the post-war Italians set about the task of re-building the domestic film industry. And the need to do so was urgent. The Americans had insisted that pre-war restrictions placed on the number of American films that could be imported should be lifted, and a host of American films were pouring in to Italy - some bad, some good and some extremely good. In 1946 there were ten times the number of US films circulating in Italy than there were Italian ones. The film-makers were available, and although the studios were not yet there (Cinecitta was reopened in 1948) the precedents for neo-realism were already in place. Added to this was the need felt by many intellectuals to provide a populist culture for the Italian people. The Resistance had given a substantial part of the population the confidence that by their own efforts they could achieve the kind of liberation and freedom that Petri talked about. So the neo-realists set about filling what they perceived as a cultural gap by providing films by the people for the people. (The fact that the box-office returns on many of the films was disappointing to say the least shows that this objective was not really achieved.)

The first successful post-war neo-realist film was Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). This was shot largely on location in Rome, using primitive equipment and low production costs. It is similar to Ossessione in several ways. It is a melodrama set among working-class people, and maintains continuity of time and place. It uses many location shots, with the dialogue post-synchronized. It is the story of a group of communists and a priest who heroically defy the Gestapo in Rome just before the liberation: a story that an Italian audience could readily identify with. Its box-office success may have owed as much to the mainstream elements it contains as to its neo-realist content. It has action shots, scenes of sex and violence (although mostly off camera), and a few touches of humour. There is a nice scene when the priest spots a statuette of the Madonna standing next to a reproduction of a classical statuette of a naked man, and turns the statues around so that they no longer face each other. It also employs professional actors, notably Anna Magnani in a relatively minor role. Despite the tragedy of the deaths of the leading characters, there are uplifting moments promising a better world of liberation and freedom, and the film ends with the positive image of a group of boys walking across a bridge in pairs, physically supporting each other, and going presumably to a better future.

Many critics believe that it was Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) that came nearest to combining true neo-realism with (partial) box-office success. It is the poignant story of a poverty-stricken worker and his son searching for his stolen bicycle - a bicycle that is crucial to his job as a bill-sticker. The cast is non-professional, although the leading player’s voice was dubbed on by a professional. The story is continuous, the setting realistic and everyday, the characters working-class and poor, and there is committed social comment. There is a very effective scene when a group of middle class women working in a church are shown as patronising and bossy towards the urban poor in the congregation. There are lengthy takes, mainly of the father walking despairingly round the streets with his son, and the situation at the end is unresolved. Despite, or even because of, these impeccable neo-realist credentials, the film was not an immediate success domestically, and had to be marketed strongly with the aid of seminars and lectures. Abroad it was a hit, winning an Oscar for best foreign film.

An interesting contrast is provided by the fate at the box-office of de Santis’ Bitter Rice (1949) with that of Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1950). The former was the first film starring Sylvana Mangano, and the scenes of her in the paddy fields with the other scantily dressed women remain one of the more enduring images of post-war Italian films. This of course had little to do with neo-realism, and did not help the cause by being heavily criticised by the Vatican. La Terra Trema, on the other hand, has no glamorous stars, is performed entirely by local Sicilian actors, and spoken in the Sicilian language that is impenetrable even to most mainland Italians. Predictably it was a total disaster at the box-office. Once again the neo-realist elements are very evident - the location shots, the long takes, the social comment, the unsuccessful struggle of one man alone against the community and the unresolved situation at the end. As the author of World Cinema aptly puts it, “The audience is entitled to watch as it might watch real events, but not to enjoy the easy satisfaction or catharsis that comes from pathos or identification”. In many ways these two films mark the turning point for neo-realism - the one because of its leanings towards and similarities with the output of Hollywood, and the other because of its demonstration that neo-realism carried to extremes would never really succeed.

Proof of this, if proof were needed, was manifest in the last major flourish of neo-realism by one of its masters, de Sica’s Umberto D (1952) with a screenplay by Zavattini. This film takes several of Zavattini’s precepts to new extremes. For example there are at least two very long takes where practically nothing happens - one when Umberto is preparing for bed before he goes to hospital, and the other when the maid Maria gets up in the morning, potters about in the kitchen and stares out of the window before reminding the audience by her gestures of her pregnancy. It is a deliberately downbeat film, without a trace of banality in it. A success for neo-realism, but a failure at the box-office.

One of the reasons for this failure was that the Italian cinema-going public no longer needed “a means to liberation and freedom”: they had already achieved it. A centre-right party had political power, the Roman Church had re-established its esteem in the public eye and the public mood was more positive and forward-looking than in 1945. Neo-realism was finished as a major influence in Italian films: by 1954 less than 1% of all films shown in Italy were neo-realist. The movement had been killed off by a combination of lack of commercial success, disapproval by the church (which controlled many of the local parish cinemas), and the increasing disapproval and censorship by the government which believed the films belittled the country’s social achievements. Its main protagonists turned to other things - De Sica, De Santis and Zavattini went back to mainstream films, and Visconti turned to opera production.

The movement itself achieved a lasting influence. Many subsequently renowned Italian film-makers served their apprenticeships with the neo-realists, among them Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Franco Zeffirelli. Some modern critics such as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith are rather dismissive of the neo-realist achievement, but the legacy is still there. To give but one example, the films of Ken Loach bear many neo-realist characteristics - open-ended situations, location shooting, non-professional actors, working-class milieu, improvised scripts, and implied social comment. But then, Ken Loach’s political views are such that he strongly believes the working-class of Britain are badly lacking in liberation and freedom......


Schifano L Luchino Visconti Collins (1990)

Robinson D World Cinema 1895-1980 Eyre Methuen (1981)

Marcus M Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism Princeton University Press (1986)

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The Exclusion of the Communists in France and Italy in 1947

In March 1944 Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist party, returned from exile in Moscow. The Allies had invaded from the south and had reached Salerno, just south of Naples. The Resistance in the north was in full swing, and whereas many political parties, such as the Action Party, were participating fully in this Resistance, it was the Communists, with their history of clandestine activity proscribed by the authorities, who were the best organised and the most effective. Throughout the Fascist years they had kept their party in place in an underground network, unlike the socialists whose leadership had mostly dispersed under the pressures of persecution and exile. Many of the Communists during the Resistance felt that the armed struggle in which they were engaged should have as its objectives not just the ejection of the Germans and the overthrow of the Fascist regime, but also the replacement of the latter by a new socialist republican state which could achieve radical reforms such as the break-up of the stranglehold over the economy held by a few powerful monopolies and a totally changed relationship between capital and labour, widespread agrarian reform, purging the public administration of people and practices associated with the old order and a radical rebuilding of the whole state security system - the conquest of power by the workers.

But Togliatti thought otherwise. In his famous Salerno Turning-point speech he made his priorities crystal clear - the primary aim was to maintain national unity in confronting the Fascists and Nazis, leaving the colossal social and political changes necessary for the country to be resolved by a freely elected Constituent Assembly after the Liberation. He urged his supporters to put aside their anti-monarchist principles in the cause of unity, and sign up for the royal government forces. This “progressive democracy” policy was rigidly adhered to by Togliatti throughout the rest of the war and the immediate post-war years. In a speech in Florence in October he emphasised the need for the party to have mass appeal not just to workers and peasants, but also to intellectuals and professional workers. Only the selfish reactionary property-owning classes should be excluded.

This new policy sprang from several possible motives and had several political consequences. Togliatti had served his political apprenticeship in Soviet Russia, and had risen through the ranks to an important position in the Comintern. Indeed he may well have been one of the main influences in outlining the policy put forward at the 1935 Comintern congress, which gave full support to the policy of creating popular-front parties based on an alliance of all democratic parties to combat the menace of Fascism. Thus in 1944 Togliatti was clearly following a policy approved by Russia.

The Russian war effort was also at a critical stage in 1944, and Stalin was pressing for the Allies to open a second front. The last thing he wanted was a distraction for the Allies like that of Tito in Yugoslavia where a civil war was being waged. Instead the Russians recognised Badoglio’s government, implicitly consigning Italy to the British and American spheres of influence.

Togliatti had also had access in Moscow to the unpublished prison writings of Antonio Gramsci, the highly influential Italian Communist leader who had died in prison in 1937. Gramsci had advocated a war of position, requiring infinite patience and tenacity, rather than a direct assault on the state which was doomed to failure. It was quite clear that the Allies with their overwhelming military presence in Italy would never tolerate anything that came near to an armed revolution, particularly with their experiences in Greece and Yugoslavia, so Togliatti believed that Gramsci’s proposed methods were the only course of action open to him. Gramsci advocated the formation of a socialist bloc on the left, which strengthened Togliatti’s resolve to maintain the anti-Fascist unity after the war.

In France the situation was much the same. When Germany invaded Russia in 1941 the Communists had a great opportunity to identify themselves with opposition to Nazi Germany, and as in Italy their participation in the Resistance was well-organised and efficient. The charter of the resistance organisation, the CNR, despite being drawn up under the auspices of General de Gaulle, contained reference to many far-reaching economic and social reforms, including subordination of particular interests to the state, state planning, nationalisation, and development of worker’s cooperatives. Social reforms included guaranteed wage levels, re-established trade unionism, security of employment and a revised social security system. In other words the charter represented the makings of a left-wing political manifesto.

Again, as in Italy, there was a real chance that some sort of seizure of power by the Communists could have happened in 1944. However de Gaulle and the Allies were alive to this possibility, and took every possible step to ensure that resistance to de Gaulle’s authority was suppressed, that the irregular partisans, the FFI, were incorporated in the regular army and in particular that the paramilitary milices patriotiques of armed citizens should be disbanded. In November 1944 Maurice Thorez, who like Togliatti had spent the war years in Moscow, arrived back in Paris to resume his leadership of the Communist party (the PCF). He immediately advocated the same kind of policies as Togliatti, giving the winning of the war as priority, to be followed by political action which would ensure the participation of the Communists in government. The policy in France also seems to have met with Stalin’s approval - not least because de Gaulle, possibly smarting at having been left out of the Yalta conference in February 1945, was trying to forge some sort of relationship with Russia to counter-balance the United States and Britain.

One of the main consequences of this policy was that the major opportunity for radical reform was lost forever, and any far-reaching innovations in the state structures were postponed indefinitely. The Communist parties had legitimised the existing orders by joining them. One of the results of this was increased popularity of the Communists with the electorate. In Italy Togliatti was able to transform the PCI into a mass party with huge popular appeal. Hundreds of thousands of Italians joined the party, and the stated aim of having a Communist party branch in every parish was to all practical purposes achieved. By the end of 1945 there were nearly two million members of the PCI. Stalin was looked upon as the hero of the working classes, and Togliatti as his representative in Italy. There was a marked regional imbalance in support for the PCI. In the south, which had not participated in the Resistance, the old order of peasant and landlord still held powerful sway, and the Communists made less impact. They were much stronger in the north, and also particularly in the central regions of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Over half the members of the party were industrial workers, but they also attracted intellectuals such as Visconti, Calvino, Vittorini, Pavese and Pasolini. (An important exception was the philosopher Benedetto Croce who argued strongly against the Marxist doctrines of subordinating the cultural freedom of intellectuals to the ideals of the state). At all events the Communist party was now at the centre of the political stage and everyone else was now forced to react to it. In April 1944 Togliatti entered the government as a minister without portfolio, and by the end of the war was one of two Vice-Presidents.

In France the Communist support also increased, and held steady at over a quarter of the electorate throughout the period. Unlike Italy however there was no very marked difference in support in different regions, with the industrial north, the central area with mixed industry and agriculture, and some areas of the agricultural Midi being strong. The PCF also received support from the influential intellectuals, including at one time or another Sartre and de Beauvoir and artists such as Picasso, Taslitzky, Fougeron and Leger. (This support was somewhat ambivalent - they all had misgivings about Stalinism and in particular the ideas propounded by Zhdanov of cultural activities being subservient to the needs of the state). In any event de Gaulle realised he could not rule a united France without Communist participation, and after the elections for a Constituent Assembly in October 1945 which returned the PCF as the largest single party he formed a government with five Communist ministers, including Thorez.

By the end of 1945 Alcide De Gasperi, the most politically astute operator on the Italian scene at this time, became prime minister. He still maintained the notion of an anti-Fascist coalition alliance with the left, and Togliatti, now Minister of Justice, went wholeheartedly along with it. Meanwhile the other major party of the left, the socialist PSIUP, were going through an agonising debate about their relationship with the PCI. The majority under their leader Pietro Nenni believed that radical reform could only be achieved by the maintenance of unity on the left, and that cooperation at all levels with the Communists was the best way to achieve this. There was even talk of the fusion of the PSIUP with the PCI into a single party, but a substantial faction led by Giuseppe Saragat were bitterly opposed to this.

In France, too, there were agonising debates within the Socialist parties (the largest of which was the SFIO) about alliance with the Communists. The veteran socialist Leon Blum attacked the Communist doctrines of the dictatorship of the proletariat and subservience to Moscow, and at the same time the growth of the new Catholic party, the MRP, weakened the support for the SFIO. In the event all moves towards alliance came to nothing.

The first postwar elections in Italy were held in June 1946. The electors were asked to approve the abolition of the monarchy (they did so by a small majority), and to elect members to the Constituent Assembly which was to decide the future constitution of the Italian state. De Gasperi had cleverly decided that this assembly should have no other law-making powers - these were kept to the small Council of Ministers over which as its president he had the major influence. The result of the elections were something of a shock to the Communists - they polled only 19% of the votes as opposed to 20% for the Socialists and 35% for De Gasperi’s Christian Democrats. De Gasperi used the opportunity to increase the number of Christian Democrat ministers at the expense of the other parties, taking the influential post of Minister of Agriculture away from the Communist Fausto Gullo, who had tried to institute several far-reaching agrarian reforms to improve the lot of the Italian peasants.

In November 1946 the DC suffered heavy losses after a period of disastrously high inflation. De Gasperi came under terrific pressure, particularly from the Vatican, to break with the Socialists and Communists. It is important to remember that in the eyes of the Catholics the Communists were the party of the anti-Christ, and were viewed as far more dangerous and inimical than the Fascists ever were. America, too, was beginning to exert serious pressure. They viewed events in Eastern Europe and the attitude of Stalin with increasing alarm, and any government within the American sphere of influence with Communist ministers was viewed as having potential traitors in their midst, and in 1947 the so-called Truman Doctrine of opposition to and containment of Communism on all fronts was declared.

De Gasperi, however, waited awhile. He was anxious to get a Concordat with the Vatican agreed with support from all parties including the left (the PCI had already voted to incorporate the Lateran Treaty of 1929 in the new Republican constitution), and also to sign a Peace Treaty with the Allied powers, including Russia. He engineered a massive $100m loan from the USA to help solve the country’s financial problems, but still kept the coalition intact.

Meanwhile the left was beset with its own major problems. Firstly there was the question of Trieste and its surrounding territory of Venezia Giulia. Tito’s Communist Yugoslavs were laying claim to the whole territory, whereas the natural tendency of all true Italians was to support the Italian side of the argument. Togliatti did his best to find a middle course to the problem, but was clearly open to attack from the Italian right wing.

The Socialists continued their internal squabbles about the extent of their alliance with the PCI, and finally Saragat formed a group which split away from Nenni’s party - effectively splitting the party in two. De Gasperi was happy about this, gaining a more moderate socialist ally, while Togliatti was happy to see the PSIUP purged of its anti-Communist elements, and thus totally subordinated to the PCI.

Meanwhile the country was in a state of considerable turmoil. Prices and unemployment rose rapidly. Despite trade union calls for restraint there was a wave of industrial action in the north, and there was continuing agitation in the rural areas as peasant and landlord struggled for supremacy. De Gasperi was seriously worried that if he ditched the left as he was being urged to do, the country may have become ungovernable and civil war was a real possibility. He reshuffled the government yet again in January 1947, but government unpopularity grew. Inflation was now reaching 50%, the Peace Treaty was finally signed but was deeply unpopular and represented a serious setback to the DC. Local elections in April were disastrous to the DC, with substantial gains being made by the rightwing parties. Even the Church was beginning to waiver in its backing of the DC.

Then in May there were two important events. Firstly the French government moved to exclude the French Communists from the government, and then there was a major catastrophe in Sicily when participants at a political meeting near Palermo were slaughtered by Mafia-wielded machine-guns. The country was outraged and De Gasperi resigned. However when other alternatives had been tried the task of forming a government was handed back to De Gasperi who formed a coalition without the participation of the PCI or PSIUP, signalling the end of the anti-Fascist coalition.

In France events had taken a somewhat different turn, but had finished with much the same result as far as the Communists were concerned. In January 1946 de Gaulle resigned as head of the government, finding it impossible to work with so many politicians of the left, who were eternally squabbling amongst themselves anyway. De Gaulle half expected to be recalled by popular acclaim, in which case he could draft an authoritarian constitution much to his liking. (He had to wait a long time for this to happen - but that is another story). In the event a draft constitution drafted by the PCF with SFIO support was rejected in a referendum in May 1946, and a second Constituent Assembly had to be elected. In this election the MRP made significant gains, mostly from the SFIO, and despite de Gaulle’s opposition the Constitution was agreed in October 1946.

In 1946 and early 1947 the so-called Tripartism coalition between PCF, SFIO and MRP was kept in place, albeit with tremendous difficulty. Communist participation in government remained a large bone of contention. The three key ministries of Defence, Interior and Foreign Affairs were always kept away from the PCF. However the main task facing the government was the physical and economic reconstruction of France. The PCF had a crucial role to play in this, because they dominated the national trades union movement, the CGT. The CGT played a vital role in restraining workers’ demands for better conditions and higher wages, and the number of days lost by strike action throughout 1946 was remarkably low. This, together with vaguely expressed hopes of France acting as some sort of bridge between east and west, was the main reason the alliance held.

In 1947 however things got worse. Firstly the government blundered into war in Vietnam against the Communist-inspired revolutionaries of Ho Chi Minh, and secondly French forces massacred thousands of civilians after riots in Madagascar. The Communists found this impossible to support. Meanwhile the Cold War was developing fast, and international statesmen were unable to agree a policy about the future of Germany. De Gaulle launched an anti-Communist crusade from the wings and started a new party, the RPF, which was aimed at gathering support from all parties (except the PCF). The touchstone for the expulsion from government of the communists turned out to be a series of strikes at the Renault works in Billancourt near Paris. Real income for the workers had dropped disastrously in early 1947, and there was considerable public support, including sections of the press, for the strike. Fearful of losing popular support on the left the PCF ministers eventually supported the strikers and dissociated themselves from the government’s wage restraint policy. Prime Minister Ramadier sacked the lot in May 1947. As in Italy the postwar coalition was at an end.

The immediate reaction to these events by Togliatti and Thorez was characteristically restrained - they still hoped to be called back into the government. However the Cold War was now getting under way in earnest. The Truman doctrine was being pursued with vigour by the USA, and the Russians called the French and Italian Communist parties to order and instructed them to oppose the American-led initiatives as strongly as possible.

In Italy De Gasperi postponed the next elections until April 1948, and Togliatti spent considerable effort in electioneering and trying to build up support for the united Democratic Front of Socialists and Communists. The Americans went on the offensive. Marshall Aid was announced in a blaze of publicity, with thinly veiled threats of its withdrawal if the country voted Communist. Money from the CIA was channelled into the DC’s election funds. A huge propaganda campaign was organised from the USA, including over a million letters written to relatives of US-based Italian families. The USA increased the pressure by anchoring warships in Italian ports just before the election. The Church preached strongly against the Communists and excommunicated anyone who voted for them. A well-organised army of Roman Catholic volunteers was mobilised to apply pressure at a local level to vote for the DC. A month before the elections Trieste was returned to Italy on the initiative of the Western powers. Meanwhile the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia did nothing to help Togliatti’s cause, giving popular opinion more cause to criticise the left.

It is not surprising that after all this De Gasperi won with nearly 50% of the vote, while the left vote dropped from 40% to 30%. There was a violent reaction from Communist party members throughout the land when in July a fanatic shot and seriously wounded Palmiro Togliatti in Rome. It took all the diplomatic skills of the Communist hierarchy to intervene and persuade the people who had come out on the streets in protest to dismantle the blockades and return to their homes. (This episode was also the catalyst for the breaking away from the CGIL, the Communist-dominated Trades Union, of a substantial group to form a rival Catholic Trades Union).

In France de Gaulle’s anti-communist diatribes were beginning to win popularity with the electorate. The RPF made sweeping gains in the local elections of October 1947. Meanwhile industrial action grew, and this time the CGT and PCF were often behind the strikes. (A significant anti-Communist element in the CGT had broken away, with the help of American money, to form the Force Ouvriere in late 1947). The strikes in late 1948 were particularly violent, and what further marginalized the Communists from most public opinion was their virulent opposition to the acceptance by France of Marshall Aid.

Henceforward both the PCI and PCF became permanent parties of protest and opposition, and as the Cold War progressed became increasingly reviled by the other parties, the media, the Church (particularly in Italy) and the middle classes. There were plenty of opportunities for protest, including France and Italy’s joining of Nato, rearmament, the establishment of more and more American bases on French and Italian soil and opposition to war in Korea and Indo-China. In France the Peace Movement in 1950 gave the intellectual left a cause in which they could unite, but it never managed to capture the imagination of the broad spectrum of working-class voters. In 1949 Pope Pius formally excommunicated the PCI because of their atheistic and materialist view of the world. The PCI continued to hold the loyalty of left-wing intellectuals who looked for an outlet for protest against what they perceived as the cultural philistinism of the government. Left-wingers were increasingly excluded from universities and the media, and censorship of theatre and film was increasing. The PCI cast itself in the role of bulwark against lay culture.

However the main thrust of the party in both countries continued to be their heavy involvement in everyday life at the grassroots level. They were active in local parish life, in trades unionism, in the women’s movement and in ex-partisan associations. The highly popular Don Camillo stories about the conflict between the parish priest and the Communist mayor reflected the true situations of many local communities in Italy. A personality cult grew up around the persons of Maurice Thorez and Palmiro Togliatti - there is archive film available of the mass processions celebrating the latter’s return to active politics after the assassination attempt. At the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 there was widespread mourning throughout the towns and villages of Italy and France.

Thus both parties were able to keep a big following: the PCI got nearly 23% of the vote in 1953, and the PCF nearly 26% in 1956. However neither party was ever seriously strong enough to threaten the established governments for many years to come.


Adereth M The French Communist Party: A Critical History (1920-1984) Manchester University Press (1986)

Johnson R W The Long March of the French Left London, Macmillan (1981)

Woolf S J (ed) The Rebirth of Italy 1943-1950 London, Longman (1972)

Sassoon D The Strategy of the Italian Communist Party London, Frances Pinter (1981)

Becker J and Knipping F (eds) Power in Europe? Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany in a Postwar World 1945-1950 Berlin/New York Walter de Gruyter (1986)

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The Resistance in Italy and France

The primary aim of any Resistance movement is of course the eventual overthrow of the occupying power. By March 1943 the deprivations of war had led many Italians to despair of Mussolini and the Fascist regime. A series of strikes and industrial unrest swept the North of Italy, causing the employers and the government to make substantial concessions to the workers. Things were not much better in the rest of the country, with conscription and high taxation causing much disillusionment with the Fascist government. When the Allies landed in Sicily in July, King Victor Emanuel arrested Mussolini and replaced him with Marshal Badoglio. In the next 45 days the working people of Italy took to the streets to celebrate the downfall of Fascism and demand the ending of the war, but the new regime acted slowly and cautiously. While secretly treating for peace with the Allies they assured the Germans they would not desert them. Many Peace demonstrations were brutally dispersed. By September Germany was pouring troops into Northern Italy, and an exasperated Eisenhower had announced the signing of a peace treaty with Badoglio. The King and Badoglio fled from Rome, eventually joining forces with the Allies and declaring war on Germany in October. Meanwhile the Germans rescued Mussolini and installed him as a puppet in Salo in the North, and waged total war against the Allies.

It was thus mainly in the North that the Resistance came into being. The foremost and most efficient of the resistors were drawn from the anti-Fascist parties that had been exiled or persecuted by the regime. Of these, far and away the most effective were the Communists. Others who joined the resistance were young people, mostly men, who felt strongly that the time for radical change was at hand, and anyway wanted to avoid conscription, and also those who felt it advisable to abandon the sinking ship of Fascism. Clandestine committees were set up in Nazi-occupied territory, and the effective overall Resistance was coordinated by the National Committee for the Liberation of Upper Italy (CLNAI) in Milan. Tremendous battles were fought between these partisans on the one hand and the blackshirt troops of the Salo government and the German army on the other. Loss of life and brutality were enormous, but nonetheless by the spring of 1944 there were some 25,000 active partisans.

Resistance in France had started much earlier. When the Germans invaded in 1940 the French army capitulated almost immediately, and before long the Germans were administering the occupied zones in the north, while the puppet regime of Marshal Petain was administering the rest of the country from its headquarters in Vichy. Resistance to the German occupation was at first fragmented although widespread. All shades of political opinion were represented, although politics played second fiddle in the minds of most resistors to the need to frustrate the German war effort and help the Allies win the war. Meanwhile many Frenchmen had rallied to the Free French standard of General de Gaulle, who eventually sought to combine the external efforts of the Free French with the internal efforts of the Resistance by sending his most trusted aid, Jean Moulin, into France in 1942 to unify the two. In 1943 the National Resistance Council (CNR) was formed. It was not long before party politics began to rear its head in the CNR, and by far the best organised group was, like the Italians, the Communist party (PCF). By 1944 Communists controlled about one third of the locally organised Liberation Committees.

In March 1944 the leader of the Italian Communists, Palmiro Togliatti, returned from exile in Moscow to Salerno, just south of Naples, the northernmost town under Allied control. He immediately made his objectives crystal clear - the primary aim was to maintain national unity in confronting the Fascists and Nazis, leaving the colossal social and political changes necessary for the country to be resolved by a freely elected Constituent Assembly after the Liberation. He urged his supporters to put aside their anti-monarchist principles in the cause of unity, and sign up for the royal government forces. This so-called Salerno Turning-point came as something of a surprise and shock to many of the partisans, particularly the Communists, who looked upon the Resistance as a means of imposing, by force if necessary, their socialist ideals. The abolition of the monarchy, the nationalisation of the means of production, widespread agrarian reform, a radical shake-up of the whole system of social security, and a totally changed relationship between capital and labour, were among the aspirations of those who wished to alter dramatically the political complexion of the new socialist Italian state.

In the event Togliatti prevailed. Unity was maintained, the partisans continued to fight and in June the Allies entered Rome. At this point Badoglio was replaced by Ivanoe Bonomi, an old anti-fascist liberal, who set about reinstating the old civil service and bureaucracy, which had the effect of keeping many of the former Fascist personnel and practices in place without achieving any of the reforms sought by the Communists and others of the left.

By the summer of 1944 the number of partisans had grown to nearly 100,000, and the liberation of important cities such as Florence was achieved with considerable help from the local citizens. However German resistance continued with increased savagery, and by the winter of 1944 the job was far from complete. General Alexander urged the partisans to “go to ground” until the spring of 1945 because no major Allied offensive could be undertaken until then. That winter the partisans suffered huge losses, and in November the CLNAI sent a delegation to Rome to seek recognition and help. The outcome of this were the so-called Protocols of Rome of December 1944, whereby the Allies agreed to technical and financial support in exchange for an agreement that at the moment of liberation all authority and powers of local government previously assumed would be handed over to the Allied Military Government, the partisans disbanded and their arms handed over.

This last initiative was met with great relief by the Allies, particularly the British, who had seen civil wars in Greece and Yugoslavia between left and right, and had every motive for ensuring that no armed revolution should take place in Italy. The Protocols of Rome were thus a political defeat for the resistance, and allowed the centrist parties led by De Gasperi to dominate the politics of the immediate post-war years without achieving very many of the socialist reforms so ardently sought by the participants in the Resistance.

In April 1945 the partisans in Milan, Genoa and Turin rebelled against the Fascists and Nazis, despite the fact that the Allies were still fighting in Emilia. By the end of April, after much fierce fighting, all three cities had fallen, Mussolini had been captured and summarily executed, and by 1 May the whole of Northern Italy was in Allied hands.

Unlike the Italian situation we have a written document setting forth the aims of the French Resistance. This is the charter of the CNR, published in March 1944. There were five main aims set out for post-liberation activities: firstly to unify under de Gaulle and re-establish the independence and greatness of France; secondly to punish traitors and remove from office those associated with Vichy; thirdly to confiscate the property of traitors and black marketeers; fourthly to re-establish universal suffrage, press freedom, free association, equality of all citizens before the law etc; and fifthly a series of “indispensable reforms” in the economic, social, colonial and educational fields. The economic reforms included subordination of particular interests to the general, state planning, nationalisation, and development of worker’s cooperatives. Social reforms included guaranteed wage levels, re-established trade unionism, security of employment and a revised social security system. In other words the charter represented the makings of a left-wing political manifesto. Whatever happened, the primary players wanted to avoid returning to the old order represented by the pre-war 3rd republic.

In the event liberation was achieved largely through the Allied war effort following the Normandy landings, with the Free French forces fighting alongside their Allies. By this time there had been a large amount of civil violence, with the Resistance Maquis opposing the Petainists with every available means, and the Vichy government replying in kind with their paramilitary Milice Francaise under Darnand. In Paris it was an internal rising of the French citizenry that started the liberation process which was to end with the Free French forces entering the city.

In the immediate aftermath of the war the hunt for collaborators and fellow-travellers began. In Italy one of the consequences of the re-establishment of some of the old order by Bonomi and his successor Parri was that many members of the judiciary remained in office, or were replaced by people more or less sympathetic to the right. This meant that many highly-placed people who otherwise may have been prosecuted or at any rate removed from office stayed at their posts. In particular many industrial leaders, some of whom had played a double game disclosing secrets to the Allies while still producing goods for the German war effort, survived unscathed.

In France retribution at a local level was pursued with ferocity. Some 4,500 collaborators were executed locally, but as in Italy it was those in positions higher up the social chain that tended to survive. Laval, the chief executive of the Vichy regime, was shot, but Petain himself was given life imprisonment. Renault, whose factories had made tanks for the Germans, died in prison, but a much smaller proportion of trials against businessmen and civil servants were successful than those against more lowly officials. Nearly half the professional staff in the prefectoral corps of the provincial departements remained in place all through the Vichy purges and the liberation purges.

In 1946 the Italian electorate voted to set up a republic and abolish the monarchy, so to that extent the Resistance had succeeded. But of the three principal aims of the Resistance movement, Liberation, the Maintenance of national unity, and the institution of major social reform, only the first was achieved in full. The national unity was maintained until the end of the war, but by 1947 with the exclusion of the Communists from the government this unity had completely fallen apart, and as a result social and political reform on a major scale were never achieved.

In France the stated aim of punishment and retribution to collaborators and war profiteers was achieved to some extent, and also de Gaulle’s achievements in keeping France as one of the major world powers - at least with a portion of Germany to occupy, restoration of pre-war colonies and a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations - should not be under-estimated. However the avowed unity, as in Italy, had fallen apart by 1947, and although some of the reforms looked for by the resistance were set in motion by the tripartite postwar governments (nationalisation, a degree of state planning, votes for women, improved social security etc), the far-reaching reforms envisaged by the charter took second place to the need for economic and industrial reconstruction on a massive scale.


Ginsborg, Paul, A History of Contemporary Italy Penguin Books (1990)

Woolf S J (ed) The Rebirth of Italy 1943-1950 London, Longman (1972)

Johnson R W The Long March of the French Left London, Macmillan (1981)

Milward A The Reconstruction of Western Europe 1945-51 London, Methuen (1984)

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“Realist” and “Modernist” Elements in The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese

Cesare Pavese was looked upon by his contemporaries as one of the foremost practitioners of realist literature in post-war Italy. Yet it is my contention that it is those characteristics of The Moon and the Bonfires that owe more to modernism than realism that make it an outstanding work of literature.

During the Fascist years strict censorship had forced Italian writers into a conformist mould, allowing little free expression of anything that might be construed as opposing the established order in the country. After the liberation it was a profound relief for writers to be able to write freely about their current surroundings and situations with no holds barred, and no political censorship. They looked upon Giovanni Verga as their distinguished forerunner, but Pavese and Elio Vittorini were the contemporary pathfinders. In 1946, Italo Calvino wrote: “We had drawn a line, or rather a triangle - Verga, Vittorini, Pavese - from which to set out, each on the bases of his own local vocabulary and his own landscape”.

The passionately close relationship with his own landscape is the first most striking realist feature of Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfires. There are six local place names mentioned in the very first paragraph, and another six by the end of the first chapter which is only six pages long. One of the things that draws the reader in is the implied assumption that he knows the region being discussed. “I was carried there in the kind of basket they use at the grape harvest by two poor women from Monticello or Neive, or perhaps from Cravanzana, why not?”. It is not just familiarity with the difference in the place-names that is implied, but also familiarity with the tools of the trade of the local farmers. Throughout the novel the descriptions of places and people and their everyday lives are constantly inserted into the narrative, often with no other apparent purpose than to provide local colour. To give one example, Anguilla and Nuto are climbing the steep path by Salto. “At the corner of a row of vines we ran into Berta, who never left his own bit of ground now. I stopped a minute to pass the time of day and make myself known - I’d never thought to find him still alive and so toothless”. The regional setting of the story is not just incidental - it is fundamental to the whole idea of the outsider returning to his roots, visiting his old haunts, hoping his father will “come to light” (he never does), and finding “It was strange how everything was changed and yet the same”.

An integral part of the realist creed was that reality should be described “as it was, or as it should have been”. Certainly Pavese describes in lurid detail some of the horrors of the peasant life as lived by Valino and his household, and “the Signora from the villa” taking her sharecropping portion. “There are a lot of things want changing” says Nuto, but he seems to do little about it. Exposure of the lot of the poor Piedmontese peasant is a by-product but not the main ingredient of the story.

An important neo-realist technique employed by Pavese is the central part played by young children in the story. The youthful exploits of Anguilla and Nuto are mirrored by those of Cinto, the young cripple, and the early goings-on at La Mora are viewed through the adolescent eyes of Anguilla. The ultimate fate of Cinto, the only truly optimistic note in the story, is not however the main plot-line in the novel. Cinto gets no mention in the final chapter, where Nuto’s confession of his role in the death of Santa takes centre stage.

During the Fascist period it was forbidden to write anything in dialect, but after the war in creating a culture for the people, the neo-realists often made extensive use of local dialects. Sometimes these were incomprehensible to the mainstream Italian audience. (The classic case of this is Visconti’s film La Terra Trema which used the Sicilian dialect throughout for greater authenticity). Pavese's use of language is simple and the dialogue straightforward, with some unusual local words used to describe, for example, certain agricultural implements unique to the region. He eschewed the use of impenetrable local dialects.

A major departure from the neo-realist norm is Pavese’s use of several different timescales. He exploits this thoroughly modernist technique in several ways. Firstly it allows him to explore the differences and similarities between the periods, showing how “It was strange how everything was changed and yet the same”. Then he can contrast the changes in character of Anguilla returning as a prosperous businessman and Nuto the stay-at-home with a social conscience. He contrasts his own youth at La Mora, where “A punch on the head and a sharp word from the grieve” was the worst he had to suffer, with that of Cinto: “all this was nothing compared with the life that Cinto led now”. But more subtly than this he uses the poetic technique of extensive use of symbolism to hint at all kinds of connections between events and characters in the whole novel, whose final scene takes place in a timescale when the narrator was far away in America. By shifting the timescales around Pavese can introduce the symbols and hint at their significance as the novel progresses, without being constrained by strict chronology.

The most potent and at the same time mysterious symbols are the moon and the bonfires of the title. This novel is not the first time Pavese had used the symbols - they are clearly connected to ancient local traditions of fertile land and the regrowth of crops. The bonfires are lit on St John’s Eve so that “all the hillside was ablaze”. Nuto believed that by lighting the bonfires “They’re awakening the earth”. He also believed in the far-fetched superstitions concerning the moon, yet he it was who wanted to break the cycle of the seasons - or did he? “Nuto ..... still wanted to understand the world and change it, and upset the cycle of the seasons. Or perhaps he didn’t, and still believed only in the moon”. Although at this point Anguilla declares he does not believe in the moon but only the seasons, he is not against wondering about the processes of nature. Later he recalls an occasion when “I ..... came down the road slowly among the bamboo and acacias and the gnarled trunks, thinking what sort of stuff it is, this earth, that bears all kinds of trees”. There is a startling reference to the moon in the strange episode in America when he is stranded by the railroad. “There was a reddish light and I jumped down, cramped and stiff with cold; a sliver of moon was piercing the low clouds and it looked like a gash from a knife and bathed the plain in a blood-red light. I stayed looking at it for a while. It terrified me”. End of Chapter. This extraordinary image presages the violence and bloodshed that is to come later in the story. The final image of the bonfire is, of course, the fire on which the body of Santa is cremated (a process banned by the Catholic Church). The mark is still there, “like the bed of a bonfire”. Is this supposed to mean that life will continue to be created and the cyclical story will begin all over again in another form?

Blood is another symbol that recurs in the story, first hinted at in the scene on the American plain quoted above. Later, “They were killing the pig and the women had all run away except Santina who ..... arrived at the very moment when the pig was spouting blood”. Santina herself was to come to a bloody end, as was her half-sister Silvia. And perhaps the blood is also meant to fill out Nuto’s philosophy about people, that all are the same under the skin. When Anguilla discovers that “all women are the same”, Nuto declares “It’s the same moon for everyone, like the rain or sickness. It doesn’t matter whether they live in a hole in the ground or in a fine house, blood is red everywhere”. It is understated allusions such as this which create different responses from different readers - a characteristic of the best modernist works.

There are more hints of violence throughout the book. The story of what happened during the war is introduced gradually, first with Cinto’s description of the dead German in the gully, then hints from Nuto and Valino about houses being burnt, then the finding of the dead Fascist spies with their heads bashed in, and finally the climactic events leading to Santa’s death. Unusually the violence often involves the women. Of the two girls with whom he was brought up one was struck by lightning in a field and the other died a painful death from a tumour in her side and “died without even seeing a priest”. The female members of Valino’s household are both murdered by him. All these deaths are savage, and although Irene survives as a battered wife, the deaths of Silvia and Santa are both brutal and bloody. From this one might infer that Pavese’s attitude to women was strange to say the least, and yet in many ways the girls of La Mora are the principal characters in the story and are portrayed sympathetically and carefully. Even Santa, the double agent, turns to Nuto and makes a face “just like a child” before going out to her death. Pavese’s attitude to women is different from that of the young Anguilla - “all women are the same - they are all looking for a man”.

Of course not all the themes of the book are of blood and violence and death. Far from it. One of the powerful themes conjured up by both the cyclical moon and the yearly ritual of the bonfires is that of going away and revisiting, to discover that “everything was changed and yet the same”. “That’s how things are. They haven’t changed a bit, boys or women or the world”. Anguilla constantly refers to his having left the area, first to Genoa and then to America, and the fact that Nuto never did so. Even his nickname, Anguilla the Eel, implies a creature that travels many thousands of miles before returning home. Cinto, at the end, is given the opportunity to learn a trade, and maybe get a job in Genoa in due course. America itself comes across as more of an idea than a reality. In 1947 Pavese himself wrote “After several years of study we comprehended that America was not another land, another historical beginning, but merely the gigantic theatre where, with more frankness than was possible anywhere else, the drama of everybody was being enacted”. Anguilla says to Nuto “La Mora was like the world ---- it was an America, a port”.

Another recurring theme is that of the sameness of people despite life having placed them in different strata of society. The young Anguilla, who muses about different trees coming from the same earth, gradually discovers the difference between life with Padrino (and even worse with Valino), life at Nuto’s house where his father has time to read the newspapers, life at La Mora and the grand life at Il Nido. In America he comments on the differences between Californians and the ragged band of Mexicans, and ironically it is he, the bastard peasant boy, who returns as the successful businessman. The irony is made even more poignant with the contrast to the wretched fate of his new-found friend the Cavaliere. Pavese juggles the timescales in the book so that all these themes can grow in the perception of the reader without their being expressly referred to, a technique more modernist than realist in execution.

There is no need to dwell on every group of symbols and images such as the flowers or the animals that are used in the novel, but perhaps one more is worthy of mention. There are frequent references to the hills and what may or may not lie beyond them, but as one would expect from a modernist novel it is not immediately clear what the hill symbol is supposed to represent. In 1942 Pavese wrote of “that great hill, shaped like a woman’s breast, is the very body of the goddess to whom, on St John’s night, the traditional bonfires of stubble will arise”. The Cavaliere creates a wild park on the crest of a hill as a memorial to his dead son; the hills beyond Canelli were “always the place where the trains steamed away and the road ran past to Genoa”, and finally Nuto climbs the hill at Gaminella to tell on the spot the final tragedy of the book.

Pavese himself called these modernist tricks “symbolic realism”, but whatever the proper term they are, for many readers, the magnet that draws them back to the novel to explore its mysteries even further.


Cesare Pavese tr Louise Sinclair The Moon and the Bonfires Sceptre Books (1988)

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Two Short Stories by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino was one of the most prominent writers in Italy immediately after the war. His first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, was published to critical acclaim in 1947, and was set in Italy during the resistance. A collection of short stories now known as Adam, One Afternoon was published in 1949, and several of these were also set during the Italian resistance. Two of the most striking of these are Hunger at Bevera and One of the Three is Still Alive. It is interesting to look at them from both a literary and a historical point of view. They were both written in 1947, and as Calvino himself took part in the resistance it is therefore possible to draw tentative historical inferences from them, although Calvino will always be primarily judged and remembered as a major literary figure.

In looking at a short story the literary critic will be looking at the form, the style, the language, the imagery, and the extent to which the author is following the literary fashion of his time, or taking those fashions in new directions. A look at the historical context in which the story is set may help him in this task, but the history itself is not of prime importance. The task of the historian is of course quite different. If the author, as in this case, is known to have participated personally in the types of historical event described, then it is reasonable to infer that the atmosphere and colour, if not the actual incidents themselves which may be fiction, are historically accurate. As an example from another story from the same collection, a repeated theme in Going to Headquarters is the value to the soldiers of a good pair of boots. It is thus reasonable for the historian to infer that boots were a sought-after item for both sides in the conflict. In some cases the historian may be considerably helped by the author’s professed attempts to write realistically, and describe true events. It is in analysing the stories as “realist” or “neo-realist” works of art that the interests of the literary critic and historian overlap, although the latter still has to exercise caution. After all, Giovanni Verga, the acknowledged father of Italian 19th century realism, spoke of the representation of reality not so much as it actually was, but as it should have been. The neo-realists, amongst whom Calvino counted himself, were strongly committed to seeking to influence social change through their work, although they never deliberately abandoned historical accuracy for that purpose.

Calvino’s literary style is deceptively simple. For example, the very first paragraph of Hunger at Bevera is only ten lines long, but contains a prodigious amount of scene-setting background.

The front had stopped there, as it had in '40, except that this time the war did not end and there seemed no chance of things moving. People did not want to do as they had in '40, load a few rags and chickens on to a cart, and set off with a mule in front and a goat behind. When they got back in '40 they had found all their drawers overturned on the floor and human excrement in the cooking pots; for Italians, when soldiers, don't bother if the damage they do is to friends or enemies. So people stayed on, with the French shells hitting their houses day and night and the German shells whistling over their heads.
Thus we learn that we are in the later phase of the war, that the village was in the front line, that the fighting was bogged down, that the villagers had previously suffered from the soldiery and that this time they were staying on with shells falling all round them. This dense packing of atmosphere and information in a few lines of easily readable prose is a characteristic of all Calvino’s stories.

Another Calvino characteristic is that we often do not get to hear about the feelings and thoughts of the main character, but only indirectly through a description of his actions and of those around him. In Hunger at Bevera we even have the thoughts of the mule itself, noticing the snails and ant-hills and torn-up grasses as it plods along. Often, as here, this protagonist is the only character given a name. The others are “the man from the Committee”, “the boy with the blotch” or “the man with the brush”. In this way we are led to observe the protagonist all the closer as his character is unfolded for us during the story.

It is difficult to comment too much on an author’s techniques of language when the book is in translation, but it is clear from the original Italian that the descriptions, the dialogue and the action are all written in simple uncomplicated words. There is a certain amount of slang and elision in the dialogue which is written in a colloquial Italian style. “One by one we’ll all be blown to bits” is an example, while we even get “the opposite direction to the one they’d left him” in a descriptive passage.

Calvino himself acknowledged the influence on his work of Ernest Hemingway, particularly For Whom the Bell Tolls which was first published in America in 1940, and which is written in a similar historical setting (the Spanish civil war) and in a similar uncomplicated narrative style. An interesting touch in Hunger at Bevera which has an echo of Hemingway’s style is the interspersing during the final scene of the death of old Bisma and his mule with the painting of Fascist slogans on the walls by the man with the brush. In this way the triviality of the events of the story in the mind of the Blackshirts compared to their honourable struggle is emphasised to the reader with great clarity.

One of the Three is Still Alive shares several characteristics with Hunger at Bevera. The story starts in the middle of the action, indeed almost in the middle of a sentence, although this time, like most of the stories in Adam, One Afternoon, the whole action is described in one continuous scene without a significant break. Once again we know much in the first few lines - villages have been burned in scenes of great atrocity, the villagers have three captives, and the captives are of different nationality to the villagers. We also know something of the characters of the three prisoners - one inquisitive, one older and seemingly resigned, and one fat and frightened. This time nobody in the story has a name (except in the dialogue when the villagers recall their own relatives), not even the German protagonist himself. The language again is sparse and uncomplicated, and Calvino manages to convey the horrific scene of blood and bones at the bottom of the pit with a minimum of effort.

Inevitably in a short story one’s sympathies are somewhat engaged on the side of the main protagonist, and in common with several of his stories Calvino in One of the Three is Still Alive has the action seen from the point of view of one of the “baddies”. This deliberate setting-up of opposite feelings to the norm in the mind of the reader is a characteristic neo-realist device which gives added depth to the story.

One facet of One of the Three is Still Alive which at first sight seems to be some distance from neo-realism is that the story has an allegorical, almost fantastical feel to it. The story abounds in religious imagery - the musings of the German about Death, the hell of the pit, the image of the big man with the beard at the top of the pit offering some hope for the survivor, and the final escape all seem to have mystical overtones. “Life, thought the naked man, was a hell, with rare moments recalling some ancient paradise”. The author probably shows his own religious allegiance by making the fat Catholic the first to succumb and fall.

Of the two stories, Hunger at Bevera probably has more for the historian in it than the other. The sense of involvement in a civil war rather than a resistance movement against an invader is very strong. The disgusting behaviour of Italian soldiers is stressed at the outset, and although it is French and German shells that are causing havoc it is the arrival of the Italian Black Brigade that brings on the climax to the story. Here is implied evidence of the intense mutual hatred that existed between those Italians caught up on each side of the war.

Eventually the Italian resistance came to be co-ordinated by Committees of National Liberation, and here we have evidence of a “Committee of Liberation” operating in the area of Ventimiglia, very near the border with France on the north-west coast. Clearly the shortage of food was the major problem for villagers hiding out in the hills away from the village. On the other side we have the Black Brigade of Italian Fascists, with its political slogans and uncouth but nervous boy conscript. The image of the Black Brigade men looking on indifferently while the boy with a blotch loosened his sten gun and stood picking his teeth reads like a historically “accurate” description of the type of people in the Brigade, a unit formed in 1944 by one of Mussolini’s party officials.

The difference in the attitude of the villagers between the time of the story, presumably 1944, and 1940, evidenced by the opening paragraph, is also probably historically accurate. People stayed on rather than load up a few possessions and leave, and would sooner live nearby in holes and caves. Villages were, presumably, sometimes burned to the ground with disastrous consequences. The boy with the blotch in Hunger at Bevera threatens to do so at the end of the story, and it is clear from One of the Three is Still Alive that village-burning with some inhabitants being burned alive was far from unknown. Indeed the “third naked man”, of a slightly different German nationality to the others, “came from a part where villages and children had been burnt at one time”.

But it is arguably not “facts” such as these that are the most important historical inferences to be drawn. The neo-realists set out to convey the thoughts and feelings and aspirations of ordinary working-class people. These cannot be assessed by the examination of official records or documents, nor indeed by many first-hand descriptions of war experiences. It is in the essentially literary output of great writers such as Italo Calvino that the actual history of what lay in people’s minds can best be discerned.


Calvino, Italo, Adam, One Afternoon, Minerva (1992)

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