Showing posts with label Blackshirts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blackshirts. Show all posts

4 June 2024

Dino Grandi - politician

Fascist who ultimately turned against Mussolini

Dino Grandi was a member of the Fascist Grand Council
Dino Grandi was a member
of the Fascist Grand Council
The Fascist politician Dino Grandi was born on this day in 1895 in Mordano, a small town near Imola in Emilia-Romagna.

Although Grandi was an active member of Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts and a staunch advocate of using violence to suppress opponents of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, he ultimately became central to the Italian dictator’s downfall.

During his time as the Italian Ambassador in London, Grandi tried to forge a pact between Italy and Britain that would have prevented Italy entering World War Two.  Under pressure from the German leader Adolf Hitler, Mussolini removed him from the post of ambassador and appointed him Minister of Justice.

Grandi had also opposed the antisemitic Italian racial laws of 1938. He enjoyed a good relationship with the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, who gave him the title Count of Mordano.

His increasing criticism of Italy’s war effort saw him dropped from his position in Mussolini's cabinet in February 1943 but he remained chairman of the Fascist Grand Council. In this role, he colluded with others, such as Giuseppe Bottai and Mussolini’s own son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, to remove Mussolini as leader.

They could see Italy’s war was being lost, with the country suffering more and more following the Allied invasion of Sicily. Grandi and other members of the Fascist Grand Council met on July 24, 1943. When Mussolini said that the Germans were thinking of pulling out of the south, effectively abandoning the country to the enemy, Grandi stood up and subjected the self-proclaimed Il Duce to a blistering verbal attack. 

Grandi served as Italy's Ambassador in London, where he sought a deal to keep Italy out of WW2
Grandi served as Italy's Ambassador in London,
where he sought a deal to keep Italy out of WW2
He proposed a motion to the Grand Council asking Victor Emmanuel III to resume his full constitutional authority. When the motion was put to a vote, at 2am on 25 July, it was carried by 19 votes to eight.

This effectively stood down Mussolini from office, although it took his arrest later in the day, after he had been to see the King as if it was business as usual, to enforce his removal. 

Grandi, a law graduate from the University of Bologna who hailed from a wealthy background in Mordano, had met Mussolini for the first time in 1914. Like Mussolini, he had initially been attracted to the political left, but swung in behind the future leader’s nationalist brand of socialism. He joined the Blackshirts - the Fascist party’s paramilitary wing - at the age of 25.

After the March on Rome in October 1922, after which the Fascists took power in Italy, Grandi became part of Mussolini’s government, first as the undersecretary of the interior, then as Minister of Foreign Affairs and later as  Italy's ambassador to the United Kingdom, a position he held from 1932 to 1939. 

He maintained his links with the most radical and violent groups in the party. He surrounded himself with members of the Blackshirts, whom he used as bodyguards.

Despite his role in the fall of the Fascist government, Grandi found himself unwanted by the new regime under interim prime minister Pietro Badoglio and left Italy under a false name, taking his family first to Spain and then Portugal.  In 1944 he was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in the Italian Social Republic, where Mussolini, having been freed from house arrest by German paratroopers, had been installed by Hitler as the head of a puppet Nazi state. 

After seven years in exile, when life at times was hard for his family because of a lack of income, Grandi’s luck changed in the 1950s. He held representative positions for the Italian car maker Fiat and worked as a consultant to the American authorities, often serving as an intermediary in political and industrial operations between Italy and the United States. 

He then moved to Brazil, becoming the owner of an agricultural estate, before returning to Italy in the 1960s. He had a farm in the countryside of Modena before moving to Bologna. He died in Bologna in 1988 shortly before his 93rd birthday, three years after the publication of his political autobiography Il mio paese.

He is buried in the monumental cemetery of the Certosa di Bologna.

Imola's duomo, the Cattedrale di San Cassiano, in the city centre
Imola's duomo, the Cattedrale di
San Cassiano, in the city centre 
Travel tip:

The city of Imola, like Mordano, is today part of the greater metropolitan area of Bologna, in the Emilia-Romagna region. It has a well-preserved castle, the Rocca Sforzesca, which is nowadays the home of an internationally respected piano academy and the Cinema d’Este, which shows films in July and August. Imola also has a duomo, dedicated to San Cassiano. Erected from 1187 to 1271, it was repeatedly restored in the following centuries, until a large renovation was held in 1765–1781. The façade dates to 1850.The city is best known today for its motor racing circuit, the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, which hosts the Formula One Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix and formerly hosted the San Marino Grand Prix, on behalf of the nearby independent republic.

The Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna's Piazza Maggiore, the heart of the city
The Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna's
Piazza Maggiore, the heart of the city
Travel tip:

Bologna, where Grandi died, is one of Italy's oldest cities, dating back to 1,000BC or possibly earlier.  The University of Bologna, the oldest in the world, was founded in 1088.  Bologna's city centre, which has undergone substantial restoration since the 1970s, is one of the largest and best preserved historical centres in Italy, characterised by 38km (24 miles) of walkways protected by porticoes.  At the heart of the city is the beautiful Piazza Maggiore, dominated by the Gothic Basilica of San Petronio, which at 132m long, 66m wide and with a facade that touches 51m at its tallest, is the 10th largest church in the world and the largest built in brick. The Certosa di Bologna, where Grandi is buried, is a former Carthusian monastery founded in 1334 and suppressed in 1797, located just outside the walls of the city. In 1801 it became the city’s monumental cemetery.

Also on this day:

1463: The death of historian and archaeologist Flavio Biondo

1604: The birth of Claudia de’ Medici, Archduchess of Tyrol

1966: The birth of opera singer Cecilia Bartoli

1970: The birth of Olympic skiing champion Deborah Compagnoni


27 September 2023

Vittorio Vidali - communist revolutionary

One-time Russian agent ultimately elected Italian deputy and senator

Vittorio Vidali became an agent of the Russian Communist Party
Vittorio Vidali became an agent of
the Russian Communist Party
The revolutionary Vittorio Vidali, who operated as a secret agent of the Russian communists in the United States, Mexico and Spain, was born on this day in 1900 in the coastal town of Muggia, near Trieste.

Known at various times by at least five different names, he was implicated in the murder of a fellow agent and in an attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky, although in neither case could his involvement be proved. After returning to Italy at the end of World War Two, he served as a deputy and then a senator in the Italian parliament.

Vidali was politically active from an early age, joining the Socialist Youth movement in Trieste at the age of 16. At 20 he was one of the founders of the youth federation of the Italian Communist Party. In the same year - 1921 - he was arrested for his part in rioting at the San Marco shipyards where his father worked.

He became a target for Mussolini’s Blackshirts after organising, with others, an anti-fascist paramilitary group, and fled Italy in 1922, to Germany and then New York, where he met the Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

From New York he travelled to Russia, becoming involved with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and their international wing, known as Comintern, which had agents operating around the world in their attempt to spread the communist doctrine.

Vidali became romantically involved with Tina Modotti, a glamorous former actress
Vidali became romantically involved with
Tina Modotti, a glamorous former actress
Comintern sent Vidali to Mexico on a mission to bring discipline to the Mexican Communist Party. There he is thought to have become infatuated with Tina Modotti, a former model and silent movie actress originally from Udine in Italy, who had been living in San Francisco and moved to Mexico to work as a photographer. She too was a communist activist.

When Modotti’s lover, Julio Antonio Mella , one of the founders of the Communist Party of Cuba, was shot dead at point blank range while walking with her, some witnesses claimed that Vidali was with the couple and even that it was he who carried out the killing. 

He had plausible motives, both personal and political, given his own interest in Modotti and Mella’s association with Trotskyists, to whom the Stalinist Comintern was hostile. Yet, although they questioned and released Modotti, the Mexican authorities charged another man, José Agustín López, a criminal with no political associations, with the murder. The accepted version of events, in Cuban history in any event, is that Mella’s death was ordered by the Cuban president, Gerardo Machado.

Vidali left Mexico for Spain.  Working under the name Carlos Contreras, he teamed up with Enrique Castro Delgado to create the so-called "Fifth Regiment" responsible for the defence of Madrid against Francisco Franco’s Nationalists, and organised the production of a daily newspaper to provide information for those fighting for the Spanish Democratic Republic.  At the same time, in a more sinister side to his activities on behalf of Comintern, he is said to have arranged for a number of pro-Trotsky operatives on the republican side to be eliminated.

He returned to Mexico in 1940, not long before Trotsky was killed. He was suspected of being involved in a failed assassination attempt at Trotsky’s residence in Mexico City. He was also thought to have facilitated the infiltration into Trotsky’s inner circle of the Stalinist operative Ramón Mercader, who entered Trotsky’s study and killed him with an ice axe later in the same year.  

Vidali served for 10 years in the Italian parliament
Vidali served for 10 years in
the Italian parliament
Modotti, who was expelled from Mexico in 1930, rejoined Vidali in Spain and returned with him to Mexico under a false name. She herself died suddenly in 1942, suffering a cardiac arrest while returning home from a social engagement in a taxi. There were rumours that Vidali, despite the intimate nature of their relationship, had her killed simply because she knew too much about his activities in Spain.

By 1947, Vidali was back in his home country, returning to Trieste. After the postwar settlement saw the long-disputed city established as the Free Territory of Trieste, Vidali became one of the most powerful members of the Communist Party there, conducting a purge of Titoists within the organisation following Stalin’s split with the Yugoslav leader. 

After Trieste became part of Italy again in 1954, Vidali had ambitions to serve as a Communist in the Italian Parliament from the area. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1958 and to the Senate in 1963, sitting until 1968.  He died in Trieste at the age of 83.

The harbour at the quaint seaside town of Muggia, the only Istrian town to remain part of Italy
The harbour at the quaint seaside town of Muggia,
the only Istrian town to remain part of Italy
Travel tip:

At the time of Vidali’s birth, the coastal town of Muggia - situated 12km (7 miles) by road from Trieste - belonged to the part of the Austria-Hungary empire known as the Istrian peninsula, which includes a number of beautiful towns and cities such as Pula, Rovinj, Perec and Vrsar. It was partitioned to Italy in the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920 following the First World War. In the Second World War it became a battleground for rival ethnic groups and political groups. It was occupied by Germany but with their withdrawal in 1945  Yugoslav partisans gained the upper hand and Istria was eventually ceded to Yugoslavia. It was divided between Croatia and Slovenia following the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991. Nowadays, Muggia remains the only former Istrian town that is part of Italy. A charmingly quaint fishing port, Muggia’s main attractions are its Duomo, dedicated to the saints John and Paul, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta and its 14th century castle, which stood abandoned for 200 years but has been restored by the sculptor, Villi Bossi. 

The sea-facing Piazza Unita d'Italia is the oldest and most elegant square in Trieste
The sea-facing Piazza Unita d'Italia is the oldest
and most elegant square in Trieste
Travel tip:

The seaport of Trieste, capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, officially became part of the Italian Republic in 1954. Trieste had been disputed territory for thousands of years and after it was granted to Italy in 1920, thousands of the resident Slovenians left. The final border with Yugoslavia was settled in 1975 with the Treaty of Osimo. The area today is one of the most prosperous in Italy and Trieste is a lively, cosmopolitan city and a major centre for trade and ship building.  The city has a coffee house culture that dates back to the Hapsburg era.  Caffè Tommaseo, in Piazza Nicolò Tommaseo, near the grand open space of the Piazza Unità d’Italia, is the oldest in the city, dating back to 1830.

Also on this day:

1552: The birth of writer and actor Flaminio Scala

1871: The birth of Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda

1966: The birth of musician Jovanotti

1979: The death of actress and writer Gracie Fields

September 27 was the chosen birthday of Cosimo de’ Medici, born in 1389


28 October 2022

The March on Rome

The insurrection that put Fascists in power

Mussolini (second left) walked alongside Cesare Maria de Vecchi during part of the March on Rome
Mussolini (second left) walked alongside Cesare
Maria de Vecchi during part of the March on Rome
The March on Rome that resulted in Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party taking control of the Italian government took place on this day 100 years ago in 1922.

A mob comprising thousands of members of Mussolini’s Blackshirt militia and other party supporters converged on the city, intent on seizing power. At the same time, other Blackshirt groups were capturing strategic locations throughout Italy.

Italy’s Liberal prime minister, Luigi Facta, wanted to deploy the army to put down the insurrection and hastened to the Palazzo del Quirinale to see the king, Victor Emmanuel III, and ask him to sign a decree of martial law so that he could put Rome in a state of siege.

At first, the monarch was prepared to grant his request, but after giving it more thought he changed his mind, much to Facta’s consternation. 

Instead, the Blackshirt mob, headed by four Mussolini henchmen - Italo Balbo, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, Michele Bianchi and Emilio De Bono - were allowed to enter Rome unchallenged. By the  following day, what had been effectively a bloodless coup d’état was completed when Victor Emmanuel III invited Mussolini to form a government and at the age of 39 become what was then Italy’s youngest prime minister.

Victor Emmanuel III handed power to Mussolini
Victor Emmanuel III handed
power to Mussolini  
Quite why the king decided to side with a man with a history of building power through violence and intimidation was not entirely clear. Cynics believed he did it purely out of self-interest, reasoning that the Fascist leader’s rise was irresistible and fearing that his cousin, Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, a known Fascist sympathiser, would be handed the throne if he did not acquiesce.

In fact, he had probably over-estimated the strength of Mussolini’s insurgents, who numbered nowhere near the 50,000 that the Fascist hierarchy had hoped to assemble, possibly as few as 10,000, many of whom were rural workers armed with little more than pitchforks.

A slightly more noble explanation is that Victor Emmanuel feared that Italy was on the verge of civil war and saw handing power to Mussolini as an expedient way to avert it.

Certainly, over the preceding two or three years, there had been considerable discontent over wages and prices among Italian workers, with waves of strikes taking place. The Italian Socialist Party had made gains in local elections and in 1919 - the year that Mussolini formed his Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, which would evolve into the National Fascist Party - had their most successful result in a general election, winning 156 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Dissatisfied with the reluctance of the Rome government to act against the workers, many landowners and business bosses increasingly turned to Mussolini’s fledgling Blackshirt militias to quell industrial action, supported by establishment figures worried by the rise of the socialists.

In August 1922, the Fascists took it upon themselves to suppress a general strike, claiming they were the party of law and order as opposed to an ineffectual official government. They did so by violent means, torching buildings they believed to be used by socialists. 

Members of Mussolini's Blackshirt militia en route to Rome in 1922
Members of Mussolini's Blackshirt militia
en route to Rome in 1922
Street fighting broke out in Milan to which the Fascists responded by destroying the printing presses of the left-wing newspaper Avanti! and storming the local government headquarters, expelling the elected socialist administration.

All the time, the government in Rome sat back and watched, which emboldened Mussolini, by now supported and sponsored by business owners and most on the political right, to make his grab for absolute power.

Within a little over two years of the king’s capitulation, Mussolini had turned his premiership into a dictatorship, after which Italy had to endure two decades of brutality and suppression that ended only when the occupying forces of Nazi Germany had been defeated by the Allies.

After the war, Victor Emmanuel III was sent into exile along with all members of the Italian Royal Family, his siding with Mussolini never forgiven as Italians voted to become a republic.

Yet 100 years after his rise to power, the self-proclaimed Duce still has sympathisers in the country and reminders of his regime are not difficult to find in many parts of Italy, such as the obelisk inscribed with the words Mussolini Dux that still stands near the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

The giant fashion house Fendi has its headquarters in the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, an imposing six-story marble structure in the Mussolini-built EUR district of the capital, on which is engraved a phrase from a speech made by the dictator announcing his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Indeed, with somewhat chilling timing, the anniversary of Mussolini’s ascent to power has coincided with the installing as prime minister of Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, herself a former member of both the Italian Social Movement, founded in 1946 by Mussolini supporters, and the post-fascist National Alliance.

The Palazzo del Quirinale has been the official residence of popes, kings and presidents
The Palazzo del Quirinale has been the official
residence of popes, kings and presidents
Travel tips:

The Palazzo del Quirinale, which until 1946 was the official residence of Italy’s reigning monarch, was built in 1583 by Pope Gregory XIII as a summer residence. It also served as the offices of the civil government of the Papal States until 1870. When, in 1871, Rome became the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy, the palace became the official residence of the kings of Italy, although some monarchs, notably Victor Emmanuel III (1900–1946), lived in a private residence elsewhere. When the monarchy was abolished in 1946, the Palazzo del Quirinale became the official residence and workplace for the presidents of the Italian Republic. So far, it has housed 30 popes, four kings and 12 presidents.

The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is one of the most striking buildings in Rome's EUR district
The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is one of the
most striking buildings in Rome's EUR district
Travel tip:

The EUR complex, to the south of the centre of Rome, was originally developed to host the 1942 World's Fair - the Esposizione Universale Roma - which was cancelled because of the Second World War.  Mussolini’s modern city within a city was designed by a team of prominent architects, headed by Marcello Piacentini and including Giovanni Michelucci. The designs combined classical Roman elements with Italian Rationalism in a simplified neoclassicism that came to be known as Fascist architecture.  The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, which has become known as the “square colosseum”, is regarded as the building which is the most symbolic of EUR. Designed by Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto La Padula, and Mario Romano, it draws inspiration from the Colosseum with its rows of arches, while its square shape and stark whiteness are reminiscent of metaphysical art.

Also on this day:

312: The Battle of the Ponte Milvio

1639: The death of composer Stefano Landi

1963: The birth of singer-songwriter Eros Ramazzotti

1973: The death of comic actor and illustrator Sergio Tòfano


23 August 2022

Giovanni Minzoni - priest

Devout Catholic murdered for opposing Fascists

Giovanni Minzoni objected to the Fascist youth movement in his town
Giovanni Minzoni objected to the
Fascist youth movement in his town
Don Giovanni Minzoni, a Catholic priest whose name is commemorated in many street names around Italy, was murdered by Fascist thugs in the small town of Argenta in Emilia-Romagna on this day in 1923.

A parish priest in the town, midway between the cities of  Ferrara and Ravenna, Don Minzoni was attacked at around 10.30pm as he returned to his rectory in the company of Enrico Bondanelli, a parishioner, when he was set upon by two men who were attached to a Fascist militia in Casumaro, almost 50km (31 miles) from Argenta on the other side of Ferrara.

He was pelted with stones and, when the blows made him fall to the ground, was beaten. What proved to be the fatal blow was struck with a heavy walking stick. He had a fractured skull and, despite being helped home by Bondanelli and neighbours, died a couple of hours later. His attackers were later named as Giorgio Molinari and Vittore Casoni, who were allegedly acting on the orders of Italo Balbo, a Blackshirt Commander who would later be seen as an heir to dictator Benito Mussolini.

Don Minzoni, a former military chaplain, had made no secret of his opposition to the Fascist regime. Shortly before he was attacked, he had set up a Catholic Scout group in Argenta in response to the introduction in the town of the Opera Nazionale Balilla, the Fascist youth movement.

He had been involved in a stand-off with the local militia when he invited Father Emilio Faggioli, a leading figure in the Catholic Scout organisation in Emilia-Romagna, to give a talk about the virtues of Catholicism and the scouts in the parish hall on Piazza d’Argenta, the town’s main square.

Blackshirt Italo Balbo (second right) was suspected of ordering the murder
Blackshirt Italo Balbo (second right)
was suspected of ordering the murder

The Fascists said local youths would be forbidden to attend but more than 70 defied them and gathered in the square.

A militia chief attempted to bring Don Minzoni over to his side by offering to make him the chaplain of their group.  Not surprisingly, the priest refused. He did not expect his decision to be well received and an entry in his diary chillingly anticipated his fate:

“With an open heart, with a prayer for my persecutors that will never disappear from my lips, I await the tempest, the persecution, maybe even death, for the cause of Christ to triumph.”

Born into a middle class family in Ravenna, Minzoni chose at an early age to dedicate his life to Christianity and was ordained a priest at the age of 24. He was made deputy pastor in Argenta, a position he held for three years before leaving to study in Bergamo, in Piedmont, where he graduate in 1914.

He was to have returned to Argenta in 1916 to become parish priest of San Nicoló, following the death of the incumbent, but instead was called by the army of the Kingdom of Italy, who asked him to serve as a military chaplain on the Italian north-eastern front. He was awarded the Silver Medal of Military Valour after showing great courage in the field during the Battle of the Piave River.

Don Minzoni is commemorated in the names of streets and squares in many Italian towns and cities
Don Minzoni is commemorated in the names of
streets and squares in many Italian towns and cities
On his return to Argenta at the end of the war, he became politically active, joining Partito Popolare Italiano, a forerunner of the Christian Democrats. His shock at the murder of a socialist union leader with whom he had become friends hardened his dislike of Fascism. He also favoured co-operation between political groups to tackle social problems, which put him at odds with the Fascists. 

His murder was covered extensively by two still relatively free newspapers, Il Popolo and La Voce Repubblicana, who named the perpetrators. When they came to trial, however, Molinari and Casoni along with Balbo were acquitted, the process effectively collapsing because intimidation of journalists and witnesses made a fair hearing impossible.

A re-trial did take place at the end of World War Two, in which Molinari and Casoni were found guilty of second degree murder. Balbo, who had been killed when the plane in which he was a passenger was shot down over Libya in 1940, was absolved of blame.

After the war, Don Minzoni became a symbol of the Italian Catholic Resistance, and many books were written about him. Pope John Paul II recalled his courage in a letter to the Bishop of Ravenna in 1983, on the 60th anniversary of his death, when his remains were moved from the monumental cemetery of Ravenna to the Cathedral of San Nicolò in Argenta.

The Cathedral of San Nicolò di Argenta, with the monument to Don Manzoni in the foreground
The Cathedral of San Nicolò di Argenta, with
the monument to Don Manzoni in the foreground
Travel tip:

Argenta, which is situated about 30 kilometres (19 miles) southeast of Ferrara and a little over 40km (25 miles) northwest of Ravenna, is a town of Roman origin in a flat agricultural region near the Valli di Comacchio lagoon wetlands, much of which is designated as a wildlife sanctuary with many facilities for ornithology.  Situated close to the German Gothic Line, it suffered damage in World War Two. In 1973, a monument to Don Giovanni Minzoni, sculpted in bronze by Angelo Biancini, was placed in front of the Cathedral of San Nicolò di Argenta, when celebrations of his life in the town were inaugurated by the President of the Republic, Giovanni Leone.

The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna is famous for its beautiful Byzantine mosaics
The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna is famous
for its beautiful Byzantine mosaics
Travel tip:

Ravenna, where Giovanni Minzoni was born, became the capital city of the western Roman empire in the fifth century. It is known for its well preserved late Roman and Byzantine architecture and has eight UNESCO world heritage sites. The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in Europe, famous for its superb Byzantine mosaics.  The poet Dante died while living in exile in Ravenna in about 1321. He was buried at the Church of San Pier Maggiore in Ravenna and a tomb was erected there for him in 1483.  Another tomb was built for Dante in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence but despite repeated requests for the return of Dante’s remains to the city of his birth, Ravenna has always refused.

Also on this day:

1945: The birth of teenage pop star Rita Pavone

1943: The birth of guitarist and composer Pino Presti

1974: The death of eminent psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli


15 June 2021

Carlo Scorza - politician and journalist

Blackshirt who was last party secretary of Mussolini’s Fascists 

Carlo Scorza was a prominent figure in Mussolini's notorious Blackshirts
Carlo Scorza was a prominent figure
in Mussolini's notorious Blackshirts
Carlo Scorza, who rose to prominence with the Fascist paramilitary group known as the Blackshirts and was the last party secretary of Benito Mussolini’s regime, was born on this day in 1897 in Paolo, a seaside town in Calabria.

Scorza fought with the Italian Army’s Bersaglieri corps during World War One. After the war he became a member of Mussolini’s fasci italiani di combattimento, the organisation that was the forerunner of the National Fascist Party.

Such was his loyalty to Mussolini even as the course of the Second World War turned against Italy that the dictator appointed him secretary of the party in April 1943, although the position ceased to exist when the party was dissolved in July of that year after Mussolini was deposed as leader and arrested.

After growing up on his father’s small farm in Calabria, Scorza moved with his family to Lucca in Tuscany, where ultimately he studied to be an accountant. He supported Italy’s involvement in the First World War and after joining the Bersaglieri, a highly mobile infantry corps, he rose to the rank of tenente (Lieutenant).

When the conflict ended, Scorza returned to the Lucca area. He joined Mussolini’s party and became involved in acts of violence against communists and socialists in Lucca even before the notorious Voluntary Militia for National Security, commonly known as the Blackshirts, was officially formed in 1923.

After taking part in Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, when Blackshirt paramilitaries entered Rome and effectively forced the king, Victor Emmanuel III, to remove the Liberal prime minister Luigi Facta and appoint Mussolini in his place, Scorza worked as a journalist for a while before being made a chief provincial party officer for Lucca and its province. 

Scorza's loyalty to Mussolini helped land him the job as Fascist part secretary
Scorza's loyalty to Mussolini helped land
him the job as Fascist part secretary
In 1930, Scorza was put in charge of the Fascist youth organisation Gruppo Universitario Fascista and appointed the first editor of Gioventù Fascista, the Fascist Youth magazine. He also founded the Fascist newspaper Il popolo Toscano. The following year he was named as a member of the National Fascist Party’s governing body, the direttorio.

Differences with other members about the direction of the party led to him being dismissed. He left Italy to participate in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and went to Spain to fight on the side of General Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. 

But he returned to Italy in 1940 and remained fiercely loyal to Mussolini and Italy’s participation on the side of Germany in World War Two. In April 1943, with Italy’s continued involvement in the war beginning to be questioned, Mussolini saw Scorza as the hardliner he needed to galvanise support and made him party secretary, replacing Aldo Vidussoni, who was regarded as a weak figure.

Scorza could not turn the party’s fortunes round, however, and by the summer, with parts of the country reeling from repeated Allied bombing raids, many figures in Mussolini’s government wanted to see the end of Italy’s participation in the conflict rather than suffer the consequences of a full-scale invasion.

When Mussolini convened a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on July 24 to discuss how to respond to Allied landings on Sicily, he was instead confronted with a vote to hand back full constitutional powers to the king, which was carried by 19 to eight. Mussolini was arrested the following day.

Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the former ally who helped depose Mussolini
Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the former
ally who helped depose Mussolini
Scorza, who had been one of the eight to oppose the motion, was himself arrested but released soon afterwards. He wrote to Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the former Fascist and ex-Chief of Staff of Mussolini’s army who had been appointed interim prime minister, seeking to become part of the new administration. His offer was not taken up and, fearing he would be re-arrested, Scorza sought refuge for a while in the Monastery of San Francesco in Assisi. 

Eventually, he made his way north, only to be arrested again in Verona, this time by the police of the newly-formed Italian Social Republic, the Fascist state established by the Germans in northern Italy, of which Hitler placed Mussolini in charge following the daring Gran Sasso raid that freed the deposed dictator from his captivity in the mountains of Abruzzo.

He was charged with treason on account of his letter to Badoglio and spared the death penalty only on the intervention of Mussolini himself, who remembered his loyalty, and commuted the sentence to house arrest at Scorza’s home in Cortina d’Ampezzo, in mountainous northern Veneto.

What happened to him subsequently is unclear. It was thought at one point that he had been among the group shot dead by partisans along with Mussolini in 1945 after the former dictator’s attempt to flee to Switzerland was intercepted on the shore of Lake Como.

Later it emerged that Scorza had himself fled to Argentina, where he assumed a different name and worked as a journalist. In his absence, he was tried for his role in a Fascist gang's murder of the socialist politician Giovanni Amendola in 1926 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

He was granted an amnesty in 1955 and subsequently returned to Italy, living a low-profile existence near Florence, where he died in 1988 at the age of 91.

The waterfront at Paolo, captured in a photo taken on a summer's evening
The waterfront at Paolo, captured in a photo
taken on a summer's evening
Travel tip:

The coastal town of Paola, where Carlo Scorza was born, is about 36km (22 miles) west of the city of Cozenza in Calabria, linked by the spectacularly mountainous Strada Statale 107. Paolo combines a modern seaside resort with a medieval centre. It is the birthplace of San Francesco di Paola, the 15th century founder of the Minims, the strictest order of the Franciscans. The Santuario di San Francesco, a monastery with an adjacent basilica, sits above the town.  Paola was the target of air raids in World War Two, largely because of its connection with Scorza, and many citizens sought refuge in the sanctuary. One night, a 80 kg (176 lb) bomb smashed through the roof but did not explode, which was widely regarded as a miracle.

The Corso Italia in Cortina d'Ampezzo, looking towards  the bell tower of Santi Filippo e Giacomo Apostoli
The Corso Italia in Cortina d'Ampezzo, looking towards
 the bell tower of Santi Filippo e Giacomo Apostoli
Travel tip:

Cortina d'Ampezzo, often called simply Cortina, is a town in the southern Dolomites in the Veneto region. Situated in the valley of the Boite river, it was once known as the Queen of the Dolomites. It is a winter sport resort known for its skiing trails, scenery, accommodation, shops and après-ski scene and remains popular with celebrities and European aristocracy. In its heyday in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable, David Niven, Ingrid Bergman, Brigitte Bardot, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton and Alberto Sordi were regular visitors.  Austrian territory until 1918, it was traditionally a regional craft centre, making handmade products appreciated by early British and German holidaymakers as tourism emerged in the late 19th century. Today, the local economy thrives on tourism, particularly during the winter season, when the population of the town typically increases from about 7,000 to 40,000.  

Also on this day:

1479: The birth of Lisa del Giocondo, the subject of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

1801: The birth of philosopher and political writer Carlo Cattaneo

1927: The birth of comic strip cartoonist Hugo Pratt

(Picture credits: Paola by Alfonso Minervino; Cortina d'Ampezzo by Tiia Monto via Wikimedia commons)


6 June 2019

Italo Balbo - Fascist commander

Blackshirt thug turned air commander was Mussolini’s ‘heir apparent’

Italo Balbo was the commander of Italy's air force in the 1930s
Italo Balbo was the commander of
Italy's air force in the 1930s
Italo Balbo, who rose to such a position of seniority in the hierarchy of the Italian Fascists that he was considered the man most likely to succeed Benito Mussolini as leader, was born on this day in 1896 in Quartesana, a village on the outskirts of Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna.

After active service in the First World War, Balbo became the leading Fascist organizer in his home region of Ferrara, leading a gang of Blackshirt thugs who became notorious for their attacks on rival political groups and for carrying out vicious reprisals against striking rural workers on behalf of wealthy landlords.

Later, he was one of the leaders of the March on Rome that brought Mussolini and the Fascists to power in 1922.

As Maresciallo dell'Aria - Marshal of the Air Force - he rebuilt Italy’s aerial warfare capability. At the height of his influence, however, he was sent by Mussolini to be Governor of Italian Libya.

Many believed that Mussolini saw Balbo as a threat and when, early in the Second World War, Balbo was killed when the plane in which he was travelling was shot down - seemingly accidentally - by Italian anti-aircraft guns over Tobruk, there were immediately those among Balbo’s supporters who believed the incident was not an accident.

Balbo (second right), with Mussolini and other Blackshirt leaders of the March on Rome in 1922
Balbo (second right), with Mussolini and other Blackshirt
leaders of the March on Rome in 1922
Balbo had been at odds with Mussolini over the dictator’s race laws, which he deeply opposed. He was also the only leading Fascist to speak out against the alliance with Nazi Germany, on the basis that Italy, he felt, would merely be Hitler’s lackeys in the partnership.  He advocated that Italy should side with the British.

Balbo was politically active from a young age. After Italy initially declared itself as neutral in the First World War, Balbo joined in several pro-war rallies. Once Italy entered the war in 1915, he served with the Italian Royal Army.

He enlisted in the Alpini mountain infantry and won two silver medals for military valour, rising to the rank of captain. Later, after obtaining a degree in Social Sciences in Florence, Balbo went back to Ferrara and joined the Fascist Party, quitting his job as a bank clerk to be branch secretary.

Party members increasingly formed gangs and would behave aggressively towards opponents.  Balbo proved himself as an adept gang commander. For several years, he led a unit called the Celibanisti, named after the squad’s ritual of ordering a specific cherry brandy in the afternoons at Caffè Mozzi in Piazza del Duomo.

An illustration from an American newspaper showing Balbo's squadron
An illustration from an American
newspaper showing Balbo's squadron 
The Celibanisti directed their violence towards Socialist, Communist, and Democratic party members. Balbo was implicated in the murder of a parish priest in Argenta, another town in the Ferrara province, and left the area to move to Rome.

Balbo held a number of senior positions in the Fascist hierarchy under Mussolini, including Commander in Chief of the Militia (1922), Secretary of State for National Economy (1925), Undersecretary of the Air Force (1926), General of the Air Fleet (1928) and Air Minister (1929).

As commander of the air forces, he organised many spectacular displays of air power, often involving formation flying.  His prestige soared after a visit to America in 1933 when, having made it his business to learn to fly, he commanded a squadron of sea planes that flew to Chicago to take part in the Century of Progress Fair.  He was welcomed as a hero and President Roosevelt awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Just as his popularity was growing at home, however, Balbo was ordered to Libya as Governor-General of the Italian colony.

The appointment was an effective exile from politics in Rome, however. Mussolini was wary of Balbo’s close relationship with the suspected anti-Fascist Prince Umberto, the king’s son. Mussolini became so paranoid that he ordered that Italian newspapers could not mention Balbo's name more than once a month.

The site of the crash, including a makeshift grave, in which Balbo died when his place was shot down over Libya
The site of the crash, including a makeshift grave, in which
Balbo died when his place was shot down over Libya
He was an effective leader in Libya. He bolstered the economy by improving railways and roads, including the Litoranea Libica coastal highway which stretched across the Libyan coast.  He was a major supporter of colonising Libya with Italian peasants.  By 1940, approximately 110,000 Italians were living in Libya. Ultimately, 12 per cent of the Libyan population was of Italian origin.

Balbo died on June 28, 1940. He was a passenger on a plane that attempted to land at Tobruk airfield shortly after an attack by British aircraft. Italian anti-aircraft batteries defending the airfield misidentified his aircraft as a British fighter and opened fire. 

His remains were buried outside Tripoli and later moved to the cemetery at Orbetello in Tuscany, close to the airfield from which he flew his sea plane squadron to the United States in 1933, by Balbo's family.  He is buried with many other airmen associated with the base.

The Este Castle at Ferrara in winter snow
The Este Castle at Ferrara in winter snow
Travel tip:

Apart from the impressively well preserved Castello Estense right at the heart of the city, Ferrara - situated midway between Bologna and Venice in Emilia-Romagna - has many notable architectural gems, including many palaces from the 14th and 15th centuries.  Among them is the striking Palazzo dei Diamanti, so-called because the stone blocks of its facade are cut into the shape of diamonds. The palace holds the National Picture Gallery, which houses many works from the  masters of the 16th-century School of Ferrara, including Lorenzo Costa, Dosso Dossi, Girolamo da Carpi and Benvenuto Tisi. Ferrara was ruled by the Este family between 1240 and 1598 and it was they who built the magnificent castle, work on which began in 1385.

The entrance to what remains of the  seaplane base at Orbetello
The entrance to what remains of the
seaplane base at Orbetello
Travel tip:

The remains of the Orbetello seaplane base, the military structure built at the beginning of the century and best known for its links to the squadrons commanded by Italo Balbo, are still visible in the town of Orbetello, which occupies a narrow peninsula surrounded by a natural lagoon on the coast of Tuscany, about 44km (27 miles) south of Grosseto.  The field was used by the German Luftwaffe during the Second World War and the town was therefore hit by frequent air attacks. By the end of the war it was being used as an American base.  Nowadays, it is in a state of semi-abandonment. The western area that was in charge of housing the officers' families is now called Parco delle Crociere and is used as a playground. Some structures are still standing, including the entrance, which bears the name of Agostino Brunetta, a seaplane pilot.


29 October 2017

King appoints Mussolini Prime Minister

Victor Emmanuel turned to Fascist leader after fearing civil war

Victor Emmanuel III
Victor Emmanuel III
Victor Emmanuel III, the king of Italy, invited Benito Mussolini to become Prime Minister on this day in 1922, ushering in the era of Fascist rule in Italy.

History has largely perceived the decision as a moment of weakness on the part of the king, a man of small physical stature who had never been particularly comfortable in his role.

Yet at the time, with violent clashes between socialist supporters and Mussolini’s Blackshirts occurring almost daily with both sides bent on revolution, Victor Emmanuel feared that Italy was on the brink of civil war.

The First World War had been financially crippling for Italy, even though they had emerged with a victory of sorts in that the Austro-Hungarians were finally pushed out of northern Italy.

In the poverty that followed, the country shifted sharply to the left and in the 1919 general election the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) gained 32 per cent of the vote, amounting to 156 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the largest representation in their history.

But for all the support for the PSI, particularly among factory workers in urban areas, there were just as many Italians who felt uncomfortable about their advance, and not only those who belonged to the moneyed elite.  The PSI had aligned themselves with the Russian Bolsheviks and were determined to pursue a strong ultra-left agenda that included the overthrow of bourgeois capitalism, but also threatened, through state seizure of agricultural land, to deny rural workers any prospect of fulfilling their aspiration to own land themselves.

The king with Mussolini in Rome in 1923
The king with Mussolini in Rome in 1923
Ironically, Mussolini had been the leader of this Bolshevik faction of the PSI before the First World War, his own politics having been founded in socialist values.

But he was expelled from the party after going against their opposition to the war and moving towards national syndicalism, which embraced the principle of workers’ collectives owning the means of production but which favoured tight state control and only limited democracy, combined with military expansion to further national growth.

Many similarly displaced former PSI members joined Mussolini in forming the Fascist Revolutionary Party, which evolved into the National Fascist Party.  And though Mussolini’s party differed from the socialists in several areas, it still portrayed itself as being on the side of the people.

Both sides promised to take power away from the ruling classes and politicians by whom many ordinary Italians felt betrayed and though, as a character, he lacked decisiveness, Victor Emmanuel knew he could not allow the social unrest to continue and would have to come down on one side or the other if order were to be restored.

Matters came to a head when he became aware that Mussolini, who had already acquired a considerable following and effective control in parts of northern Italy, was planning an insurrection in which he would lead his Blackshirts in a symbolic March on Rome.  Luigi Facta, the Liberal prime minister, drafted a decree of martial law, having been advised by General Pietro Badoglio to tell Victor Emmanuel his troops could repel the uprising. But after initially indicating he would sign the decree, the king then changed his mind.

Victor Emmanuel overestimated the threat of the Fascists to Rome
Victor Emmanuel overestimated the
threat of the Fascists to Rome
This was partly because he overestimated the number of men likely to take part in the march and the degree to which they would be armed, and partly because he did not trust the army not to take the opportunity to stage a coup. Largely, though, it was because he considered allowing Italy to fall into the hands of the Marxists in the PSI to be unthinkable.

As it happens, having been told that the army would remain loyal to the king, and knowing that the 300,000-strong force he would later claim to have taken part actually amounted a the start to fewer than 10,000, Mussolini was on the point of abandoning the insurrection.

Instead, a few minutes before midnight on October 29, he received a telegram from the king inviting him to Palazzo del Quirinale, the official Rome residence of the monarch and the seat of power. 

By noon the following day, aged only 39, with no previous experience of office and only 35 Fascists deputies in the Chamber, he had been sworn in as President of the Council of Ministers – the Prime Minister.  Rather than marching into Rome to seize power, Mussolini actually travelled to the capital by train.  The march did take place, but as a celebration.

The decision allowed Mussolini to crush the opposition, his thugs continuing to employ the violent methods that had allowed him to dominate northern and central areas of the country before his accession to power to reinforce his rule across the whole of the country.

Mussolini joined the March on Rome, although by then his objective of taking power had been achieved
Mussolini joined the March on Rome, although by then
his objective of taking power had been achieved
Victor Emmanuel’s real crime was to stand aside while all this was taking place, failing to act even when Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist deputy who outspokenly claimed the 1923 election was rigged, was assassinated, with clear evidence that Fascists close to Mussolini were involved.

He allowed Mussolini free rein to abuse his power, to the extent that he had dropped all pretence of democracy within three years, passing a law that decreed that he was no longer answerable to parliament, only to the king.

By the time, in 1943, with Italy again sinking into civil war, Victor Emmanuel ordered Mussolini’s arrest following a Fascist Grand Council vote to remove him as leader, the Italian royal family by their association with Fascism were irreversibly discredited.

The Palazzo del Quirinale used to be the royal residence in Rome
The Palazzo del Quirinale used to be the royal residence in Rome
Travel tip:

The Palazzo del Quirinale, a vast complex 20 times larger than the White House and a seat of power in Italy since it was built in 1583, sits on the top of Quirinal Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome.  It has been the official residence of 30 popes – it was built originally as a summer residence for Pope Gregory XIII – four kings of Italy and 12 presidents of the Italian republic. It became a royal palace after the unification of Italy in 1871, although Victor Emmanuel III preferred to live elsewhere, in the Villa Savoia, a house set in parkland in the northern part of the city.

The church of San Sepolcro in the square of the same name in central Milan, where Mussolini launched his Fascist party
The church of San Sepolcro in the square of the same name
in central Milan, where Mussolini launched his Fascist party
Travel tip:

The roots of the Mussolini’s National Fascist Party can be traced back to a rally that took place in Milan’s Piazza San Sepolcro on March 23, 1919, when the expelled former official of the Italian Socialist Party launched a fascio – the word in use it Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century to describe any political group.  His Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (roughly translated: Italian League of Combatants) was initially meant to represent combatants from the First World War angered at the failure of the king and state to secure the appropriate rewards for Italy after the sacrifices made by Italian soldiers in achieving a victory.  The Piazza san Sepolcro is in the centre of Milan, a few streets away from the Duomo, just behind the Ambrosian Library.