Flying Rats I

Struggle is the origin of all things, for life is filled with opposites: love and hate, white and black, day and night, good and evil. And as long as these opposites do not maintain a balance, struggle will determine human nature as the final power of fate.

Mussolini

With victory over Abyssinia, Italy erupted in jubilation. Adowa had been avenged. The Italian tricolor waving over Addis Ababa was a glorious sight to the Duce’s fellow countrymen. But henceforward, with only two brief intervals, they would be at war for the next nine years.

The smoke of battle had hardly cleared over East Africa when Mussolini received an urgent appeal for help from Francisco Franco, leader of the Nationalist cause in Spain. In February 1936, a liberal-leftist coalition calling itself a ‘Popular Front’ won the country’s national elections by a slim margin. Immediately thereafter, radical socialists in the coalition pushed loudly for revolution. All political organizations and newspapers outside the far Left were criminalized, churches vandalized, nuns raped and priests beaten to death by incensed mobs raging through the streets of Madrid and Barcelona. Strikes spread everywhere, as military uprisings reduced the country to anarchy. On 26 July, the watchful Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, took advantage of Spanish internal distress, which he saw as an opportunity for establishing his long-dreamt-of foothold in Western Europe.

He dispatched more than 2,000 ‘military advisors’ to the new government leaders, who liquidated their liberal predecessors in the best Stalinist tradition, then set up an openly Marxist regime in Madrid, calling themselves, ‘Republicans’. Soon, 240 warplanes, 1,200 artillery pieces, and 700 tanks poured into Spain from the USSR. Soviet aid did not come cheap though, and Stalin had no qualms about bilking fellow Communists for more than $315 million, which represented Madrid’s entire gold reserve.

To counter the influx of men and arms from Russia, the Nationalists needed to transfer their army, stranded by these chaotic events in Morocco, to Iberian battlefields at once. But they lacked the means to do so. “Could we Fascists leave without answer that cry,” the Duce asked, “and remain indifferent in the face of the perpetuation of such bloody crimes committed by the so-called ‘Popular Fronts’? No. Thus our first squadron of warplanes left on 27 July 1936, and that same day we had our first dead.”

For his part, Hitler ordered an air fleet of transport planes to North Africa, from which they ferried the Nationalist army to Spain. He thus envisioned and enacted the first military airlift in history. As the Führer remarked later, “Franco ought to build a monument to the Ju-52”. The Junkers Ju-52, affectionately known as Tante Ju, or ‘Aunty Ju’, by its crews, was the aircraft that flew in Nationalist troops from North Africa. In fact, aviation was to play a more pivotal role in the Spanish Civil War than any previous conflict, and proved to be its decisive factor.

Most mainstream historians, discounting another influential component–ideological rivalry–have long insisted that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were only interested in the conflict as an opportunity to test their weapons for a future, more serious confrontation. But larger considerations were actually at stake. Hitler eventually regretted his aid to the Nationalists, because Franco later declined to reciprocate when Germany wanted Andalusian bases for the capture of Gibraltar. Mussolini was genuinely alarmed at the prospect of a Red presence in the Mediterranean, however. The venerable Continent seemed about to be surrounded, especially in view of Stalin’s oft-repeated promise to transform the world into “a dictatorship of the proletariat” (i.e., the Soviet state) during his lifetime.

Franco’s appeal for help coincided with important, not unrelated events inside Italy itself. Beginning three years earlier, Mussolini had been faced with the most serious challenge to his power since he became Prime Minister. Giustiziae e Liberta was a well-financed, competently led underground of dedicated anti-Fascists formed in Turin. Although propaganda activities took place mostly in the city’s working class districts, specifically targeting the important Fiat manufacturing plant there, its leadership was made up mostly of upper middle class intellectuals, many of them with influential university positions.

They did not confine themselves to surreptitiously distributing handbills critical of the regime, but sought recruitment for its violent overthrow. Assassination of Fascist leaders, not excepting the Duce himself, was advocated and planned, and activists were busy infiltrating several important institutions, especially newspapers and schools. Although Giustiziae e Liberta organizers seemed to steer an indefinite political middle-road, the movement’s Marxist sympathies were not easily disguised, and their appeal to former leftists was beginning to attract followers among academics at some major northern universities.

Giustiziae e Liberta was a child of its time. With Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, Stalin was concerned that Fascism, no longer confined to Italy, was spreading, and needed to be stopped. Similar movements during the 1930s were active in virtually every European country, where supporters, like those of Britain’s Sir Oswald Moseley or Holland’s Anton Mussert, ran, collectively, into the hundreds of thousands. Soviet operatives were watched with growing concern by agents of OVRA, the Organizazione Vigilanza Repressione Antifascismo, or Fascist secret police. When moderate Fascists expressed misgivings about the implications of such a clandestine arm of government, Mussolini reminded them that even the benevolent Emperor Hadrian found need for a similar organization, the frumentarii. “Whenever respect for the State declines,” he said, “and the disintegrating and centrifugal tendencies of individuals and groups prevail, nations are headed for decay.”

After three months of investigation, the authorities were alarmed to discover that Giustiziae e Liberta was a hybrid underground of native Italian Communists and professionally-trained propagandists (some of them expert saboteurs) who had covertly entered the country from the Soviet Union. And the anti-Fascist underground found particularly fertile ground among the country’s numerically insignificant Jewish communities, mostly in Turin. One of its members later immigrated to England, where Massimo Coen’s Parla Londra! (‘London Calling!’) was a series of radio broadcasts blasting Mussolini in the Italian language and which were heard around the world. In fact, the founder of Giustiziae e Liberta, Tancredi Duccio Galimberti, was himself a Jew.

From its inception, however, Fascism was not inherently anti-Semitic, with minimal Jewish participation in its revolution, although some Jews held key positions in government, like the Grand Rabbi of Rome, who was likewise the capital’s political leader. During an interview in 1932 with the famous German-Jewish author and journalist, Emil Ludwig (patronym Cohn), Mussolini condemned anti-Semitism as divisive and “not part of the new Italy. Race: it is a feeling, not a reality. Ninety-five per cent a feeling”. Yet, he spoke out against the Jews in no uncertain terms for the first time just a year later, in August, when he felt his regime was seriously jeopardized by Giustiziae e Liberta. The following month, as some indication of his change of sentiment, he sent a personal delegation to the Nazis’ national congress in Nuremberg. It was headed by Professor Arturo Marpicati, Vice Secretary of the Fascist Party, who was allowed to address the delegates in Italian, and, for the first time, publicly broached the subject of cooperation between the two ideologically kindred movements.

In standard biographies of Mussolini he is portrayed as initially indifferent to the Jews, and only assumed the guise of anti-Semite in 1938 to curry Hitler’s favor. Actually, it was his fear of Giustiziae e Liberta with its Communist activists that elicited his first hostile statements about the ‘Jewish Question’ in 1933. The Race Law he passed five years later was exceptionally mild in comparison with Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, and did little more than forbid marriages between Italians and Jews.

The armed forces, police and all Fascist organizations were henceforward closed to Jews, but the royal House of Savoy, which effectively controlled the Army and Navy, prevented all Jews already enlisted from being removed. Even in the Fascist Party and government, their few Jewish members mostly continued to serve unmolested. During the war, Adolf Eichmann complained to his SS superiors that the French, Yugoslav and Greek zones occupied by Italians had become ‘Jewish refuges’. Italy’s Race Law mostly impacted Italian education, where schools of every level were required to teach students about ‘Jewish perfidy’.

Years before the passage of this anti-Semitic legislation, Mussolini was an ardent Zionist, going so far as to initiate important contacts with leading figures in the movement, including Bernard Baruch. The Duce heartily agreed that the only solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ was the creation of a Jewish state, where the world’s Jews could be resettled. At one time, he even proposed setting aside territory in conquered Abyssinia as ideally suited for the creation of a 20th Century Israel, if only because large numbers of Falasha Ethiopians already regarded themselves as Jewish. Baruch declined the offer on the grounds that urbanized Jews in the United States or Europe would never consent to living in East Africa. The Duce was somewhat put off by his rejection.

“If Ethiopia is good enough for my Italians,” he sniffed, “why isn’t it good enough for your Jews? You tell me they have been horribly persecuted in many parts of the world. If so, I imagine they would be happy to find refuge anywhere they can live in peace. Well, no one can say I didn’t try. It will take a more adept statesman than myself to solve this age-old problem to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Henceforward, Mussolini’s ardor for Zionist solutions noticeably cooled.

For nearly three years, an intense, underground war was waged between determined OVRA operatives and elusive Giustiziae e Liberta subversives. whose influence in northern Italy appears to have peaked by mid-1935. War in Ethiopia that year generated a national wave of patriotic fervor that mostly extinguished anti-Fascist activism, succeeding where OVRA’s counter-subversive measures failed. Even Vittorio Emanuelle Orlando, the prominent and outspokenly anti-Fascist liberal politician ousted from office by Mussolini after the March on Rome, arose from the obscurity of his legal practice to loudly praise the Ethiopian Campaign.6 Thanks to majority public support for the invasion, the fires of resistance were effectively dampened, although they were not entirely extinguished, and smoldered unseen until, eight years later, the changing winds of Mussolini’s fortune fanned them to life once again.

As some measure of Giustiziae e Liberta’s impact on the regime, of the 4,000 persons in Italy arrested for anti-government activities between 1927 and 1940, more than half took place from 1933 to 1936, the underground movement’s brief years of florescence. So too, eight of the ten men and women executed by the Fascists in that same thirteen-year period belonged to Giustiziae e Liberta.

Despite accusations of political oppression, Mussolini showed an early clemency toward his opponents he later came to regret. His most public enemy prior to achieving power in 1922 was Palmiro Togliatti, founder of the Italian Communist Party. After the March on Rome, Togliatti was unmolested until 1926, when, frustrated by Fascism’s spreading popularity, he began working underground for a Socialist revival. When that also failed, he fled to Moscow, but, courtesy of the Anglo-American invasion of Italy, returned during March 1944 to reestablish the Communist movement there.

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