Review of Sergio Luzzatto, Primo Levi’s Resistance. Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy, Metropolitan Books, 2016.
Divided Memories and Italy
Twentieth century Italian history is marked by divisions over the past, myths, and disputes over facts. Divided memories have developed over time and have become part of the landscape, expressed through competing monuments, plaques, anniversaries and ‘memoryscapes’. Historians in Italy have usually lined up on one side or the other of these divides – be they fascist/anti-fascist, or communist/anti-communist. History has been both intensely public – historians are public figures in Italy in a way they are not in the UK or the US – and deeply politicised. This has affected both what has been studied (some subjects have been taboo) and how it has been studied.
Within this landscape, Sergio Luzzatto has ploughed a very different furrow. His work comes at Italy’s history from unusual angles, unmasking uncomfortable truths through his choice of subject matter and his uncompromising approach to it. His brilliant study, for example, of Benito Mussolini’s corpse and its complicated after-life tells us much more about fascism than many more orthodox works. The same is true of his smaller and less well-known work about the body of the ‘father of Italy’, Giuseppe Mazzini (published as The Mummy of the Republic). His methodology is highly original – a mix of micro-history, ego-history (he often places himself, and his own role as a historian, at the centre of what he does) and deeply serious archival research. He is also a story-teller of some skill and a fine writer. His books are gripping, scholarly and controversial – all at the same time. And he is not afraid to take on some of the most difficult subjects for the left to cope with – the popularity of religion, the real strength and power of anti-fascism, the distortions and lies of history itself.
Luzzatto’s mixture of strategies and methodologies was displayed most strikingly in his powerful study of the life of Padre Pio, a monk from the deep south of Italy whose cult has developed a mass following. The decision to study Padre Pio was, in itself, a controversial one. No historian of note had ever taken this story seriously. What emerged was a fascinating detective story, full of lies, bitter disputes within the Church, politics and violence. Luzzatto’s research effectively unmasked Padre Pio – who claimed to ‘have’ ‘stigmata’ as a fraud. But the book goes way beyond this kind of simple debunking of a myth. Luzzatto shows how the rise and rise of Padre Pio (whose cult is now very big business indeed) was deeply entwined with fascism and with his local, southern, milieu. The Padre Pio story is deeply revealing about contemporary Italy, but up to now, it has been almost entirely ignored by historians. Luzzatto takes us deep into the heart of the cult, and in the process introduces us to a series of entertaining and ruthless mediators and middle-men, which propagated and profited from the cult they had helped to create.
Primo Levi, Partisan
Now, Sergio Luzzatto has taken on one of the most sacred cows of all: Primo Levi himself, perhaps the greatest writer to emerge from the Shoah. In doing so, he is also engaging head on with the myth of the anti-fascist resistance, which fought against Italian fascists and the Nazis in Italy between 1943 and 1945. Luzzatto himself is a man of the left, and is also part of the tiny Jewish community by birth. In using his forensic historical tools to look more deeply at the life of Primo Levi and the history and memory of the Resistance, Luzzatto is, in many ways, taking on himself and his own history and sense of tradition.
This book is an almost perverse choice in this sense, seemingly designed to cut him off from family and friends and colleagues. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that Einaudi, the prestigious publishing house in Turin which had published most of Luzzatto’s previous works, and which had famously (or infamously) first rejected then published Levi’s If this is a man, felt unable to bring out this book. Luzzatto went elsewhere, to Silvio Berlusconi’s Mondadori publishing house. Whatever else Primo Levi’s Resistance is, it is certainly a break with the past – and it has caused great controversy in Italy.
But in order to understand Luzzatto’s take on Primo Levi and his role in the Resistance, we need to take a stape back, and examine the Resistance itself.
When I lived in Italy in the 1990s and 2000s, some friends rented a weekend house for a few years at a tiny place called Quarna. We would often visit them there. A short drive from Milan takes you to the edge of Lago d’Orta, a stunning sliver of water encased by hills, and well off the tourist trails which mark its larger and much more well-known neighbours – Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. The road there takes you alongside the water to an industrial town called Omegna – where they make those little Bialetti coffee machines that you find all over the country (and now in trendy bars across the world).
You then wind quickly up into the hills, via a series of hairpin bends. The homes here are not particularly sought after. You are off the beaten track and the sun struggles to break through the thick vegetation; it always felt cold there, even in the summer.
We would often drive up from the house to the top of the hills, out of the woods – where the mountains begin – towards the light and sun. Here there was a beautiful field with a stunning view of the finger-like lake below, stretched out and shimmering. A few rural houses and barns were stretched across the top of the field. One of them has a little plaque on it. It is a simple plaque, recording the fact that a few people gathered at that spot in the Autumn of 1943. But it is also an important sign – a slab of marble that marks the very beginnings of what would become known as The Resistance – La Resistenza.
Between September 1943 and April 1945 thousands of men and women joined and fought in the Italian resistance. To do so, they often ‘went up’ to the mountains, where they came together in small groups that spontaneously formed all over Northern Italy in particular. These people were from all walks of life and a held a variety of political positions. Some were convinced Communists or Socialists or Anarchists, others were Christian Democrats. Many were simply soldiers on the run, and the Resistance (especially in the early days) often linked up with foreign ex-POWs (in Italy there were numerous Allied soldiers in the hills and mountains, as well as Russians, Yugoslavs and numerous others). These tiny groups struggled to survive in those early days, when they were highly vulnerable to attack and infiltration. Their activities were largely improvised and they relied on local peasants for shelter and food (and non-betrayal). The issue of leadership and discipline was an extremely important one right from the start. This story has often been told in heroic terms, but also in more realistic and non-rhetorical ways through fiction, non-fiction, film, poetry, cinema and other cultural forms.
Italy’s anti-fascist resistance was made up of hundreds of similar and equally humble beginnings. These improntu groups, with whatever arms they could get hold of, started to attack the Nazis and the Italian fascists. Many such groups were short-lived, others were much more successful. Very little of what happened with the early resistance was planned. People decided to fight back. They heard about groups forming, and they joined them. It was even clear what they would actually do. It was a nasty, brutal war: a civil war and a war of liberation at the same time. Some also saw it as a class war – a form of revolution.
Debunking the Resistance
Yet, Sergio Luzzatto’s Primo Levi’s Resistance is not really a book about Primo Levi, and it is even less a book about Primo Levi as a partisan. This is not surprising, as Primo Levi was only a partisan for a mere 3 months – and it is unclear exactly what he did when he was an active member of the resistamce. So short was his time in the resistance that it is a bit of a stretch to call him a ‘partisan’ at all. He took part in no battles, and almost certainly didn’t kill anybody at all. It’s not even clear if he knew how to use a gun.
He did make a clear choice – to join the resistance – but this was in also, in part, dictated by the fact that his family was on the run and in hiding in the mountains to the North of Turin – the Aosta Valley – in 1943. He made so little impact that, after his capture, he was able to argue that he hadn’t been a partisan at all, in a misplaced attempt to avoid immediate execution. By declaring himself a Jew on the run (which he had been at first) his fate would – as we all know – be deportation: to Auschwitz.
So, the three months of Levi’s time in the resistance does not really hold enough interest (or even material) to sustain an entire book (and Levi himself wrote very little about that period of his life). But it does allow Luzzatto to produce another kind of book altogether. Primo Levi’s time as a partisan is the spark for a study of the Resistance itself – its vicissitudes, its betrayals, its tragedies, its absurdities, its failures and its heroism. Levi is the hook for this story, but he is not even the main character – nor even (I would argue) the one Luzzatto is most interested in.
By debunking the Resistance with a capital R, Luzzatto gives us the real resistance – with all its failures, tragedies and petty disputes. Luzzatto is taking down a myth (or perhaps two myths – that of Levi and that of the Resistance) but his work enrichens both those stories. Like the novels of Fenoglio or Meneghello or Calvino, his intensely anti-rhetorical version of that past increases the power of those men and women who decided to take up arms. And often, as Luzzatto shows, the failed miserably to make any impact at all.
The miniscule grouping of which Levi was a part was quickly infiltrated by a wily and intelligent spy, and rounded up. They left no mark on the history of the resistance, nor on the history of Italy – but some of that group would go on to play a major role in other parts of Italy and other groupings. Levi meanwhile was arrested and within weeks found himself on the ramp at Auschwitz, separated from his fellow deportees and sent to work. He would not return to Italy until 1946.
So what is it about this Levi story (the Levi story which nobody else has really been interested in[i]) that so fascinates Luzzatto? There are two answers to this question. First, there is the issue of the violence within the resistance. Luzzatto concentrates much of his analysis and story on the execution of two young men by other partisans from Levi’s group (this is shorthand – Levi was never the leader of this group, nor is there any evidence that he took any kind of leading role in decisions) just before the capture of the entire band.
Luzzatto ruminates about this case of partisan justice – and he shows how a false version of the past has entered into public memory. This is still a taboo subject in Italy. But there are no great revelations here. There is no smoking gun, or smoking document. These are stories that have been told – less well – about other similar events in similar places. Unlike with Padre Pio, who Luzzatto effectively unmasked (while arguiing, quite rightly, that this wasn’t the most important thing about his story at all – in historical terms) we are not really shown a new side to Primo Levi. What the book does do is go deep into the resistance and its brutal, dirty, fragile, chaotic and almost mundane reality, especially in those early days. Levi is a pretext for another set of stories, many of which are linked in some way to Luzzatto’s own journey into the past.
The full story of these lonely (and fairly pointless) deaths will have to await the reader of this volume – there are elements that are very close to detective work here and if I were to reveal them it would spoil the denouement. Suffice to say, these executions represented – according to Luzzatto – a trauma that remained with Levi throughout his life. The very mention of such events is also something that leads a historian on the left into a whole series of difficult areas. Why were these young men killed? How were they remembered (or forgotten)? Should these stories be told at all (in a political sense)? What was ‘partisan justice’ at all? What right did one ‘partisan’ have to kill another (often on the basis of very flimsy evidence)?
Luzzatto is a marvellous story-teller, and is adept at painting a geographical picture of where his action takes place. We really feel the spaces and heights and isolation of the cliffs and farmhouses in the Aosta Valley – and the stark beauty of the views they afforded those hiding out there. He transports us to these places. As he writes ‘History must be purseud on foot and not just read’.
And the resistance itself was largely fought on foot, without access to sophisticated equipment, with no air power or motorised divisions. It was a guerilla war, without uniforms and with whatever guns and ammunition these improntu groups could get their hands on. Death often came quickly, and it was often a lonely end. Bodies were simply left behind, often in unmarked graves. When partisans were taken prisoner, they were often simply shot. In turn, they had no resources and no prisons to keep any hostages for long. The rules of war were not applied to this war. For the Nazis, the partisans were bandits, criminals, not real soldiers – and they were usually Italians, who had ‘betrayed’ Germany in September 1943 by leaving the war and changing sides. The civil war between Italians was even more violent, if possible, and was mixed with social hatred and years of built-up-tension under the regime.
The Fascist Spy and post-war Italy
The other part of the story that Luzzatto becomes fascinated by is that of a fascist spy – Edilio Cagni – the man who infiltrated Levi’s nascent group and was responsible for his capture. Again, too much detail here would ruin the story for the reader. Nonetheless, it is Cagni who is, in many ways, the real protagonist of this book. An extraordinary double-dealer, agent provocateur and profiteer, Cagni moves through the book as a kind of cipher, turning up at various points in places where he has no right to be (in prison, out of prison, in Rome). It was easy for Cagni and a fellow spy to outfox the young partisans and prepare them for capture. The very openness of the early resistance made it very vulnerable to activities of this kind. Cagni did not only infiltrate those first partisan groups up in parts of the Aosta Valley, but he also testified against resistance leaders in Turin. Many of those convicted at those trials were shot as a result. They became Resistance martyrs – remembered with plaques and ceremonies in the post-war period.
Cagni’s story is, in itself, absolutely gripping. But it also tells us a great deal about Italy and its relationship with its fascist past. Why (and how) did the Cagnis of Italy get away with it? How did those who had done the dirty work for fascism – the direct identification can capture of partisans – end up living a normal life in the country’s capital, despite numerous trial. Why wasn’t Italy purged of these kind of people, and – with no serious purges – what did this mean for anti-fascist Italy? Were the Cagnis of Italy the real winners from the war?
Cagni’s extraordinary life encapsulates a type of character that comes up very often for those writing about Italian history – the turncoat, the adventurer, the ‘transformist’ type figure – who move between different worlds and seem to get off scot-free. Luzzatto seems to delight in the telling of Cagni’s story – leading us down the highways and byways of a historian’s life and its obssessions – with endless googling, the sudden discovery of a key document or piece of information, the disappointment at the discovery that somebody crucial has died, the huge gaps, and a trail which goes completely dead. There almost seem to be 3 or 4 Cagnis at any one time of the story – a Cagni who has gone through the official justice channels and is supposedly in prison, and another ‘Cagni’ out and about on the streets, seemingly oblivious to the charges against him. Cagni is described by Luzzatto as a ‘pure and dinstinterested hunter of human prey’.
Luzzatto the Historian
Luzzatto likes to reveal his working methods. He often refers to himself in the first person. A pompous academic word for this is inter-subjectivity – but it is never done in a self-aggrandizing way and it makes for a fascinating read. Historians don’t often do this – put themselves into the story, tell us about how they are doing what they are doing, reflect on their ‘craft’ and their ‘role’. On more than one occasion Luzzatto’s splits into two – Luzzatto the Levi fan – the Levi obsessive perhaps – and Luzzatto in the loftier role of historian, judging things from above, relying on documents and information – not guesswork – not allowing his emotions or political outlook to get in the way or cloud his judgement. But there are times when the mask slips – when these ‘two Luzzattos’ get confuse – or merge. And Luzzatto – through his research – also changes history – and memory. His research changes the accepted facts – forcing some relatives of the dead into the difficult position of re-evaluating the past – with possible traumatic effects. At what point, Luzzatto seems to be saying at times, should we stop. Should historians play god? Is there a limit to how far we can dig around?
The partisan execution story told by Luzzatto is also one of false memory and cover-ups. The victims were commemorated as if he had died a hero – and it is Luzzatto who unmasks the truth. And this was certainly not the only case of this kind in post-war Italy. Take, for example, the story of a partisan called Dante Castellucci (‘Facio’) who was active in the mountains above Parma. In post-war Italy Facio was remembered as a hero with plaques and medals, but he had been shot by his own side after a summary trial, and almost certainly for political reasons. It was not until very recently that the truth about Facio’s death was finally revealed.
Criticisms and Ego-History
But Primo Levi’s Resistance is also a book with some important limitations. Perhaps most seriously of all is the gap between the documentation available and the story Luzzatto wants to tell about Primo Levi himself – as a partisan. Is Luzzatto, for example, over-reading the tiny pieces of writing Levi dedicated to those three months. These are, after all just fragments in the grand scheme of what became a vast literary and journalistic production, over a lifetime, as can be seen in the enormous three-volume Complete Works recently published in the US by Liveright). At the very least, the English-language title is misleading, and the subtitle isn’t much help either.
As if to offset these possible objections, which must have tormented him (but probably were also stimulating) Luzzatto starts with a personal reflection – a memory of being read to by his mother at the ages of ‘ten maybe eleven’. The book was not a classic children’s book, but a collection of letters written by partisans condemned to death.[ii] This was almost a sacred text for many of the left in the post-war period. Luzzaato explains that he will also, one day, when the time is right, give that book to his own children. But he has no illusions about many young people in today’s ‘post-anti-fascist’ Italy, where ‘the values of anti-fascism’ for his students ‘are almost as alien as the fraudulent truths of Fascism’.
Luzzatto draws big conclusions in this book from a tiny moment of history, and tends to magnify the importance of those lonely partisan executions in Levi’s own work (the key references are to one chapter in The Periodic Table, a poem, and a few other fragments and clues). This is problematic, and has been criticized by Levi experts. There is, at times, a sense that Luzzatto is over-selling the reasons behind this book. ‘Why’, Luzzatto asks (and asks himself) ‘spend so much time on something that seemed no more than a micro-history … ‘. Was this, in reality, a ‘ridiculously small story’. These are good points, made by Luzzatto himself. It is almost as if he is anticipating the criticism to come.
And beyond Levi’s own story, Luzzatto was well aware that he was entering dangerous ground. Research on violence within the Resistance has certainly taken place in recent years – and there are now many well-known stories in the public domain – of political killings or of partisan justice. But there is still, at times, a sense that you should not really be looking into these grey areas – that it is a kind of betrayal to even go there at all. Is Luzzatto’s real point that nothing is ever clear-cut – even with someone like Primo Levi. That Levi had his own ‘grey zone’, from his past?
Primo Levi’s time as a partisan was, by any measure, the most micro of micro-histories. The stories connected to those three months are not particularly unusual, nor are they ground-breaking. The only reason, really, for devoting so much time to those three months is the presence of Primo Levi himself – who didn’t even play a major role in the events described here. This might be a fatal blow for another historian – but for Luzzatto – who revels in the detail and even in the mundanity of some of what he recounts – it is not. But there remains the charge of bad taste, at the very least. By elevating this moment in Levi’s life to one of great importance, there is a danger of losing sight of Auschwitz itself. Was that time in the mountains really so important?
Purging the Fascists
Much of the book is not taken up by the resistance itself, but by its legacy, and the fates of those who had fought on either side of the divide. As Luzzatto writes ‘the Italian civil war was too lengthy and too cruel to end quickly and painlessly’. Many thousands of fascists – and many others – were killed in the aftermath of the official end of the war. This was the ‘settling of accounts’ – the ‘resa dei conti’ – a period which has proved so controversial in Italy in recent years. As one anti-fascist wrote of the partisans after the liberation ‘they were looking for people to put up against the wall’. Beppe Fenoglio – perhaps the greatest writer to emerge from the Resistance – put these words into the mouths of one of his characters in the same period ‘all of them, you must kill them all’. It was brutal. And, for leading fascists, the best thing of all – the safest thing – was to end up in the hands of the Allies. The days of killing quickly came to a stop. If you survived that first week or so, you had a very good chance not just of making it alive, but also of getting off scot free.
Italy’s purging process was notoriously limp and uneven. Many fascists simply continued to occupy positions of power. No Italian war criminals were prosecuted for war crimes. There were not Italians on trial at Nuremberg, and there was no ‘Italian Nuremberg’. Luzzatto maps out this process for the characters from his own micro-history in excruciating detail. He shows how the drip-drip of amnesty, the absurdly long judicial processes involved and the increasing importance of the cold war helped leading fascists escape punishment. The most absurd case told here is that of the arch-spy himself – Cagni.
Cagni’s story is exemplary, but also – in retrospect – difficult to believe. His first trial was meant to take place in April 1946. Already, by then, the revolutionary wave had passed. The partisans had (mostly) put away their guns. Some had even ended up in prison – or in asylums (but this is another story) themselves. The ‘wind from the north’ – the wave of radical change from the resistance – was far weaker than it had been just a year before. Primo Levi also gave evidence to that trail. Cagni, at this first trial, was given the death sentence. But he appealed immediately.
An amnesty in June 1946 – passed by Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti – led to thousands of ex-fascists being released from prison. Togliatti sold this to his members as a necessary measure in order to prevent civil war, but it caused widespread anger and numerous protests. Some ex-partisans even ‘returned’ to the mountains. Occasionally there were riots and protest strikes (once such case is described in detail by Luzzatto). But the Communist Party leadership held firm.
Other judges would be more lenient. The political and anti-fascist push of those early trials was not repeated as they moved city, and fewer and fewer witnesses could be bothered to turn up. Cagni also had a good series of lawyers. Soon, the original sentence was quashed and a new trial was planned. Only one witness would turn up to testify against Cagni in 1947. The death sentence was no longer possible and Cagni’s lawyer appealed yet again – this time to the even more conservative higher court – the Court of Cassation. Predictably, for those who have studied such things, the Cassation Court was kind to Cagni.
There would be yet another new trial, this time in Viterbo not far from Rome (and from the ‘revolutionary north’). It was now October 1949. Cagni’s judicial process was still dragging on. A 20-year sentence was handed down, but this was reduced to just over six years thanks to amnesties and the period he had already served. Soon (too soon, surely) Cagni was a free man. By 1950 he was living in Rome. Despite his role in numerous arrests and his direct part in the executions of resistance leaders, he could now live a normal life. But Luzzatto, tantalizingly, does not give us much information on Cagni’s ‘second life’. He appears to have (in the end) given up his search. ‘Each reader’ he concludes ‘can individually imagine what became of Edilio Cagni’.
Memory is another key area where Luzzatto is both sharp and unyielding. He shows how the dead were used and re-used – as martyrs, as heroes (even when they clearly weren’t) for either side (in the civil war) or by the Italian state. The needs of memory often took precedence over those of history, or truth. There were, in fact, many cases of false medals and blatant lies in the post-war period. Only brave historians and others would expose such falsehoods – and it would often take years for them to do so. Luzzatto himself reveals one particularly grotesque case of falsified memory in his book – where a young man shot by his own side is described as having died ‘heroically for the liberation of Italy’.
What kind of Italy emerged from the resistance? Would it be the Italy of Levi, or the Italy of Cagni? Or, perhaps, it would be an Italy where both Levi and Cagni would co-exist (without ever meeting again). The one, after a long period of relative silence, would go on to become a public figure, and the key chronicler of the holocaust for many. The other would live out his life in relative obscurity, and take his many secrets to the grave with him. Luzzatto is interested in telling both of their stories, but not around a binary and simplistic idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Italy. Both Cagni and Levi and their complicated lives help us understand the war, the resistance and the multiple, divided and sometimes false memories and histories which emerged from that dirty, brutal and multi-faceted conflict.
[i] Although there is another book on the subject now available in Italian, Freidan Sassy’s, which Luzzatto describes rather haughtily as ‘fairly modest’ in a footnote, and doesn’t refer to again (despite by now having had time to do so).
[ii] P. Malvezzi and G. Pirelli eds., Lettere ai condannati a morte della Resistenza italiana (8 September 1943-25 April 1945) (Turin, Einaudi, 1952).