Today is Liberation Day – a public holiday celebrating the end of the Second World War in the Nazi-occupied half of Italy. That date seventy three years ago marked the culmination of a two year period following the dismissal of Mussolini when the territory was under the nazifascist regime of the two dictators. It was a tragic but immensely inspiring period when the antifascist alliance of partisans, workers, and others courageously and ultimately successfully defeated totalitarianism and racism. A celebration of their huge contribution in regaining the honour of Italy and laying the foundations of the current democratic constitution was held this morning on the lakeside with wreaths laid at the Monument to European Resistance. The speeches made afterwards stressed the unique cross-party collaboration in the antifascist alliance whilst the representative from ANPI (National Association of Italian Partisans ) spoke eloquently for ever greater European unification and ongoing antifascist resistance to combat the increase in both explicit and implicit fascist attitudes and the corresponding growth in racist and nationalist rhetoric.
From 1st to 8th March 1944, the call for a general strike supported by the Committee for National Liberation (CLN) but organised primarily by the Italian Communist Party (PCI) made clear the determination of the workers in the occupied part of the country to stand up to the authorities and to work alongside the partisans’ armed struggle in liberating the country – something they achieved a year later in the general industrial and armed insurrection on April 25th seventy three years ago. Workers in factories in the city and province of Como took an active part in these strikes paying dearly through imprisonment of the organisers and deportation into Nazi labour camps of many others.
On April 25th 1945, at 5.00am the Como workers got up as usual and went to catch the trams out to the factories on the edge of town or in the province. The factory sirens sounded as usual to signal the start of the working day. However leaders of the Como branch of the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) got the trams to wait on standby to ferry the workers back into town since the sirens soon sounded again to start a general strike. The trams thus carried all back for a mass demonstration in Piazza Duomo scheduled for 10.00am. A group of workers were delegated to go up to the De Cristoforis army barracks to arm themselves with seized weapons. Meanwhile Mussolini on this very same day left Milan which was now witnessing a general insurrection following four days of strike action. He and his wife stayed the night in Como where hostile crowds were gathering. He left the following morning in his bid to escape Italy hidden within a column of retreating German soldiers. (See 25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection for details of Mussolini’s flight from Como). The long war and the even longer period of Italian fascism thus ended – on Liberation Day.
1943 to the General Strike, 1st March 1944
Yet Italian fascism should have ended on 26th July 1943 when King Vittorio Emanuele III dismissed Mussolini, only to have him re-imposed on the Italians by Hitler on September 8th as head of the puppet state known as the Republic of Salò (RSI – Socialist Republic of Italy). But his government was perceived by many as entirely illegitimate. The invasion by the Germans and the return of Mussolini were conjoined in the word ‘nazifascist’ and so readily rejected maybe because the nationalism nurtured by Italian fascism since 1922 could hardly be reconciled with the country’s occupation by a foreign power. This was just one contradiction too many for fascism to overcome. Opposition to the regime came from all sectors of society – royalists, many Catholics, socialists and most definitely the communists. On September 8th 1943 opposition to German occupation became associated with an opposition to fascism itself. The formation of partisan groups started immediately recruiting the ex-soldiers of the ‘royal’ armed forces. Other ‘royal’ organisations like the border police (Guardia di Finanza) could never be trusted by the nazifascists and even came to be banned from patrolling the Swiss-Italian border outside Como (see Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust for more details).
Industrial unrest had always been present even in the original period of Fascist rule – back in March 1943 a series of strikes under the banner of ‘Peace and Bread’ started out in the FIAT factory in Turin quickly spreading to the heavy industry based in the Milanese suburb of Sesto San Giovanni – in the factories of Falck, Pirelli and Ercole Marelli. By 1944 however, living conditions under the RSI were rapidly deteriorating. The cost of living was forever increasing; reduced working was often imposed due to shortages of raw materials or even due to the lack of coal to generate power or run the trains that were vital in transporting workers to the factories. (Many factories had been relocated out of Milan into the provinces of Como, Lecco and Varese to reduce the risk of damage from the intense allied bombing over the northern cities. The workers thus had to commute from Milan. Como was spared the worst of allied bombing maybe due to the proximity of the Swiss border and the allies’ fears of accidentally bombing a neutral country.)
The PCI (Communist Party) organised strikes in Milan, Genoa and Turin in December of that year seeking wage increases and more generous rationing provision. January 1944 saw a massive increase in prices and a couple of strikes in the Como Province – the first involving 300 workers at Conte Piccinelli Ceramiche in Mozzate and the other involving 600 workers at Filatura di Turate. These were both factories whose workers lived in Milan but were transported out to the Province in a daily commute.
The PCI and the CLN then started to combine the PCI-led industrial action with the CLN’s more general civil and military resistance. They agreed to organise a general strike commencing 1st March 1944 across Liguria, Piedmont and Lombardy. The theme of this agitation was anti-nazi but based on demands for higher wages and better provisions. The welfare of workers and their families was linked to their continuing employment since ration cards were issued through work as well as clothing allowances and, most importantly, one or two meals a day at the factory canteens. Loss of employment did not just mean a loss of wages. The worsening economic situation and the ongoing increase in temporary and permanent redundancies went to fuel increasing militancy within the factories encouraged by the clandestine cells set up by the PCI. The authorities for their part responded with a mixture of repression and a bogus anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois campaign known as ‘pacificazione sociale’ claiming they would put worker representatives on to management boards. Paolo Porta, the chief fascist ideologue based in Como, made the following press statement in Cantu:
Fascism will show that it is not the armed guard of wealth and privilege and that the traitors and saboteurs who think themselves invulnerable because they feel protected by wealth, will instead be hit where they are weakest – in their wallets and bank accounts.
However the campaign did not win over the working class. Fascism had lost any form of credibility by this stage and Mussolini’s attempt to restyle himself and his regime as militantly socialist fooled very few.
1st to 8th March 1944
The strikes began on 1st March and continued until the 8th with their epicentre in Milan where the PCI were at their strongest. The first factories to follow in Como Province had direct links with colleagues back in Milan – such as F.A.C.E. at Grandate where 150 workers stopped work at 14.00 and took the train back to Milan. The next day 400 workers who lived in Milan but worked at the Filotecnica Salmoiraghi in Cantù stopped work. On the same day at the Seriche Italiane at Mariano Comense 700 workers went on strike in solidarity with Milanese colleagues.
General Strike Activity in and Around Como
On 3rd March 1944, 180 workers at the Cartiera Burgo in Maslianico went on a strike organised by a communist cell that had first led a strike at the factory on 26th July 1943 when they wanted the workers to be free to join a mass rally in Como celebrating the dismissal of Mussolini from government. Two of the March strike organisers were later sent to German labour camps. A division of the factory was later closed down and its machinery moved to Poulz in Austria with the workers told either to move to Austria or be dismissed.
The strikers’ demands, submitted to the fascist authorities against the advice of the PCI organisers, reveal the concerns of the workforce. They were as follows:
- A 50% increase in wages
- Preferential ration amounts
- 500gm of bread per employee
- An increase in the ‘minestra’ ration
- A ‘second’ course at the company’s canteen
- Distribution of the rice allowance
- Distribution of work clothes and soap
- No further redundancies particularly of older workers
- A guarantee to keep the factory open.
On 6th March 1943 there were stoppages at two silk factories in Como. The first involved 200 workers at the Tintoria Castagna. Leaflets had been circulated the day before advising of the strike and that it was supported by the CLN. The strike started the next day. Three non-communist workers who were found with the leaflets were deported to the German Labour camps of Gusen and Mauthausen. None of them returned alive. The Communist strike organiser was imprisoned for a year.
The second strike involved 1500 workers at Como’s largest fabric factory – the Tintoria Comense, later known as Ticosa. This was organised by a communist cell but also with internal assistance. The fate of some of the workers including Ines Figini is told in our article about Ines and her time in Auschwitz Labour Camp. Most of those deported to Germany died in the labour camp of Mauthausen. The two women deportees, Ines and Ada Borgomainerio, both managed to get home. One other worker returned home only to die shortly after due to his poor state of health brought about by the prison regime.
There was also a failed strike in the fabric factory Bruno Pessina off Via Borgo Vico. Again leaflets were brought into the factory by a communist cell member, Enrico Caronti and he initially got a unanimous agreement to strike the next day. However a fervent fascist in the workforce so frightened colleagues with stories of the reprisals that would follow – mass deportation to Germany, imprisonment, loss of rations etc – that the workforce changed its mind.
Other strikes in the Province included 600 women strikers at Cattaneo Luigi in Rovellasca, at the Orsenigo iron foundry in Mariano Comense and 1000 workers were on strike for five days at Taglietti in Figino Serenza.
The authorities claimed the general strike was an abject failure. The Provincia di Como reported on the 8th March ‘Genesis of an aborted strike – Italian workers, with the exception of a tiny minority, have ignored the call from those agitators in the pay of London and Moscow.’ Yet Hitler was livid and demanded that the authorities send 20% of strikers to German labour camps as a general threat to the working population. This programme of deportation proved impractical due to the strains on the social order it would provoke. Hitler’s Ambassador to the RSI calculated that 20% amounted to 70,000 deportees meaning that by his estimate 350,000 workers had participated in the General Strike. Modern historians estimate the figure at 208,500. In either case, this was a significant act of defiance. In the words of the German historian, Lutz Klinkhammer:
‘it was the greatest mass protest that the occupying forces had to confront; put together without outside help, without arms but with considerable energy and sacrifice. It wasn’t just (alongwith the strikes of 43) the most important strike in Italy over 20 years of fascist rule, it was also the greatest general strike across the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe.’
After the General Strike
Strikes continued after March 1944 particularly against the policy of sending workers to Germany. The number of agitators in the factories grew. On 9th June 1944 a significant pact was signed in Rome between all three of the trades union groups – the communists, the socialists and the Christian Democrats. This alliance was also intended to co-ordinate industrial action in support of the resistance. The unions organised so-called Squadre di Azione Patriottica (SAP) normally consisting of cross-party cells of 10 politicised workers organised to sabotage production, prevent delivery of goods to the Germans, pass around propaganda and in some instances, to offer military support to the partisans. Other groups organised themselves to provide medicines and provisions for the partisan groups. Strikes continued through October and November 1944 in spite of the law passed on 21st June declaring the death sentence for strike organisers. The level of civil and industrial disobedience grew from the start of 1945 with stoppages becoming ever more frequent and the authorities forced to give way more often than not. And then on April 20th, the Milanese workers started another general strike that was to signal the final insurrection against the nazifascist regime.
In Milan, on April 25th, Mussolini met with the CLN to discuss surrender terms mediated by Milan’s Cardinal Schuster. He abandoned the talks and fled immediately to Como. The German army representatives had also that very day signed the armistice in Rome. Como strikers were on the streets and civilians were arming themselves to confront the remaining pockets of fascist resistance. The German army was preparing for their final retreat and surrender. On the following day, Mussolini left hidden in the column of German soldiers making their way up the western shores of the lake possibly to cross the Alps via Splugen or possibly to organise a final stand in the Valtellina. His column was stopped by a group of partisans just outside the town of Dongo. The civil and industrial alliance of communist, socialist, royalist and catholic anti-fascists with their relative partisan groups, had brought the illegitimacy of the fascist puppet-state to its inevitable end. The same spirit of collaboration would fortunately last as long as the drafting of the new Italian constitution enacted in December 1947 but as the rest of the twentieth century testified, for not long after.