November is a melancholy month made even more so in this centenary year marking the end of the First World War. Italy celebrates this anniversary on the 4th rather than 11th November since that was when the hostilities in the Dolomites and the Isonzo valley ended. This conflict between the young Italian state and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire registered as gruesome a rate of mortality as that on the Western or Eastern fronts. As elsewhere across Europe, most Italian towns have a memorial to their local dead from both this and the subsequent tragic conflicts of the twentieth century. Como’s Monumento ai Caduti, designed by Giuseppe Terragni and inspired by Como’s other famous architect son Antonio Sant’Elia – himself a victim on the Isonzo front, is a particularly striking example due both to its bold design and its prominent location on the lakefront.
The local impact of the First World War is still visible in the Linea Cadorna, a line of trenches and machine gun emplacements straddling the peaks of the mountains around Como and marking the frontier with Switzerland. That defensive line was never needed. Como was however tragically embroiled in the last years of the Second World War when the town had become a favoured residence for many fascist leaders, their families, mistresses and assorted unsavoury bullies and hangers-on. The civilian population, enlarged by the escapees from the unrelenting bombardment of Milan, witnessed the dying days of the nazi-fascist regime and the blood-letting that followed its immediate overthrow. Como was at the heart of the maelstrom following Mussolini’s retreat from Milan and his attempt to seek safety in the Valtellina. Those days brought tragedy on both sides of the political divide with summary justice often meted out with little discrimination. It seems appropriate to personalise this season of remembrance by recording the tragedies that marked those horrendous days in Como – and to identify the sites and structures where various acts of horror took place, if only to remind us all that, even in locations as beautiful as ours, our recent history has been punctuated by the grossest acts of inhumanity. The cruelties of the past need sometimes to be brought to current attention in the hope that they may never be repeated.
Before the armistice of September 1943 Como seemed to have been spared the worst of war deprivation, and even later managed to avoid most of the allied bombing maybe due to its proximity to its border with neutral Switzerland. The population suffered deprivations from the strict rationing, the ongoing callousness and favouritisms of the fascist state and of course the bullying, torture, imprisonment and deportation to Nazi labour and extermination camps of its social and political enemies. But for those friends of the regime, with money or some useful connections, Como became a hedonist paradise. Luxury cars were a common sight as politicians, industrialists and media stars enjoyed the good life in casinos, restaurants and bordellos whilst the common folk struggled by on the meagre rations issued to those fortunate to be in work.
Mussolini had chosen the shores of Lake Garda for his residence but his son Vittorio, other relatives and some at the top of the fascist political hierarchy lived on Lake Como. Among these were Rodolfo Graziani – the general commanding the RSI Army who lived in Villa Crespi on Monte Olimpino and one of the Duce’s ex-mistresses, the Countess Alice de Fonseca, living in Lezzeno. The climate and the beauty were undoubtedly as appealing then as now but the additional advantage for them and also for many of the Nazi state institutions, was the proximity of the Swiss border if there was a need for a quick escape.
By April 1945, the imminent defeat of the Nazi-fascist state was increasingly obvious even to the most diehard fascist leaders such as Paolo Porta, the chain-smoking fanatic boss and chief representative of the fascist state in Como. From his headquarters at the Casa del Fascio (Giuseppe Terragni’s rationalist masterpiece), and from the barracks of his division of the Brigate Nere right by Como Borghi Station, he waged a successful war against the partisan bands operating in the hills on the western shores of the lake and those further up towards the Valtellina.
He filled up the Brigate barracks on Via Sirtori with his prisoners as well as in the town’s old prison, San Donnino. Even these facilities were insufficient to hold all his and the Questora’s detainees.
The gymnasiums of Palestra Gino Negretti in the renamed Via dei Partigiani and Palestra Mariani on Via Sauro, where Ines Figini was held prior to her deportation to Mauthausen, were converted into temporary jails. Giuseppe Terragni designed the Casa del Fascio with its glass atrium way back in the idealistic early years of Mussolini’s era with the idea of conveying transparency in local government, but instead it had become the centre of oppression over the local population and the site to where partisan leaders such as the Chief of Staff of the 52 Garibaldi Brigade, Luigi Canali (‘nome di battaglia’ Capitano Neri) and his girlfriend Giuseppina Tuissi (‘nome di battaglia’ Gianna) were brought to be tortured mercilessly by henchmen such as Enrico Mariani, who had won the European Rowing Championship in his youth but was now an ardent fascist with a perverse streak who whistled arias from Verdi’s Il Trovatore as he indulged his sadistic fantasies.
A Nest of Spies
The fascist state could only gain results against its enemies by using threat, torture and bribes to urge local people to denounce enemies of the state whether they be Italian or foreign jews seeking to avoid deportation, young ex-soldiers avoiding conscription, escaped allied prisoners of war or the increasing bands of armed partisans with their allegiances either to the communists, socialists, the Catholic Church or the Royal Family. Como was not only a magnet for the wealthy hedonists but also for these so-called enemies of the state seeking safety over the border or, in the case of some of the partisans, receiving funding from the allies and particularly from the future head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, based in Bern. However he took care to fund only the more moderate partisan bands from the OSS (American secret service) office in Lugano. Como too was full of agents, double agents, traitors and double-dealers whose loyalties became increasingly difficult to decipher as fortunes turned against the Nazi-fascists. One point of reference for those wanting to link up with agencies across the border was the Swiss Consulate on Viale Geno, still standing but as a private residence.
Partisans were under fierce pressure during the bleak winter of 1944/5, under attack from Porta, constrained to disband temporarily by the Allied leadership, facing the cruel deprivations of winter reliant on the support of a civilian population suffering from ever stricter rationing, unemployment and civil oppression. But some sites such as the shop of Remo Mentasti – the luggage maker – in Piazza San Fedele continued to provide a point of contact for all partisan sympathisers from Milan seeking contact with the groups encamped in the hills although Porta had his men spying on the shop’s entrance from the first floor of the restaurant across the square.
Opposition to the fascist state was led by the Italian Communist Party with its disciplined cadres and hardcore guerrilla leaders who had learnt their craft, and unfortunately their Stalinist intransigence, fighting against Franco’s forces in Spain. Such was Dionisio Gambaruto, a veteran from the Spanish Civil War and a hardline Stalinist in command of the Garibaldini based at the top end of the lake. He would feature more prominently after the fall of fascism. However partisans were recruited from a wide range of political backgrounds and even the 52nd Garibaldi Brigade (Communist funded like all the Garibaldi brigades) was under the leadership of a royalist ex-army captain, Count Pier Luigi Bellini delle Stelle, whose ‘nome di battaglia’ was Pietro. He led his group in blocking the column of German soldiers as they approached Dongo on April 27th to negotiate the surrender of all those in the column who were Italian citizens, including Mussolini who had initially tried to pass himself off as a German soldier and his girlfriend Claretta Petacci who was travelling with her brother under a false Spanish passport.
Two days earlier, Mussolini had realised that his attempts to negotiate some sort of deal with the leaders of the Milanese insurrection, the Committee for National Liberation (CLN), would get him nowhere since the German Army, without Hitler’s approval, had already signed an armistice with the allies in Rome. He and his band of fascist leaders chose to flee to Como which, due to Porta, was still under fascist control. He stayed the night in the Prefettura on Via Volta but had to leave rapidly at 04.00am on the 26th to ensure his safety.
His wife Rachele stayed at the Villa Mantero on Via Crispi and then tried to enter Switzerland at Chiasso the next day but was turned back and later arrested by partisans. His girlfriend, Claretta Petacci, stayed at the Albergo Firenze in Piazza Volta and then joined Mussolini’s ill-fated column of German soldiers.
Insurrection and Revenge
But Como was about to switch dramatically from fascist to anti-fascist. Fascist leaders such as Porta had joined Mussolini’s column seeking the safety of the Valtellina but others started to negotiate surrender seeking favourable terms for themselves. There was a sudden demand for red fabric so young men could rapidly don red scarves whilst disposing of their former black shirts. Nowhere was the contrast in fortunes greater than amongst the residents of San Donnino, the town’s prison. Overnight the anti-fascist prisoners swapped places with fascists. Some of those ex-fascists faced a summary justice similar to that meted out to Porta. He was with the fascist leadership captured in Dongo. Faced with the imminent and ultimate solution to his nicotine addiction, he begged one last cigarette before execution. His and the other victims’ bodies were then carried down for display in Milan’s Piazza Loreto alongside the corpses of Mussolini and Petacci who had been executed together on the same morning but at Bonzanigo, a district of Mezzegra now part of the newly formed comune of Tremezzina. The lakefront at Como behind the Monumento ai Caduti became the setting for the summary execution of many fascists including the Questore, Pozzoli, and his diabolical second in command, Saletta.
On the night of April 27th the American OSS, the UK’s Special Operations Executive and some of their non-communist partisan allies had to save German officers including General Wolff, the commander of the SS in Italy. On returning the previous day from secret surrender negotiations in Switzerland, Wolff had been forced by strong partisan activity to take refuge in Villa Locatelli, Cernobbio – the SS headquarters for Lombardy whose commander was ironically a double agent working for Dulles. The communist partisans had surrounded the villa but had failed to cut the telephone lines so Wolff was able to contact the Swiss and arrange allied assistance to free him. This was perhaps the first of many occasions when the allies sought to moderate the forces of insurrection and revenge. The Americans had certainly wanted Mussolini to be captured and delivered to them alive (there are some doubts about the UK’s wishes) but the communists wanted immediate justice alongside a desire to rid the area of all those connected with the fascist past.
Following the 27th April 1945, the Casa del Fascio immediately became the headquarters of the Partito Communista Italiano and Porta’s ex-director’s office was now occupied by the similarly vicious but politically contrasting figure of Dante Gorreri, renowned for his arrogance and authoritarianism. Gorreri now spent his days managing the administration of the province and his evenings in clandestine journeys personally performing summary execution of former fascist collaborators. The immediate climate for revenge and for settling the scores built up through years of oppression, betrayals and double dealing led to the formation of two bands of semi-official police. One of these, the ‘Polizia del Popolo’ led by Dionisio Gambaruto, was headquartered at the Hotel Posta on Piazza Volta, used to house prisoners whose stay there was often a brief interlude before execution.
Here the police worked in conjunction with the Questura (state police) who were doing their best to distance themselves from the former regime. The civil police or ‘Volonte Rossa’ had their headquarters in the so-called Villa Rossa, also known as Villa Tornaghi at 33 Via Bellinzona but now demolished. The leader here was an elegant but ruthless partisan called Leopoldo Cassinelli or ‘Il Lince’. There too the prisoners tended to stay for short period before their end. Around 20 to 30 ‘collaborators’ per night were rounded up by the partisan police patrols and brought to these temporary prisons. The allied authorities became so alarmed by the level of bloodletting that they threatened to attack both bases. In addition the Carabiniere under Brigadier Ettore Manzi used allied troops to assist them in re-arresting at least 74 of these prisoners thus ensuring their transfer to the official prison of San Donnino avoiding summary execution and left to be processed according to official court procedures. The modern day civil art gallery of Como, the Pinacoteca, was the site of the law courts positioned close to the San Donnino prison.
Blue Skies and Calm Waters
As civil power was gradually restored and the first democratic government since the 1920s was established, the partisan police forces were disarmed and the period of revenge, fired by hopes of a socialist revolution, faded into memory. Too many members of the PCI had failed to appreciate how the general public were fed up with any form of political tyranny and how the stalinist levels of discipline needed perhaps during times of conflict were off-putting in peacetime. In any case, the revolutionary hopes fired by the emotions of the general insurrection in April were misplaced given Russia’s lack of commitment to a Communist revolution in Italy, in reality out of the question whilst the country was still occupied by the Allied forces. Maybe the anti-communist fears of the Allies went too far. One immediate result even for hardline fascists was that, if they could survive the first six to twelve months after the war, they were likely to be given amnesty and be reintegrated into civil society with little said about their former collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. No-one was to regret the passing of those tragic days before and after the end of the war. Even though political conflict between left and right extremes remained to resurface in the terrorism of the 1970s, this hardly impacted on Como. Here the pleasures of life in such a beautiful natural setting were re-establishing themselves as the local economy, based primarily on silk production, boomed.
‘Lest We Forget’
The bullet holes on the lakefront railing at Dongo are still visible reminders of the execution of Paolo Porta and the other fascist leaders on the morning of 27th April 1945. San Donnino is no longer a prison and in fact awaits a developer to renovate it as luxury apartments. The barracks of Villa Tornaghi or of Porta’s Brigate Nere at Como Borghi have been demolished. The Hotel Posta has been renovated and is now a boutique hotel on the corner of Piazza Volta where the Albergo Firenze still offers rooms but not to the prostitutes or mistresses of the old regime. The gymnasiums used to house Jews and political prisoners awaiting deportation to Germany are just gymnasiums. The Casa del Fascio no longer houses political tyrants and torturers but is the temporary headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza (an organisation which had impeccable anti-fascist credentials throughout the Nazi occupation). In fact the Casa del Fascio is most likely to become a museum and study centre dedicated to its architect designer, Giuseppe Terragni. He had also designed the Monumento ai Caduti behind which so many collaborators met summary justice. No plaque is placed there in their memory. Instead it is a favoured meeting place during the summer months for young immigrants seeking to make their way to Northern Europe. The blood has been wiped clean, and memories of those bad times are fading but if the buildings that remain could talk, they would no doubt beg us to never again lose our sense of humanity.
Como Companion has published a number of articles relating to this sad period in Como’s history. You may wish also to read:
- Through Conflict to Collaboration: Achille Grandi, Como and the Birth of the Republic
- Como ‘Antifascista’ – Then and Now
- Como’s Ines Figini, Auschwitz Survivor
- Heroism and Disaster in the Vallassina
- From Liberation Day to May Day
- Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’
- Como – Its Role in the Birth of a Nation
- 25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection
Excellent article! Difficult to imagine he horrors of Como’s past whilst enjoying the beauty of the lake.