Book Review: The Legacy of the Italian Resistance by Philip Cooke

The Legacy of the Italian Resistance
Philip Cooke
Palgrave Macmillan

263pp £52.25

Between 1943 and 1945 thousands of Italian men and women took part in what became known as ‘The Resistance’. Many were extremely young and most of those who died at the hands of the Italian Fascists and the Nazis were in their teens or early twenties.

These men and women took to the mountains to carry out guerrilla warfare against the occupying German army and Mussolini’s faithful followers. They did so out of ideological conviction (as Communists, socialists, Catholic anti-fascists and monarchists) or simply to get rid of foreign troops from Italian soil. This was a brutal and difficult war of attrition, where prisoners were never taken. The resistance worked in a sea of support that included political parties, antifascist networks and sections of the peasantry.

The Italian resistance has been at the centre of historical and political debates ever since 1945, both inside and outside of Italy itself. Novels, films, artworks, poems, museums and historical work were all dedicated to the legacy and memory of that period and many ex-partisans moved into positions of political power. The resistance was a potent source of political legitimation and power but it was also highly malleable to manipulation and falsification. The divisions that were briefly overcome during the 1943-45 period (although there were often violent diatribes between the various forces involved) came back with a vengeance after the war. Communist representatives were excluded from government in 1947 and the Cold War led to complicated splits in the associations that were meant to represent ex-partisans. Many of those who had taken part in the movement felt betrayed and some kept their guns ready to use them in the case of a revolution or the return of Fascism.

Italian resistance fighters who helped South African troops in Pistoia locate German snipers

Politics and history were deeply intertwined in Italy (then as now) and the historiography of the resistance often marched to the tune of daily political debates. Rhetoric and heroic accounts of the resistance abounded and the writings that really understood that period were usually novels and not the work of professional historians. In particular the superb novels of Luigi Meneghello and Beppe Fenoglio painted a complicated and multi-layered picture of the nasty, brutish and short lives of many would be partisan fighters. Historical research was re-opened only at the end of the 1980s, with the path breaking work of Claudio Pavone (Una guerra civile), a work that led to something of a historiographical revolution in this field.

Philip Cooke’s highly original volume is a comprehensive analysis of the legacy of the Italian anti-fascist resistance. Its great strengths lie in the fact that it covers the whole period from 1945 to the present day, and the fact that it looks at a whole series of ‘texts’, which taken together make up that legacy. This breadth of analysis makes this book both original and very useful for anyone concerned with postwar Italy and postwar Europe, as well as those interested in debates over memory. Cooke’s study also delves deeply into the thorny area of politics. It covers an extraordinary amount of ground and the bibliography alone is a mammoth achievement.

Canadian soldiers speak to Italian partisans at Bagnacavallo, January 1945

The book is also admirably clear and well organised. It can be read cover-to-cover or dipped into and it covers a very wide set of themes and questions but never in an obscure way. In the 1990s and 2000s a series of right-wing coalitions made serious attacks on the resistance legacy in Italy. But they have been unable to destroy the subcultures that emerged so strongly after 1943 and then again in the postwar period. Cooke’s important study (which deserves a paperback edition) shows why the resistance still matters.