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In the central northern Italian city of Modena, the photos of the dead who gave their lives for freedom are displayed next to the city’s central cathedral, under the adjoining Ghirlandina bell tower. The tiles under three glass casings show the faces of both resistance fighters and civilians killed while the fascists were in charge. For their sacrifice, the city was awarded the gold medal for military valour.

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During the Italian Civil War (1943-1945) Modena, and the larger region of Emilia-Romagna in which it’s located, resolved to kick out both Mussolini’s fascist forces and those of Nazi Germany. The resistance of the historically socialist and communist region would provide the backdrop for its politics to this day.

Each region of Italy is unique, and, as historian D.J. Travis notes, “it is not intended by this selection to suggest that Modena represents a ‘typical’ or even remotely ‘representative’ Italian province—no such place exists.” Emilia-Romagna’s story is its own and had been successfully fighting the forces of fascism alone before Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, came to power in the late 1920s.

Between the world wars, fascism changed Italian society; factories became militarized, workers indoctrinated, and trade unions and left-wing publications met with violent repression. The people of Emilia-Romagna, where the cities of Bologna and Parma are likewise located, largely suffered and resisted both before and during World War Two, as tensions grew between those who favored fascism and the socialists firmly opposed.

The Parma Barricades of 1922 were one of the era’s most successful acts of resistance against Mussolini. Striking workers, trade unionists, and the anti-fascist forces of the Arditi del Popolo and the Proletarian Defense Formations joined together to defend the city from Il Duce’s Black Shirt enforcers. They succeeded, though their victory was rare and short-lived. Still, it showed the determination of the people of the region to oppose the emerging ideology.

German dictator Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini drive through Rome, 1938
German dictator Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini drive through Rome, 1938  Getty

In her Modena home I met with 83-year-old Vanna Pederzini, born less than two weeks before Italy entered World War Two. She told me about her father, Bruno, who believed in fascist ideals until his death in 1986. Photos from the 1920s and ’30s were strewn on her kitchen table, showing relatives long gone.

Vanna has lived in Modena her whole life, and has the dialect to prove it. Though it was hard to make out everything she said, she was well prepared to answer questions about her family’s past. When she was growing up Modena was gripped by civil war and wracked by food shortages.

“If farmers in the countryside weren’t communist, they would have had their fields burnt,” she explained. She pointed to a photo of her father, whose political affinity was rare in the left-leaning region. “He was fond of being a fascist, and my mother too. Even when I and my sister tried to talk about other ideas he would never budge. We couldn’t change his mind. I think he thought that fascism was good, [that] they didn’t make any mistakes.”

Owing to his political beliefs, Bruno was unable to find work in Modena. He found a different story in Spain; there, Bruno was embraced when he volunteered in 1936 to fight on behalf of the nationalists in their civil war. The father of two young daughters enlisted “not because he believed in the ideals of fascism,” explained Andrea Bedini, his grandson, “but because it guaranteed a place as an employee of the municipality.” Indeed, the Italian government had promised jobs to those who volunteered to fight with the forces of General Franco.

Back in Italy, Bruno took a position as a doorman for the municipality building. This did not guarantee social acceptance, however. As Vanna tells it, Alfeo Corassori, the first mayor of post-war Modena and a member of the Communist Party, refused to greet her father when he came and went.

“After the war democracy came so my parents could believe what they wanted,” Vanna says. Still “people would not make friends with them.” So potent were political ideologies.

From 1943 until the end of the war, Modena was the victim both of violence from the fascists as well as from the Allied Powers, whose bombs burst overhead. On July 25, Mussolini was voted out of power, and his regime collapsed. In Modena, people celebrated the news, and soon a new government was at work under the leadership of General Pietro Badoglio, who made a truce with the Allies in late summer. Yet the people of Modena grew disenchanted with the new leadership; they went on strike in protest of continued food rationing. Regime change had little impact on social unrest.

Badoglio’s government barely lasted through the fall. Germany invaded on September 8th and captured Rome two days later, establishing the Italian Social Republic (RSI) headed by Mussolini. He was back—sort of, having been rescued from custody by German paratroopers just three days after their invasion. The dictator was now a puppet in a Nazi satellite state; his job was to persuade the Italians in Nazi-occupied regions of the country that fascism would ultimately triumph.

Mussolini’s return marked the start of the Italian Civil War, as well as the birth of Modena’s resistance in the Apennine mountains, south-west of the city, where a group of anti-fascists fled after the arrests of peers by German occupiers. There they found a cache of weapons left behind from Badoglio’s brief tenure. In October, the ‘other’ monarchist Italy declared war on Germany, to side with the Allies fighting their way up the Italian peninsula. Two wars now raged in one country.

In early 1944 the Italian Communist Party (PCI) formed the first provincial partisan group, made up of local farmers. Throughout that winter anti-fascist sentiment in Modena grew stronger as the RSI drafted more men. Many dodged conscription, opting instead to join the partisans. In response, German forces attempted to subdue the opposition in the mountains; their efforts met with even greater resistance.

By June, the Germans homed in on the village of Montefiorino, located in the Apennines about forty miles from Modena, as a target of their aggression. They failed to conquer it, and after five days the partisans controlled some 740 miles of Modena’s mountainous southwest. The Republic of Montefiorino, as it was known, became a symbol of partisan strength.

Many other free republics within the larger region of Emilia-Romagna were established that summer. There was the Republic of Bobbio, and partisan free states in the Ceno, Taro and Trebbia Valleys. These experiments in self-government only solidified anti-fascist fervor throughout the region.

In Modena the number of partisans swelled from 1,500 at the end of May, to over 5,000 by August. Mostly young men and women agricultural and industrial workers from the surrounding countryside, these young volunteers had only known life under fascist rule, where fear of reprisals, conscription, and food deprivation were daily realities. Joining the partisans was their political baptism, an embrace of leftism that would endure for generations.

In August 1944, the number of partisans had grown to 100,000s, and near the end of the war in April 1945, numbers had risen to over 250,000, including some 35,000 women.

Many locals, siding with the partisans, began taking action on their own. Farmers stole grain and cut rubber bands on bailing machines in covert acts of sabotage. Others removed key pieces of machinery in metal and steel works, diminishing industrial output. In the pianura, or plainlands, over 5000 factory workers went on strike in the spring of 1944, causing FIAT Grand Motors to close for two days. They were incensed by the forced relocation of some factory workers to Germany.

As the Allies pushed into German-held Italy, the state tried to reassert itself. As early as March 1944 troops began to round up suspected collaborators. They killed 136 civilians in massacres in the towns of Monchio, Susano, and Costrignano. In June, nearly 800 were murdered by the Nazis in Monte Sole, south of Bologna; to this day, it remains the deadliest mass shooting in Italy.

German brutality made quick work of partisan strongholds. The Republic of Montefiorino lasted forty days; Bobbio a mere fifty-one. The Second Republic of Bobbio in November failed to stand for even a week. Still, through the early months of 1945, the partisans did what they could to make life difficult for the fascists, fearless in the face of reprisals.

By the spring, the region was liberated by Allied forces as the fascists retreated northward. Modena was freed on April 22, a few hours before the arrival of American troops. Three days later, 19,000 partisans celebrated with a parade through the streets of Modena. Mussolini was executed near the Swiss border on April 28, after trying to escape the country with his mistress; she too was shot dead. Meanwhile, the corpse of an unknown man was left at the center of Modena near the bell tower of the city’s cathedral. The man’s pocket contained a photo of him, which was soon attached to the wall of the tower in the hope that someone could identify him.

Others in Modena began adding pictures of their own missing or deceased relatives—victims of fascist violence—to the bell tower walls. Over time, they were gathered and put on display inside the Ghirlandina bell tower, a way to honor and remember the 2,000 people who were killed in this conflict. In 1947 Modena was awarded the gold medal for military valor.

It’s been nearly eighty years since Modena’s liberation, but the reach of history is endless. Every year, Modena celebrates not only Italy’s freedom from fascism but its own. Yet celebrations alone are insufficient defense against the lure of fascism. While Italy’s politics have swung right of late, the people of Emilia-Romagna generally and Modena in particular remain staunchly defiant, a socialist hub, an oasis against autocracy.

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