Two Anti-Fascists in Malta: their story
On Friday, 30 September, at the Italian Cultural Institute, PBS presented its historical documentary on two Italian political refugees, Giuseppe Donati and Umberto Calosso. During the Fascist regime, Malta received its fair share of those who, at the time
Dr Simon Mercieca is senior lecturer, Department of History
However, there were other important Italians in Malta at the time, including Arnaldo Fabriani and Giuseppe Manfredi. Fabriani is the most famous because of his book in Italian entitled Malta Fior del Mondo, which inspired the British to publish a counter-text in Maltese called Ġabra ta’ Warda.
This documentary was the work of extensive research carried out by Giorgio Peresso and whose book entitled Giuseppe Donati and Umberto Calosso: Two Italian anti-fascist refugees in Malta is published by SKS.
Donati was one of the founders of the Italian Democratic Christian Party, better known as Democrazia Cristiana Italiana. He was a close friend of Don Luigi Sturzo, who engaged him as the editor of the party newspaper Il Popolo. Donati witnessed several of the physical attacks that took place on the free press by Fascist thugs. He spoke without fear about the political assassination of the Catholic parish priest Don Giovanni Minzoni. Minzoni was the first victim of this new climate of political violence that the Fascists introduced in Italy. The already big divide existing in Italy between left and right helped Mussolini challenge the gravity of this murder. Priests were at the time considered to be on the right of the political spectrum. For many of the Left, therefore, there was no love lost with such an assassination. Peresso should be congratulated for resuscitating this forgotten story in Italian history. He discusses Donati’s courage in covering this murder. Donati accused Mussolini, an ex-Socialist and declared atheist, of Don Minzoni’s assassination.
However, the murder that caused political upheaval in Italy was the assassination of the Socialist politician and member of Parliament, Giacomo Matteotti. Donati reported without fear about this murder in Il Popolo and for this reason had to flee. Even if, till today, it is not completely clear who was responsible for his assassination, the fact that Donati had to escape is indirect evidence as to who gave the orders for Matteotti’s elimination. Donati left behind his wife and children. He practically never saw them again, except once fleetingly, in 1925. The Fascists withdrew their passports, thus ensuring that they could not leave Italy.
In Paris, Donati was being watched by the secret service police and ended up living in great misery. It was through the help of Don Sturzo that Donati was engaged as teacher of Italian at St Edward’s College. His antifascist credentials made him an obvious choice and were considered more important than his doctorate in Italian literature. The college needed a good Italian teacher because, until then, none of the students had passed the Italian matriculation examination.
To Donati, Malta appeared as one city. He considered the country a mix of oriental and Italian customs. In Malta, he launched himself into politics, backing the Nationalist Party and its defence of Italian culture in Malta. Thus, a staunch antiFascist became one of Enrico Mizzi’s greatest friends and political mentors. Mizzi ended up inviting Donati to write for his newspaper. Despite having Strickland as his employer, Donati considered the British attitude and politics in Malta as autocratic and not much different than what he had been opposing back in Italy. Yet this is not the only important revelation in this book. Gerald Strickland accepted that someone, who was on his payroll, wrote against him!
Donati’s death, while on a visit to Paris, created a vacancy at St Edward’s, which was filled by another Italian political refugee or fuoruscito, Umberto Calosso. He was a friend of two of the most important Communists Italy has ever produced; Palmiro Togliatti and Antonio Gramsci.
Yet, while Donati was a staunch Catholic, Calosso was a secularist. What united the two was the fact that teaching Italian at St Edward’s was no easy task in Colonial Malta. But Calosso had an advantage over Donati. He had in Malta the company of his wife, Clelia while his mother was an occasional visitor.
For Calosso, a true academic, teaching of Italian came “first and foremost”, an expression that will become very famous in Malta in the post-war period. He proposed to the College Board of Governors to adopt the same pedagogical methods that were being used in Italy at the time. But anything Italian and in use in Fascist Italy was frowned upon with suspicion. Even if Calosso was anti-fascist, his proposal was considered as an act of slealtà or disloyalty toward the British Crown.
What is of particular interest is the fact that Calosso took up residence in Cospicua. The house where he lived survived the war, but there is no indication, no plaque to commemorate such an important resident. His choice was dictated by the fact that the town was very close to St Edward’s College. In Cospicua, he ended up giving private lessons in Italian to a young lad by the name of Dominic Mintoff. In return, this young boy used to take Calosso’s dog, Romingo, for a walk.
Calosso must have influenced Mintoff in his thinking, to the extent that when the latter grew older, he began signing his first articles under the nom de plume Romingo, and used the same political language that was used by Calosso. More importantly, Mintoff’s political principles, in particular those related to political action and his thoughts about neutrality were borrowed from Calosso. Even Mintoff’s political rhetoric is Calosso’s. Calosso became famous for what in Italian was called a “calossata”, which meant a strong outburst in Parliament. In Malta, this became so typical of Mintoff’s speeches. This friendship also explains Mintoff’s correct Italian diction.
Yet, Calosso was not the sole interesting personality living in Cospicua at the time. Pawlu Boffa’s brother, Lawrence, was his next-door neighbour and Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici’s residence was a few metres away. Il-Gross, as the latter was affectionately known, had as neighbour Erin Serracino Inglott, who eventually became Enrico Mizzi’s personal secretary. Also in the neighbourhood lived Miss Dundon, whose father Michael was the leader of the Malta Labour Party before Pawlu Boffa. It was in this environment that Mintoff and Calosso became great friends.
Calosso ended up participating in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republican Army. He pre-empted why the Loyalists were going to win. This was due to “the savagery of the Anarchists” and their massacre of priests and destruction of churches. Ironically, this element of the Spanish Civil War is still kept under wraps by many historians today.
Yet the fuorusciti had to lived through the victory and the delusion of the American and English betrayal. Once Mussolini was ousted from power, the Allies preferred help from the Mafia than the fuorusciti’s political support. To add insult to injury, there were some shady characters, including Maltese, such as Annibale Scicluna Sorge, nephew of Sir Hannibal Scicluna, whom the author politely describes as a man of all seasons. He was one of those who sided with the Fascists prior to the war but then became a paladin of democracy, joined the Democrazia Christiana, and continued making headway in Italian politics.
The true reason why the antifascists ended up losing their battle was that they were far more engrossed in fighting among themselves than against Mussolini. This helped the Italian dictator triumph in Italy. But, as the Latin phrase goes, mors tua vita mea. This applies very well to Malta’s situation at the time. Italy’s loss was our gain. Donati influenced for good Mizzi’s thoughts and Calosso inculcated in Mintoff concepts of political action and neutrality, which became the core subject of Maltese politics in the second half of the 20th century. Once Italy regained democracy, these fuorusciti repaid Malta a hundredfold. Without their help and support, I doubt if Malta would have achieved what it has achieved in the last sixty years. This book also explains why Italy has continued to be on our side post-Independence.