The New European - - Expertise -

In the most un­likely place, PA­TRICK SAWER finds a poignant fam­ily link to Italy’s fas­cist past and a re­minder that this dark chap­ter of the coun­try’s his­tory is not yet closed

There’s a spoon in my kitchen drawer that holds a dark se­cret and it’s a se­cret shared by many fam­i­lies in what is now mod­ern, demo­cratic, beloved, be­nighted, beau­ti­ful Italy. In it­self it’s quite an eye-catch­ing item, its pointed head like that of a spear, its han­dle curv­ing and ta­per­ing at the edges. A piece of ev­ery­day modernist de­sign for the home.

But this is a fas­cist spoon and its story runs like a black thread though a coun­try that has, once again, found it­self haunted by the ghosts of the past.

There is noth­ing in­trin­si­cally po­lit­i­cal about a spoon of course. A spoon is a spoon is a knife and fork. But this one has its prove­nance and its po­lit­i­cal pedi­gree stamped on the back, in still clearly vis­i­ble let­ter­ing: Fasci Ital­iani all’es­tero.

The Fasci Ital­iani all’es­tero (‘Ital­ian Fas­cist League Over­seas’) was the in­ter­na­tional wing of Ben­ito Mus­solini’s thug­gish Na­tional Fas­cist Party, set up in the 1920s to pro­mote his regime across the globe, par­tic­u­larly in those coun­tries where Ital­ians had em­i­grated in such large num­bers from the mid-19th cen­tury.

Its task was to re­port on anti-fas­cist ex­iles, counter the in­flu­ence and suc­cess of Ital­ian trade union­ists in coun­tries such as the United States, Ar­gentina, Bel­gium and Aus­tralia, and act as a mouth­piece for the regime in Rome.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion, which in 1929 claimed more than 100,000 mem­bers, was also ac­tive in the Ital­ian colonies of north Africa, which Mus­solini vain­glo­ri­ously dreamt would form the ba­sis for a new Ro­man Em­pire. His dreams of course came at a dread­ful cost to the in­hab­i­tants of what would later be­come mod­ern-day Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and So­ma­lia.

Thou­sands of these alu­minium spoons must have been pro­duced and dis­trib­uted dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s, as Mus­solini tight­ened his grip on ev­ery as­pect of life on the Ital­ian penin­sula, be­fore em­bark­ing on a dis­as­trous war as the unequal ally of Hitler’s Ger­many.

Which brings us back to how this par­tic­u­lar spoon came to be in my fam­ily’s drawer. It was, in all like­li­hood, is­sued to my ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther,

Giusto Ni­cosia, while he was work­ing as lorry driver, shift­ing goods across Italy’s African colonies shortly be­fore the out­break of the Sec­ond World War.

He was even­tu­ally cap­tured by the Bri­tish, who, as the Ital­ian Army fell back across north Africa, in­terned him in a de­ten­tion camp as a civil­ian pris­oner of war. He re­tained fond mem­o­ries of his English cap­tors as hu­mane, dig­ni­fied and above all “cor­rect” and was de­lighted when his only daugh­ter later de­cided to marry an Ox­ford-ed­u­cated English­man: my fa­ther.

But Nonno was no fas­cist pi­o­neer of Mus­solini’s doomed African ad­ven­tures. The rea­son he wound up in Africa was be­cause he had par­tic­i­pated in an ac­tion deemed sub­ver­sive by the regime.

Sometime dur­ing the mid-1930s,

Giusto, who then worked on the Ital­ian rail­ways, took part in a strike in de­mand of bet­ter pay and work­ing con­di­tions. He was not par­tic­u­larly mil­i­tant – and not known to have been an ac­tivist or sup­porter of the now out­lawed Com­mu­nist or So­cial­ist par­ties. He was a com­mit­ted Catholic and would in­deed go on to be a sup­porter of the Chris­tian Democrats fol­low­ing the birth of the Ital­ian Re­pub­lic at end of the war, as would most of his other chil­dren.

But his col­leagues had voted in favour of in­dus­trial ac­tion and Nonno de­cided to abide by their demo­cratic de­ci­sion. That was enough to get many of them, in­clud­ing my grand­fa­ther, sacked and black­listed by the fas­cist au­thor­i­ties,

With lit­tle prospect of re­turn­ing to the rail­ways, or any other rel­a­tively well paid state em­ploy­ment, while Mus­solini was still in power, he took the de­ci­sion to leave be­hind his wife Maria-an­toni­etta and chil­dren in Rome and try to make a liv­ing over­seas, in Italy’s African colonies.

The ob­vi­ous point of my grand­fa­ther’s story, and that of the spoon he picked up in Africa, is that not ev­ery Ital­ian fam­ily shared the ide­ol­ogy of fas­cism – though many, many did, for all their protes­ta­tions fol­low­ing the end of the war and the birth of the new demo­cratic re­pub­lic – but that Mus­solini’s to­tal­i­tar­ian regime so in­serted it­self into the home that even do­mes­tic items bore its stamp.

Sim­i­larly, many an Ital­ian fam­ily al­bum of a cer­tain age will con­tain what long fas­ci­nated me as a child; pho­to­graphs of chil­dren my age in ser­ried rank, strut­ting across a pa­rade or play­ground in para-mil­i­tary cos­tume.

These were the Balilla, the Fas­cist Party’s youth wing – named in hon­our of the boy re­puted to have started the re­volt against the Aus­trian forces oc­cu­py­ing Genoa in 1746 – and, like the Hitler Youth, ev­ery child was obliged to take part.

One was the young boy who grew up to be­come one of my favourite un­cles, and whose puffed out chest and jut­ted chin, in im­i­ta­tion of Il Duce’s pea­cock pose, stared out at me in black and white from the pages of my mother’s teenage pho­to­graph al­bum.

Go on hol­i­day to Italy and the rem­nants

of its fas­cist past are there be­fore your eyes. They in­clude the mar­ble stat­ues of clas­si­cal sport­ing he­roes, the pro­to­type of new fas­cist man, which still line the sports com­plex where I learnt to swim at Mus­solini’s Foro Ital­ico in Rome – his im­i­ta­tion of the an­cient fo­rum.

The ar­chi­tec­ture of Fas­cism also dom­i­nates the new town of Car­bo­nia in Sar­dinia, built in 1938 to pro­vide homes for the min­ers of the nearby coal­field.

Also still ev­i­dent, and more wel­come, are the sym­bols of the long, re­demp­tive, strug­gle against fas­cism and the Nazi oc­cu­piers who took over fol­low­ing Mus­solini’s down­fall in July 1943, whether in the street cor­ner plaques to re­sis­tance fighters ex­e­cuted or lost in bat­tle, or the re­sis­tance songs still sung at left wing gath­er­ings.

One ex­am­ple, which might sur­prise even those fa­mil­iar with the his­tory of the war of lib­er­a­tion fought across cen­tral and north­ern Italy by the re­sis­tance bands in the tor­rid 18 months be­tween the sur­ren­der of the Ital­ian Army and the ar­rival of the Al­lies, il­lu­mi­nates this proud pro­gres­sive tra­di­tion.

Alessan­dro Sini­gaglia was black, he was Jewish and he was Ital­ian. His mother Cyn­thia White, was an African Amer­i­can who had trav­elled to Italy from St Louis to work as a house­keeper for an Amer­i­can fam­ily and had mar­ried an Ital­ian Jew, David Sini­gaglia, from the Lom­bardy town of Man­tova.

Alessan­dro had a long his­tory of an­tifas­cist ac­tiv­ity and had fought for the Repub­li­cans in the Span­ish Civil War. In Au­gust 1943, he be­came a lead­ing mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist-led re­sis­tance move­ment in Florence. In Fe­bru­ary 1944 he was cap­tured and ex­e­cuted by a fas­cist mili­tia. Such was the es­teem in which he was held by his fel­low par­ti­sans that the first re­sis­tance bri­gade to en­ter Florence on its lib­er­a­tion on Au­gust 12, 1944 had named them­selves af­ter this black, Jewish Ital­ian.

Fas­cism is once again on the march in Italy, with far right groups such as Cas­a­pound and Forza Nuova grow­ing in strength and num­ber and racist at­tacks on the rise. In keep­ing with Italy’s long anti-fas­cist tra­di­tion 25,000 peo­ple gath­ered in front of Mi­lan’s Duomo cathe­dral last month in protest against the rise of the far right.

But many vot­ers blame mi­grants and longer stand­ing eth­nic mi­nori­ties for their own eco­nomic woes and stag­nant so­cial con­di­tions, con­ve­niently for­get­ting that gen­er­a­tions of Ital­ians once also crossed the seas in search of a bet­ter life.

In some quar­ters the nos­tal­gia for a re­turn to the days of Mus­solini – some­thing which has long bub­bled be­neath the sur­face of Ital­ian po­lit­i­cal life – is now voiced openly.

Ear­lier this year, above a col­umn by the Ital­ian his­to­rian An­drea Mam­mone, of Royal Hol­loway, Univer­sity of Lon­don, CNN’S web­site asked: “Can any­thing save Italy from a re­turn to fas­cism?”

Those fears were com­pounded with the elec­tion in the spring of a govern­ment dom­i­nated by the right wing pop­ulist Lega and the ‘anti-es­tab­lish­ment’ Five Star Move­ment, en­joy­ing the sup­port of Fratelli D’italia (Broth­ers of Italy), the di­rect heirs to Mus­solini’s Fas­cist Party.

“Didn’t fas­cism end in 1945?,” asked Mam­mone. “The truth is that in Europe – and not just in Italy – fas­cist ide­olo­gies never fully dis­ap­peared. They have also been able to sur­vive be­cause of post-war pub­lic am­ne­sia.”

Or to put it an­other way, have Ital­ians for­got­ten the spoon in their kitchen drawer?

Pho­tos: Brettman/ Con­trib­uted

COULD HIS­TORY RE­PEAT IT­SELF? Boys of the Balilla, the Ital­ian Fas­cist Party’s youth wing, in train­ing with gas masks and minia­ture ri­fles nearRome. Above, Pa­trick Sawer’s fam­ily spoon and above right, its in­scrip­tion

Pa­trick Sawer is a se­nior re­porter on the Daily Tele­graph and Sun­day Tele­graph

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