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A Jewish Communist’s Revolution Against Fascism

Eugenio Curiel was a leader of the Italian Resistance against Nazism, before he was murdered by fascists on February 24, 1945. He insisted that the Resistance wasn’t just about deposing Benito Mussolini — it was about putting the masses at the center of a new democracy.

A group of Italian resistance fighters who helped South African troops in Pistoia to locate German snipers. Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis via Getty

The antisemitic “racial laws” of 1938 weren’t the start of Eugenio Curiel’s activism, though they did cause the young physics professor to be fired from Padua University. His family was well-off, but even the communist Eugenio was hardly a black sheep. His cousin Matilde Bassani Finzi was a Socialist partisan leader in both Rome and Florence; another cousin, Henri Curiel, was a leader of the Egyptian independence movement and then a leading supporter of Algeria’s National Liberation Front; he, in turn, was a close relative of the Dutch-British anti-fascist (and later KGB agent) George Blake.

Eugenio Curiel’s short life, ending in his murder by the fascist Brigate Nere in Milan on February 24, 1945, reflected a generation’s rise to political consciousness. Born shortly before the outbreak of World War I and growing up in the shadow of Benito Mussolini’s regime, Curiel became one of the new cadres of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which surged to prominence during the anti-Nazi Resistance of 1943–45. Although for two decades it had been a confraternity of prisoners and exiles banished from Mussolini’s Italy, during the Resistance struggle, the PCI became a truly mass force, unlike any that had existed before.

Curiel’s activism had begun in near isolation, as he sought to locate dissidents within the regime’s student unions. Yet already by 1943 he had become a leading PCI cadre and editor of the party’s clandestine organ in Milan, where the workers’ movement was stirring from its slumber. Beyond his individual initiative, he was especially concerned to overcome the elitist political forms of pre-fascist Italy, building a mass democracy rooted in the organs of the Resistance struggle itself. In his call for a “progressive democracy,” Eugenio Curiel represented the promise of the PCI — and the paths the postwar Republic didn’t take.

Subverting Fascism

Born in the northeastern city of Trieste in 1912 as the son of a shipping engineer, Curiel from a young age combined his study of physics with a keen interest in philosophy. In 1934, he took up an assistant job at Padua University, where his childhood friend Atto Braun organized a secret study circle. They read mostly philosophical works by thinkers including the syndicalist Georges Sorel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx. Together with Renato Mieli and Guido Goldschmied, in 1934–35, they formed a communist group, initially lacking any contacts with the real (and illegal) PCI organization, which instead gravitated around a Paris-based “external center.”

The group’s public-facing political activism came through the university newspaper Il Bò, itself an outwardly fascist publication. This was an example of what Ruggero Zangrandi called the “long journey through fascism,” where intellectuals who either sought to reorient fascism’s priorities (notably secularist and socially-reforming “left-fascists”) or covert anti-fascists used the legal press to build their own political networks. Acting as editor of Il Bò’s trade-union page from mid-1937, Curiel sought to direct students toward an interest in workers’ material concerns, in effect calling on the regime to fulfill its own promise of a “civilization built on labor.”

Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia (1935–36) and then its intervention in the Spanish Civil War did not spark any broad opposition in Italian society. But these events served as a politicizing moment for many young intellectuals, especially thanks to the example of the International Brigades. This was a formative moment for several postwar PCI leaders, such as Pietro Ingrao and the artist Renato Guttuso. Curiel had, in March 1937, visited Paris to meet exiled PCIers and begun his collaboration with its organ Lo Stato Operaio, under the pseudonym Giorgio Intelvi. The party encouraged his work within regime organizations, as he built contacts among the fiduciari di fabbrica — a kind of factory representative nominated by workers who could voice their complaints.

This was perilous work — as Primo de Lazzari explains in his classic biography of Curiel, the rise of anti-fascist organization among the fiduciari di fabbrica soon translated into higher numbers of arrests and convictions. The fact that his articles for Il Bò were cited in the foreign press moreover drew the attentions of fascist union leader Tullio Cianetti, who (ignorant of Curiel’s Communist affiliation) called him to Rome to warn him of playing into anti-fascist propaganda. This was not the only repression Curiel and his comrades faced. In September 1938, the Mussolini regime issued its “racial laws,” which imported the Nazi ally’s antisemitism into Italy. Jews were banned from civil service employment, and Curiel was kicked out of the university.

Into the Underground

Deprived of his income as well as his voice in the legal press, Curiel began frequent visits to Switzerland and France, as he became integrated into the PCI’s exile apparatus. In particular, Curiel sought contacts in the Giustizia e Libertà movement and the Socialists, in the name of anti-fascist unity. This work continued even after he was arrested in May 1939 and sent into confino — internal exile on the island of Ventotene. Confino was a hive of anti-fascists: indeed, it was here that Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi wrote the Ventotene Manifesto for European unity. In confino, Curiel moreover met impressive Communists, such as farmworker organizer Giuseppe di Vittorio and Luigi Longo, who had been main leader of the International Brigades in Spain.

In June 1940, Mussolini took Italy to war once more, as France crumbled under the German invasion. Yet this was not to be the quick victory he expected, and the regime itself soon became endangered. On July 10, 1943, the Anglo-Americans invaded Sicily, and nine days later, they bombed Rome. Faced with imminent disaster, both leading Fascists and the royalist establishment resolved to sue for peace; on July 25, after the Fascist Grand Council voted to hand control of the war effort to the king, Mussolini was arrested. General Pietro Badoglio was appointed premier, and over August, he began to release the anti-fascist prisoners. Curiel was himself freed and headed for Milan.

This was but a brief respite: on September 8, as news filtered out of the armistice between Badoglio and the Allies, Germany invaded Italy and occupied all of the North and Center. Only now did an armed Resistance take form. Yet it was led by political networks that had formed over previous years, in exile, in prison, and in secret circles that had taken shape independently. In Milan, Curiel became editor of the PCI’s agitational newspaper L’Unità as well as its journal La Nostra Lotta, which was more aimed at party members. He also founded the Youth Front for National Independence and Freedom, which united young PCIers with other Resistance parties.

This work was closely linked to the building of the partisan movement; the Youth Front designed by Curiel grew to around ten thousand clandestine members. It placed anti-fascist mobilization above all other concerns; Curiel closely worked with the priest Camillo de Piaz in recruiting young Christian-Democrats. Youth work was especially important because the partisan bands found most of their recruits among draft resisters — i.e., the young men who refused to join Mussolini’s loyalist army in fighting alongside Hitler against the Allies. In some areas, most notably Ossola, north of Turin, these draft resisters formed so-called partisan republics, miles-wide territories liberated from German control.

Progressive Democracy

If he was himself from an intellectual milieu, Curiel strongly emphasized the need for the Youth Front to build political organization in all fields of Italian society. As he explained in one report cited by De Lazzari, it needed to build organizations “in the factories, in the villages and in the schools,” “even in the Fascist army,” in order to pass weapons and materials to the partisans. Rather than passively await the Allies’ arrival, Italians must be driven into the ranks of the Resistance, whether as armed partisans or as its active collaborators. This would both politicize Italian society and lay the bases of party organization.

Indeed, the building of a Resistance against both Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s holdout fascist regime posed the question of what kind of Italy would follow. The main Resistance parties (the Communists, Socialist, Christian-Democrats, the liberal-socialist Action Party, and small liberal forces) were united in the National Liberation Committee (CLN). Led by liberal statesman Ivanoe Bonomi, the CLN at first sought Allied recognition as the legitimate provisional government and refused offers to join the royalist administration under General Badoglio, which governed the Allied-liberated regions of Southern Italy.

This changed in April 1944, when PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti returned to Italy, bearing a new party line. This shift (known as the Salerno Turn) abandoned the PCI’s previous opposition to Badoglio’s government, and instead proposed that the CLN parties should join its ranks, in exchange for Badoglio’s resignation once the Allies reached Rome. Even with Badoglio gone, this would mean that the question of whether to keep the monarchy would be deferred until after the war, and the continuity of the Italian state would be maintained. In effect, the state would be pruned of Fascism rather than recreated as if from scratch.

There was little organized opposition to the turn within PCI ranks — indeed, most dissident-communist forces had in any case opposed the CLN alliance from its creation in September 1943. Curiel himself embraced the turn to governmental paricipation, which moreover vastly increased the party’s resources in Allied-liberated regions. But this was not the limit of his political horizons. For there was a division between those cadres who saw the CLN mainly as a meeting of party leaderships — indeed, a temporary arrangement — and those like Curiel who sought to make local CLNs into enduring organs of mass democracy.

This distinction, which had existed even before the Salerno Turn, was especially a divide between PCI cadres in areas where the popular Resistance was relatively weaker (notably Rome, a city that also lacked any large industry) and those where it had taken on more mass proportions thanks to the growth of strikes in the armaments and engineering industries. From the PCI-led strikes that began in Milan and Turin in March 1943, these stoppages (often lasting for just hours) were less a means of shutting down production (in any case crippled by shortages) as of effectively displaying workers’ power to defy the regime.

For Curiel, CLN groups in factories, schools, and villages could serve as the basis of a so-called progressive democracy. This term, drawn from Togliatti, had many different meanings, for instance, a democracy that excluded fascists, but in Curiel’s version, it particularly focused on the idea of mass participation. The politics of even pre-fascist Italy had been dominated by the horse-trading among liberal parliamentary elites, who had indeed played a decisive role in lifting Mussolini to power. But the Resistance mobilization offered the opportunity to root democratic participation in everyday life.

As Curiel wrote in L’Unità on July 25, 1944, just months after his party had joined Badoglio’s government, progressive democracy meant “not the dictatorship of the proletariat” but

a form of political and social life different from the old pre-fascist democracy because it is made of the self-government of the popular masses. It is, therefore, not limited to periodic electoral consultations, but . . . assures the pre-eminent weight of popular participation in the government, through free mass associations.

Curiel specified that this was not an order “extended from above” but would come from the struggle, “in which the popular masses gain experience, maturity and political capacity.” For this reason, it was not just a “stage” that had to be passed through prior to the real end goal of socialism, but rather “process that takes us along the road of the maximum democratization of society.” Decisively, this would make it so that even those burdened with the labor of postwar reconstruction — the “worker, the builder, the peasant” would not just be guaranteed “a Charter of Rights,” but would themselves assume political leadership.

There were examples of this spirit within the PCI itself — Curiel’s confino friends included the trade unionist Di Vittorio, who had begun full-time work as a farm laborer at age ten. Fascism had denied the working class any direct political experience (in what historian Santo Peli rather exaggeratedly calls “mass political illiteracy”). But Curiel insisted that the Resistance was itself a means of overcoming this. Here, the word “progressive” was used not only in the sense of “reformist” but also that of “gradually increasing”— the masses’ path to freeing themselves of leadership by professional politicians and intellectuals.

Death

Curiel would not live to see Italy’s postwar democracy. On February 24, 1945, he was recognized in the street in Milan by fascists from the Brigate Nere. When he tried to escape into the crowd, he was shot in the leg, and as he struggled on, he was cut down by a hail of machine-gun fire. Just two months later, on April 25, the CLN called a general insurrection across occupied northern Italy; as workers occupied Milan’s factories, Mussolini fled the city toward Switzerland, only to be caught up in a partisan roadblock. The Fascist dictator was executed on April 28.

Thanks to the Resistance, Mussolini was shot by an Italian hand — and the masses had taken part in their own liberation. In June 1946, they voted to abolish the monarchy, allowing the CLN parties to author a new Constitution. Proclaiming a “republic based on labor,” this document promised to “remove those economic or social obstacles which constrain the freedom and equality of citizens, thereby impeding the full development of the human person and the effective participation of all workers in the political, economic and social organization of the country.”

In this, there was much of Curiel’s spirit. But postwar Italy was not to be the “progressive democracy” he envisaged. The disarming of the partisans and the amnesty for wartime crimes authored by Justice Minister Togliatti did serve the demands of social peace, and the PCI’s integration into the institutional order. Yet the end of Nazism and the mounting Cold War divide soon undermined the anti-fascist unity of the war years, and in spring 1947, armed with Marshall Plan dollars, Christian-Democratic premier Alcide De Gasperi kicked the Communists and Socialists out of government.

In the Cold War Republic, the Communists would fight, above all, for the upholding of the Constitution, insisting on the basic rights of assembly as well as its rhetoric of social progress. Reaching 2 million members by the end of the 1940s, the PCI, however, remained caught between rival imperatives, seeking both to organize the masses and to insist on its own institutional legitimacy. Not only was the party itself hierarchically organized, a legacy of the Stalin era as well as clandestine conditions, but Togliatti’s Salerno Turn allowed the continuity of the Italian state — leaving almost all fascist-era police and judges in their posts.

What militants like Curiel had achieved was to help the masses to stand up for themselves, no longer passive material to be molded by their bosses or the state. As one Youth Front leader — the director Gillo Pontecorvo — later recalled, Curiel had long “rejected any divide between everyday, practical work and cultural growth,” instead insisting that mass politicization must involve both these things. This Jewish Communist and martyr of anti-fascism was also profoundly Gramscian — taking the masses not for “material instruments of social upheaval;” but for the “intelligent protagonists of the revolution.”