In this well-researched and insightful book, British biographer Caroline Moorehead traces the transition of Italy’s pre-1914 liberalism to Mussolini’s Fascist utopia through the beliefs and actions of the Rosselli family and its matriarch, Amelia Pincherle.
A Bold and Dangerous Family: One Family’s Fight against Italian Fascism, tells the story of a family who was proud of its Jewishness but felt staunchly Italian. Amelia’s father had fought in the Italian uprising of 1848 against their Austrian overlords, and the family were strong supporters of the Risorgimento, the Italian national renaissance, led by figures such as Garibaldi,
Mazzini and Cavour. Amelia’s London-born uncle, Ernesto Nathan, was mayor of Rome in the years before the outbreak of war in 1914.
Benito Mussolini came to power in the aftermath of the huge Italian losses in World War I. At the Battle of Caporetto in 1917, “the greatest defeat in Italian history,” 40,000 were killed, including Amelia’s eldest son. In the elections of November 1919,
Mussolini did not win a single seat, yet a few years later he became prime minister, bolstered by the disorder created by his Blackshirt thugs who intimidated and injured opponents.
The king, Victor Emmanuel III, caved in to Mussolini’s violence and refused to deploy the army against Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Numerous Italian Jews, however, were not only members of the Fascist Party at this time – the anti-Jewish laws were only passed in 1938 – but many were pleased at the modicum of stability.
Mussolini began to cultivate public support with his oratorical skills. Moorehead writes that a speech by Mussolini, “by turn sentimental, brutal, rabble-rousing, confessional, philosophical – was dazzling.” The British press spoke of Mussolini as
Garibaldi’s heir; The Observer called him “a volcano of a man.” British prime minister Winston Churchill was later positive about his leadership, while pope Pius XI described him as “the man Providence sent us.”
Many were convinced – but not the Rosselli family. Instead, they embarked on a decade of opposition to fascist rule as opponents were murdered and imprisoned, books banned and journalists persecuted. Abortion was not allowed and a tax was placed on male celibacy: “He who is not a father is not a man.” The Vatican appreciated Mussolini’s persecution of leftists.
The Rosselli brothers, Nello and Carlo, were arrested and sent to penal islands, Ustica and Lipari, for their activities. One million Italians lived in exile. According to Moorehead, Margarita Sarfatti, Mussolini’s Jewish mistress, attempted to teach “the dishevelled and belligerent Mussolini” how to behave.
The Rossellis were repeatedly detained, incarcerated and exiled. Their activities within Italy were closely monitored by the Fascist regime. Carlo escaped to Tunisia, while Nello was allowed to leave for London. Jewish intellectuals such as Leone Ginsburg and Carlo Levi became increasingly involved in anti-Fascist activities.
Carlo’s work in the early 1930s was supported by well-to-do Italian Jews amid an atmosphere of increasing antisemitism; He fought in the Spanish Civil War where Italian anti-Fascists fought Mussolini’s professional soldiers.
Mussolini’s dictum, “Violence is moral, provided it is timely and surgical and chivalrous,” was realized when the Rosselli brothers were assassinated in Paris in June 1937, murdered by adherents of the French far Right, probably on the instructions of Mussolini. With the loss of all three sons and the introduction of antisemitic legislation, Amelia escaped
with the remnant of her family.
She returned to Italy with her grandchildren in 1946. Her sons were now regarded as national heroes and their bodies brought back to Florence for public reburial in 1951. Amelia died in December 1954 at the age of 84, stubborn, stoic, committed and principled – not very Jewish in one sense, yet strongly Jewish in another.
Moorehead has written a remarkable book which reminds us of the Machiavellian machinations of Mussolini’s regime – not the imagery of the comical buffoon handed down to us. She has reclaimed for her readership the figure of Piero Gobetti, a
friend of Carlo Rosselli, during the 1920s. Gobetti observed the behavior of fellow-travelers who kept quiet.
He commented that those who “possessed elastic consciences were evil.” Gobetti paid the ultimate price and died, age 25, after being beaten up by Mussolini’s thugs.
In this thought-provoking book, the warning from history is to not close our eyes to authoritarian leaders who murder their opponents on foreign soil in 2018, to not be a bystander and look the other way.
Jerusalem Post 20 April 2018