Long Live the Strong

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Long Live the Strong: A History of Rural Society in the Apennine Mountains
by Roland Sarti - Social Science - 1985 - 282 pag.

(from pag. 224)

Per guarir da questo male
C’è un rimedio solamente:
Che ci chiappi un’accidente
E ci levi da soffrir.

[From this illness that afflicts us
There is one way to recover:
That we drop dead ten times over
Ami be put out of our pain]


Not everyone was prepared to accept that drastic cure. By the end of 1943 the village and surrounding countryside came to life  as  in the distant past when Ligurian tribesmen had taken on the Roman legions. It was then that the war stopped being a painful but remote presence and became instead a tormenting fact of everyday life. Around December of that year the people of the village began to hear rumors of mysterious bands of “rebels” said to be hiding out in cer-tain remote localities high in the mountains. They had been seen, it was said, by a few who had strayed from the village in search of fire-wood. No one knew who these strangers were or what they wanted, but they did call themselves “patriots” and vowed to fight Germans and Fascists to the last man. They were few to begin with and re­mained isolated through most of the winter. They spent those first months organizing and recruiting. By March 1944 they numbered no more than fifteen, but figures are misleading because recruits tended to drop in and out of the movement. Their greatest asset was a leader who was initially known only by his nom de guerre of Pippo.  His  real name was Manrico Ducceschi, twenty-three years old, soft­- spoken, slightly built, pale, and prematurely balding. Not at all a pre­possessing figure at first sight, yet something about him etched the mind. People who had spoken to him could not shake off the impres­sion that they had encountered a man to reckon with.60

Pippo had the gift and curse of earnestness. An avid reader of po­etry and philosophy,  which he had studied briefly at the University  of Florence before joining the army, he pushed himself to study mili­tary manuals to learn the art of warfare. He had much to learn be-cause his military training when he took command of the partisan formation consisted of a few weeks spent at the school for army officers in Modena. Like most other cadets, he had simply walked away from the school when the army disintegrated in the days fol­lowing the armistice.    Now he was an outlaw in the mountains act­-ing out political convictions that had gradually taken shape over the years (he seems to have joined the clandestine opposition movement Giustizia e Libertà in 1939) and using his resourcefulness to put to­gether a makeshift fighting force. In some ways he succeeded re­markably well.  By summer he commanded several hundred parti-sans, and the area where they operated was designated Zone XI by the national headquarters of the Resistance movement. In June they staged some significant operations against German supply lines and on July 3 captured a truck loaded with badly needed food supplies, which were deposited in the premises of the Dopolavoro in Mon­tefegatesi. Weapons, partly captured and partly provided by air drops from the Allies, were storaged in the village theater house, which became their arsenal. Montefegatesi was becoming their base of op­eration, from where they planned to strike out against the enemy.

That decision spelled trouble for both the partisans and the people of the village. It disregarded the basic rules of guerrilla warfare that the insurgents maintain mobility, avoid territoriality and the open confrontations with the enemy that it invites. Pippo may have been influenced by his diligent study of the rules of conventional warfare, but other partisan leaders made the same mistake with usually di­sastrous consequences, as in the case of the so-called republic of Montefiorino, crushed by the Germans in the summer of 1944. Turn­ing Montefegatesi into a permanent depository of weapons and food supplies was a false step that cost everyone dearly. The decision did have some surface plausibility: The town was far from the German garrisons located in the valley below, its approaches were few and easy to monitor, and at its back stood the highlands and passes of the Cima where the partisans could find refuge. Most villagers were not unfriendly,  perhaps  because they sensed that the partisans were on the winning side, and five or six were convinced enough  to  join them. But many more provided them with shelter, food, and infor­mation. The low level of direct peasant participation in the Resis-tance was the norm nearly everywhere, except possibly the mode- nese during the short-lived republic of Montefiorino.61

But sympathy for the partisans and their cause could stretch only  so far.  With the population swollen to more than twice  its normal size by  homeless refugees from as far away as the island of  Pantelle-    ria, the territory produced barely enough food to support civilians. Partisans did not make  things any easier when they requisitioned  food supplies and added insult to injury by paying with script re­deemable at the time of final liberation.   Close acquaintance dis-pelled  much of the awe that had surrounded them when they lived alla macchia. Close up they looked like spirited youngsters out on a lark, as simpatici as you please but more interested in dancing and chasing girls than drilling and fighting. Pippo was a stern disciplinar­ian, but he was not always there to keep them in line. Most wor-risome was the possibility that their presence in the village might invite German reprisals. That fear was by no means far-fetched. As the front line stalled along the so-called Gothic Line  that  traversed the Apennines from east to west the Germans became increasingly worried about the guerrilla formations in their rear. They began launching a series of mop-up operations punctuated  by indiscrimi­-nate round-ups of males (rastrellamenti),  burnings  of homes and even entire villages, and on-the-spot executions of suspected par-tisans and supporters.

Montefegatesi’s turn carne on July 14, 1944, the giorno del rastrel­lamento, as the people of the village still call it. In the hours before dawn a column of about five  hundred Austrian  troops  surrounded the town,  moved in,  and began  a systematic house-to-house search in the hope of surprising and capturing their quarry.   That they did not find what they expected was fortunate for both the partisans and the civilians. Aware perhaps of the impending German move, or sim­ply lucky, Pippo had evacuated his men during the night.   At dusk one of his lieutenants had gathered everyone in the square and prom­ised continued protection for the village; they could all sleep soundly in their beds, the partisans would not be far away. It was a false but fortunate reassurance. The subsequent house-to-house search con­vinced the Austrians that the people were peaceful.  Not only was there no resistance,  but families were united and virtually  all  the men accounted for. The troops were relieved that they had not un­covered a nest of outlaws, and retaliation was minimal.  They did it  by the book: Able-bodied males except the very young and old were removed to a nearby labor camp where they were put to work build-ing fortifications, buildings were burned only if they were found to contain weapons, and on-the-spot executions were limited to three. The victims were partisans found with their weapons  and identified by local spies. Two were shot, the third was hanged in the square be­fore an assembled crowd by way of public example. He had dared to resist capture, and people had to understand that the severity of pun­ishment would be directly proportional to their degree of resistance. Inexplicably,  the theater house stacked with partisan weapons was not searched, and the oversight may have saved the village. Thank God they were Austrians instead of “real Germans,” said many vil­lagers later on.

On the scale of wartime retaliation the village fared well. It experi­enced none of the indiscriminate slaughter that marked similar ex­peditions against the towns of Sant’Anna and Marzabotto. Within a few months rnost of the men who had been taken away returned safe and sound,  all  but two who were identified as  partisan supporters and executed. As such things went, this was a clean mop-up opera­tion. Nothing untoward happened on that July 14 as far as the official record is concerned. Not so for the people of the town, for whom the events of that day still sum up the experience of war.  The war went on for another ten months during  which the front line  came closer and the village became disputed territory. Shellings, skirmishes, and the unpredictable behavior of soldiers on both sides made life mis­erable and insecure. The mentality of combat affected even the chil­dren who developed the deplorable habit of forming rival gangs armed with real weapons abandoned by their legitimate bearers. Yet, when the subject of war comes up, those who lived through it talk about the rastrellamento. The explanation may be found in the word itself, which means “to rake through.” The rastrello (“rake”) is a familiar implement that breaks up the soil leaving no particle untouched; it combs, rearranges, and disrupts. And that Is precisely how the ras­trellamento affected people: It touched their lives in a way that the more impersonal destruction of war did not. A bullet fired from a distance by an anonymous hand can kill, but a door kicked in at dawn and the sight of armed strangers searching your home inflict a peculiar kind of injury. That sort of violence rakes people’s lives and makes them reconsider much that they have taken for granted.

Individuals drew different conclusions from the experience of war. The rapid depopulation of the Apennines in the aftermath of the war indicates that flight from the land was a common resolve.  Emigra-tion was nothing new, but now entire families departed.    That most of those who left did not sell homes or land does suggest  that  they did not see their move as an irreparable break with the community. Still, the locus of living of a nuclear family that left as a unit shifted irreversibly beyond the village.  They might return periodically to visit and vacation, or even permanently to retire, but any abiding loyalty to the community had to be balanced  against  considerations of work and family ties located elsewhere. In the old days the returns of emigration were used to buy land, build a home, or set up a small business. The new repatriates would be more likely to try to impress their fellow paesani by sporting fancy cars and clothes or by display­ing citified manners and forms of speech. A song popular in the post­war years caricatured the yearning for conspicuous consumption:

È tornato il Nicolà
Con la figlia e la comare;
Quel che vede vuol comprare
Più ne spende e più ne ha.  

Vuol comprarsi la stazion
Con la piazza e la fontana
E l’orchestra americana
Che gli suoni la canzon.  

[Good old Nicholas is back
With his daughter and his wife;
All he sees he wants to buy, 
There’s no end to his stack.  

The train station must be his,
And the square where fountains stand;
And a boogie-woogie band
That will keep him entertained.]  

None of this was unprecedented, certainly not the flight from the land or the desire to enjoy the good things of life. In retrospect, they were culminations of trends long in the making. What was new and disquieting was the rapidity with which these trends unfolded in the postwar years. Some communities lost all their inhabitants, their houses crumbled, grass grew in the streets, and thieves carried away all that was movable.   Such ghost towns are not an unusual sight in the Apennines today. They inspire an understandable pessimism for the future in those who behold them, as does the spectacle of aging populations in those villages where life is not extinct. La guerra ha cambiato tutto (“War changed everything”) is an often heard expres­sion. Justifled as it is, it leaves open the question of what that change entails for the future.  Change is nothing new in the mountains, and the disappearing order that people today think of as traditional was itself the result of change and was inevitably bound to change. The question today is whether society will  know and be able  to  utilize the attractions and resources of mountain communities like Mon­tefegatesi. That they have something to offer is at least recognized. It is just possible, to use a well-worn phrase, that reports of their death are greatly exaggerated.  

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