World War II was history’s deadliest conflict. Over six years, more than 60 million people died. The world had watched Germany rise from its ashes and become Nazi Germany. Finally, in 1939, after years of risky diplomacy and appeasement, Germany invaded Poland. This was the last straw for France and England, and, after a useless ultimatum, declared war on Germany. Germany was, at the time, allied with Japan and Italy. Italy was under a Fascist dictatorship, led by Benito Mussolini. Italy had been under Fascist control since 1922, when Mussolini had done the March on Rome. Italy watched the first year of the war, but remained neutral. On June 10, 1940, Italy joined the war as an ally to Nazi Germany. In the three years of Italian involvement in the war, some say that Italy helped tip the balance of the war away from the Nazis, and in favor of the Allies. Germany always had to deploy valuable troops to save Italy’s neck. All over Europe, Italy always needed German help. The Allies, in the meantime, where liberating Europe and Asia, village per village, sometimes even road per road. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had met in Casablanca in 1943 to discuss various things of high importance. Among them was the decision to invade Italy, or as they called it, the “soft underbelly of Europe”. They called Italy that because they thought that it would be extremely easy for the Allies to conquer it, and, once Mussolini was safely out of the way, liberating the rest of Europe would be easier. There was only one problem once the plan was deployed; Italy turned out to be incredibly tough to conquer, and what was thought to be the soft underbelly turned out to be the rock hard armor. Still, on July 9, 1943, the Allies landed in Sicily. On July 24, the Fascist Grand council decided to give more power to the king, and, on July 25, 1943, Mussolini was removed from office. On September 3, Italy signed a secret Armistice with the Allies, and, on September 8, this was publicly announced. The end of fighting in Italy, however, was not even close. You must remember, between July the 25 and September 8, 45 days passed. Obviously, Hitler wasn’t so pleased to see a major ally change sides in the middle of a war, especially since an Allied Italy would give the Allies a clear path to liberate Europe from below. He ordered for German soldiers to occupy Italy, as an obstacle for the approaching Allies. Italy was now an occupied country.
Thus began a new chapter for Italy, and also for my story. In other occupied countries during the war, like France or Yugoslavia, some people were actively or passively assisting the Allies, and some even took to arms in order to take on the struggle personally. These people were called Partisans. Being a partisan was a very risky business, as if Fascists caught one, certain death was punishment. These partisans were really heroes, in every form. Some became leaders after the war, such as Charles de Gaulle, the French partisan general who became the President of France. Italy was no different. The Italian resistance was active in the north, where most of the fighting was confined to as most of Italy had already been liberated. Most fighters were University students, not soldiers, and while most wanted to do something, few knew what to do. One such student was Mario Mirri.
Mario Mirri was born on January 1, 1925, in Cortona, a small city in Tuscany, Italy. His father was the director of an important factory, so Mirri always moved thorough his childhood. He was of a part of an Anti-Fascist family, and he was always an anti-Fascist himself. However, it wasn’t until high school that he got involved in politics. He carried out boycotts against the party, getting his classmates involved.
One event was especially interesting. You see, on a date imposed by the government, all Italian students had to write an essay, praising Fascism and the Ancient Romans. Well, that day, Mirri convinced all the boys in his school to skip classes and just take a walk in the neighboring mountains. I said all the boys, and that is because, at the time, it would have been socially unacceptable for the girls to be alone with boys. But ladies, before you get angry, let me tell you; the girls played a role, which, in my opinion, was much more important and brave. All the girls went to school that day, but when they received their paper on which to write the essay, they immediately turned it in, blank as before. What a shock for the teachers it must have been!
Up to 1943 point, Mirri’s resistance had been harmless, not very legal, but still enough not to get him into serious trouble. Then, when Italy declared war on Germany, an 18-year-old Mario Mirri felt like he had a duty to free his land from the Nazi invader. He also felt like it wasn’t good for the Americans to do all the work. The Italian people had to take up the struggle for themselves. They would have to show responsibility. It was for this that Mirri and his friends met up one day and decided to become partisans. He became a member of the Action Party, an Anti-Fascist group that despised the Fascists and wanted to help liberate Italy from the Germans.
Now, I bet you are thinking that since the Fascist government was defeated, the partisans had it easy, since they only had to fight the Nazis. Well, I am sorry to say that you would be wrong. The Fascist Italian government fled to the North of Italy, where they formed a Republic, obviously controlled by Hitler. They were called the Repubblichini, and their puppet government was just as bad as the old one in Rome. They were merciless toward Partisans. Their army was even worse than the old one, since only those that were Fascist deep-down decided to remain to fight the Americans. Most Italian soldiers deserted, spending the last 2 years of the war either in hiding or fighting the Fascists.
Mirri decided to stay in the city to fight. He stayed in Vicenza, a city close to Venice, and kept connections. He also distributed clandestine pamphlets and newspapers. While his role was crucial to the resistance, he felt guilty, as his friends were fighting and dying up in the mountains. He therefore decided that he would join his friends and fight, if needed, to the death. So, one June day, Mirri left for the mountains, leaving his heartbroken parents only a small, handwritten note of explanation.
Up in the mountains, he met and befriended Luigi Meneghello. Meneghello would go on to survive the war and become one of Italy’s most important modern writers. He would write I piccoli maestri, translated into English as The Outlaws, a book about his Partisan experience. In the movie adaptation of the book, directed by the well-known Italian director Daniele Luchetti, there is a scene where Mirri and his group capture a German deserter. They take him in, but when he tries to betray them by trying to reveal their position, they discover he is a spy. He is recaptured, and, un-heartedly, the partisans decide that the only solution is to execute him. No one wants to do it, as they reason that shooting someone in battle is one thing, but shooting an unarmed person is quite another. Finally, Mirri decides that he’ll do it. He gets up, pistol in hand. The German prisoner follows him behind a house. The camera moves to his comrades, all looking broken and glum. After a few seconds that feel like hours, a loud gunshot is heard, followed by sickening thump. After the movie was released in theaters in Italy, all of Mirri’s friends and family members called him, asking for clarification. His sister in particular was horrified to see that her brother had executed a German spy. Mirri was just as confused. He replied with confusion that that he hadn’t executed anyone, and that Luchetti had just added that scene to add drama to an already dramatic movie.
Life in the mountains was hard. There were constant rastrellamenti, literally, rakings, which was when Fascists and Nazis soldiers went up in the mountains to kill as many Partisan fighters as possible. Many of Mirri’s close friends died during rastrellamenti. Since most fighters were students, not many Partisans knew how to handle guns. Weapons and ammunition were also short in supply while high in demand. The only ones who knew what they were doing were the Communist partisans. They had suffered repression and worse ever since Mussolini had taken power in 1922. They were used to hiding and illegal activity. They also had very tight and secure connections, strengthened during the Fascist regime. These experienced fighters looked down on Mirri’s group and other groups like his, considering them as immature, undependable, and more of nuisances than an ally.
In certain aspects, they were right. The Communists were harsh and severe against everyone that wasn’t part of their groups, but in many ways they had the right to, as they were often the most affective in carrying out the war to rid Italy of Fascists. The first year or so of resistance for Mirri and Meneghello, and others like them, was deciding what exactly to do to fight the Fascists and Germans. Everyone wanted to do something, but few knew what exactly.
Winter came, and the Communist urged everyone to go down to the cities, as winter would be a huge blow to their struggle and the better supplied Fascist Army and Nazis could easily destroy them. Most Partisans listened, but a few, including some of his comrades decided to remain in the mountains to fight along with the Communists. Mirri was not one of those. He went down to the city of Padua, where he would deliver clandestine newspapers to Venice by bike, which happened to be 26 miles away. One eventful morning, on his usual route to Venice, his bike hit a pothole, and all the papers went everywhere. Instead of running away and leaving his papers, he decided to rush and gather them. On the ground, scrambling to pick them all up, he felt an ice-cold gun press against his temples. He froze, petrified with fear. Still shaking, he rose to his feet, hands in the air. Mirri hadn’t realized he was next to Fascist barracks. A Fascist officer had seen him fall from his bike and had rushed to help him pick up his papers and documents. Upon seeing that they were anti-Fascist newspapers and pamphlets, he promptly rushed to arrest him. While waiting to be interrogated, he thought up of a story to tell his interrogators. He guessed that he would be tortured, and that if he refused to answer questions, horrible things might happen. He would not betray his comrades.
The Fascists took him to a prison in Venice, to be interrogated by an infamous group called the Banda Carità. There, they tortured him mercilessly. A boxer was hired to punch Mirri in the nose to make him bleed every time they were going to ask him a question. He was beaten horribly too. He got several broken ribs, and his nose was so severely destroyed that he had to get a few surgeries after the war to breath properly. The Fascist torturers also used electroshock. They would hook him up and every time his answer didn’t satisfy them, they would send a current through him. Upon seeing that he stuck to his story even under torture, they started to believe him. After a while, they sent him to a hospital where he spent the rest of the war. When, on April 29, 1945 (the day after Italian partisans executed Mussolini and the day before Hitler committed suicide) German forces in Italy surrendered to the Americans, Mirri wobbled out of the infirmary to find his friends. The air in Padua was electrifying. The partisans had just pushed out the Germans in a giant, final battle to the death. The Italians had freed themselves! What sweet revenge for all the lost friends and family members! They were free. All felt that, for better or for worst, a new era for Italy was about to begin.
I have to pause. Mirri and Meneghello would not use words like I do. I write using a lot of rhetoric. Rhetoric, the use of persuasive, powerful sounding language, was not their favorite. It was because, having been born and raised under a Fascist regime, they had come to loath it. You see, the Fascist had jammed rhetoric down everyone’s throat, with Mussolini’s bold speeches and propaganda promising Italians of a renewal of the Ancient Roman empire. In fact, in one scene of The Outlaws, Mirri and Meneghello are talking about future laws, and they decide that if one uses rhetoric, they get pane e aqua, Italian for bread and water, for an entire week. In the final scene of the movie, they realize that in celebrating the victory of the war, they have used so much rhetoric that they would have to go only on bread and water for at least a year.
The two were right about their prediction for a new and improved Italy. Italy was a monarchy, even though since 1922, the real power had been Mussolini’s. Now, with the Nazis and the Fascist puppet government gone, democracy would take hold of Italy. However, democracy was, and still is, far from perfect in Italy. The end of the war gave way to the rise of the anti-Communist Partito Democristiano, or the Christian-Democrat party. Their rise to power was somewhat controversial, as they took virtually no part in the resistance. Mirri didn’t like that. He thought it was unfair for these newcomers to not help Italy in its hour of need and then expect to reap the rewards He took to politics. He joined the CNL until its collapse in 1948. He then entered the Italian Communist Party because he felt that that the Communist party was Italy’s only choice to better itself. In 1951, he stopped taking part in active politics and went as a graduate student to the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, the best University in Italy. He later became a professor of History at the University of Pisa, the prestigious university where Galileo Galilei himself had studied. He left the Communist party in 1967. By that time, he was on the road to become one of Italy’s most important historians. My father studied at the University of Pisa too. As a matter of fact, he met Mirri because he was his student! My father later became his colleague, and they have remained close even after we moved to the United States. When this project got assigned to me by my teacher, we decided to ask him if he was willing to be interviewed by me. He requested that I sent him all my questions, so he would have time to think them over. I interviewed Mario Mirri using Skype, and one of my questions for him was what his favorite modern object was. “The ballpoint pen” he replied simply, holding up a modest blue-ink pen in his hand.