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Benedetto Croce

and Italian Fascism

By Fernando Fabio Rizi

University of Toronto Press,

321 pages, $60

From Fascism to Democracy:

Culture and Politics

in the Italian Election of 1948

By Robert A. Ventresca

University of Toronto Press,

354 pages, $60

Last Sunday, April 25, Italy celebrated Liberation Day, the 59th anniversary of its freedom from Nazi occupation, its most emotional and still most contentious national holiday.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the parties in his "centre-right" coalition -- they range from the formerly Fascist to Ayn Rand free-willers and northern separatist-racists -- increasingly shun Liberation Day, damning it as a manipulated leftist celebration that grossly overplays the role of Italy's anti-fascist partigiani. The centre-left, which includes almost everyone not centre-right, accuses the right of co-opting history and betraying it.

I first began to relearn Italy's tangled war history at a Remembrance Day ceremony at the Commonwealth War Cemetery just outside Padua, amid rows of small white tombstones with the names of dead teenagers from London and Johannesburg and Toronto and North Bay, and rows of silent mourners, Canadian and British on one side, Italian on the other, enemies turned overnight into wartime allies against the Germans. And now, on this day in November, 1999, all allies together in the bombing of Kosovo.

In September, 1943, when the Italian king begged an armistice with the West, Italy changed from being Germany's brother in arms to its enemy. The king's about-face, his dismissal of Mussolini, the dictator he himself had anointed 20 years earlier, brought the Nazi occupiers pouring bloodily in from the north, Western Allied liberators ramming in from the south, civil war flaming between partisans and fascists, between left and right.

By now it is jolting but no longer surprising to find manifestations of Italy's never-healed right-left, fascist-anti-fascist schism everywhere, even on schlock Italian TV. But it was unexpected to get a taste of it in Toronto this winter at a sedate launch at the Italian Cultural Institute. The discussion swirled most strongly over two Italian studies volumes that seemed in counterpoise: voices from two different generations, two different faces of Italy, in two different keys.

Benedetto Croce and Italian Fascism is Fabio Fernando Rizi's elegiac and passionate defence of an icon of Italian letters whose philosophy fell into disfavour not only for its lofty obscurantism, but for its links to fascism. Croce, grand old man of turn-of-the-century Italian philosophy, was the brooding proponent of complex, quasi-spiritual theories about the eternal verities of beauty, the arts and the grandeur of human instinct, and the illusoriness and unreliability of history and science. His best-known work in the English-speaking world is his 1902 Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic.

For the first two-thirds of his long life -- born in 1866 to wealthy Neapolitan landowners, he died in 1952, having lived through monarchy, fascism and democracy -- Croce appealed to a kind of aristocratic post-Risorgimento wistfulness, a nostalgia for the dream of pure beauty, an esthetic dream of empire born long, long before the turbulent Italian reunification of 1861. An early supporter of il Duce's new fascist order, Croce was allegedly driven by its thuggery and racism to return to his classic small-l liberal roots, writing and speaking critically about fascism, supporting "democratic principles," though voicing skepticism about democracy. Today, Croce's growing cadre of reborn admirers portray him as a fearless beacon of anti-fascism, though he lived through it unthreatened and untouched.

For Rizi, now in his 60s, this work is the impressive culmination of a lifelong dream. He arrived in Canada from Italy in 1950, having absorbed the glory of Croce in high school. In Toronto, he learned enough English to present, in 1999, a mature and elegantly written doctoral dissertation in defence of Croce. For this book, Rizi also drew on Croce's previously unpublished diaries, donated to the University of Toronto by Croce's daughter.

But the question still rages, as it did that night at the Italian Cultural Institute, as it still does in Italy: Was Croce soft on fascism? Rizi's loving examination, his scrupulous perusal of Croce's documents, dark moods and complex motives, doesn't quite succeed in establishing Croce as a quiet beacon to the Resistance, nor does it demolish the criticisms Rizi sets up: that Croce's critics called his aristocratic anti-fascism a PR boon to Mussolini, played out from "a curious position of privilege." While active resisters like the Roselli brothers and Leone Ginzburg were murdered by fascist squadristi, or tortured to death in prison, Croce wrote solemn anguished epistolaries, "remained in touch" with their families, Rizi writes. But even the centrist-democrat historian Gaetano Salvameni admonished: "There is a difference between Buddha, contemplating his navel, and Christ who dies on the cross."

Robert Ventresca is a young historian at the University of Western Ontario. His From Fascism To Democracy: Culture and Politics in the Italian Election of 1948 is an articulate, intensely researched and dramatic love letter to his parents' homeland, a vigorous modern celebration of what he sees as Italy's improbably successful struggle to "redefine itself as a democratic republic and assume its rightful place as a major power in Europe." It is also a political thriller, a page-turning unmasking of the fury of forces overt, covert, domestic and foreign, frantically at work to determine the course of Italy's seminal first election as a republic, on April 18, 1948.

And at its heart, the old debate rages. For the election was a profound joust between right and left, between godly and godless, for the country's everlasting soul -- between the Vatican-backed, capitalism-pledged Christian Democrats of master politician Alcide De Gasperi, and the widely powerful Popular Front, the Communist and Socialist Party coalition headed by charismatic communist chief Palmiro Togliatti.

In this campaign, how many famous teeth were cut! "America's Crusade to Defeat Italian Communism," as Ventresca calls it, included the newly hatched CIA's very first major covert operation, stewarded by Allen and then John Foster Dulles, with a young Richard Nixon helming the delivery of massively puffed and menacing, politically weighted foreign-aid infusions, to warn the despised red-leaning Italians they'd better vote right ("make it so simple even the dumbest wop will get the message," said one of many U.S. diplomatic documents unearthed by Ventresca).

Meanwhile, the Vatican, enjoying the official status it had lost during Reunification and had restored by Mussolini, preached everlasting hell and threatened to excommunicate communist Catholics, who were a huge force, helping make postwar Italy what one U.S. diplomat called the reddest country in Europe. Visions of the Virgin Mary, praying for the defeat of communism, increased exponentially. De Gasperi played the Red Menace for all the U.S. support and cash it was worth. Was the Popular Front's massively successfully election campaign financed by "Moscow gold"? The United States came up with $10-million for the Christian Democrats, said to have been drawn heavily from confiscated "Nazi gold," which included the seized assets of Europe's slaughtered Jews. Estimates of votes paid for from this fund, thus stolen from the Popular Front, ranged from 500,000 to two million.

In the resounding climax -- this would make a great movie -- the Christian Democrats won big, by more than four million votes. Even so, only months after the election, the still dangerously popular Togliatti was nearly killed by a lone "unbalanced gunman."

And, Ventresca argues, the outcome of the '48 election set the shape of Italian politics all the way to the present. Though the lines between "centre-right" and "centre-left" have blurred, the distance and passion between the poles are as great as ever, the debate every bit as urgent and complex. I can't wait to go back again.

In 2001, Susan Kastner finished the family memoir, La Corona del Vinto Re: The Story of Guido and Giuseppina DePetrillo. Now she spends as much time in Italy as possible.

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