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The Lost Sicilians
It stands as a solitary memorial, a single neo-classical column erected by the Lions Club in 1964 bearing a cryptic inscription in generic memory of the victims of war, but mentioning little else. The monument is easily overlooked, located in a small square (Piazza Sette Angeli) behind the apse of Palermo Cathedral, where there once stood a building and bomb shelter. In 1943, a single bomb, dropped imprecisely from a high altitude by an American plane, fell on this very spot, leaving the medieval church untouched but instantly killing nearly two hundred civilians. Afterward, the local authorities simply ordered the bodies plowed under like so much debris. It was Fascist Sicily's way of remembering her dead. Like the schools built next to urban army bases (obvious tactical targets), the placement of a bomb shelter on this spot was pure folly. Not unlike the war that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Sicilians. Who was at fault? Who in underdeveloped Italy was stupid enough to wage war on the world's most awesome military and industrial power, and later claim that it was just an innocent error?
They were the believers. Hoodwinked by a hooligan "duce" masquerading as a statesman, and then betrayed by a Fascist general (Alfredo Guzzoni) who fled Sicily across the Strait of Messina with German troops to save his own skin rather than face a less pleasant destiny defending Sicily against Patton and Montgomery. A few found themselves outside Sicily, far from Guzzoni's cowardice, when the Allied troops arrived in 1943. Others could not flee. Sicily, after all, is an island. No matter. Most of Sicily's Fascists simply changed their colours, claimed to be victims of circumstance, and pursued successful careers in a New Italy after the war. Since Italy finished the war on the winning side, and the government soon declared a general amnesty for war crimes following establishment of the Italian Republic, none of these "patriots" were tried as war criminals, though some were very briefly imprisoned by the Allied Military Government. A few Fascists were exemplary cowards.
Giovanni Ravalli was a typical example. Waging war on criminals as a police prefect, he pursued gangs such as the one that stole Caravaggio's Nativity from a Palermo church in 1969. He eventually retired on a generous pension to his home in Rome, where he died in 1998. But in Greece in 1941, as a lieutenant in the Italian Army's Pinerolo Division during the Italian occupation, he was one of the soldiers responsible for the torture and murder of a Greek policeman named Isaac Sinanoglu, who was dragged by a galloping horse after his teeth were extracted with pliers. Ravalli's acts of inhumanity were numerous, though, like most former Fascists, he probably never bothered to recount these experiences to his family and colleagues. At one point, he ordered boiling oil poured over some seventy Greek prisoners. After the war, the exemplary Fascist was captured by the Greeks and sentenced to death for these crimes and others. The government of the Italian Republic saved him by threatening to withhold reparations destined for Greece unless he was released. Ravalli returned home to a "distinguished" career and apparently was questioned about his Fascist activities only once, in 1992, by Michael Palumbo, an Italo-American historian. Of more than 1,200 Italians (mostly ex-Fascists) sought for war crimes in Africa and the Balkans, not one has faced justice, despite the United Nations citation of Italy for crimes against humanity. Thanks to the Italian Republic's general amnesty of 1948, those responsible for torturing anti-Fascists in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy have been ignored altogether. (This included agencies such as the quasi-military carabinieri, which even today are occasionally investigated for mistreatment of suspects.)
In this land of divine cuisine, endless summers and tiny miniskirts, it's slightly distasteful to contemplate that a charming young Sicilian woman venerates a grandfather who collaborated with an evil little empire like Mussolini's, but history's moral truths are not meant to be pretty. As a young man, even Italy's current President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (who served as a military officer in Albania and has made controversial statements apparently defending Mussolini's Republic of Salò), like millions of other very ordinary Italians, implicitly accepted the propaganda of the nation's most infamous political party. Nobody you meet in Sicily (or anywhere in Italy) is likely to want to discuss the details of a war that ended so long ago, and whose bloodshed could not dissuade thousands of Sicilians from emigrating after the war in search of the American (or Canadian or Australian) Dream in what was once an "enemy" country. Today, Italy is closer politically to the United States than any other nations except perhaps Canada and the United Kingdom, and for most Italians the Second World War is best forgotten, if indeed it was ever more than a line in a history book.
Italy has a Neo-Fascist political party or two, advocating a diluted version of Mussolini's warped philosophy and a revisionist perspective of wartime history, but few Italians think (or know) very much about Fascism's legacy. By the 1950s, the memory of Sicilian men selling their sisters to Allied soldiers was conveniently relegated to the realm of wartime nightmares, as were the invaders themselves, though nobody seems to have suggested rejecting American economic assistance (such as the Marshall Plan). Except for Grandfather's memories (or nostalgia), there's not much to say. Some families suffered more from the war than others, and their experiences should not be dismissed as insignificant, but today the typical Italian, understandably, is more concerned with her next holiday or romantic affair than with a debate about Fascism. That's as it should be, but ethical principles cannot be ignored altogether; history must be our teacher, and an Italian mother may eventually have to decide how to tell her child about the ugliest chapter of our nation's history. It is a topic many Italian parents have chosen to avoid.
Italy, like Germany, has changed. But even in a morally complex world, there is Good and Bad, and nobody (certainly no modern nation) wants to be identified publicly as "Bad." Powerfully eloquent films like Saving Private Ryan and Windtalkers make it clear that Axis and Allies were not always friends. Mercifully, Italy's Fascist army, rarely distinguished for competence or valor (and usually given more to surrender than sacrifice), doesn't figure in these cinematic depictions of the Second World War, but the historical conflict is nevertheless an inconvenient fact for many Italians, especially older or more nationalistic ones. So ingrained is the collective memory of Fascism in the national psyche that it has taken Italians six decades to allow the son of the last King of Italy, exiled since 1946, to re-enter the nation of his birth. Finger-pointing is futile; the statement that "everybody was involved" with Fascism, while painful on the ears, is not far of the mark. After all, Mussolini's weak-minded followers managed to indoctrinate a generation of Italians. Moreover, they were able to control schools and the press for almost two decades.
Following the war, though Italy was the first nation cited for crimes against humanity by the United Nations (an action insufficient to dissuade the Italian Republic from later seeking membership in that organisation), few of Italy's Fascists were ever prosecuted or punished by the Allies, despite having committed atrocities in "Italian imperial territories" like Ethiopia and Greece. In practice, how does one place more than a hundred million people (in Italy, Germany and Japan) on trial? International treaties do not generally allow for prosecution of soldiers following orders in time of war, even where allegations of war crimes are involved. Nevertheless, Italian courts have tried and convicted several German war veterans while avoiding the pursuit of others for fear that the testimony of Hitler's footsoldiers could implicate some of Mussolini's, thus bringing the world's attention to bear on matters that some Italians (even a few in tiny miniskirts) might find embarrassing.
Ideally, age should imply wisdom. Fascism was an anti-intellectual movement in an essentially "agrarian" economy; more than 50% of Italians still worked in agriculture-related professions in 1948. Under Fascism, schools were built (mass literacy increased somewhat) but original thought was discouraged, forcing many of the more talented Italian thinkers (scientists, explorers, musical composers, educators) to seek their fortunes outside Italy. Others were simply brainwashed during Fascism but never de-programmed (re-educated) after the regime's fall. This left the nation with a dearth of the wise elders which, in an evolving society, possess the moral and intellectual authority to guide younger generations. It was also one of the developments that set the stage for the political instability and social chaos for which post-war Italy (the so-called "First Republic") was famous.
Who defends Fascism today? Many of the folks who defend, or (more often) equivocate about, Fascism are Italians and their descendants. Ironically, this includes some people on the other side of the ocean --Americans of Italian ancestry (and several otherwise respectable Italo-American ethnic organisations) who prefer not to admit Italy's role in anti-American wartime activities. Coincidentally, these are many of the same people who deny the Mafia's profound influence on Sicilian life. Their attitude that "Italians can do no wrong" reflects a strange mix of historic revisionism and collective denial. Until recently, the pastor of Palermo's San Matteo Church (in Corso Vittorio Emanuele) celebrated an annual mass for the soul of Benito Mussolini, supposedly an atheist. Whatever their attitudes may be, it's difficult to immagine "ethnic" Italians in New York or Washington sponsoring such an event; rationality must begin somewhere. Many living Italians were involved with Fascism more directly (the soldiers who defended it militarily in Ethiopia, Greece, Albania, Italy); the children of such men sometimes seek to somehow protect the honour of their own aging fathers by denying reality. Hence bizarre equivocations instead of the simple acknowledgement: "The Italians were wrong." Almost every Italian man born before 1925 (including most Presidents of the Italian Republic and many politicians of the former Christian Democratic party) served in the armed forces or collaborated in some way with the government during the Fascist era, and as too many gaffes indicate, old indoctrination runs deep. Thankfully, these men (and most Italians abroad) usually avoid making silly, easily misperceived, public comments about Fascism when visiting Allied nations such as the United States and United Kingdom. Since Italy is part of NATO and the UN, that's good. Pride in heritage need not overshadow fundamental morality.
But when Fascism was in fashion, censorship, torture, racism and harassment were the order of the day. And, of course, so was the war against France, the United States, the United Kingdom and a number of other countries. Most Italian accounts of the war and Fascism are incredibly superficial, perpetuating the myth of Italy as a victim while ignoring such matters as Italian war crimes committed in Ethiopia (hence the United Nations citation), Greece, Albania and Libya, but Edoardo Savino's La Nazione Operante, a kind of Fascist dishonour roll published in 1937, lists the names and biographies of a number of Sicilian Fascists. On an idealogical note, it's comical to consider that these folks felt threatened by freedom of expression, the women's vote, free elections, the malaria vaccine, Coca-Cola, blue jeans, tampons, refrigerators and other "American" ideas that would change life for millions of Italians, but there's no accounting for taste. Most of their descendants certainly seem to enjoy these things today, proof that Fascism is not hereditary. Fascists occasionally produce normal children. One party podestà even fathered a future archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Martini.
The podestà was a special breed of Fascist, typically a cunning, yet obedient, easily-indoctrinated opportunist more concerned with supporting the regime than with loyalty to his fellow citizens. Though the title itself was known to the ancient Romans, the Fascist podestà was a commissar whose job it was to ensure that local politicians and officials towed the party line in public life. In other words, he spied on his fellow citizens on behalf of the totalitarian state he served. The podestàs nominally oversaw certain public works projects so that the national government could take full credit for these, but their real role was less overt. If, for example, a journalist wrote an article somehow critical of Fascism, the podestà could order his arrest and imprisonment. The fair trial, an inconvenient institution for a dictatorship, was for Britons and Americans, not for Italians. The podestà also oversaw things like mail censorship. An incoming letter, but especially an outgoing one (revealing too much about life in Sicily under Fascism), would prompt a visit from the police and possibly imprisonment without a trial, "acting against Fascism" being a criminal offence. There were few Jews in Sicily (physicist Emilio Segré was Jewish and suffered for it under Fascism's anti-Semitic laws), but it was the podestà's job to know who they were, and to know who entertained "foreign" ideas or studied English (prohibited in private as well as public schools).
Even children were not immune to the authority of the local podestà. If, for example, a twelve year-old girl wrote theme papers for civics (propaganda) class presenting a point of view in some way inconsistent with Fascism, the podestà might order the local carabinieri (state police) to pay her parents a visit to investigate. By 1935, most police officers in Italy were Fascists, and few of them were dismissed after the liberation of 1943-1945. Cesare Mori, Prefect of Palermo, and Alfredo Guzzoni, Army Commandant for Sicily, were devout Fascists, as were most judges and military officers, as well as numerous Catholic priests (after 1929), including most military chaplains. The island's Fascists had little affinity for the thousands of Sicilians who had close relatives in the United States, officially an enemy power by 1941 but strongly suspect ever since the Americans had condemned Italy's ruthless invasion of Ethiopia (Guzzoni was involved in that campaign, too).
In Sicily, the most prominent memorial to those who fought against Fascism is the Allied war cemetery near Catania. To certain Sicilians, it is a bitter reminder that our ancestors --our own families-- were not always on the side of freedom and justice. (There was no partisan movement in Sicily, and the Allies' war here was fought against Italians and Germans before Italy became a cobelligerent.) To others, it is a symbol of freedom. Summer 1943 saw the Allies welcomed as liberators, and nobody ever speaks of Sicilians' wholesale "treason" in embracing the "enemy" while the Kingdom of Italy was still opposed to the Allies.
Until Overlord (the Normandy invasion), Husky, as the Sicilian invasion was called, was the largest amphibious military operation ever undertaken. It lasted 38 days, somewhat longer than expected, and cost Italy some 130,000 casualties in dead, wounded and, for the most part, prisoners --men who surrendered to Allied forces. By some estimates, more than 20,000 Italian civilians died in Sicily during the campaign itself and the bombings preceding it. Even the massacres carried out by ancient Greek and Carthaginian generals had not claimed so many deaths in Sicily during a war. The Allied action brought about Mussolini's removal on 25 July 1943 (though he eventually escaped to found a Fascist republic in the north of Italy), and prompted the Kingdom of Italy to join the Allies on 8 September.
In recent years, several authors have tried to make the case that our country's Jewish population was not "really" persecuted much by Fascism, or that the Italian people in general tried to protect Jewish Italians, despite the record showing that these were actually isolated cases of altruism and courage. Individual cases aside, the facts and figures do not support this new, politically-correct thesis of a compassionate people seeking to save the Jews of Italy --an idea often advanced in a self-serving manner by Italians. (One wonders if such revisionism will eventually reach the point of stating that Italy never "really" fought a war against the United States!) However, Nazi reprisal killings of Italian civilians by firing squad (mostly in northern and central Italy) in 1944 and 1945 were extensive, and often the Nazi troops enjoyed the tacit support or open collaboration of Italians, some of them Fascist sympathizers. One of the untold stories of the Second World War is the fact that far more Italian civilians were killed by the Allies (mostly through bombings) than by the Germans through targeted reprisals. (Precise figures are lacking, but it appears that more Italian civilians died in Sicily in 1943 than perished throughout the war in German reprisals in other parts of the country.) Of course, in a post-war world, with its post-war economic realities, it has never been terribly convenient for Italians to draw attention to this fact, even in popular culture (movies, etc.). Granted that it was Italy to first declare war on the Allies (not vice versa), and that the Nazi reprisals were particularly cruel, Germany has always been an easier post-war target than the United States. Americans, apart from aiding the Italian economy, could easily respond that it was the Italian leadership that initiated the conflict.
Editor's Note: The author refers to a purely cultural perspective, not a legal one. In international law, airmen responsible for bombings are not usually prosecuted for murder. The number of Italians killed by gunfire (firing squad) in Nazi reprisals is usually placed at around 8,000, mostly civilians, and the men responsible have sometimes been tried for murder, though the German Federal Republic is not legally required to extradite such suspects, now old men in their 80s or 90s. (There would be no legal precedent for placing American or British bomber pilots in the same category, and this has not been suggested.) Also note that the Italian Republic has not extradited anybody for trial for war crimes known to have been committed in Greece, Albania, Ethiopia, France, northern Africa or various Balkan countries.
The Sicilian writer Vitaliano Brancati opposed Fascism. Sandro Pertini, the brave partisan who later became President of Italy, fought against the Fascists. Another opponent was Calogero Vizzini, the rustic bandit and sometime Mafioso from Villalba who assisted the United States with the invasion of western Sicily. From afar, Mayor La Guardia of New York was an outspoken opponent, and criticised a local Fascist-oriented club (which has since evolved into a large Italo-American organisation) as being inappropriate in the United States. Such groups quickly shed their Fascist skin after Italy declared war on the United States and, in imitation of the British government, the Americans began to imprison certain Italian citizens as wartime "enemy aliens." In today's "politically correct" America, it has been suggested that these wartime practices were somehow secretive or covert; in fact, the American federal government never made a secret of its policy regarding Italian, Japanese and German citizens present in the United States during the Second World War, though for security reasons certain details were not immediately made public. It was the Fascist government in Italy, not the democratic ones in the United States and the United Kingdom, which conducted a war of terror against innocent Italians.
To the casual observer, the physical vestiges of Fascism are few. (Some are shown on this page.) In Palermo, there's the "Fascist Mystic Temple," now an office building, and the remains of numerous bombed buildings destroyed but still not rebuilt after fifty years (all the photos on this page were taken in 2002) because funds designated for this purpose were appropriated by the Mafia and corrupt politicians. There are also several small pillbox "bunkers" along the coast (particularly near Palermo). As Patton's troops arrived via land from the south, and the military establishment (army and carabinieri) charged with defending Palermo readily surrendered without a fight (there was no "Battle of Palermo"), these fortifications never saw combat. (One may well speculate that if the war were fought today there would be less bloodshed and destruction because most Sicilians would be at the beach and would probably invite the attackers to join them!)
Compared to some other regions, Sicily had rather few card-carrying Fascists, though many Sicilians tacitly supported the regime or embraced its "principles."
War criminals? A wholly inadequate term to describe the depravity of men who, in a civilian society, chose evil over good by enrolling in "Mussolini's Mafia." Such opportunists could presume to be defended by few Italians except their own mothers, sisters or daughters. They never represented the best of Sicily, the best of Italy, or the best of humanity, and the world is a better place for their passing. Fortunately, Fascism is just one small part of modern Sicilian history.
Who were they? They were the Italian Taliban, and in many ways their social policies, and eventual defeat, were remarkably similar to those of the Taliban in Afghanistan six decades later (and for which President Bush mentioned Fascism in his speech condemning the terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001). What follows is a brief list of Sicily's more prominent Fascists, the folks responsible, at least in part, for the events of that sad day in Palermo in 1943, when a five year-old girl named Giuseppa Costa died for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in a country governed by the wrong people. It was just one inhumane event that occurred here between 1922 and 1943, thanks to their collaboration. Conformity, not courage, was their virtue. They sought fame and obtained infamy. Too often, the annals of history have allowed them to remain nameless. In truth, their anonymity ended when their membership in the Fascist party began. Fortunately, the New Sicily (the one we present on this site) is a better place than the one they sought to impose on this island's people.
Eugenio Arezzo. Born in Ragusa Ibla in 1898, the ignoble descendant of a minor noble family, the barons of Trifiletti, he served as Podestà of Ragusa.
Enrico Cavacchioli. Journalist born in Pozzallo in 1885.
Gabriele Chiaramonte Bordonaro. Born in Trapani in 1887 into a minor noble family, the barons of Gebbiarossa, he was special envoy to Luxembourg.
Giovanni Battista Ciarcia. Social-climbing son of Carmelo Ciarcia, he was Podestà of Santa Croce Camerina, having been recognised as a baron in 1904, though his family was not historically part of the nobility.
Antonio Favales. Born in Palermo in 1881, where he became head of the Fascist Federation Press Office.
Costantino La Paglia, Podestà of Caltanissetta (born in Caltanissetta in 1877).
Giuseppe Lapis, Podestà of Enna (Enna 1890).
Vincenzo Lo Jacono. Born in Palermo in 1885, he served as Italian Ambassador to China.
Gerolamo Longhena, Podestà of Catania (Caltanissetta 1898).
Domenico Piacentino, Podestà of Trapani.
Valentino Piccoli. Neapolitan by birth (in 1892), he was Director of the Giornale di Sicilia, a newspaper still published in Palermo.
Salvatore Riccobono. Judge born at San Giuseppe Jato in 1864.
Giuseppe Sardegna Noto, Podestà of Palermo (Bivona 1877).
Ferdinando Stagno, Podestà of Messina.
Vincenzo Zagara. Born in Catania in 1902, he was Federal Secretary for the Fascist Party for the Catania district and a key member of the party's National Governing Council (Direttorio Nazionale).
In a remark made on 15 October 2001 during a speech
outside Bologna at the dedication of a monument to a fallen partisan of the anti-Fascist
resistance, Italian President Ciampi said that the Fascist soldiers who served Mussolini's
short-lived Nazi puppet state in northern Italy: "credendo di servire ugualmente l'onore della
propria patria... appoggiò, con la sua azione, la causa del nazismo. Anche se scelte
individuali di adesione furono ispirate al convincimento di fare in tal modo il proprio dovere.
Contro quella causa combatterono le forze armate italiane, rimaste fedeli al giuramento prestato,
in consonanza d'intenti con la risorgente Italia democratica." Numerous members of the Senate
and Chamber of Deputies condemned the remark, widely reported in Italian newspapers. Like most of
Ciampi's frequent gaffes, this one was ignored by the foreign press.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Italy - Airbrushing history of Nazi puppets in Searchlight 2003.
Archivio dello Stato Civile, Palermo (vital statistics acts of death for 1943).
Cannistraro, Philip; Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy. Westport 1985.
Carroll, Rory; Italy's Bloody Secret in The Guardian newspaper, London, 25 June 2001.
Domenico, Roy Palmer; Italian Fascists on Trial. Chapel Hill 1991.
Katz, Robert; The Fall of the House of Savoy. New York 1971.
Palazzolo Drago, Francesco; Famiglie Nobili Siciliane. Palermo 1927.
Savino, Edoardo; La Nazione Operante: Albo d'Oro del Fascismo, Profili e Figuri. Milan 1937 (3rd edition in series and source of names listed as Sicilian Fascists).
Strawson, John; The Italian Campaign. London 1987.
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