The Italian Resistance: Lessons and Legacies

05/01/2015 10:08 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2015

Seventy years ago this week, Italy was liberated from more than two decades of Fascism. On April 29, Italians found the executed dictator Benito Mussolini strung up like a prosciutto in a Milan square, his mutilated body the proof that his tyranny had ended. Four days earlier, Italian partisans, fighting alone and with Allied forces, had triumphed over the last Nazi German and Italian Fascist strongholds

Italy was not the only country to have an armed anti-Fascist movement during World War Two. Across Europe, Resistance fighters organized to defeat Nazi occupiers and their homegrown collaborators. Yet the Italian Resistance (active September 1943-April 1945) developed in the face of over twenty years of dictatorship. Its moral and political importance for Italians was such that it was deemed the very foundation of the new Republic that rose from the war's ashes.

The anniversary of that liberation offers an opportunity to consider the relevance of Resistance movements today, and the long political, military, and cultural reach of Italy's in particular.

Resistance movements are of perennial strategic and political interest in part because they often take shape outside of traditional military formations and usually mix civilians and trained military personnel. Soldiers and officers formed the nucleus of the Italian Resistance (including deserters, the disbanded, and escaped prisoners of war) but motivated men and women with little or no military experience filled out the ranks.

At its peak, in the spring of 1945, out of a population of 45 million, the Italian Resistance counted about 150,000 active male and female combatants, with another 100,00-150,000 operating in other roles. But its numbers mattered less than its composition: the participation of ordinary men and women was key to its claims of moral authority and national representation. Indeed, the Italian Resistance can be inserted into a noble national tradition of volunteerism - the large "Garibaldi" partisan unit took its name from a leader of the Italian Unification, who had himself been a volunteer as well as a mercenary abroad.

Almost all Resistance histories and memories highlight the burden and opportunity of choice -whether to resist, in what way, at what level of involvement. In Italy, the only Axis power to have an substantial organized Resistance, freedom to choose had a different weight and meaning. Many of its participants had grown up during Mussolini's dictatorship. Their decision to risk their lives represented a victory of the human desire for freedom over the effects of twenty years of Fascist indoctrination.

Moreover, the Italian Resistance was also a civil war: combatants faced not only anonymous enemies, but sometimes neighbors, childhood friends, or even family members who had remained faithful to the Nazi-Fascist cause. It left divided communities, and memories, in its wake. These emotional stakes, as well as political differences, account for the high pitch of debates over the meaning and legacy of the Resistance throughout postwar Italy.

In military terms, Resistance wars offer lessons about the unfolding of armed national liberation movements, but also about small wars waged inside larger ones - in this case a conflict of unprecedented size and scale. The porous boundaries between the various wars meant that the Italian Resistance was also an international venture. The collaborations with the partisans of the British Special Operations Executive and the United States Office of Strategic Services are well known, but men from almost a dozen other countries served full-time in Italian Resistance units as combatants, liason officers, and advisors. The Fifteenth Army Group, which sent combat units to assist partisans, had divisions and units from many Allied forces.

Resistance conflicts, with their heavy employment of guerrilla warfare tactics, retain interest given the prominence today of counter-insurgency campaigns. In Italy, bands of partisans operated in urban, mountain, and forest settings. Some who had served in the Italian armed forces had experience with counter-insurgency combat - the Fascists had faced attacks from highly mobile groups contesting their occupations of Libya, Ethiopia, and parts of Greece and Yugoslavia - which was now turned on its head. The partisans were the rebels, seeking to unseat Mussolini's German-backed Republic of Salò and expel the Nazis from their country.

All Resistance struggles produce heroes, who become part of a nation's political culture and memory after the guns fall silent - and whatever the outcome. The Italian Resistance had its own, some of whom held high political offices. Yet the Italian Resistance was always valued as a collective struggle, and the most famous films and novels by which it is often remembered, such as Roberto Rossellini's Rome Open City (1945), or Italo Calvino's The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947), have not one but many heroes, in keeping with the Neorealist movement that the Resistance directly inspired.

This collective focus has been one of the secrets to the Italian Resistance's longevity, and its enduring importance for us today: it offers stories of everyday men and women - from adolescents to the aged- risking their lives, and in doing so forging new communities that only later take definite political form.