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Socialist women-at-arms during the liberation of Milan. Photo/Getty Images

Le donne who fought Il Duce

The women who liberated northern Italy from fascism were united by cause but not ambition.

The big picture was complicated. Mussolini had been deposed, but German commandos spirited him away to set up a puppet “republic” in the far north of Italy. The Allies advanced slowly from the south, facing stiff opposition from German troops who had invaded the country and now treated its population as a defeated enemy. Italian hopes for a quick end to their war were dashed. And in the north, an Italian civil war was going on, with partisans fighting diehard fascists who were supported by the SS and German regulars. The partisans were supported only half-heartedly by the Allies, who were both far away and unwilling to risk too much with costly airdrops of equipment.

Caroline Moorehead’s A House in the Mountains deals almost exclusively with the situation in the north, especially Piedmont and the city of Turin, where the civil war was at its fiercest. For 19 months, from September 1943 to April 1945, this region suffered German occupation and there was more partisan activity, and more civilian deaths, than in any other part of Italy. SS and fascist reprisals usually meant massacres, especially as the fascists smelled defeat.

A House in the Mountains is subtitled “The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism”. Moorehead’s declared purpose is to restore to historical memory those women who were an important part of the partisan movement. She tries to focus on four in particular who were “staffetta” (runners, couriers and guides), who did propaganda work for the partisans and sometimes joined the males in fights, raids and hold-ups. She also deals with women factory workers who led successful strikes to improve conditions in the face of fascist opposition; mothers who tried to protect their sons from deportation to Germany; and a nun who helped anti-fascist prisoners to escape and avoid torture. Their actions were unquestionably heroic and their role was often crucial.

Caroline Moorehead. Photo/Getty Images

But there is a snag here, which often defeats Moorehead’s purpose. In order to make sense of the situation, she has to give us a general survey of the different aims of diverse partisan groups – communists, socialists, Christian democrats and independent bands – and the difficulties in co-ordinating them. In effect, Moorehead often shifts her focus away from the role of women. A House in the Mountains becomes a general history of the North Italian civil war. There’s also the nagging fact that, until the last few months, almost as many Piedmontese supported fascism as opposed it, and about the same proportion of women were in fascist militias as were among the partisans.

One interesting sidelight – this English author is particularly hard on British diplomats for their patronising attitude to Italian partisans. She paints the Americans as far more open-minded, despite their fear of partisan communism.

She also ends on a rather dispiriting note. Post-war Italy, with its amnesties for most fascist militias and its often-corrupt politics, was not the ideal country that the women partisans thought they were making. In real history, heroic endeavour often ends with a whimper, not a bang.

A HOUSE IN THE MOUNTAINS, by Caroline Moorehead (Chatto and Windus, $40)

This article was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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