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A Bold and Dangerous Family: the Italian brothers who resisted Mussolini

Caroline Moorehead's absorbing biography tells the tale of Nello and Carlo Rosselli.

In 1929, Italy’s most influential anti-Fascist, Carlo Rosselli, founded the clandestine Justice and Liberty movement, then the country’s gravest threat to Mussolini. Members were known as giellisti after the movement’s initials “g” and “l” (for Giustizia e Libertà); they espoused an ideal of democratic socialism and aimed propaganda against Italy’s Savoyard monarchy (then cravenly pro-Fascist), as well as Mussolini. By the early 1930s though, with the Marxist Antonio Gramsci in jail and other leading anti-Fascists (Giacomo Matteotti, Giovanni Amendola) murdered, all Italy lay under the dull hand of Fascist conformity. Anticipating arrest, Carlo and his younger brother Nello fled to France.

One spring day in 1937 they were found murdered on a country road in Normandy; their carotid arteries had been severed. At a stroke, Italy was deprived of two intransigent and courageous Resistance figures. Their funeral cortège was followed to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris by more than 200,000 mourners. Justice and Liberty was forced underground, but five years later it re-formed as the Action party, which was feared and loathed by the blackshirts. Its cautious socialism and intellectual integrity would vitally influence Italy’s armed resistance to the German occupation in 1943-45.

Fourteen years after the murders the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia – best known for The Women of Rome (1947) – published his acutely disturbing novel about the Rosselli murders, The Conformist. Although Moravia, who was related to the Rossellis on their mother’s side, had reluctantly undertaken clandestine work on behalf of Carlo Rosselli in Paris, his attitude to Mussolini remained one of patrician condescension. (Fascism, Moravia told me in an interview in Rome in 1985, was “really a very boring movement”). He avoided Mussolini’s dragnets at home in Italy by travelling abroad in some style. That was not the Rosselli way of undertaking anti-Fascist combat.

Moravia gets a rather bad press from Caroline Moorehead in this absorbing biography of the Rosselli brothers. A scion of the Venetian-Jewish Pincherle family, Moravia was scarcely 21 when his first novel, The Time of Indifference, appeared in 1929. The book irked the Fascist authorities for its portrayal of complacency and double-dealing in Mussolini’s Rome. Its assault on bourgeois morality was courageous for the time, yet for many years Moravia kept silent on the Rosselli murders. Why? The brothers’ mother Amelia was convinced that Moravia had done so out of “opportunism” if not “weakness”.

Amelia had literary pretensions of her own, writing a number of successful plays and children’s books. She presided over a distinguished intellectual milieu in her native Venice and, later, Florence, where she aligned herself with Filippo Turati, the “grand old man” of Italian socialism, and the austere moralist Piero Gobetti, founder in 1922 of Italy’s first anti-Fascist weekly, Rivoluzione liberale. Gobetti’s clarion-call for “liberty” looked back to Italy’s 19th-century Risorgimento patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, whose visionary writings defended the subject peoples of Europe against rule by outsiders. As an exile in London for 25 years, Mazzini had moved from one boarding house to another, keeping the curtains drawn in daylight for fear of detection.

In the early 1920s, the Rossellis, too, sought safety and patronage in London, mingling with left-leaning society hostesses and Fabian Society members (among them George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Sidney and Beatrice Webb). By now the Rossellis were convinced Anglophiles; England was seen as a bastion of civil liberties, equality and reason. During his time in London, Nello researched a biography of Mazzini, which was published in 1927. Mazzini might easily have been caricatured as a devilish, El Greco-faced guastafeste (killjoy); Rosselli extoled him as a Voltaire of a new age of national liberation. Without Mazzini’s political ideas on free nationality and nationalist awakening, the organisation of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries (from the dissolution of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires to the unification of Germany) might have taken a different course.

Moravia, typically, had letters of introduction to Lady Ottoline Morrell and others in the by-then almost defunct Bloomsbury set. He met Nello and Carlo in London, along with the Turin-born artist and doctor Carlo Levi, who later found fame as the author of Christ Stopped at Eboli. Spies were everywhere. The first nucleus of British Italian Fascists was founded in London in 1921, Moorehead relates. Members saw the cult of ducismo as a more virile alternative to the “effeminate” world of flappers, leftist poets and dithery parliamentarians.

Cosmopolitan, polyglot Jews such as Moravia and the Rossellis were viewed by Mussolini and his disciples as self-regarding, supranational types inimical to the sturdy Blackshirt bond of race and nation. They should be eliminated.

By the end of his life, Moorehead writes, Carlo Rosselli had been watched by no fewer than 42 of Mussolini’s agents. In 1927 he was sentenced to confino – internal exile – on the remote prison-island of Lipari off Sicily (now a holiday destination). He languished there for two years before escaping to France via Cap Bon in Tunisia. Much of this is chronicled by Stanislao G Pugliese, in his 1999 biography of Carlo Rosselli. According to Pugliese, Rosselli was less a political theorist than a “public moralist”; the betrayal of socialism in Stalin’s Russia was as heinous to him as Italian Fascism.

The Rossellis might have disappeared from history altogether had Bernardo Bertolucci not turned Moravia’s novel into the acclaimed film The Conformist, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant as a Fascist police informer on the trail of Professor Quadri (a thinly veiled Carlo Rosselli). Rarely has Fascism appeared so simply horrible as in that 1970 film. The Rossellis had been murdered, it seems, by a group of Jew-baiting, right-wing French extremists set on the political “rejuvenation” of their country through the jingoist trinity of travail, famille, patrie. The assassins in fact belonged to a prototype Front National outfit called the Cagoulards (some of whom were friendly with the very young François Mitterrand) and, most likely, in the pay of Mussolini’s agents. As Stalin said: “No man, no problem.” l

Ian Thomson is the author of "Primo Levi: a Biography" (Vintage)

A Bold and Dangerous Family: the Rossellis and the Fight Against Mussolini
Caroline Moorehead
Chatto & Windus, 448pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear