Book review: ‘Primo Levi’s Resistance’ tells story of rebels in occupied Italy
When one contemplates the efforts of defiance that characterized the Resistance movements during World War II, it is evident that nearly every country that participated in the conflict boasted an organization of some sort intended to counter the Axis powers in Europe. Some were more coordinated than others, and most formed organically as the theater of war ebbed and flowed.
Few, though, morphed into reality as quickly as the Italian Resistance, which emerged directly from the pivotal day in 1943 when Mussolini was “ousted” and Italians were forced to change course and redirect their allegiances virtually overnight. Those who opted to turn away from Fascism became the famed rebels of Northern Italy, and the most lauded of those partisans is examined in the recent book, “Primo Levi’s Resistance; Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy,” by historian Sergio Luzzatto.
The country was faced with a civil war within the wider war after the Germans retrieved their former ally, Mussolini, and helped him set up a base for the rest of the war in the Lake Garda region in Northern Italy. This action initiated “an all-out conflict in which Italians of the Resistance fought to wrest the country not just from its immediate occupiers but from the Italians who for 20 years had embodied Fascist rule.”
The story of Levi
The author, a professor of history at the University of Turin, grew up hearing stories of the brave Resistance fighters, and to him Primo Levi represented “the epitome of civilized intelligence and dignified memory.” When Luzzatto sank deeper into his career and toyed with the notion of taking on the history of the Resistance, he knew that one could not tackle the concept of the Italian Resistance without placing Levi at center stage.
Levi was 24 during that 1943 autumn, and he was an active participant in the loosely formed band of fighters, but his trajectory diverged from that of nearly all the others in that he was captured and sent — along with two women resistors — to Auschwitz. Levi came out of that experience unsurprisingly transformed and became a gifted writer, who penned numerous books about his own experiences and his life as a scientist.
For Luzzatto, Levi was fascinating partly because his writings made oblique references to an event in the earliest days of the Resistance in which something horrible transpired, something deemed an “ugly secret” that left two of the partisans dead by friendly fire, and which seemed to directly lead to Levi and the other Jews being sent to Poland. The references were vague enough that Luzzatto was determined to unearth the truth, in an effort to discover “whether violence was legitimate and morally justified.”
No matter their personal interests, historians are required to examine facts without rose-colored glasses or pre-conceptions of right and wrong, and Luzzatto says that studying the Italian Resistance meant examining a history that was both one “of unquestionable good, the fight against Nazi-Fascism, intermixed with a story of profound wrong.” That act of wrongdoing is both the start and end point of Luzzatto’s often rambling book of examination.
‘New Way of Life’
The Resistance movement that formed in haste was loose in its infancy, and the lawfulness was precarious, with “naive” elements throughout. The earliest days of the movement were unorganized, with the men, mostly young, doing little more than playing soldier, and like with all young boys, there was a bit of yearning to be a romanticized outlaw.
“They were exhilarated by their new way of life, by the inebriating sense that they had no roof over their heads and no rules limiting their freedom,” the author writes.
With so much at stake, it was dangerous to play at soldiering, and two young rebels paid the ultimate price for an act of betrayal that preceded by days the raid that secured the fates of Levi and others. A “Soviet method” execution, “suddenly and without warning” put an end to the war games, and the reality of what partisans were doing sank in. Luzzatto says his goal in digging for the story behind the killings was not to be some small-time Joseph Conrad on the trail of a Kurtz-type character, but to uncover why the two young men were made to pay the ultimate price, and how their executions impacted the trajectory of the Resistance thereafter.
Ultimately, the story of the Italian Resistance is comprised of lost truths and fading memories and makes for a worthy subject, for as Luzzatto says, “every man who falls resembles another who lives, and calls on him to explain.” It is about understanding, and about guaranteeing a place in history for all who have passed.
Karina Wetherbee has been a photographer for more than 30 years, taking her across the world on assignment. In addition to her work as a photographer, she published her first book in 2004, a memoir about her father’s childhood during World War II. She also writes book reviews for the Summit Daily and Vail Daily. Visit http://www.KarinaWetherbee.com for more information.