An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
The Spanish civil war (1936-1939) was widely seen at the time as part of the international struggle against fascism. For the Italian anti-fascists fighting in defence of the Spanish republic the war also represented the first stage in an Italian war of liberation.
Approximately 5,000 Italian anti-fascists volunteered to fight against Franco and his allies – Mussolini and Hitler – during the course of Spanish civil war (1936-39). Like the Resistance of 1943-1945, the struggle of the Italian anti-fascists in Spain also had elements of an Italian civil war, a social revolution, and a war of national liberation. However, unlike the Resistance proper, the anti-fascists in Spain were fighting against Mussolini at the height of his popularity, and at a time when the regime in Italy looked far from collapsing.
The Italian anti-fascists provided one of the largest national groups among the 35,000 foreign volunteers who fought in defence of the Spanish republic and was, arguably, the most ideologically diverse. They were also among the first to organise an independent, national fighting force in Spain – the Colonna Italiana, also known as the Sezione Italiana della Colonna Ascaso – and later formed the Garibaldi Battalion around which the XIIth International Brigade was formed.
While the Comintern played a major role in organising the volunteers in Spain, and Stalinism played a major role in shaping the European communist parties of the time, including the Partito Comunista d’Italia (The Italian communist party), each national group appears to have brought its own national conflicts and aspirations to Spain, so that the war became ‘the screen onto which foreigners projected their concerns with such luminous clarity’.
Interestingly, although there are general surveys of Italian anti-fascism during the 1930s, very little space has been dedicated to the Italian anti-fascists in Spain. This gap in the historiography is important, as a study of the motives for the Italian anti-fascist participation in the Spanish conflict and what the conflict represented to the main anti-fascist parties gives a valuable insight both into the meaning of anti-fascism in the latter half of the 1930s and into the elements which drew the diverse anti-fascist parties together.
Although a number of important historians – like Renzo De Felice and Ernesto Galli della Loggia – have questioned the ‘Italian-ness’ of anti-fascism by portraying it as an internationalist force with no real attachment to Italy, republican patriotism was an important component of the Italian anti-fascist struggle in Spain. The anti-fascist press, and the radio broadcasts from Spain to Italians back home, presented the volunteers, and especially the garibaldini of the International Brigades, as the heirs of the Risorgimento and the Red Shirtsof the past, and stressed the continuity between anti-fascism and the democratic traditions and patriotic volunteer spirit of the Risorgimento, the ‘Risorgimento dei perdenti’associated with the likes of Mazzini, Garibaldi, Pisacane and the Bandiera brothers.
The Italian anti-fascists in Spain, most of whom were anti-fascist exiles (fuorusciti) saw themselves as the representatives as an alternative, virtuous Italy. They were aware of the symbolic significance of exile in the history of the Risorgimento and stressed the continuity between their fight for the liberation of Italy from the ‘foreign’ yoke of fascism and that of the exiled patriots of the 19th century. The war in Spain was seen as an Italian civil war, one in which the fuorusciti were reclaiming their right to represent a national identity which contrasted with that of the ‘fascist nation’. By fighting Mussolini in Spain the exiles hoped they would be contributing to undermining fascism back home.
The war marked a new phase in the history of Italian anti-fascism – one which sought to end years of marginalisation by reconnecting with the Italian people through the use of the Risorgimento myth.
The importance of the Garibaldi myth to Italian anti-fascism in Spain was that it could be used to combine nationalism and internationalism. The myth of the republican-democratic traditions of the Risorgimento served as a unifying force and Garibaldinismo was used to create an amorphous political shell which could contain mutually exclusive political forces.
 See Antonio R.Celada, Manuel Gonzalez de la Aleja and Daniel Pastor Garcia, Los Internacionales: English Speaking Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (Barcelona: Publishing Warren & Pell, 2009), pp. 5-7 and Michael Jackson, Fallen Sparrow: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil war (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society,1994) for a good summary of the estimates for the number of foreign volunteers who fought in Spain.
 On the politically heterogenous nature of the Italian vounteers see Gabriele Ranzato, ‘Ripensare la Guerra di Spagna’, in Fascismo e antifascismo: rimozioni, revisioni, negazioni, ed. Enzo Collotti (Rome: Laterza, 2000).
Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000) p. 307.
Manuele Cogni earned a BA from the University of Oxford (Keble College) and an MA from the University of Leicester and the University of London (Birkbeck college). He is currently undertaking a part time PhD at the University of Reading (Italian department) under the supervision of Christopher Duggan. The provisional title of his project is ‘Italian anti-fascism and the Spanish civil war’.