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Regional Tensions – Critic’s corner


Sicilian Separatism at the conjuncture of 1943-1944

by Manoela Patti (University of Palermo)

Between the late night to the early morning of 9th and 10th July 1943 the Anglo-American armies landed in Sicily, marking a fundamental turning point in the conflict and, consequently, in world history. A few days after, on 23rd July, the Italo-American colonel Charles Poletti was installed in Palermo as the representative of the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories, the Amgot. The island, which the allied troops finally conquered on 17th August, remained under the control of the Anglo-American occupiers/liberators even after the signing of the Cassibile armistice on 3rd September 1943 and until February 1944, thus remaining somehow separate from the rest of the peninsula – particularly during Summer 1943. It was against this peculiar backdrop that the phenomenon of Sicilian separatism developed.[1]

Only a few days after the landing of the Allies, Andrea Finocchiaro Aprile constituted in Palermo a Committee for the independence of Sicily. Finocchiaro Aprile was a former deputy of the entourage of Francesco Saverio Nitti and a typical exponent of the political élite which emerged between the late era of Giovanni Giolitti and the previous postwar. In the Thirties he aimed to attract Mussolini’s attention through obsequious missives (and sometimes denouncements) with the purpose of gaining a position in the regime apparatus. Finocchiaro Aprile founded the Committee for the independence of Sicily with the cooperation of other exponents of the pre-Fascist political élite and with members of the landed aristocracy, such as the two brothers Lucio and Alessandro Tasca Bordonaro, neither of whom could boast of significant merits in the opposition of the Fascist regime. This was the first nucleus of the Sicilian Independence Movement (MIS – Movimento Indipendentista Siciliano). After the landing of 10th July, the Committee prepared a memorandum for the British general Harold Alexander, head of the occupation forces in Sicily. Recalling the classic argument of the exploitation of Sicily from the central government since the unification of Italy, the Committee declared the island free from any obligation towards the monarchy, which it held responsible for the establishment of the Fascist regime. Thus, as Rosario Mangiameli noted several years ago, since its outset separatism presented itself as a phenomenon strictly related to the ‘de facto rupture of the national unity caused by the Allied occupation’.[2] The establishment of a separatist group finds its place in a more general resurgence of the notables of the pre-Fascist era, which the Allied Government chose as its interlocutors, together with the landed aristocracy of the island. In particular, at this stage the MIS was, among the antifascist political forces, the one that most resolutely expressed its stance against Badoglio and the monarchy for its collusion with the Fascist regime. Moreover, by presenting Fascism as a ‘disease of the North’, the MIS managed to rally several groups around the project of an independent republic, which might have functioned as the first nucleus of a future Italian confederation, by taking advantage of their interest in protecting their privileges through the pursuing of a regionalist project. Or rather, by exploiting their commitment to secure new prerogatives, through the dismemberment of the national State and the correspondentestablishment of the Allied Military Government, which was ready to accommodate those groups able to offer the most convincing antifascist credentials.

Separatism was tied up with the fascination, present since the 1930s, of an antifascist initiative to be realized through a region wide interclass solidarity. In this sense the myth of a certain tendency of the Sicilian people – and of Mafiosi among them – to stage an insurrection against the regime and to establish a republic spread across heterogeneous environments. Indeed, in August 1941, Mussolini ordered to remove from Sicily all native functionaries; according to the former head of the Fascist Party of Catania, federal Gaetano Zingali, this decision was taken as a consequence of information provided by the German intelligence on anti-war and pro-British feelings among the population of Sicily. However, more than anything else this was a matter of an ‘independentist’ mythology, which drew from an old and well rooted Sicilianist ideology, dear, amongst other groups, to the Mafia, which was partly developed and accepted by both the Italian and, during the war, Italo-American intelligence.

In fact, these were unfounded arguments – on 10th July no insurrection, neither independentist nor Mafia-like, took place in Sicily in favour of the Anglo-American invaders. The Allies would hear such arguments again after their landing in Sicily and they would give only some credit to them, to the extent that the sentiment of regional belonging could be exploited in order to guarantee the adhesion of the local élite, with all its more or less murky ties with the Mafia, to the Allies’ cause. Indeed, the Amgot did not seem to ever consider separatism a political option and, if anything, it favoured autonomist tendencies for the purpose of tackling the struggle for the independence of Sicily. However, at the initial stage the Allied commands embraced those aspects of the separatist ideology which tallied with the ethnic strategy which they – particularly the Americans – had envisaged to present to the Italians. In other words, it was American politics that used the separatist’s (and Mafia’s) self-representation for its occupation purposes and made the Mafia believe that the occupation government gave some credence to these falsifications. Furthermore, the Allied command was aware that the alleged antifascist tradition of the separatists was a bluff. In January 1944 a report of the American military intelligence based on an unspecified antifascist source in Sicily maintained that ‘the elements which constitute the real core of the party have always been more reactionary than conservative […] they have always opposed any form of civil and economic progress, among the middle and lower classes […]. It was entirely logical that these elements joined the fascist movement’.[3]

The Sicilianist ideology of the MIS and of the Mafia itself was an a-political ideology that in several and crucial passages of the history of Sicily had proved useful in opening up a political space and that since the unification of Italy had been peddled by the Mafia and by those politicians and lawyers that supported and protected them. It is for this ideological convergence that in 1943 the Mafia, for the first time in its history, as Salvatore Lupo remarked, relied on a political proposal:[4] many Mafiosi participated in the MIS, particularly in this first phase – among the most notable being Calogero Vizzini, Paolino Bontate, Giuseppe Genco Russo and Michele Navarra.

In February 1944, the return of Sicily to Italy and the beginning of the politics of the Committees of National Liberation tore the hopes of success of separatism and its political class to pieces. Soon the Mafia moved colder to the Christian Democrat Party, which appeared to be destined to a more secure political success than the MIS. Meanwhile, the Allies left the solution of the separatist question to the Italian government: for some time after the war the MIS tried to take advantage of discontent with the policies of the central government (which indeed were inspired by the Allied administration), by supporting the front of grain stockpile evaders and, since the end of 1944, the opposition towards the military recruitment, the so called Non si parte! movement. However, postwar politics would utilize regionalism in a very different way, salvaging its unifying stance in the autonomist project, thus marking the failure of the separatist project.

[1] On the context of Sicilian separatism see the fundamental study of Rosario Mangiameli, La regione in guerra (1943-1950), in La Sicilia in Storia d’Italia. Le regioni dall’Unità ad oggi, eds. Maurice Aymard and Giuseppe Giarrizzo (Turin: Einaudi, 1987), pp. 486-600 (516). Amongst the numerous works on Sicilian separatism see Salvo Di Matteo, Anni roventi. La Sicilia dal 1943 al 1947 (Palermo: G.Denaro Editore, 1967); Francesco Paternò Castello, Il movimento per l’indipendenza della Sicilia: memorie del duca di Carcaci (Palermo: Flaccovio, 1977);Giuseppe Carlo Marino, Storia del separatismo siciliano. 1943-1947 (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1993); Salvatore Nicolosi, Sicilia contro Italia: il separatismo siciliano (Catania: Tringale Editore, 1981); Monte S. Finkelstein, Separatism, the Allies, and the Mafia. The struggle for Sicilian Independence, 1943-1948 (Associated University Presses, 1998).
[2] R. Mangiameli, La regione in guerra, p. 522.
[3] ‘Separatism and Separatists’, report of G2 [Military Intelligence Division, War Department General Staff]Headquarters Nato [North African Theater of Operations], U.S. Army, to G2 – Afhq [Allied Force Headquarters], 11th January 1944, pp. 3-4, in NA [National Archives], London, WO [War Office] 204/12618, file ‘Separatism and SeparateMovement in Sicily’.
[4] Salvatore Lupo, Storia della mafia. Dalle origini ai giorni nostri (Rome: Donzelli, 2004),p. 227 [first edition 1993].

 Manoela Patti holds a PhD in History and works at the University of Palermo. Amongst her publications are La Sicilia e gli alleati. Tra occupazione e Liberazione (Rome: Donzelli, 2013) and, with V. Coco, Relazioni mafiose. La mafia ai tempi del fascismo (Rome: XL Edizioni, 2010).


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This entry was posted on July 8, 2014 by in Critic's corner.
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