The Day Italy Tried to Stop Mussolini's Fascism.

The Unsung Story of a Small City's Resistance to Fascism. 
  The 'Facts of Sarzana' Begin With A Fascist / Socialist Confrontation. 

It Ends with Fourteen Fascists Killed by Carabinieri or Political Opponents. 

 

Fatti di Sarzana  Memorial to Fascist Victim
First victim of fascist violence, here fell Luigi
 Gastardelli, June 12, 1921. Sarzana, Liguria. 
On a back street in the peaceful Ligurian city of Sarzana, a little plaque marks an infamous event in Italian history. It is the spot where an innocent man, Luigi Gastardelli, became the area's first victim of fascist violence - shot by a squadrista firing carelessly as fascists rampaged in Sarzana's streets. Italian politics in 1921 were chaotic and political violence between rival groups was becoming common, but the symbolism of this death was clear: Mussolini's new political ideology had evolved and the fascist squadrons felt they could act with impunity.

The violence that erupted in Sarzana on June 12, 1921, was the opening of a series of conflicts over several weeks known as  'I Fatti di Sarzana' (The Facts of Sarzana).  It is historically important as one of the few armed resistance efforts against the rise of fascism in Italy. Reflecting the times, it involved armed fascists, the Royal Army, police, socialists, communists, anarchists, farmers, workers, and a paramilitary group known as the Arditi del Popolo (comprised of socialist-communist workers). The Sarzana conflict culminated on July 21 with the death of 14 fascists by carabinieri rifle fire or sectarian assault, and of one corporal of the Royal Army by fascist fire.  Ominously, although the events drew national attention, the example of the event at Sarzana did not serve as a spur for meaningful resistance to fascism by the King, the government, or other political parties.

Prologue. Prior to the Fatti di Sarzana, the political climate in the Lunigiana region was determined by local elections in the autumn of 1920. Most of the area's cities, including Carrara, voted for the fascist party and its allies. Only Sarzana and the neighboring towns of Santo Stefano and Ortonovo elected the PSI - socialist. This vote in the Tuscan / Ligurian area mirrored the polarity of much of post-WWI Northern Italy. During early 1921, there were clashes and occupations in the area - including in Sarzana and in the nearby larger city of La Spezia - involving opposing political factions.  The fascist movement was expanding and turning to the right politically, causing strong reactions from both fascist adherents and the opposition. In the weeks prior to the Fatti, a fascist paramilitary squadra was formed in Carrara, to the south, and both La Spezia and Pontremoli, to the north, had finally submitted to de facto fascist control, leaving the socialist Sarzana area a 'red island' surrounded by fascist paramilitary squadre - the infamous 'Blackshirts'.  'The Facts of Sarzana' Locations Map

Street in Sarzana Liguria Italy
Sarzana's peaceful streets today. In 1921 fascists rampaged here firing wildly.
First Conflict. On June 12, 1921, trucks carrying an armed squadron of Carrara Blackshirts lead by Renato Ricci stopped while passing through Sarzana. Ricci was a veteran and enthusiastic fascist who had formed the Carrara squadra and who would go on to hold several major positions in Mussolini's government. The police and Royal Army commanders, fearing a conflict with Sarzana's militant socialists, moved to neutralize the situation. While the negotiating ensued, a fascist was clubbed bloody nearby. Seeking revenge, the squadristi -lead by Ricci - began a rampage through Sarzana's streets, firing revolvers down side streets to intimidate opponents and prevent an ambush.  Luigi Gastardelli, a 65 year old father of twelve on his way home from work, was hit by that fire and died at the scene. Further conflict was avoided only when the Royal Army threatened the Blackshirts with rifles.

Carrara's Renato Ricci
Carrara's Renato Ricci
Tensions Increase, Fateful Arrests are Made.
In the weeks following, national and local events increased tensions, and on July 15 violence broke out again when a fascist named Pietro Procuranti was murdered in Fosdinovo, a few miles from Sarzana.  On July 17, after Procuranti's funeral in nearby Monzone, Renato Ricci and the Carrara Blackshirts attacked a citizen's cooperative and killed two communists. Subsequently as they returned to Carrara, the squadriste came under fire at Santo Stefano, just up the road from Sarzana, and several were wounded. In response, the fascists attacked and killed three men and wounded several more.

As they reached Sarzana's outskirts, the Blackshirts were stopped by the Royal Army and forced to leave their vehicles and walk on rural roads to avoid conflict in town. On route, the fascists provoked a firefight with the leftist group Arditi del Popolo and a fascist was killed. Upon learning of the violence, Royal Army Lieutenant Nicodemi ordered the arrest of Ricci and ten other fascists for political violence and they were imprisoned in the Fortress Firmafede at the edge of central Sarzana. To the outrage of the fascists, no member of the Arditi del Popolo were arrested for the killing of their comrade.

Escalation and Bloody Resolution
Fortezza Firmafede, Sarzana
Fortezza Firmafede, Sarzana. In 1921, it was a prison. Fascist Blackshirts
trying to release 11 fascist prisoners were met by Royal Army Carabinieri.
The violence of July 17 caused a rapid escalation as a larger confrontation seemed inevitable. In Sarzana, a Committee of Public Safety was formed which included socialists, communists, anarchists, and republicans lead by Mayor Arnaldo Terzi. They proclaimed a general strike for July 18 which was joined by La Spezia workers and railroad employees. A surveillance and messaging system was established to warn of trouble.  On July 20, Royal Army reinforcements were sent from Genoa so that the forces of order were increased to 50 police, 150 Royal Guards, and 200 infantry soldiers. On July 19 and 20, fascist forces from Tuscany and Liguria assembled in preparation for a punitive attack on Sarzana which would target socialist and communist offices and liberate the eleven jailed fascists.

At dawn on July 21, a force of about 300 armed fascists, some carrying cans of gasoline, arrived at the Sarzana rail station. They were lead by Amerigo Dumini, later part of Mussolini's secret police, and the killer of the heroic politician Giacomo Matteotti in 1924.  The fascists were met by a small vanguard of Royal Carabinieri lead by Captain Guido Jurgens backed by other forces who sealed off the town. Amerigo Dumini came forward and presented the fascist demands: release the eleven prisoners, turn over Lieutenant Nicodemi, and allow the fascists to occupy Sarzana. Jurgens firmly rejected the demands.

Amerigo Dumini, fascist
& killer of Matteotti.
Upon a sign from Dumini, the Blackshirts began to advance. At this point, a rifle shot of disputed origin rang out from the direction the station, wounding a carabiniere in the arm. In response, the carabinieri opened fire as did the fascists. In the exchange, which lasted about a minute, four fascists were killed outright and many wounded, two of whom later died, and an infantryman, Corporal Paolo Diano, was killed.  In the aftermath, more than a hundred fascists sheltered in the train station, and many others scattered into the countryside - countryside that was controlled by the leftist Arditi del Popolo and a left-leaning peasantry. Five fascists were murdered trying to escape this way, some by farmers and some by Arditi, and several others were rescued by carabinieri. The remaining squadristi were taken by special train back to Carrara.

The Royal prosecutor released Ricci and the other ten squadristi from the Firmafede jail several hours later.

Afterward
The day after the shootings the fascist leader Count Dino Grandi made a prescient statement about fascism and the event. No one at the time could have imagined how it would echo in history: "The sacrifice of our brothers will not be in vain. Our daily struggle is a necessary protection of civil law. We are not a faction of the State, we feel instead that we are the State and the Nation."

Piazza Guido Jurgens outside Sarzana's train station.
The piazza outside Sarzana's train
station now honors Captain Jurgens.
At the national level Mussolini protested in parliament accusing the government of involvement in the shooting. However, the fascist protests came to nothing. The more lasting effect of the Sarzana deaths was to push Mussolini, the socialists and the national workers union into a Peace Agreement in August, 1921. But the peace agreement itself was not the lasting effect. Long term, the split in the fascist ranks caused by that signing allowed Mussolini to consolidate power with the formation of the Nationalist Fascist Party (NFP) in November 1921. By October of 1922, just 15 months after 'I Fatti di Sarzana', Mussolini was Prime Minister.

Despite Sarzana's resistance, the fascists took over city government less than two years after the shootings.  After a politically motivated prefectural investigation of city government, Mayor Terzi and councilors resigned shortly before a large fascist rally on the first anniversary of the Fatti. A Royal decree established a commissioner for the city until elections were held in 1923. By election time, Mussolini was the Prime Minister and the fascists won the mayoralty and all the council seats.

The Sarzana Mayor Arnaldo Terzi came to symbolize the 'Facts of Sarzana' for the fascists. In 1944, they got their revenge. With the advent of the German puppet state, the 'Repubblica Sociale Italiana', Terzi was deported to the Nazi's Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria where he died of starvation in April, 1945, a few days before the camp was liberated.

Many authoritative historians believe as did Sandro Pertini, 7th President of the Italian Republic, when he said:
"If, in all the Italian cities, the fascist violence would have been stopped as in Sarzana, fascism would not have been established."

More Info

I Fatti di Sarzana.  The  story of these chaotic events has been simplified to make a succinct narrative, but we maintained all the essential events. There is little available in English, but these Italian sites provide fuller information:
Wikipedia Italia has a detailed narrative: Wikipedia Fatti di Sarzana.
Extensive illustrated blog Strage di Sarzana seemingly with some fascist sympathies.
ANPPIA News An Italian antifascist group with a vivid partial account.

I Fatti di Parma. Another significant resistance to fascism, known as 'The Facts of Parma', occurred in August, 1922. While only two people died, it is better known as more people were involved including Italo Balbo a famous Italian aviator and fascist.  Wikipedia Fatti di Parma.

Mussolini.
Mussolini and the Quadrumviri during the March on Rome in 1922
Before Hitler in Germany and Franco in Spain, Benito Mussolini created fascism. An opportunistic genius, he utilized violence by his supporters and shrewd maneuvering to gain dictatorial power in Italy. While he was too sly to be directly tied to violence, he used it against critics and opponents such as the murders of the politician Matteotti, the priest Don Minzoni and the journalist Amendola. The fascist reign of terror became total and overcame all opposition ...and no, he didn't make the trains run on time, he simply controlled newspaper stories about them.

Mussolini - Il Duce - is one of history's more fascinating figures and his contradictions make him impossible to understand. Evil and dynamic, vain and brutal, idealistic and incompetent, he destroyed his country but he still has admirers in modern Italy. His techniques still appear in the politics of many countries as he manipulated the array of human emotions that we all share.

Wikipedia The Mussolini article in English is extensive and balanced.

Biographies  There is an mini publishing industry built on Mussolini and fascist Italy. The English author Dennis Mack Smith spares not: Mussolini: A Biography  and a more recent work: Mussolini By R.J.B. Bosworth is also well-regarded.
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Fascism is the promotion of an authoritarian nationalist agenda that tolerates or promotes violence and inequality. Whatever your country or your politics, the lesson from Sarzana is the importance of stopping elements of fascism as they emerge: nationalism that is beyond healthy patriotism; those who promote racial, class, or religious intolerance or inequality; or those that tolerate or incite violence. Civilization depends on it. Ask any Italian.

Written by Mike Mazzaschi