By Greg Clark, October 23, 1943
By Special Cable to the Star Weekly From Somewhere in Italy
The first truck into a little Italian mountain village north of Potenza lurched around a corner and from the crowd of ragged villagers and half uniformed hungry Italian refugee soldiers came a hail.
“The Campbells are coming.”
On our truck sat perched Sergeant Jimmy Campbell with his Glengarry on his head instead of steel hat which Jimmy finds handier for his profession as movie cameraman of the Canadian film and photo section. The hail came from an Italian officer and Jimmy waved cordially at him. In the village the truck stopped and we hopped down to investigate this odd salutation
Lieut. Alex. Tarasca of the Italian army was the name of our greeter. He was a graduate of Columbia University in architecture in 1913 and had spent all his life practically in America. From him I got about a fair and lucid and cynical an account of what the past four years have meant for Italy as is possible in this bewildering and pitiful fiasco of the world’s most romantic nation.
Tarasca did not know Jimmy’s name was Campbell. He just saw the Glengarry and let go the first thing that came into his mind. When I tell you that Tarasca has contributed in his time verses that got into Franklin P. Adams’ column in the old days in the New York Herald and that he was a close chum of James Kevin McGuinnes, famous newspaper columnist of the New York Telegraph and later of Hollywood, you can guess what a treat it was to stand in front of the jaunty 30-year-old Italian lieutenant and hear from his lips the pure Doric of Fifth Avenue.
Tarasca was baby when his parents emigrated to America and he was educated in New York, attending Columbia for his degree in architecture. In 1915, due to a love affair which went haywire, Tarasca enlisted in New York in the Italian army and went to Italy, where he served throughout the last war with the Italian White Fusileers of the Queen’s Brigade and at the war’s end married an Italian girl from Bari, whom he brought home to America in 1924. She developed T.B. and he had to bring her back to a sunny country, and Tarasca has been here ever since. His wife died last year.
“Are you a Fascist?” I asked him.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I said I wasn’t,” said Tarasca. “Do you know what the initials P.N.F. stand for? They are everywhere in Italy. They are the initials and insignia of the Partito Nationale Fascists, the National Fascist Party. But there is a more popular and widespread meaning to them in Italy and there has been for the past 15 years at least. And that Per Necessita Famiglipe, which means for family necessity. You join the Fascist party in order that your family may eat.”
The Italian Excuse
“Surely it isn’t as cynical as that,” I protested. “We have had every proof for years past that the Italian people fairly gloated in fascism. Think of the newsreels of throngs listening to Mussolini.”
“Look,” said Tarasca, “how many Americans are Democrats or Republicans only for what they can get out of it in political jobs and petty favors? In your country how many are members of one party or the other because of what is in it for them?”
“A number, I imagine. Besides them are large numbers of people who really believe in some party policy or program.”
“Now suppose,” said Tarasca, “that due to some great depression or other crisis you had the situation that one of those parties was given such power that it presently abolished all other parties, got into the hands of your country’s gangster element, that all the crooked business promoters, all the cheap lawyers, all that great number of people in any country who have for years been lurking along the fringe of society disappointed, cynical, jealous and frustrated, were to get into positions of power in that one party government. That is what we have had in Italy.
“It is no apology,” said Tarasca. “When I got back from America in 1924, I had to find a job of some kind to support a sick wife. There was only one place to look for a job and that was at the headquarters for all jobs, the Fascist office. There has not been a day since I came back to Italy that I have not felt contempt for the whole show and felt sorry and ashamed for myself for not being able to do something about it. But taking it on a very much smaller plane I bet you there isn’t a business or an industry or an office in America where there isn’t the same feeling among the employees. The man who is perfectly content with his job or his circumstances is mighty rare. The man who is always beefing about his boss or his fellow employees is the natural man. But that man does not jeopardize his bread and butter by trying to buck the management. Not out loud anyway.
“That is the excuse I offer for myself, and imagine it is the situation of the vast majority of Italians. The proof is in the disasters that have fallen on our armies everywhere. The final proof is the way this whole nation simply crumbled when the armistice came. Sure there are still the gangsters, the crooks and profiteers who string along with the Germans for a little time. But we know them. And there is little else they can do. They cling to the Germans for protection. That is the fact.”
Tarasca was far from his own native town when we got him. He was an officer commanding an anti-aircraft platoon in our line of advance. When the armistice was signed six of his 30 men deserted at once. One by one the rest trickled off until the day we arrived in his station he had one man left. Tarasca himself had taken off his uniform, donned shabby clothes and lived in a refugee-crowded village, keeping out of the way of the Germans, retreating because the Germans, working on the theory that all Italian officers were Fascists, were disarming the troops and had been sending the officers to the rear behind the Germans where they hoped to use the officers to control the civilians and possibly to help form Italian Fascist units in that region still occupied by the Germans.
Fascism a Racket
Tarasca took me on foot into three small towns in this area which our patrols had just cleared of Germans. In each the story was the same. In each a little clique of Fascists, who had been in complete and ruthless control of the community, had packed up and fled northward back of the Germans. In each town a sort of stiff-legged hostile attitude existed between the majority of the people, mostly ragged and poor, and a small number of those not quite leading Fascists but who had been favored by or had favored the local Fascists. There was a good deal of worry over this spirit which might at any time flare up into local revolt among the Italians. Tarasca took me into the abandoned homes of the departed small town big shots which had been promptly invaded by the townsfolk and you could see at a glance just what hoarders, profiteers and gangsters they had been. At no time under fascism, said Tarasca, had it been anything but a racket in which the party leaders, whether in small towns of great cities, were despoilers of the community. And Italians, being by heredity the ancient victims of all manner of despoilers, they were easy pickings for the Fascists who in country regions at least were exactly that class Tarasca described – the crooked business men, the fox lawyers, the people who under normal lawful government were always on the outside.
Travelling with the advancing reconnaissance parties of the Canadians these first few weeks of the Italian campaign, I have passed through few large centres. Our journey has been fast and furious through mostly small villages and towns. But in Reggio, Potenza and Catanzara I talked briefly with scores of Italians of the professional and educated class, lawyers, engineers and school teachers, all of whom frankly confessed to having been members of the dissolved party, all of whom in less shrewd fashion confessed the realistic attitude of Tarasca and every one of whom expressed lively anxiety as they thought of how the poor multitude of Italy might rise in wrath against them, however decent their local reputation might have been.
Editor’s Note: This article was written while Greg was a war correspondent during World War Two during the Italian campaign. Mussolini was deposed on July 26, 1943 after the Allied invasion of Sicily. Italy signed an armistice on September 8, 1943, but the Germans occupied northern Italy and continued the fight to the end of the war.