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Giuseppe Bottai, the anti-Nazi fascist – Culture and Entertainment

Bolzano. Angelo Polimeno Bottaijournalist, former deputy director of Tg1, is the nephew of Giuseppe Bottai, a complex, in some ways surprising, and contradictory figure of fascism. Minister of Mussolini, but proud opponent of the alliance with Nazi Germany. In 1938 he expelled Jewish students from schools, but on 25 July 1943 he was among the signatories of Grandi’s agenda which would mark the end of the regime. And again, in the last part of the Second World War, a private with the French Foreign Legion to fight against the Germans on the Siegfried Line.

Angelo Polimeno Bottai didn’t know his grandfather (“he died in 1959, a few months before I was born”), but he had to deal with his ghost throughout his life, for better or for worse. «He had enemies in life and even in death». Now he has dedicated a book to him “Mussolini, I’ll stop you. Legendary story of Giuseppe Bottai, he chose his homeland, fought against the Nazis » (Ed. Guerini and associates). It is not an easy task to separate feelings from historical reconstruction, the family story, which inevitably tends to absolve and mythologize, from the reality of the facts. What is certain is that Giuseppe Bottai cannot be pigeonholed into the classic cliché of the fanatical fascist, lying down towards Mussolini (he was one of the few who addressed the Duce on first terms). And that his final redemption (the Grandi agenda, the decision to fight the Nazis), places him on a different level than the other poppies of the twenty-year period. «I tried – explains Angelo Polimeno Bottai – to write an honest book. Mine was a rigorous journalistic investigation, precisely to avoid misunderstandings, that people say “well, he certainly can’t speak badly of him since he’s the nephew…”. Yes, okay, he was my grandfather. His story, in some ways, is also mine: this is why I was even more rigorous in my research. I felt obliged to document everything with the meticulousness of a historian. I wanted to understand without hiding, but also to vindicate my grandfather’s intellectual freedom, the critical spirit that put him in sharp contrast with Mussolini.”

Angelo Polimeno is the son of Bottai’s second daughter, Maria Grazia, also a journalist and writer. «Shortly before she died, my mother asked me to add hers to my father’s surname. With her, my grandfather’s would have been irremediably lost.”

What is the story of Giuseppe Bottai?

«He was born in 1895 in Rome, the son of a Mazzinian republican, who had a retail wine shop. He grows up in the Macao neighborhood, near Termini station. A bourgeois neighborhood but very close to the working-class districts. And above all: a neighborhood of barracks. As a boy he had little interest in politics, he dreamed of being a literary journalist. However, he is attracted by the patriotic Risorgimento, by the uniform, by that idea that the Risorgimento was not yet over. So, at the end of high school, he decides to volunteer to fight in the First World War.”

In the Alpine troops, he is a trench man…

Yes. He is part of the Arditi. He did not lack courage. The Austrians capture him, but he steals the pistol from the escort soldier, kills him with a shot to the back of the head, escapes and returns to the front line. Once the war is over, he begins to become more and more passionate about the country’s problems. He breathes the climate of contempt that hit the veterans like a bitter storm. They suddenly felt put on “trial”, despite having sacrificed a lot and seen their comrades die.

In short, he identifies with that movement of ’19 which found a possibility of redemption in nascent fascism…

Yes. He was a man of order. He saw the country on the brink of chaos: poverty, misery, backwardness, and the wind of the Bolshevik revolution starting to blow in the industrial cities. Strikes in the factories, uprisings in the countryside, the two red years…

He described his first meeting with Mussolini as “a shock”…

Exact. He was convinced he was the right man to bring Italy out of uncertainty. Fascism was the path that had opened up before him…

It was convenient for Mussolini: a bold but also cultured former man, an intellectual…

At the beginning Mussolini made great use of him. It was a bit of a flagship of the regime. Useful for accrediting fascism in intellectual circles and also abroad, where Bottai was highly esteemed. Mussolini was a skilled manipulator: he used the moderate Bottai on one side, and the violent wing of the various Farinacci and Pavolini on the other. He dragged his feet according to what was convenient for him.

The Matteotti crime, June 1924, marks the first rift with the Duce.

Yes. Bottai publishes a very harsh editorial in his newspaper “Critica fascista”. He demands punishment of those responsible even at the highest levels of the regime. He calls for a radical change in the party leadership. He tells Mussolini to remove the thugs and make the fascist revolution with the best part of the country.

And what does the leader do?

He scolds him a little and sends him back the proofs of his newspaper with red marks. And a little bit, anyway, he uses it as a bridgehead between the writers, the artists, the painters.

Incredible thing: Bottai publishes Marx’s Capital.

Yes. He manages to do it in a period in which Mussolini tolerated him, left him quite free to act.

A black chapter that involves him is that of the racial laws: he is the minister of education who orders the expulsion of thousands of Jewish students.

The question that many authoritative historians have asked themselves (and that I have asked myself too) is: why such a culturally open man, who had a real revulsion for Nazism, embarked on this madness. Why did he take on this responsibility?

Does the answer exist?

Yes. Until 1938, Bottai did not write a racist line. Neither towards the Jews nor towards anyone else. He had returned highly indignant from several trips to Germany. He had given Mussolini a series of reports very critical of Nazism and Hitler. Numerous authors of Jewish origin wrote in its newspapers “Critica fascista” and “Primato”. It should be remembered that after the conquest of Ethiopia, Bottai not only refused to participate in the Spanish war, but took a stand. He is against it. He is against fascism mixing with both Spanish Francoism and German Nazism.

The fact remains that he is the minister of national education of a regime that applies racial laws in pursuit of Hitler’s criminal plan…

When the racial laws were promulgated, the wing headed by Farinacci, the pro-Nazi wing of the party, began a very harsh press campaign insinuating that Bottai was Jewish. Countless articles appeared in newspapers like the Tevere, directed by Telesio Interlenghi and with Giorgio Almirante as chief editor. They called him “Peppino er giudiolo”. Mussolini himself insinuated that he was a “half-breed”. Hitler prevented his German counterpart from meeting him and ordered the German embassy in Rome to investigate his origins. They branded him as “Mussolini’s Jewish minister”.

However, it expels Jewish students from schools and universities…

He asks himself a question. What do I do now? Do I resign and make way for a pro-Nazi minister, perhaps indicated by Farinacci, or do I stay in my position to try to limit the damage? He makes the best of a bad situation. He appears to be an intransigent executor of those laws, but he tries to weaken them as much as possible. He fights to allow the Jewish community to have its own state-funded educational institutions. It wasn’t the solution to the problem, but it was an attempt to do something. Meir Michaelis, historian of Yad Vashem, declared in an interview that Bottai did everything possible to contain the damage of the racial laws.”

A little-known page is Bottai’s commitment to defending the Italian artistic heritage from Hitler’s appetites…

«The 1939 law for the defense of our artistic heritage was born above all with an anti-Nazi function. Mussolini, who at that time was suffering from the sanctions imposed by the League of Nations for his colonial policy, was increasingly dependent on Hitler’s support and supplies. And he is increasingly yielding to the demands of Hitler and Göring, ravenous, greedy for classical works of art, of which Italy is rich, eager to get their hands on paintings and sculptures. Bottai passes this law which makes the export of works of art more complicated.

And he sets up a capillary network…

Together with his collaborator Giulio Carlo Argan (art historian and future communist mayor of Rome, ed.), then thirty years old, he organized a colossal operation to save over ten thousand works of art with the heroic participation of some superintendents appointed by him, all without party membership.

We arrive at the showdown with the Duce…

The human relationship with Mussolini had already been worn out by the Ethiopian war. With Germany’s entry into the war alongside Germany, this fracture widened dramatically. On June 10, 1940, when all of Italy is in the square applauding Mussolini on the balcony of Piazza Venezia, he tells his wife and children that it is an unfortunate day and there is really nothing to celebrate. In January 1943 Mussolini carried out a government reshuffle and removed the departments from Bottai and Grandi. Relations were very tense.

On 25 July 1943 Grandi was among the signatories of the agenda…

In fact, Bottai was the man of July 25th more than anyone else. For years now he had been criticizing fascism internally, the only one possible in a dictatorship. At the beginning he did it proactively. Then he understood that Mussolini was dangerous and should be “disarmed”. He had to take away his power. For this reason, Bottai was the true symbol of July 25th, regardless of who actually wrote the agenda. This awareness is demonstrated even more later. Five of the signatories, including Ciano, were shot in the back by the Black Brigades in Verona, the others fled abroad, some to South America, some to Portugal…

And Bottai?

Sentenced to death by the fascists and on the allies’ blacklist, he is the only one – at the age of 50 – who enlists as a private soldier, under a false name, in the French Foreign Legion to go and fight against the Nazis on the Western Front.

The legionnaire Andrea Battaglia…

Exact. It’s incredible that this choice of his is often ignored. I understand that it is embarrassing, that it creates problems for those nostalgic for that period, and for those, on the other side, who cannot conceive the fact that such a compromised fascist then took on his political responsibilities, putting his life back on the line of him.

He retired from the Foreign Legion in 1948, but a life sentence hung over his head in Italy.

Many former fascists will return to Italy thanks to the Togliatti amnesty. Bottai is the only one who won the amnesty on his own, thanks to a law that allowed those who demonstrated that they had fought for freedom to be acquitted in the Supreme Court. It was my grandmother Nelia – who was in Rome, while Giuseppe was in Algeria – who contacted the command of the Foreign Legion. She manages to obtain the declaration that she attests that she fought honorably against the Germans. And with this paper, brought to court, my grandmother obtained full absolution. I repeat: Bottai was the only one who achieved it on his own.

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