Italy at war (1940-1945) exhibition

Postcard from the Salo Republic collection

The University of Reading holds fascinating records relating to modern Italian history. This display highlights the rare survivals of Documents from the Salo Republic - Mussolini's final Fascist state that lasted from 1943 to 1945 - and the papers of Cecil Sprigge, Reuter's chief correspondent in Italy from 1943 to 1946.

The documents show the diverging views on the war as produced by the Fascist propaganda and resulting from the coverage of the conflict produced by two war correspondents, Cecil Sprigge (Reuters and the BBC) and Sylvia Sprigge (war correspondent for the Manchester Guardian).

This exhibition is part of the AHRC-funded project Mapping Literary Space: Intellectuals, Journals and Publishing Firms in Italy 1940-1960 led by Dr Daniela La Penna (Department of Languages and Cultures, University of Reading) together with Dr Francesca Billiani (Department of Italian Studies, University of Manchester). This exhibition was curated by Dr Daniela La Penna, Ester Lo Biundo and Mila Milani (Department of Languages and Cultures, University of Reading).

The exhibition will be on display at the Special Collections Service from 11 February 2014 until 30 March 2014.

[Image: propaganda postcard from Documents from the Salo Republic collection]

Cecil Jackson Squire Sprigge (1896- 1959) and Sylvia Saunders Sprigge (1903-1966)

The eldest child of Ethel Moss, daughter of Chief Justice Sir Charles Moss of Toronto, and Sir Samuel Squire Sprigge, Editor of The Lancet and Chairman of the Society of Authors (1910-1918), Cecil Sprigge belonged to the generation that was just grown-up in time for the 1914-18 War. Cecil obtained a King’s scholarship to Eton College in 1910 and, while there, a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. During the First World War he enlisted first in the Army and later in the Royal Navy, and saw service in France and Eastern Waters. After the war, and while studying in France and Italy, he gradually took to journalism and in 1923 was appointed Rome correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. Cecil Sprigge married in 1922 Katriona Gordon Brown, by whom he had three children. The marriage was dissolved 10 years later. In 1934 he married Sylvia, daughter of George Saunders, a prominent Berlin correspondent of The Times and herself Manchester Guardian correspondent in Italy from 1943 to 1953.

Cecil Sprigge’s incisive and highly critical articles on Fascist Italy for the Manchester Guardian attracted Benito Mussolini’s attention. In 1928, the journalist was summoned in Rome to the presence of the Duce. He was peremptorily asked by Mussolini and in French: “why does your newspaper criticise my regime?” “Excellency” said the Guardian’s correspondent adroitly “nothing that your Excellency does is unimportant and it invites discussion”. “Je ne discute pas”, retorted the Dictator. After this meeting, Sprigge was moved to Berlin, with frequent and special assignments to other countries.

Sprigge was appointed City editor of the Manchester Guardian in 1929, a post he retained until 1938 when he was appointed Director of the BBC Italian Service from 1938 to 1941. In 1943 he joined Reuters Agency, for which he went to Italy together with his wife Sylvia as a war correspondent and post-war reorganizer. In 1946 he served in Germany for a year as Head of the British Government Public Relations and Information Services Control, while Sylvia remained in Italy to cover the transition from the régime to the Republic.

Among Cecil Sprigge’s publications were: Karl Marx, a short biography (1938); The Development of Modern Italy (1943); Benedetto Croce: Man and Thinker (1952). He also translated a large selection of Benedetto Croce’s writings (OUP, 1951). Cecil and Sylvia Sprigge’s experiences in the most turbulent years of European history led them to take an active part in the organization of the Société Européenne de Culture (founded in 1950 in Venice) as the leading members of the English section. Cecil and Sylvia never hid their anti-fascist feelings and after the war they flung themselves with passion and appreciation into the rebuilding of a nation they deeply loved.

During his years as Italian correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, Cecil developed a long-lasting friendship with the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. This friendship allowed Cecil to meet several Italian writers, intellectuals and political organizers of Liberal inclinations such as Franco Mattioli, Giovanni Amendola, Luigi Salvatorelli and Mario Vinciguerra. The Sprigges became instrumental in developing intellectual salons where Anglo-American writers and journalists would meet and exchange views with the local intelligentsia in Naples, Rome and Florence. In 1953, Sylvia and Cecil decided to move back to London and their home became an obligatory stop for all the Italian writers and intellectuals coming to the UK.

The role of the foreign press in the coverage of World War II on the Italian Front

September 1938 is the month in which the negotiations for the Munich agreement took place. This agreement revealed the failure of the appeasement policy adopted by Neville Chamberlain towards Germany. The Second World War would indeed break out the following year as a consequence of Germany's territorial annexations.

In the same month the Italian Service of the BBC was set up to broadcast to Italian civilians. Radio Londra, as the BBC was named in Italy, was directed from its launch by Cecil Sprigge. Radio London played a controversial, but significant role during the war. On the one hand, it mirrored the interests of the British government. On the other hand, it represented an alternative source of information and support for a country which had been deprived of freedom of expression by the Fascist regime. Furthermore, Radio London contributed to the Italian Resistance to some extent, by transmitting special messages for the partisans. Through its programmes, the BBC aimed to reach various categories of Italians: women, soldiers, workers, the upper classes, and those fascists who were disillusioned with Mussolini's dictatorship. The knowledge and experience of the Italian antifascists who worked for Radio London were extremely valuable since it was crucial to find the right cultural arguments to use in communicating with the Italians.

It is impossible to carry out reliable statistical surveys on the audience of the radios operating during the Second World War. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of Radio London’s broadcasts is attested to by the number of memoirs which refer to it, by the enquiries conducted by the BBC as well as by the letters sent by listeners to the most admired broadcaster, Colonel Stevens. In June 1944 the BBC launched a new radio programme called Italian Correspondent. After the Allied landings in Sicily press freedom was restored in the territories occupied by the Anglo-Americans. Foreign war correspondents could therefore operate in Italy but, in order to work on the mainland, needed special permits from AMGOT (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories). This was the case for Cecil Sprigge who, having resigned from his role as director of the Italian Service, was now working as a war correspondent from Italy, as well as for his wife Sylvia, who reported on the conflict for the Manchester Guardian.

Items on display

Cecil Sprigge’s diary (MS 1703)

This contains annotations covering events taking place between 8 September 1939 and 17 December 1941. The diary bears the following epigraph: Incipiatur opus tamen et spe deficienti / Rebus et adversis perficiatur opus. Italy declared war on the Allied Forces on 10 June 1940. The displayed sections of the diary detail Sprigge’s reflections on the events surrounding this crucial date in the conflict.

Sylvia Sprigge’s 1945 diary (MS 1703)

This diary details Sylvia Sprigge’s notes and impressions of Italy as a country fast approaching the end of the conflict. Sylvia’s notations start in Rome and detail her journey through the north of the peninsula. Her most vivid notes concern her visit to the city of Trieste and how Italians react to the executions of Benito Mussolini and associates on 28 April 1945. The letter displayed here is a reference to a series of articles derived from her impressions of Trieste, which were published in the Manchester Guardian in May 1945. 

A selection of books from the Cecil Sprigge Library, donated to the Department of Italian Studies, University of Reading.

In the immediate post-WWII period, the Italian publishing field fully revealed its contradictions: the need for cultural renewal after the fall of the regime co-existed with structural continuities with the past. The publication of works, from studies on pre-war diplomatic history to anti-Fascist biographies of Mussolini, increased dramatically, as did that of war memoirs, signalling the demanding confrontation with the recent past. The production was extensive but controversial: memoirs written by partisans and common people were put side-by-side with successful – in terms of book sales – autobiographies of Fascist officers. This picture offered by the publishing market of the immediate post-war years clearly mirrored the complex and fluid process of coming to terms with the regime change of the period.

  • Guido Dorso (1949) Mussolini alla conquista del potere, edited by Carlo Muscetta, Turin: Einaudi.

Written by the anti-Fascist politician Guido Dorso (1892-1947), this study was published posthumously in 1949, as part of Dorso’s Opere Complete (complete works), edited by the literary critic Carlo Muscetta. The editing process of this political biography of Mussolini was long and controversial: Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party, rejected an offer by the leading publisher Mondadori, and endorsed the publication by the left-wing publisher Einaudi in Turin. The biography was nonetheless criticized within the same publishing house and by Marxist historians and politicians because of the psychological approach and lack of a proper Marxist angle.

  • Rodolfo Graziani (1947) Ho difeso la mia patria: Una vita per l’Italia, Milan: Garzanti.

This memoir was written by Rodolfo Graziani (1882-1955), former Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Italian army and Minister of Defence of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, during his imprisonment at Procida in 1946. Published by Garzanti in December 1947, when Graziani was under trial, this autobiographical book served, with its polemical yet apologetic tone, as a defence against the accusations of war crimes in Ethiopia. According to the Milanese publisher, the book sold 30,000 copies in 1948, making it one of the best-sellers of the time, together with Antonio Gramsci’s Letters from Prison (Turin: Einaudi, 1947). Graziani was sentenced to 19 years in jail for his collaboration with the Nazis but served only a few months in prison.

  • Nicola Lisi (1947) Amore e desolazione, Florence: Vallecchi.

Among several post-World War II autobiographical writings, Lisi’s diary stands out as a unique book. Spanning events taking place between January and July 1944, the Tuscan writer’s diary rejects a political representation of Nazi-occupied Florence, and offers instead a series of sketches and parables where these experiences are allegorized. According to critic Geno Pampaloni (Il Ponte, April 1947, pp. 403-4), Lisi ignores the rising Neorealism, and in both his Catholic and symbolist vein, reflects more closely the religious approach of the French-American novelist Julien Green.

  • Mario Toscano (1948) Le origini del Patto d’Acciaio, Florence: Sansoni.

Based on unpublished documents from the Italian archives, Le origini del Patto d’Acciaio is a documented essay on the alliance between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and the origins of the Pact of Steel (1939). Published by Sansoni, the Florentine publisher which compromised itself with the Fascist regime and was directed after the war by the son of Giovanni Gentile, the former Secretary of Education under Mussolini, the book was written by Mario Toscano (1908-1968), one of most renowned scholars of foreign politics in the immediate post-WWII period. Toscano joined the National Fascist Party in 1926, but in 1943 and under Luigi Einaudi’s influence he moved towards more democratic and liberal views.

A selection of items from the Documents from the Salò Republic collection (MS 1724)

In July 1943, after the Allied forces had invaded Sicily, the Grand Fascist Council, with the support of King Victor Emmanuel III, issued a vote of no confidence in Benito Mussolini and ordered his arrest. The new government began secret peace negotiations with the Allied forces. When General Badoglio announced an armistice on 8 September, Germany quickly seized control of northern Italy, freed Mussolini and brought him to the German-occupied area to establish a puppet regime. The Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic), also known as Republic of Salò, was the second and last incarnation of the Fascist state and it was proclaimed on 23 September 1943. It takes its name from the small town of Salò, on the shores of the Lake Garda, and a few kilometres away from Brescia. The Republic was led by Benito Mussolini and exercised sovereignty in Northern Italy and it relied on German troops to maintain military control of the region. The Republic was recognized only by Germany and Japan.

The Italian Social Republic existed for slightly more than nineteen months. On 25 April 1945, a partisan-led uprising alongside the advancing Allied Forces managed to oust the Nazi troops from Italy. On 27 April, the Duce and his mistress Clara Petacci, together with several of his close associates, left Salò in a convoy escorted by Nazi troops and were ambushed and caught by partisans. On 28 April, according to official records, Mussolini and most of the other fifteen captives were executed by a partisan firing squad led by Colonnello Valerio (real name: Walter Audisio) and authorised by the National Liberation Committee. The execution took place in the small village of Giulino di Vellegra. The bodies of Benito Mussolini and Clara Petacci were sent to Milan, and would be hung upside down on meat hooks in a petrol station in Piazzale Loreto, where fifteen partisans had been executed a few weeks earlier.

The Documents from the Salo Republic collection (MS 1724) preserves documents pertaining to the requisition of private housing, information on the Fascist Army and Navy, and copies of the interceptions of Allied forces’ radio transmissions.

This collection was the subject of our featured item for July 2008.

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