Guido Picelli – Leader of the Resistance
The workers of Parma were socialists to the core; among them a sprinkling of anarchists, syndacalists, communists and the left wing Catholic Workers Party.
In 1922 Fascism was delivering the counter-revolution, after two “red years”. Fascist gangs, the black shirted “squadristi”, roamed the cities and countryside, destroying trade union headquarters, newspapers, peasant cooperatives, bringing cities and towns to heel through terror. The Army, under the command of the King, did nothing. Socialists were anti-monarchist.
The squadristi were funded by major Italian corporate interests, FIAT and Olivetti as well as bankers, land owners, the clerical hierarchy and the bourgesoisie. They were a well armed, well trained para-military group, devoted to Mussolini and fascism; led by Italo Balbo and Ronerto “the sadist” Farinacci. Both would later be members of the Fascist Grand Council.
Farinacci began organizing Blackshirts combat squads in 1919 in Cremona. The Cremona squads were among the most brutal in Italy, and Farinacci effectively used them to terrorize the population into submission to Fascist rule. Farinacci enjoyed forcing his victims to swallow large amounts of castor oil until they soiled themselves with diarrhea before he murdered them.
In 1922, Farinacci appointed himself mayor of Cremona. Farinacci thought Mussolini “too liberal”. Mussolini thought Farinacci “too violent” and irresponsible.
The workers of Parma knew what was coming. They were at the center of socialism and the last city in Italy defying fascist rule. Fascism’s victory was not yet complete. There was still one place in Italy that was resisting – Parma. The workers got ready.
In August 1922, just ten weeks before Mussolini seized power, one of the largest armed confrontations between fascists and anti-fascists in history took place . Led by a Socialist Party MP, Guido Picelli, the local branch of the Arditi del popolo (People’s Squads), a national anti-fascist organization created in June 1921, had managed to bring together the many different strands of the Italian left.
For six days 20,000 armed black shirts threw themselves against the working class of the central Italian town. The first contingents of blackshirts arrived on the night of 1-2 August, in trucks which had come from all over Emilia, Veneto, and Tuscany.. They were armed with brand new rifles, pistols and hand grenades, together with a huge amount of ammunition. They were experienced fighters, tried and tested in the tactics of ‘punitive expeditions’.
The workers were ready. The fascists opened fire just before 9 am and were met with a hail of worker bullets. Attacks and counter-attacks continued along the front line throughout the day, without producing any substantial changes in the situation.
Italo Balbo, who would later be the Fascist Governor of Libya attempted to lead a detachment across the Verdi Bridge but was met with a fusillade of gun fire from behind barricades at the other end of the bridge. Balbo hastily retreated in disarray.
After several days of heavy fighting the Army showed up and demanded that the workers put down their weapons and dismantle their barricades. The Army had orders from the King not to attack the fascist gangs. The workers refused. The Army withdrew leaving the workers to their fate.
The fascists resumed their attacks and the fighting turned into classic urban warfare. Fascists entering narrow streets and alleys were attacked by women in upper story windows with small arms and firebombs. In the open parks they were hit by the Arditi and driven back.
Fascist resolved weakened and two days later collapsed completely. After five days of urban warfare fascist columns were seen leaving the area in disarray, military discipline melting away. The black shirts had suffered 39 dead and 150 wounded. Once the news of the fascists’ departure spread, the working class populations on both sides of the river rushed into the streets in an indescribable explosion of enthusiasm – red flags were hung from the windows in ‘old Parma’. The news of the working class’s victory spread rapidly in the surrounding area, where terrified local landowners abandoned their houses and ran towards Cremona. It was the finest hour of the resistence.
Worried that the resistance would spread to other cities, the King declared martial law and the Army moved in to occupy Parma. There was no stopping infantry units armed with machine guns.
In ten weeks Mussolini would rule Italy – fascism, industrial capitalism and the monarchy had come to agreement before the “March on Rome.”
The leaders of Parma were eventually arrested or murdered or went into exile. Guido Picelli, the leader of the resistance, would be arrested 5 times by the fascists and then elected to parliament by the workers of Parma.
On May Day, May 1, 1924 in the full flower ot the fascist state, he would enrage Mussolini by hanging the red flag on the parliament building for 15 minutes in protest for the cancelling of Labor Day. He was repeatedly attacked on the streets by black shirts and served over 5 years in prison. He eventually died in the Spanish Civil War in front of Guadalajara, fighting for the Republic and leading the Garibaldi Brigade against General Franco.
Today there are memorials to Picelli in Parma and in Spain. His tomb in Spain was destroyed by Franco and his bones thrown into an ossuary with unidentified Spanish Civil War dead.
No significant armed resistance against the fascist dictatorship would come again until the war years when Italian partisans took to the mountains.