Giovanni Domaschi: "an incorrigible antifascist"

Anybody who, however briefly, knew this loftiest of minds passionately in love with liberty and justice, could tell just how alert his mind was and could appreciate how kind was his heart and, at the same time, what an energetic character he was.

Thumbing through what correspondence the minions of order have spared me, I came across a letter from this old friend of mine with whom I struggled, hoped and suffered for nearly a half century, albeit that we had certain tactical disagreements.

In his letter, Giovanni Domaschi summarises his career as a battler from the very first stirrings of fascism through to the monarchy’s second coup d’etat. Readers of L’Adunata [dei Refrattari] will see how right from those first stirrings he, like a few other hardy souls, threw himself into the fray, albeit that they had little chance of success, given that the whole effort had been compromised by the high priests of the lumbering dinosaur General Confederation of Labour (CGL) and by politicians in search of medals and portfolios.

This is the letter, penned when the fascist monarchy, having cast the Axis aside and thrown itself into the embrace of the western democracies, was still holding genuine antifascists in its prisons and concentration camps.

G. Di Luisi

Letter Sent by Giovanni Domaschi to Corriere della Sera on 8 September 1944

To the Editor-in-chief of Corriere della Sera, Milan

In exercise of press freedom I would ask you to publish the following in your newspaper:

The radio has been repeatedly broadcasting that all political internees have been released in accordance with the statute of the realm (Article 21) which guarantees individual freedom to every Italian. In fact, it would be only natural for any who have been exiled, interned or imprisoned for antifascism to have been freed at last. But this is not the case: the bitterest enemies of the fascist regime, the ones who have spilled their blood on the squares of Italy to oppose something that has brought dishonour upon civil society, the ones who have not bent the knee to the courts, who have spent the best years of their lives in the dankest dungeons in Portologone, S. Stefano or Fossombrone, clinging to their antifascist beliefs, are still not free: they are still held in concentration camps or penitentiaries and their families still grieve as they were left to grieve by the fascist regime. I am talking about the Anarchists, the grandeur of whose beliefs is still known to few. I speak as such and as an incorrigible antifascist in order to demonstrate, with evidence in hand, how these antifascists are still being denied their freedom.

I first stood trial for antifascism before the Verona assizes in May 1922, having, with several comrades, stood up to a fascist gang that was trying to cause mayhem in the popular district of S. Stefano. I was sentenced to 15 months in prison, plus a year under special surveillance. This was the start of a period that for the next twenty years was to keep me far from my family, from my two beloved children Anita and Armando, incarcerated in fascist jails and held in the darkest, dankest cells in Italy.

Discharged from prison in Verona after serving the sentence passed by the Assize court, I returned to my antifascist efforts which had begun even earlier, and for which I had been arrested several times by the police, until finally I was detained for a longer period. On 13 November 1926 a team of police surrounded my home and managed to arrest me, even though I put up a fight. On the 19th of that month in Verona prison, where I was taken, I was told of the verdict of the Provincial Commission to the effect that I was being sentenced to five years’ internment. After five days I and others left for the island of Favignana and all of the privations ahead. In April 1927 I was moved to the island of Lipari where I remained until February 1928, for on the 12th of that month a telegram came from the Verona Police Headquarters arraigning me before the Special Court on charges of “conspiring against the security of the State”. After six months’ detention in prison in Lipari, on the night of 21 July to be exact, I managed, with some others, to escape dressed as a priest, but was recaptured after two days , betrayed by a peasant called Fortunato Liberato, hungry for the five thousand lira reward posted by the authorities for anyone providing information about the escapees. Sentence passed by the Court in Messina in November 1928 found that I should serve four months in detention for this escape bid, after which I was moved to the cells in Regina Coeli in Rome, to appear before the Special Court, which sentenced me to 15 years’ imprisonment.

A month after that Fossombrone prison opened its gates to receive me for an initial period of segregation, but in February 1929 I was brought, in extraordinary circumstances, before the Messina court for the appeal against the sentence passed by the court there: the sentence was upheld.

In Messina prison I thought to organise another escape attempt, cutting through the bars and scaling a double perimeter and I pulled this off on the night of 16 February, but on this occasion too I was betrayed and arrested after three eventful days on the run.

I was then moved to Milazzo prison, after a time in Naples and Palermo and eventually found myself in prison in Messina, waiting to appear before the ordinary court there to answer charges in connection with the second escape; it handed down a further sentence of three years’ imprisonment.

All in all, therefore, I had 18 years’ incarceration and five years of internment to serve, the latter subject to renewal orders, not counting the time I had already served in prison in Verona.

Towards the end of 1929, under heavy police escort, I was returned to prison in Fossombrone to continue my time in solitary, after which, on 1 May 1932 to be precise, I and other comrades thought to mount an antifascist demonstration that proved a great success.

We hand-wrote manifestos against the regime as best we could, and, tying them to a rock, we threw them into the streets adjacent to the prison during our exercise period while we sang our hymns. A month after that, we were all moved (myself included) to the prison in Piacenza and a year after that - which is to say in November 1933 - I and Prof. Rossi made a fresh attempt to escape from that prison too, an attempt that was uncovered just as everything was being finalised, due to snooping by non-political prisoner from Verona, a fellow by the name of Fenzi.

Under heavy escort I was moved again to No 4 wing in Regina Coeli prison in Rome under strict watch. In the wake of a series of remission orders in February 1936 I was released and banished as a political internee to the island of Ponza without as much as seeing my family and then was moved from there to Ventotene and finally to the Renicci d’Anghiari concentration camp where I remain.

All in all, I have served eleven years in prison and nine as an internee. I have no desire to go into a description of all my sufferings during that long and dismal period in my life, but I do want simply to assert with pride that no time did I bend the knee and always had the courage to express my libertarian and antifascist ideas everywhere and say that, if the fascist regime actually has collapsed, I am entitled to be released immediately and to be returned to the bosom of my family and the workers’ organisation.

I thank you for your hospitality,

Best regards,

Renicci d’Anghiari, 8-9-1944

Giovanni Domaschi.”

Whilst our brave comrade cherished hopes of returning to normal life and to the fray, to his loving family, the fascist monarchy abandoned Italians generally and the champions of freedom in particular to the reprisals of the fascist thugs in the service of Hitler’s Gestapo. And for Giovanni Domaschi, as for so many others, the final phase of unspeakable martyrdom began.

He was deported to Germany in September 1944, never to return.

His steely mettle, battered first by the regime’s slave-drivers, was then broken, bit by bit, upon the instruments of torture that Nazism’s bestial sadism had installed in those notorious camps.

From: L'Adunata dei Refrattari, 4 September 1948, reprinted in Pietro Bianconi, Gli Anarchici Italiani nella Lotta Contro il Fascismo (Pistoia 1988) pp. 191-193. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.