Emilio Strafelini, a letter from Gurs camp

Emilio Strafelini was born in Rovereto in 1897 into a rather well-to-do family, but by 1915, as a rebel and lover of learning, he had deserted from the Austro-Hungarian army [the Trentino region was only annexed by Italy after the First World War]. In Rome in 1916 he joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). As a dyed-in-the-wool antimilitarist, he did not go back to Rovereto until 1919, during which year he and other comrades founded the Rovereto branch of the PSI. Working in partnership with the International and serving as a councillor on the Camera del Lavoro and Social Brotherhood, like many another, Strafelini was exposed to the early violence of the fascist goon squads that wrecked the local Camera del Lavoro in the Piazza Rosmini on two separate occasions at least. A rallying point for Rovereto’s antifascists, it then relocated to his father’s home in the Piazza San Marco. Persecuted and unemployed, Emilio was arrested first in Milan before fleeing to the Isère department in France, before moving on to Lyon and joining the coal miners of Terrenoire and then the glassblowers of Saint Etienne. He was secretary of the Loire departmental Inter-Union Committee of the French CGTU and a signatory to the antifascist manifesto released by the Italian syndicalists abroad. Towards the end of 1925, he slipped back into Italy – apparently to attempt the life of Mussolini, just as many other anarchists had tried and would yet try to do, but to no avail. Discovered in Rome in 1927, he was beaten and tortured while being interrogated by the fascist police. Sentenced to 5 years’ internment [internal exile], he was sent to Lipari. Ever the libertarian, Strafelini espoused an unmistakably anarchist line. He was back in Rovereto in 1932, under special surveillance and given a “warning” [the fascist equivalent of a ‘caution’]. Giving the surveillance the slip, he was active in the Vallgarina valley, secretly organising a branch of the IWA-affiliated USI [Italian Syndicalist Union], the libertarian trade union outlawed since 1925. In a report that he was to forward to the IWA from Paris in August 1933 through the Emigre Committee in the city, his frantic activity and that of his comrades is evident, as is the social situation in Rovereto – distribution of underground leaflets, agitation in the factories and in the countryside against enrolment in the fascist syndicates, against taxes and the seizure and sale of crops confiscated from the poor. In one factory, a subsidiary of the Pirelli group, thirty one workers were sacked for refusing to pay dues to the fascist syndicate; and only two out of sixty printing workers agreed to pay their dues. The Rovereto branch was in touch with many other Italian towns which were still active despite the arrests, isolation and the growing tide of exiles. However, Emilio tried to set up a clandestine press in Muline de Villa Lagarina. Strafelini added to his 1933 report a note on anarchist armed attacks on the fascists covering the 1923-1933 period.

Risking arrest, in April 1932 Strafelini fled to France via Austria and Switzerland. He was a member of the IWA and of the Antifascist Union (Concentrazione Antifascista) formed by the Rosselli brothers. In 1936, he was one of the first to rush to Spain to defend the anarchist revolution there from the forces of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. Some seventeen volunteers from the Trentino region were to join the Garibaldi Brigades. In Spain, as a member of the libertarian CNT union, Strafelini sampled not just the Francoist terror but also the betrayal and execution of anarchists and independent communists at the hands of Stalinist thugs who were more afraid of anarchist revolution than of Francoist victory (the signing of the notorious Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 was no fluke). After antifascists in Spain were defeated, Emilio fled to France together with huge numbers of militians, only to be welcomed into the very republican concentration camps prepared for them. The letter below was written in the Gurs camp. The ‘Lionello’ to whom it was sent was the Rovereto antifascist and Communist Party member, Lionello Buffatto. In 1938 Buffatto fled Italy for France with his wife and their son, Uliano. He was unable to make contact with Strafelini at that point since Strafelini was in Spain at the time. But contact was obviously established when a letter from Buffatto reached Strafelini in the Gurs camp.

Gurs [Internment] Camp (France)

1 August 1939

Dear Lionello,

Correspondence connecting and bringing comfort to the ideals of those who struggle, soldiers for a common idea, is sacred and there isn’t a prisoner or down-and-out whose heart does not skip a beat when a letter, a line arrives. Neither indolence nor idleness bothers me; I thank you and let me answer straight away. I am not, and never will be, sectarian. Watch and note that I am never categorical, dogmatic or axiomatic in what I say; I merely set out my very modest opinion, my thoughts. As I see it, the individual ought to be a self-propelled molecule. Neither inspiration nor talent can be summoned on command, to order. Art itself thrives on freedom, licence, hit-and-miss experiments and individual imaginations.

When I think of Stalin, I see the ghost of tsarism but also I see the medieval autocrat, Ivan the Terrible. The marxism of Marx and Engels is no social philosophy. It’s a religion: a secular religion, materialism made god. Messianism. And this special character is down to Marx’s Jewish roots. He was a prophet possessed of certainty, even to the point of adopting the fierce eloquence of the Bible. He looked forward to a golden age of equality, earthly paradise and revolution, fire and blood seemed to him to be legitimate and necessary means for forcibly creating human happiness. In the build-up to this mysticism, Marx [analyses the] economic system and class struggle. Not in order to destroy capitalism, but in order to relocate it to the paradise-State by doing away with property and freedom of the individual. Marxism, overtaken and refuted by many aspects of the modern world, refuses to be tinkered with or amended, because it is a religion; and, like all religions, marxism regards as heretics any who challenge it and it deforms actions and human beings in order to tailor them to its needs. Increasingly less experimental, it conjures up ideological myths. The ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ types are abstractions, just like the “noble savage born virtuous and corrupted by society” associated with Bernardin and Jean-Jacques [Rousseau]. Life has no reliable examples to show and many things fall outside such a crude social psychology. Lenin followed after Marx and, though born well after the Inquisition, was no less fanatical, no less fiercely convinced of the need to punish heretics and apostates with fire and sword. Russia has her revolutionary saints … and the ultimate ikon is Lenin’s mummy, on display for the crowd to kneel before. [This is] a religion that rules out all charity.

Lenin always despised philanthropists, consolers and benefactors, looking upon them as hypocrites hindering the attainment of his paradise; which is to be brought about, after the massacres, by the inescapable force of dialectics alone.

Stalin has jettisoned this mysticism and introduced a neo-tsarism; he has outlawed and exterminated the Trotskyists, the generals, Lenin’s collaborators, etc., with ruthless cruelty.

But to hell with polemic.

And this famous proletariat, what has it done, in practical terms, to help Spain? And can it be unaware of the mass executions in Catalonia and elsewhere? And when the SIA (International Antifascist Solidarity) in Paris called a protest rally over these and even graver matters, how many turned up? 2000. Yet nearly a million rush to clap the military parade on 14 July. There’s the rub [the cause]; the effect. So much for the internationalism of the class as inculcated under the sway of Stalinist, social-patriotic propaganda paving the way for imperialist war.

And don’t start me to talking about the war in Spain. What I witnessed down there was horrific. Take it from me, because I tell you this sadly, with hand on heart. You know that I have always sought unity; in Livorno* and afterwards and at all times. But union with mutual respect and with no treacherous back-stabbing. I believe in communism, but a communism without compromise, without opportunism, without the belief that the bourgeois are about to help me bring it about. Our future depends entirely upon us.

You know my background; could I have lifted a finger or fought just to gain an extra plateful of spaghetti? Only freedom, a feeling for what is fair and humane, could have given me the strength to face up serenely to everything that I have suffered. And that flame will be snuffed out only by death. Which is precisely why I have never been corrupted by position, honours, wealth or privilege. I have welcomed my place in the ranks of the exploited and humiliated, knowing of the dangers … and I lead the way, because it is only right to set the example and forge a better society for the sake of the hundreds of little Ulianos**.

I am no conformist. Not one to play along. I am a refractory. And don’t think that I flatter myself that I can bring about anarchy like that; unless we are sorely mistaken; unless all who profess to be anarchists are sound or know what they need to know. No, no! Men are what they are: but I would ask you to heed, to monitor a man’s actions, his life rather than swallowing the mumblings, party newspapers or watchwords laid down by a party. Let a man act out as much as he can of what he preaches. Labels mean nothing; a label is only a shop label.

Thanks for your news. With all my heart and mind I am in the mountains of Trentino. I have suffered much there and part of my heart lies there.

Kiss your son for me. Best wishes to friends and your family.

Yours, fraternally,

Emilio Strafelini.

* Livorno. The reference here is to the Socialist Party congress from which the Communist Party of Italy emerged. Strafelini was at that point identified with the revolutionary faction of the party.

** Uliano . Lionello Buffatto’s son.

From: Adesso (Rovereto) Italy, 9 March 2004. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.