The Many Lives of Raoul Saccorotti

Raoul Saccorrotti was an Italian who at one point lived in France and was dubbed the “Arsène Lupin of Grenoble”, but the file on Saccorotti at the Casellario Politico Centrale (CPC, being the fascist police archives) tells a story quite different from the one Saccorotti had told his anarchist and antifascist friends.

When Raoul arrived in Paris in the summer of 1930 he passed himself off as an antifascist who had just served five years in internment back in Italy and he joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). It was at this point that a file was opened on him at the CPC. The consular authorities and Mussolini’s political police began to take an interest in this fellow who had just launched a socialist branch among the Italian workers building the Sautet dam. The odd thing is that, reading Raoul’s file, one soon realises that even his fellow socialists were soon raising questions about this odd bird who, although no more than a manual labourer, seemed to have plenty of money. Whilst the fascists suspected Saccorotti of being a dangerous subversive, the socialists thought they might be dealing here with a fascist spy. When Raoul told the Grenoble socialist branch that he had had a duplicate made of the keys so that he could enter the Italian vice-consulate and plant a bomb there, the socialists concluded that they were dealing with an agent provocateur and decided to shun him.

The Italian police, better equipped to mount investigations, did not take long to build up a profile of Saccorotti. Police headquarters in Genoa supplied his court records. In the 1920s, Saccorotti had been a house-breaker, an experienced, recidivist thief; he was not quite sixteen when he had his first conviction. Actually, at the beginning of 1916 young Raoul had been arrested in Genoa’s Principe train station whilst trying to steal several items from a railway warehouse. The adolescent, who father was deceased, had been a runaway for a month and had been bumming around Genoa.

In December 1930 the official who forwarded Raoul’s court records to the Interior Ministry of the Interior in Rome pointed out that prior to that the individual in question “has no profile in political terms” in Italy. The only thing is that the official cannot have combed very carefully through all of Saccorotti’s trial records; otherwise he could not have failed to point out that in October 1921, while he was doing his military service with the 21st Infantry Regiment in Massa, Raoul, under suspicion for a number of thefts within the barracks, had confessed to the regimental colonel that he was a Communist Party member. A search of his belongings had turned up a pamphlet on soviets, plus a plan of the barracks and a key that opened the arms store. Raoul insisted that his communist comrades had asked him to get them weapons and blank documents. Yet the military and court authorities refused to believe in this mysterious communist plot, insisting that Saccorotti had concocted the entire thing to ward off suspicions regarding the theft of money, which he continued to deny. Be that as it may, the details that Raoul volunteered under questioning suggested that at the time he actually was in touch with young communist activists. So, from his youth onwards, Raoul appears to have married his career as a professional thief with a penchant for politics and social justice. A common criminal would not have been able to turn himself overnight into the secretary of a socialist branch. Whatever his gifts as a bluffer, he must have had a basic grounding in politics for the leadership of the PSI abroad to have entrusted him with that position.

Returning to his file at the CPC, we find that in 1932 the consular agent in the border town of Modane recorded that Raoul was involved in smuggling what were very likely stolen goods between Italy and France. Then, after he was expelled from the PSI, there was a gap of some years in the monitoring of Saccorotti. That was a time when Raoul, married to the daughter of a chic tailor, was living a bourgeois lifestyle in Grenoble: and it was also the time when, unbeknownst to anybody, he became the “Arsène Lupin of the attics”, robbing attics and under-stairs cupboards across the city on a daily basis.

In December 1936, a memo pointed out that Saccorotti and a known Modane antifascist, Giovanni Fenati, a member of the Giustizia e Libertá organisation, had smuggled the partner of an Italian anarchist exile in Grenoble – somebody by the name of Ugo – out to France. According to that report, Saccorotti now professed anarchist beliefs. Other dispatches tell us that Raoul had shipped clothing parcels to Spain meant for militians and that he had written a few articles “violent in nature” in a libertarian newspaper, using the nom de plume ‘Sara’. His name was also included in a list of addresses taken from the anarchist Giuseppe Casotti who was in Perpignan, orchestrating the border crossings of Italian volunteers. In February 1938, when Raoul Saccorotti was unmasked by the French police, the correspondence passing between the Italian consul in Chambery and Interior ministry in Rome picked up again. A restricted memo from the political police division portrayed Saccorotti as an “anarchist expropriator” who headed a gang of thieves who had been responsible for countless arson attacks and robberies in Spain. Their swag, it was alleged was passed on directly to the well known “Barcelona anarchist leader, Santillan”. According to the same report Raoul had made a number of trips to Barcelona (prior to May ‘37, for one) and was involved in smuggling weapons for the Spanish anarchists until the growing power of the communists made travelling too dangerous for him. He was supposed then to have had dealings with a number of French anarchists, including a certain Deturche.

The evidence of Saccorotti’s first wife, Raymonde, discovered in the investigation files of the Sûreté in Grenoble, casts doubt on the contents of the political police division report. She mentions her husband’s frequent trips to Modane and a “pleasure trip” he had taken with her to Marseilles and said that Raoul might have visited Barcelona, where he had relatives, but makes no mention of earlier trips to Spain by her husband. The police file held in the Grenoble archives contains an important document: it is a letter from Raoul, posted shortly after he was almost arrested, to the editor-in-chief of La Dépêche Dauphinoise, the local leftwing daily. In jovial and bluff terms, Saccorotti explained what had prompted his actions: the sight of the wretchedness of the Italian working class families in Grenoble and surrounding areas had driven him to embark upon the “retrieval” of assets held in the attics of the homes of the wealthy. With a degree of malice, he pointed out that the robbery victims were sometimes more of a crook than he was, in that they had claimed in insurance a lot more than had been stolen from them. Finally he talked about his engagement on behalf of the Spanish Republic and listed a half a dozen burghers of Grenoble from which he claimed to have stolen weapons and who had never reported the thefts. In the wake of that statement, the public prosecutor in Grenoble opened an investigation. The results were very modest indeed: according to the police reports, Saccorotti had stolen only a few collectors’ pieces, old rifles beyond use, from two retired officers. Yet another report mentions that correspondence seized from Saccorotti “has shown his dealings with influential members of the Communist Party in Marseilles and with Spanish republicans to whom he is supposed to have supplied weapons.”

Moreover, those letters, especially correspondence received from Barcelona that might have clarified the scale of the arms-smuggling orchestrated by Raoul, were added to the book of evidence, which is nowhere to be found.

In the over-heated climate of the France of the time (what with the uncovering of arms dumps belonging to the Cagoule, the secret far right organisation), the popular imagination ran amok: the newspaper La Liberté, the mouthpiece of Jacques Doriot’s quasi-fascist party, the PPF (Fremch People’s Party), accused Saccorotti of being a communist agent, “Moscow’s Arsène Lupin” and of supplying arms to the Spanish Reds; whereas the Grenoble communist weekly paper Le Travailleur Alpin denounced him as an agent of Mussolini’s secret police, the OVRA and a member of Franco’s fifth column.

In the meantime, Raoul had gone on the run. The French police searched for him in vain but the Italian fascist authorities, being better informed, knew that Saccorotti was in Paris “aided and secretly protected by a very few anarchist comrades (a reference to Charles Ridel aka Louis Mercier Vega, and Lucien Feuillade).

Arrested in Marseilles five months later on his return from a trip to Barcelona with a suitcase filled with Roman antiquities probably “expropriated” by Spanish anarchists, Raoul received a four year jail sentence. On his release he was interned in the concentration camp of Le Vernet d’Ariège from where he applied to be repatriated to Italy.

The French gendarmerie handed Saccorotti over to the Italian police in Menton on 30 January 1943; the latter arrested him and placed him in the Marassi prison in Genoa. Interrogated there by an inspector, Raoul made a stunning confession: he stated that he had been recruited as an informer by Conte Staffeti, the Italian vice-consul in Grenoble and tasked with infiltrating the Italian Socialist Party and the LIDU (Italian Human Rights League). He acknowledged having smuggled arms, but claimed to have done so on behalf of the Croix de Feu, the French nationalist movement. Finally he claimed it was the local communists who had orchestrated “a colossal frame-up” targeting him in order to have him charged with every robbery carried out in Grenoble.

A transcript of the interrogation was forwarded by police headquarters in Grenoble to the Interior ministry. The ministry instantly rejected Raoul’s claims: Saccorotti had never worked for Conte Staffeti but was a dangerous international thief, had been involved in significant subversive activity and needed to be sent to the Tremiti islands for five years. Actually, close scrutiny of the Saccorotti file plainly shows that he could not have been in the service of the fascist authorities, that the latter kept him under close surveillance and were worried about his ties, first, to the socialists and later to the anarchists. Raoul’s clever confession, a brazen blend of the true and the false, was plainly a bluff designed to keep him out of prison. But Raoul could not have dreamt of the extent to which the fascist police was informed about him. One telling fact is that Saccorotti in his “confessions” pointedly says nothing about his dealings with the anarchists, his trips to Barcelona and his delivery of weapons to the CNT-FAI. To be sure, this surprising exhibit demonstrates a tendency towards making things up and dissembling, a runaway, fantastic imagination bordering upon compulsive lying. Two years later, when Raoul confided in the writer Salvator Gotta (who included him in his novel Macerie a Portofino [Ruins in Portofino] as the character Raoul Saccomani), he was to amend his biography further, portraying himself as an anarchist since early youth. Drawing a veil over his criminal record, his house-breaking career in Grenoble and his time behind bars, he claimed that he had been a participant throughout the Spanish civil war, which had supposedly led to his being interned in the Vernet d’Ariège camp along with other defeated republican militiamen.

At first glance, it looks as if Raoul “saw sense” after the Second World War. He lived in Milan with his most recent partner, the Russian princess Olga Eristoff, in an apartment the couple shared with Olga’s brother, Nicolai and their dog, Mabul. Relatives remember Raoul as a soft-hearted type, a quiet sort who spent his days stamp-collecting. In reality, he was still leading a double life, adding fresh curves to his already tortuous itinerary. His brother-in-law Nicolai Eristoff, who had fought on the Russian front with the Italian army, was active in the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists, the NST. That organisation, launched in Belgrade in 1930 was Christian and anti-Bolshevik in nature, but opposed to the neo-feudalism of the White Guard and it strove to carry out clandestine activities inside Russia. Raoul, now bound to the Eristoffs, placed his conspiratorial gifts at the disposal of the fight against communism.

During the last year of the Second World War, Saccorotti made connections with the communist resistance in northern Italy. It was probably then that Raoul became acquainted with Mario Arnó and Luigi Cavallo, members of the Piedomt-based partisan group Stella Rossa (Red Star). Come the Liberation, Cavallo became a journalist with L’Unità, before breaking spectacularly with communism in 1949, thereafter taking part in the anti-communist Pace e Libertà (Peace and Freedom) movement. In the 1960s, wearing his anti-communist hat, Luigi Cavallo was to launch the newspaper Tribuna operaia and was to play a prominent part in the launching of the SIDA “yellow” union at FIAT. He would eventually flee to France in 1977, accused of having taken part in a planned coup d’état with Edgardo Sogno. But that is another story.

In the mid-19450s Cavallo introduced Raoul to Colonel Renzo Rocca, one of the chiefs of the SIFAR (military secret services) who was interested in exporting “sensitive” materials to the USSR and its satellites. Apparently, Raoul was in a position to supply information about loading ships and trains bound for northern Italy and destined for the USSR. For his part, Saccorotti introduced Mario Arnó and Luigi Cavallo to his brother-in-law, Nicolai Eristoff who would put him in touch with a Russian dissident, General Grigorienko, then an inmate of a soviet psychiatric hospital for having denounced the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

There are still a few pieces of the puzzle of Raoul Saccorotti’s life missing and a few have been lost beyond recovery. But we are sure that in dealing with this elusive character, sometime anarchist and adventurer by vocation – more deserving now than ever of that nick-name, Arsène Lupin – there are further surprises in store.

Phil Casoar (adapted)

From: Bollettino Archivio G. Pinelli, No 31, June 2008. . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.