Rebellious Spirit: Maria Occhipinti & the Ragusa Anti-Draft Revolt of 1945 [Review]

Italy 1943: World War 2 is over for the vast majority of southern Italians; Mussolini and Italian fascism are dead (officially); the Italian government has surrendered to the Allied powers. However, the Wehrmacht still occupy northern Italy.

December 1944: The government decides to redraft Italian workers to fight the war against the German fascist army in the north and retake what’s theirs. However, Italians have already suffered five years of war and occupation and draftees, recently returned from the war, find a new set of call up cards landing on their door-steps. They decide to say “enough” and the previous defiant watchwords “no go” turn into “no go and no going back”.

January 1945: In the town of Ragusa in the Sicilian district known to locals as “Russia”, a Communist Party militant, Maria Occhipinti, is called out on to the street by neighbours as local draft dodgers are being rounded up by the carabinieri and bundled into a truck. As it’s about to drive away Maria, who is 5 months pregnant, throws herself in front of the wheels saying “you can kill me but you shall not pass”. As more people approach the truck, the authorities let the draftees go, although according to some, it is the crowd that helps them to escape, rather than the cops bottling it. According to Meno Occhipinti, “the next day during a discussion between a sexton and an army officer about why the draft was happening again, the officer decides to lob a grenade at him and blow him up” and this was the catalyst for the revolt. But as Franco Leggio, someone directly involved in organising against the draft and having a hand in the actual revolt itself, tells it, it was Maria diving in front of the truck that was the catalyst.

There are three themes running through the pamphlet: one about Maria Occhipinti, another about the revolt and some context of previous struggle in Ragusa, and the third about Franco Leggio who has almost as much airplay as Maria, but isn’t acknowledged in the title (though maybe including his name in the sub-heading would have meant it didn’t roll off the tongue?).

The texts about Maria are from a more personal perspective, really reducing her down to one word, “rebellious”. This word, to me, is overused and without political meaning, but the authors use it to describe her politically. Coming from a communist party background, there is no fleshing out of why Maria and Erasmo Santangelo split from the local CP to form another party prior to the revolt, nor of her motivation and direction she was heading in while involved in the revolt.

The position is only slightly clarified in prison after the revolt when she mentions having pictures of Stalin and Lenin hung up (I don’t think she meant by rope?) in her cell. Maria suffered greatly on her return from prison. Rumours of infidelity were thrown about as she had been on the run with Erasmo prior to capture, although she denied all suggestions. (Her husband had returned from the army whilst she was incarcerated.) Also the local CP had washed their hands of her, as she had gone against the party – they still had dreams of a conscript red army. She led an extremely interesting life and I have only touched on it.

The revolt itself is placed within the local context of a previous fascist massacre of the “filthy reds” back in 1921, when thirty people lost their lives as they had gathered to listen to an address by socialist deputy Vincenzo Vacirca. There’s also a text covering local anarchist and anti-fascist organising from 1921 onwards up to the revolt itself.

To my mind the greatest contribution about the actual revolt is the interview by Stefano Fabbri with Franco Leggio. This gives us an organiser’s insight into the events, into the organising prior to the revolt and into how the ‘spontaneity’ of the revolt wasn’t so spontaneous – however many times the word is used, the reality was different. There’s also a text devoted to Franco, The Life of an Anarchist, about his…er…life as an anarchist.

The players involved are placed in a historical context. This, for me, gives this and other KSL pamphlets a deeper insight, a generally wider and more well rounded feel, and makes them a fantastic resource. And taking up a sub to their now quarterly bulletin and supporting such an important resource at £3 a year is money well spent.

Rebellious Spirit: Maria Occhipinti & the Ragusa Anti-Draft Revolt of 1945 (eds. P. Sharkey & A. Key)
Kate Sharpley Library 2008 – 30 pp. – £3.00 – ISBN: 978-1873605592

From: Direct Action no.44 (2008).