On the (critical) use of police sources

By way of an opening cautionary note let me say (by way of an acknowledgment of history) that we should take the police very seriously, bearing in mind that during the fascist era the policeman lived cheek by jowl with the militant, in the sense that he dogged his every move, spying on him, arresting him and questioning him and trying to wrest information from him and occasionally trying to recruit him as an informer.

Whilst there were idiot policemen (and no shortage of them), there were also the top flight officers who had a liberal education and who then found, under fascist rule, that they had a free hand, so to speak. And there were also sharp minds (from police chief Arturo Bocchini to his right hand man Guido Leto, who was to be pretty much the brains behind the OVRA) pursuing a political project tied to and inspired by Mussolini. 

There is a world of difference between the liberal police and liberal police records and the fascist police and fascist police records, especially after the complete overhauling of the police apparatus in 1926-1927: the Guardia Regia (Royal Guard) had been disbanded years before and 1927 saw the establishment of the OVRA, the cutting edge of the regime’s political police.

Police sources in historical archives need to be exploited but they are tricky materials and quite simply not trustworthy: but the question I have to raise is this: are the movement’s own sources automatically to be trusted? Just spare a thought for how many faux pas would be made by somebody trying to reconstruct the history of anarchists on foot of certain movement publications: he would produce a travesty of a situation oscillating on occasion between pre-insurrection and a Chilean-style police state. As far as the historian is concerned, sources need to be held at arm’s length, interpreted and mastered, but never accepted uncritically. What we are dealing with here are sources of a particular provenance and for a specific purpose: not information for information’s sake, but precisely the information needed for the purposes of repression.

Quickly running through a list of essential sources, the one with which we are all pretty much familiar is the CPC (Casellario Politico Centrale – Central Political Register) which is easily used, being organised as it is into personal files in alphabetical order; this is, shall we say, the first level source. But it is not entirely sufficient, because even the police themselves had come to have misgivings about this register; they used it, yes, but they bore it in mind that the intelligence contained within it might be leaked through some treacherous official; for which reason the more delicate files are not to be found there but are instead kept in an archive labelled Political Police – Personal Files. This is where the most telling sources are kept. Then again, as far as topics (the anarchist movement, say) are concerned,  there is another Political Police archive labelled Topics (Materia) which is in fact collected under subject headings.

Another outstanding archive is the one that holds documentation from the Special Court for Defence of the State; in addition to trial papers it holds a number of “resources” (letters, notes, flyers and cards) seized from militants and is therefore, indirectly, an archive of antifascism. The sizable but under-explored archive on political internees also deserves a mention. There too we find thousands upon thousands of personal files (every individual internee had his own personal file). Then again, there are other sources, not all of which, unfortunately, are accessible or to which access is hard to secure. At one historians’ symposium I complained of the enduring difficulties placed in the way of researchers in a paper that was later included in a publication in homage to Claudio Pavone, entitled La nuova storia contemporanea (Bollati Boringhieri, Turin, 2001, pp. 85-90).

One telling obstacle is the absolute ban upon access to the archives of the Corps of Carabineri; this is in breach of the normal practice in force regarding access to archival materials. I have raised this issue a number of times in my books and at symposia, but drawn no response from other historians.

Equally unreasonable, in my view, is the Ministry of the Interior’s withholding of access to archives regarding the fascist era. In short, it is my belief that historians would be well-advised to join forces to campaign for a comprehensive implementation of archival regulations.

Police sources are dispersed because they are neither homogeneous nor singular in their thinking: they contain police reports, memoranda from informants, transcripts of interrogations … The first thing the historian has to do is to try to track down the identity of the informant. One characteristic of police sources is that they are drafted in such a way as to hide those identities: there is a whole numbering system devised by the chief of police, who obviously knew the connections between these numbers, cover names and real names, as well as the addresses of double agents. There is also a rubric compiled by Bocchini, access to which is denied to this day, even though Bocchini died back in 1940.

The antifascist documentation collected in police archives are scattered willy-nilly throughout several branches of archives and is truly stunning in terms of scale and quality: it includes the press of every opposition movement, its confidential papers, top secret letters for internal circulation only and reports on internal affairs drawn up by militants and occasionally by leaders.

It is vital that the historian compare and contrast the police sources and the antifascist sources: the memoirs, the autobiographies, the oral testimony and so on. Information on file is of tremendous importance to anyone concerned with the correspondence and lives of militants. For instance, in recent months I have been looking through Ernesto Rossi’s unpublished letters from prison (1930-1939) and police sources have been remarkably useful to me in gaining an understanding of the circumstances in which Rossi was living and the conditions under which this correspondence was carried out, presenting a telling insight into the surveillance maintained on prisoners. As far as the position of the historian goes, as I see it, it should not be of the banal “cops and robbers” variety: part of the work of the historian is to delve into these documents insofar as he can for the specific flavour of the hunger, the misery, the difficulty of finding work, emigration, day-to-day life and being hounded from one state to the next. What we have to do then is take off the ideological spectacles, because otherwise our reconstructions are inevitably going to be rhetorical and self-congratulatory and will be obsolete and unreadable within a few years. Which is what has happened to a lot of the communist historiography of the 1970s: just try to read those texts today, burdened as they are with the context of which they were, to some extent, the products. On the other hand, as I see it, the stories and human dramas are emerging of many lesser known figures of remarkable human and moral stature. By way of an indication to the reader of what can be found in police archives, let me read a short file on an utterly nondescript militant, one Domenico Polimeni, an anarchist born in Reggio Calabria in 1898, a blind man who made his living in Rome as a newspaper vendor. Let me read a page from the sketches to be found in Delatori (Informers), a book of mine published by the publishing house of Mondadori: “In early March 1935 a blind man who eked out a living in the capital selling newspapers on a street corner, was reported to police headquarters by an honest citizen, according to whom Calabrian immigrant Domenico Polimeni ‘while calling out the titles of newspapers had loudly and in a public thoroughfare uttered sarcastic comment about the battle for grain’. Asked by an NCO to come with him to assist with inquiries, the fellow gave a rude answer and was promptly arrested. Under questioning he admitted ‘having made sarcastic remarks over the preceding days about the local railways: Mussolini has won the battle for grain and bread is on the rise.’ The report from police headquarters describes him as ‘an unrepentant back-biter and grumbler who, whilst not a member of any subversion faction, has on a variety of occasions expressed antifascist sentiments, perhaps exploiting the pity and sympathy resulting from his being blind’. The arbiter of his fate was, as ever, Mussolini. ‘Taken into custody on the orders of H.E. the Head of the Government, he deserves internment.’ Domenico Polimeni was moved from Ferrandina to Ustica and then from Ponza to Tremiti, held in unsanitary conditions and was released under an amnesty in 1937. The one-time news-vendor thanked the minister of the Interior in a rather unusual letter written in Braille: ‘Grateful for and moved by your bizarre magnanimity. I offer lively and heartfelt thanks to the Most Excellent Minister for the unprecedented wickedness of your treatment of me. Moreover, I have not the slightest intention of denying my offence, if having ideas can be construed as an offence. Anarchist, idealist and philosopher do not mean the same as murderer.’ The upshot was that by August he had been rearrested and returned to internment where this incorrigible opponent remained up until 1940. On his release his name was added to the list of persons to be arrested in certain circumstances and was added again in October 1941, for the utterance of unlawful views.” (See Mimmo Franzinelli, Delatori, Mondadori, Milan, 2001, p. 74). 

Let’s take a short look at this situation, one among so many. In the files, Polimeni is classified as a generic “antifascist” although he regarded himself as an anarchist: his case, a rather petty affair, attracts Mussolini’s personal intervention (N.B. it was Mussolini who first determined that he should be interned) and then there is this unbelievable assertion of dignity: ‘Oh, so you’re pardoning me? Well, let me reaffirm my beliefs. You are the criminals, not I.’ What little I have been able to unearth about the “Polimeni case” is entirely lifted from police files, for I think that he is completely overlooked in memoir material. But this is a sign of how, by using police records with just a little sensitivity and care, we can pick out rather telling portraits that are not caricaturish and which give us some sense of the dignity of an individual who stood up consistently to the authorities and paid a high price for it.

Allow me now to try to give you an insight into what police records are like and what can be found therein: take the anarchist Bruno Borghini. Has anyone ever heard that name before? He’s just one of the many. He eked out a living abroad from the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s and at one point had the misfortune to bump into an industrious police informer active in anarchist circles. The latter secured him a passport to return to Italy and then tipped off the police: Borghini made his way back to Italy and was captured: caught in the act. Let’s reflect a little upon this situation. There are people who, as in his case, had a good ten years of roving abroad under their belts: the very fact that he went back to Italy tells us that he was weary of it all, that he couldn’t stand that way of living any longer and at that point he was lifted and he “sang”: he “sang” like many others sang and in the transcripts we find the names of all the subversive types who had been his friends and companions. These days, it is hard to put a document like that into context and interpret it: a superficial reading leaves us with the impression that if Borghini was no spy, he wasn’t far short of it: in three, dense, typewritten cards he rehearses his life abroad, in which the police had such an interest.  Here is an extract: “In 1935 I was in La Seine-sur-Mer where I made the acquaintance of Ugo Boccardi from Sarzana, a sort of an organiser in the preparation of terrorist attacks: by contrast, Agostino Musetti, also from Sarzana, is sweet-natured and wouldn’t hurt a hair on anybody’s head …” and so on and so on: Borghini supplies the police with a brief opinion of everybody or nearly everybody he had met. He dwells upon one Bianchi (a potential terrorist as it happens) and on the basis of this information, the police were alerted to Bianchi’s existence and set off in pursuit of him, taking him to be a dangerous fellow. But, above all, how did the weary and unsuspecting Borghini come to fall into the provocateur’s net? Unwittingly, he himself tells the police: “During that time in Paris I was visited by the anarchist Cremonini who, having sized up my situation, asked me if there was anything I needed, whereupon I asked him if he could get me a phony passport so that I might make my way home to Italy by clandestine means. Cremonini promised to get me the passport and at the same time offered me three hundred francs to attend to my most pressing needs.”

Bernardo Cremonini, not a figure of primary but rather of secondary importance among the anarchists, initially within Italy and later abroad, was a well-to-do businessman. He was involved in what was in fact a cover because he was actually on the payroll of the Italian Interior ministry. In those circumstances, with hordes of poor wretches going hungry, Cremonini used to dole out hundreds of francs and was therefore well regarded by all the anarchists because he allowed them to put food on the table. And then he would keep tabs on them all. Among other things, this Cremonini had been an informant even before the advent of fascism. This is a very interesting detail: he was a complete sell-out and carried on posing as an anarchist. Bernardo Cremonini was then to make his way back to Italy in 1939, suffering from cancer, and died a couple of years after that. What made Cremonini important was that he drafted internal reports for the anarchist movement and for the USI (Italian Syndicalist Union): he knew all the militants, lived cheek by jowl with them and was therefore able to supply his intelligence. From his registration number, 6, we can tell that he must have been one of the very first subversives hired back when Italy was a liberal democracy. Obviously a huge gulf separates Cremonini, a hireling of the police, from Borghini who was betrayed to the police, arrested and admitted his offence.

A daughter of Cremonini was the wife of Pio Turroni. The extent and details of Cremonini’s activities as an informer within the anarchist movement have yet to be fully established and I don’t believe any researcher has highlighted him (which speaks volumes for how far the historiography of the Italian libertarian movement has still to travel). One cannot help wondering: is it possible that no one inside the anarchist movement ever caught on to Cremonini’s real trade?

Analysis and comparison of police files throw up a few questions. First: were the anarchists a real threat to the fascist regime? I believe that the fascists saw it as an insidious adversary, mainly as far as far as Mussolini’s personal safety was concerned: the police were obsessed with the chances of attempts on the Duce’s life. Bocchini had become chief of police following a series of assassination bids after a couple of his predecessors had been dismissed: he took up his post in the knowledge of what he might expect and determined to hang on as long as he could (in fact only death removed him from office). The police records – thousands and thousands of documents – throw up some comical information regarding those who actually or supposedly attempted Mussolini’s life: some cretin had only to wake up some morning with a dream of assassinating Mussolini, often after having downed a litre of wine the night before. If word had reached the police (and sooner or later it did) a file would be opened and we have a real exercise in farce. “Attempt on the life of H.E. Benito Mussolini by means of stuffed owl”, say. That sort of thing. The police set to work on fantastic tales like that (the efforts of the CIA in the 1960s to do away with Fidel Castro by means of poisoned cigar spring to mind).

At least two thirds of police sources are made up of materials amassed on phony leads that led nowhere: diversions and fantasies cooked up by somebody in order to extract money and endorsed by the police so as to legitimise their own part in surveillance and repression. It is my belief that to some extent this goes on to this very day. Unless one has the ability to grasp this fundamental fact and set such material to one side, or at any rate assess it for what it is, one cannot make any headway and ends up swimming in a sea of headless and tail-less paperwork. Some have had this dismal experience already, because either one gets the better of the files or it is the files that get the better of us. There is a book that points up this fact – Romano Canosa’s I servizi segreti del Duce (Mondadori 2000). In fact it is hard to find anything useful in it, probably because the author has been overwhelmed by the paperwork: of the five cases he looks at, four are false leads; I have the impression that Canosa failed to adopt a critical approach to this material.

The anarchists, then, were regarded as representing a danger essentially to Mussolini’s survival. There is another issue that I find really intriguing and to which I hope sooner or later to be able to devote a specific study, apropos of police files: the question of recourse to violence on the part of political dissidents. Did the attempts on the life of Mussolini as well as ‘spectaculars’ pay off as far as the anarchist movement or the Giustizia e Libertà movement were concerned between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s? My own belief, after lengthy study of the police records, is that they paid off not at all: instead, the illusory prospect of acceleration offered by individualist violence cost, say Camillo Berneri, or, to take another example from outside the anarchist movement, Carlo Rosselli, very dear. With a regime such as the fascist regime the terrain of violence is terrain on which the dissident loses out, barring miracles: it is terrain on which the police plays with a hand dealt it by its informers and provocateurs and that says it all.

Here, a brief aside. Recently the term “plants” was used in discussion: let me be more specific in outlining a differentiated typology of police collaborators. In my view, the ‘plants’ were very few in number: it is a very difficult undertaking to ‘plant’ somebody and it requires a real ‘craftsman’. Planting someone inside a semi-underground or outlawed opposition organisation means taking him from somewhere outside and inserting him into a cohesive group operating in accordance to its own rules and codes. Unless the ‘plant’ is really gifted, his cover is blown and he is exposed in four to forty eight hours and eliminated. Which is why there were so very few plants in fascist times. It was easier for the police (and is to this day, let alone in recent times) to seize upon somebody already on the inside and undergoing some sort of crisis of his own, be it financial or whatever.

From the sources I have cited earlier, I have detected a considerable number of instances in which the police, having got wind of bombing plans on the part of antifascists, allowed these to be carried to term or indeed facilitated them or occasionally inspired them through their own provocateurs. The reasons for this are to be sought in the subsequent unmasking and exposure of the guilt of opponents who are then equated with terrorists. You have no idea how many cases of this sort there were linked to ‘spectaculars’. From what I have been able to gauge from police files, the worst damage was done, not by disreputable people close to the police but by out-and-out cretins. For instance, in the early 1930s the cretins were convinced that they were doing the most revolutionary thing by planting a bomb on the premises of the Italian consulate in Paris and the police allowed this to proceed because it was all grist to the regime’s mills. This really is something that deserves to be looked into, very little actually being known about it: the perpetrators were subjectively of the belief that they were the ultimate revolutionaries and planted the bomb in good faith, not realising that everything had been done to faciliate their planting of their bomb, and the police records show this. There was never any shortage of cretins, even cretins in high places. Take the example of a USI leader, Emilio Strafelini from Trento. From the records about him there is no mistaking the initial impression: “This guy is linked to the police.” He wrote everything down: membership lists, contacts and conversations … fantastic! And a copy of them all wound up in the archives of the Interior ministry. At one point (in the 1930s), he smuggled himself abroad, settling in Paris and compiling a lengthy list of trusted USI personnel: if we are to take it at face value, it might seem that anarchy rather than fascism was ruling the roost in Italy, and in fact anybody that Strafelini had met, heard or listened to ended up in that long list of trusted USI personnel. In the French capital, Strafelini was contacted by his good comrade Cremonini who covered the costs of his lodgings and treated him to dinner after dinner (this in times of great shortage) until one evening Strafelini confided in him: “Here, I have this list which I can’t give to anybody, but I trust you and I’ll allow you a glance at it.” There are two possibilities: either Strafelini was a complete dummy, or he had some sort of organisational connection with the police, in that he did all that it was within his power to do to harm the movement. I incline towards the former hypothesis. From Paris (where he held down the post of secretary of the Lega dei diritti dell’uomo) he moved on to Spain and struck up a connection with the commander of the Death Battalion, Candido Testa, who had arrived from Latin America where he had been active among the political exiles and who had been transferred to Spain on instructions from the political police. In my book I tentacoli del’OVRA, I have reprinted a photograph showing Strafelini and Testa arm in arm, and clutching rifles: the snapshot was taken from the antifascist press which portrayed them as two heroes. I reprinted the original caption and added this one: “Candido Testa (fascist spy) and Emilio Strafelini (anarchist manipulated by agents provocateurs).”

Of course we must fight shy of the obsession with seeing ‘plants’ and the hand of the police everywhere. Otherwise we won’t be able to understand a thing. We need to discriminate. Take somebody like Camillo Berneri for instance: morally, he was a man of great integrity but he seems to have been a bit of an ingénue when it came to weighing people up. The provocateur Ermanno Menapace led him an unimaginable dance in every way possible, even making it his business to sow discord in the antifascist camp. He had him arrested in Belgium, after having brought him into confrontation with the Catholic Donati, who was in turn ousted by another suspicious figure, Bazzi. So much so that in the postwar years between 1945 and 1948, gutter journalists like Alberto Giannini even peddled the rumour that Berneri himself had been a police informer.

Elena Melli, the partner of the elderly Errico Malatesta, was kept under daily surveillance by the police in her home but she wrote and received letters which were regularly intercepted and transcribed so that anybody who corresponded with her was soon on file and placed under surveillance themselves. To make a long story short, Melli was more useful to the police free in her home than locked up in prison. 

There were even instances of courageous individuals, individualists determined to fight the regime by whatever means necessary, who, for that very reason, were allowed by police to escape from Italy and then kept under close surveillance and used, unwittingly, insofar as they became catalysts through whom the identities and schemes of so many opposition figures were brought to light.

The most telling case was that of the republican Giobbe Giopp, a chemist versed in the making of explosives. He was arrested in connection with the bombing of a monument to Napoleon III in Milan and interned. He was then allowed to escape and led to believe that he had given the police the slip while he was out on licence taking examinations at the Polytechnic in Milan. Giopp smuggled himself into France and went to Paris, alone (he was an ardent individualist) where he set up a “training school for bombers”. His philosophy was that he never questioned anyone who requested his services, but around half of his trainees were sent by the police. As I mentioned before, the explosion of a bomb at the Italian embassy in Paris suited the regime’s purposes and it depicted the exiles as terrorists. The situation was therefore very complicated and sometimes seemed more like something from a novel than reality.

The police recruited, paid and used informers, but it should not be thought that they had any particular fondness for them. Alfredo Cimadori, one of the double agents linked to Giopp (in I tentacoli dell’OVRA there is a reproduction of an extraordinary photograph taken in Spain, showing the spy Cimadori alongside the republican Giopp and the anarchist Umberto Tommasini), was interned by the Germans and perished in a concentration camp. And he was not the only spy to meet such a dismal end.

Another mistake to which the historian must give a wide berth is back-dating an individual’s spy status. If the archival information shows that at a given point someone was a police informer, that doesn’t mean that he can be regarded as having been a spy from birth: nobody is born a police informer and he might well have become such at the age of thirty seven after a good fifteen years as a bona fide political activist. The real problem for the historian is to establish when he became a spy, why he became one and how he became one.

In conclusion, the police records may show everything or they may show the very opposite and we can find there whatever we want to find: we have to proceed painstakingly, with deliberation and logic. It is remarkably hard to achieve mastery of these records, especially since they reek of a certain charm, a rationale that tends to take possession of whoever immerses himself in those sinister and ambiguous regions. I have had the benefit of the antidote of a libertarian cultural background which, as far as the siren songs of power are concerned, may well allow one to keep one’s distance and decipher (and I hope this isn’t just an illusion) the mechanisms set in motion in order to destroy people and make them acquiesce in a politics to which they had previously been hostile.

In short, the important point about police records is their contents, but we also need to ponder a number of specific issues: say, what is not set down in writing; or the fact that a portion of the record, understandably, may have been destroyed; or indeed, as I mentioned earlier, there is the problem that, even today, some materials dating from the fascist era are still inaccessible, no matter the decades that have passed since then.

From: Various – Voci di Compagni, Schede di Questura (Quaderni del Centro Studi Libertari Archivio Pinelli, Milan, 2002, pp. 19-30

Mimmo Franzinelli is a historian, a founder member of the Rossi-Salvemini Foundation in Florence. He has written I tentacoli dell’OVRA. Agenti, collaboratori e vittime della polizia fascista for Bollati Borlinghieri publishers and has edited and written an introduction for the new edition of Ernesto Rossi’s Una spia di regime (2000). He has also published Delatori. Spie e confidenti anonimi: l’arma segreta del regime fascista (Mondadori 2001). In 2001 Bollati Borlinghieri in Turin published his edition of Ernesto Rossi Nove anni sono molti. Lettere dal carcere 1930-1939