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"The 1948 Italian Elections" by Simone Pelizza

The first elections of the Italian Republic between desires and dangers.

In the first months of 1947 the trust of Italians in the new democracy was nearly zero: the cost of the life resulted superior of 34 times to that of 1938; the index of the wholesale prices was of 40 times; besides few weeks were enough, because these same indexes climbed to 44 and 52 times respectively. The speculation raged from more parts. The paper money was daily depreciated, favoring the embitterment of the inflation: bread was subjected to “political price”, while the increasing public expense necessary for the disastrous social-economic situation of the Country raised the government deficit toward levels never reached before.

During the summer, the new government of De Gasperi faced with decision the dramatic national context: the line Einaudi was started, a whole of norms to stabilize the coin and to brake the financial speculations. In few months we succeeded in arranging the economic conjuncture positively; the government budget grew and the wholesale prices gradually went down. At the end of 1947, the cost of the life had lowered of 8%. But the social costs of the government action resulted high, contributing to maintain explosive the political climate of the Country. In December 1947, in fact, Italy officially counted almost two millions unemployed person and over four million poor men, more than half of whom they resided in the South. It was a dramatic and unbearable condition.

"Two years" began, punctuated by protests, nervousness, clashes of plaza, wounded and deads. To what was provoked from the hunger and from the social uneasiness they were added the resounding gestures dictated by political motives: in Milan, in October, Giorgio Magenes, executive of the "Uomo Qualunque", was lynched by a crowd of communist workers with the accusation to have financed fascist gangs during the German occupation; the following month Giancarlo Pajetta, important exponent of the PCI (Italian Communist Party), and groups of former partisans occupied the prefecture of the Lombard chief town to protest against the removal of prefect Ettore Troilo, one of the last officials of that level installed by the Resistance. Only the intervention of De Gasperi and Togliatti succeeded in letting pacifically clear away the prefecture. For some times, there was the possibility of an armed clash by the unpredictable consequences: tragedy was avoided for a puff.

The international tensions. The Popular Front: the electoral campaign of the Left
In the meantime, the international situation was turning to the worse so much that 1947 can be considered the initial year of the cold war: the Truman doctrine (March 1947) and the Marshall plan (June 5, 1947) marked the stiffening of the American politics and the elaboration of the theory of the containment against the communist threat; it was in this context that matured the definitive breakup of the government collaboration between DC (Christian Democracy Party) and PCI in Italy and in other countries, even if motivations and causes of national character acted, so that it is not possible to think about a plan predestined from Washington.
Otherwise, on the other side, the Soviet pressure on Europe was growing, with the expulsion of the adversary leaders from the oriental Countries and the birth of the Cominform during the Conference of Szlarska Poreba (September 1947). To such Conference, for the PCI, Luigi Longo and Eugenio Reale were present who were subjected to the burning accusations of the Soviet and Yugoslav companions, harshly contrary to the politics made by Togliatti, considered too moderated.

In front of the final choices of Szlarska Poreba, the PCI, more and more entirely dominated by the Soviet line, was forced to change its own politics, introducing therefore serious contradictions in the original development of the Italian communism. Only few members, among which Umberto Terracini, opposed to such turns: but an abrupt reproach of the Secretariat of the party definitely subdued them. The international fractures also forced the Socialist party to a definite change of rout, also starting for that party a kind of forced “cominformization”. Until that moment, in fact, Nenni had sought with passion a connection between East and West through the formula of the “international solidarity.” But the development of the cold war forced him to align with the themes and judgments of the PCI. So also the socialist followed without discussions the theses of Moscow and the new communist course.

The result of this political run was the birth of the “Popular Front”, whose constitutive meeting was held in Rome on December 28 1947. Under this label, PCI and PSI (Italian Socialist Party) would have gone to the imminent vote for the first Parliament of republican Italy. The initiative resulted motivated by different factors, among which the awareness of a now-in-action radical and decisive clash. But the choice of the Front didn't convince all the exponents of the two parties: in the socialists, the criticisms of Sandro Pertini and Riccardo Lombardi, who feared the subordination to the communists, were very hard; in the PCI, instead, the Togliatti himself had perplexity toward the alliance with the party of Nenni, since it denied all his precedent politics of large alliances and agreement to avoid the isolation of the Left in the social-political context of the Country. On the other hand, after the hard criticisms rained by the Cominform, a similar option could not be rejected and, in every case, doing this alliance, the PSI would have stayed tied up to the communist choices. The Front established to form unique lists adopting therefore as symbol a star with superimposed the face of Giuseppe Garibaldi and it also picked up the adhesion of small political formations (Christian Movement for the Peace etc.) and of different parallel organizations of category (Female Alliance, Constituent of the Land etc.)

Inspite of so many enthusiasms and of so many easy illusions, the electoral battle of the Front was revealed bankruptcy. A leading serious error was to propose a “clash of civilization”, in which the Left had everything to lose: instead of pursuing the government on the consequences of the economic choices and on the dramatic conditions of life of million of Italians, the executives of the Front were dragged in a daily polemic on the big themes of the foreign politics and on the comparison between USA and Russia, a comparison that could be only losing. The charm of the Soviet Union, however strong, was of very inferior to the attraction of the United States; in the collective imaginary and in the historical memory of Italians, the States were the earth of the easy wealth, of the remittances and of the fortunes of the emigrants, of the stars of Hollywood, of the promise of new levels of welfare that can only be dreamed. For the majority of the population, the idea to tie even more to the Promised Land of overseas irresistible, inevitable. In addition to this, the tragic facts of Prague (February 1948) had an enormous political and emotional impact on the Italian public opinion; impact that was stupidly underestimated from the Front. The hit of hand of the communists of Klement Gottwald and the beginning of the sovietization of Czechoslovakia made growing doubts and suspicions around the real democratic convictions of Togliatti and partners.

The vertexes of the Front didn't give importance to the consequences of the news, deriving always from the east, of the antireligious persecutions and the measures daily taken against the Catholic Church. In front of them, the Catholic public opinion was subsequently stiffened and Pope Pious XII himself seemed convinced of the real possibility of a persecution that would also have struck him.
In a situation of this kind, they could not be enough the adhesions given to the Front from a large group of intellectuals and personalities of great prestige, from Corrado Alvaro to Salvatore Quasimodo, from Renato Guttuso to Giorgio Bassani, Guido Calogero and a lot of others of equal value. For more, the executives of the Front were cradled themselves until the last moment in the certainty of the victory, showing so absolutely not to know how to gather the deepest orientations of the electorate. It was only in extremis that was tried to modify the propagandist campaign, but without conviction nor coherence. The mobilization of the supporters of the DC was of other effectiveness. Around it, all the energies of the Catholic Church, of the government and of the United States were gathered, constituting an decidedly unbeatable block.

The electoral campaign of the DC. The effort of the Catholic world

Already in the 1947 Christmas radio message, Pious XII repeatedly called the Catholics to the direct effort in the imminent electoral campaign:

“Whoever wanted to give his material collaboration, his services, his abilities, his help, his vote to parties and powers that deny God, that replace strength to the law, the threat and the terror to the liberty, that make of the lie, of the contrasts, of the revolt of the masses, their weapons of politics, that make impossible the inside and external peace... He would be a deserter and traitor”

In the next weeks, they followed pressing appeals of every kind from the whole Italian bishopric. Terms and slogan as “holy crusade” or “new Lepanto” were very often used, as recourse was made to the equation, already used with success in the 1946 preceding elections, between good Italian and good Catholic.

The overlap between political aspects and religious aspects was constant, and this since the “popular religious missions”, organized in large number in the regions considered to risk (Emilia-Romagna and South Italy). Between the spring 1947 and the first months of 1948 257 of these missions were held in 112 different dioceses, with the large participation of members of the Catholic Action, everybody prepared on purpose also with methodological courses. Besides, in the most remote countries of all the regions, special cinema-wagons were sent, equipped for the projection of movies among which Pastor Angelicus, a documentary faced to exalt the figure and the work of Pious XII. The sermons and the meeting of the Jesuit friar Lombardi (curiously homonym of the member of the PSI!) had enormous success. He was called “God's microphone” for the transport and the great oratorical ability.

Fulcrum of all these propagandist initiatives they were the Civic Committees, founded and directed by Luigi Gedda, pugnacious former president of the Catholic Action. Overcoming the perplexities of the DC and of good part of the same Catholic world, Gedda succeeded in constituting, with the Civic Committees, a net of contacts and organizational forms superior than that of the Catholic Action or of the simple parishes and completely independent from them. They were set in such way the premises for future conflicts and mutual interference between Committees and Catholic Action, and between Committees and DC, seen the transitory structure of the party of De Gasperi. But for the moment, it was important the emergency and it was essential the support to the work of Gedda.

The government acted also with ability exploiting all means at disposition. Particularly, the newsreels of the "Week Incoms" were used that every cinema had to show in the intervals of the normal movies. During the whole winter 1947-48 124 editions of such newsreels were prepared, proposing numerous services on the American helps and on the friendship between United States and Italy. The American direct support to the political campaign of the DC was determinant. The ambassador in Rome, James Dunn, traveled whole Italy; visiting schools and hospitals; inaugurating bridges and roads built with the American contribution; he was always in the harbors at the moment of the arrival of the ships that transported the helps from Overseas. The radio transmissions in Italian language of “Voice of America” were strengthened and well used.

Above all, the financial support given from Washington to the Christian Democratic Party and the other anticommunist strengths was decisive. It involved Catholic institutions, syndical organizations and even public administrations. In March and April 1948, De Gasperi and his men received over 500.000 dollars and tons of press materials, through the most disparate and unthinkable channels (helps of the European Recovery Program, private funds gathered in USA, funds gathered up by the Vatican and so on) Part of these contributions also reached to other parties of government, including the Social Democrat of Saragat. On the other hand also the Popular Front resorted to the Soviet help to finance itself. Moscow sent huge sums of money and materials to the PCI for the electoral campaign, using complicated and strange methods (for instance letting arrive covertly such contributions from the Yugoslavia in pack from 100 dollars each one; or buying thousand of oranges in favor of the "Unità" (an Italian communist newspaper).

The fears of the vote and the Christian Democratic victory

Equally delicate it was the question that both parts had for a possible degeneration of the electoral vote in armed struggle. The American attitude was not exempted from ambiguity. After sour discussions and conflicting declarations, the National Security Council finally defined the politics to follow (February 1948): USA would not have intervened in case of an inside civil conflict in Italy, except that in presence of an illegal conquest of the power by communist forces and always on request of the legitimate Italian government. It was foreseen in such case to take Sicily and Sardinia, accepting the loss of northern Italy.

The Italian communists certainly feared an American intervention to annul the “electoral victory” of the Front; therefore they elaborated a plan of extreme defense, but Togliatti didn't follow them for fear that the PCI was declared outlaw or suffered sudden hits of hand: the weapons had to be used exclusively in case of adversary attack to the centers of the Party; the taking of the power through the armed insurrection was dissuaded, if not even forbidden. In few words, from both the parts, they were not intended to complete any hazardous movement, but the worse intents were attributed to the adversary and therefore it aimed to protect themselves in all possible ways. The Home Affairs minister Scelba also predisposed a secret net of “super prefects”, ready to assume powers in case of communist attack.

Between pressing fears and sourer and sourer polemics, it was reached the day of the vote (April 18, 1948): there were no particular accidents, and the electoral operations were quietly completed. The final results were resounding for everybody. The DC got 48,5% of the consents, while the Front was stopped at 31% only. All other political formations disappeared in the eddy of a bipolar clash: only the Social Democrat got a beautiful success. Monarchic, liberal, indifferent and republican parties ruinously collapsed. In substance, the electorate had individualized in the DC the only true anticommunist “dike” and had assembled therefore on it all energies. They were not only “religious” votes, but also votes of the most different origins that would have weight on the future of the Democratic Christian Party. On the other part, the defeat of the Front overwhelmed the PSI: for Nenni the results of the vote were heavy, embarrassing. It began a fierce debate inside the Party, until the prevailing of the component of center leaded by Jacovitti and Lombardi.

The communist press found justifications destined to be repeated more times in the following years: the Christian Democrats had won thanks to the American influence, to the illegitimate interference of the clergy and the continuous intimidation of government and industrialists. It missed the ability to recognize their own errors and to take on the responsibility of the failure. Only Togliatti understood the blindness of the PCI toward the electorate and, officially admitting the justification of his own companions, took advantage also of the defeat to bring forth his concept of “progressive democracy”, valiantly opposing to the option of the armed struggle. The PCI could conquer power only through the democratic mechanisms; to venture in other grounds would have involved risks and dangerous consequences.

From the winners the tones in the judgments were meaningful, constantly speaking about the help given from the Catholic action and from the Civic Committees to the electoral success. De Gasperi and Taviani spoke of a generically “awakening of the democratic conscience”, also not skimping worth and recognition to the role developed by clergy and confessional associations. The magazine “Social Chronicles” opened a debate in such sense, from which an optimistic conception emerged: the victory on April 18 was “the victory of the Christian conception of the man.”
Nevertheless, the only one that gathered the true meaning of that historical vote was Giuseppe Dossetti, manager of “Social Chronicles” and exponent of DC; he observed with a lot of acumen:

“The instinct of maintenance and defense of the affairs and the most different good in the material quantity and in the spiritual value has influenced; the fear has influenced above all, in the most literal sense of emotion and thoughtless reaction to a threat of conquest of the power from the PCI.”

Simone Pelizza
samurai@libero.it

Sources: “History of contemporary Italy. From the crisis of the fascism to the crisis of the Republic, 1939-1998.”, edited by Giorgio Vecchio, Monduzzi Publishing, Bologna 1999 (pag. 217-236)

The author quotes as texts of reference of his own work the followings books:
P. Scoppola, "The Republic of the parties. Evolution and crisis of a political system, 1945-1996”, Il Mulino Publishing, Bologna 1997
“The Cominform. Minutes of the Three Conferences 1947/1948/1949”, edited by G. Procacci, in “Annals of the Foundation Giangiacomo Feltrinelli”, 30 (1994) The text is in English and Russian language.
S. Galante, "The politics of the PCI and the Atlantic Pact. Rebirth, 1946-49”, Marsilio Publishing, Padua 1973
L. Valiani, “Italy of De Gasperi (1945-1954)”, Le Monnier, Florence 1982
G. Zizola, “God's microphone. Pio XII, Father Lombardi and the Italian Catholics”, Mondadori Publishing, Milan 1990
M. Casella, “April 18, 1948. The mobilization of the Catholic organizations”, Congedo publishing, Galatina 1992

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