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Maastricht University

The Intricacies of Attempting a Political Purge during during the Allied Occupation of Italy, 1943-5:
The Role of the Delegations of the High Commissions Against Fascism

Giovanni Brunetti, University of Verona

The Kingdom of Italy had been at war for three years when, in July 1943, the fascist regime was abolished by the king, Victor Emanuel III, and replaced by a military dictatorship. Mussolini’s removal from the government caused the beginning of a slow reckoning with Italy’s political past, complicated by the armistice with the Allies on 8th September, the division of Italy into two occupation zones and the return to power of fascists protected by the Germans in the North. Italy was the first major Axis country to undertake such a process, which proved to be much more complex than expected.

In the first half of November 1944, the deputy prosecutor Marcello Scardia, judge of the Court of Pesaro, a city in central Italy that had been liberated and occupied by the Allies on 2nd September, sent to officials of the Italian national government in Rome the first report on his activity as a delegate of the High Commission for Sanctions against Fascism. He had been part of the judicial administration since the second half of the 1930s, and after the armistice with the Anglo-Americans, joined the Resistance. For this reason, thanks to his professionalism and his well-known anti-fascist political affiliation, he was chosen by the Italian government to head up the purge of the entire province of Pesaro. Before outlining plans to establish the new office, he pointed out that the local Civil Affairs Officer (CAO) of the Allied Military Government had not welcomed him. According to Scardia, the CAO explained that he did not have anything personal against him but did not understand his role. In essence, the senior British officer who governed the area had told him that he had not been informed about the creation of the position of ‘delegates’ and that he did not know what they were intended to do. The Allies had restored the pre-existing organs of the provincial government (Prefectures, Police Headquarters, Courts) so that the delegates appeared to him unnecessary. The orders issued by the Allied Control Commission (ACC) were indeed intended to give way, after the first hours of the occupation of the territories controlled by the Germans or by Italian Fascists, to Italian legislation regarding de-fascistization. However, in the ‘Magna Charta of the purge’ – as Hans Woller called the Italian legislation on the subject passed on 27th July 1944 – the peripheral offices of delegates to the commission were not mentioned at all.

As discussed in an earlier article on this blog by Fabio de Ninno, Italy suffered a double foreign occupation during the Second World War: the Germans in the North and the Allies in the South. The Kingdom of Italy, established in 1861, continued to exist after the arrest and deposition of Mussolini by King Victor Emmanuel III in July 1943, but with minimal powers. In such a context, complicated by the rampant poverty in a country liberated in stages and prostrated by war, in January 1944, the government of the Kingdom of Italy, led by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, decided to create a unique body – The High Commission for Sanctions against Fascism – to realize what the Anglo-Americans had already baptized ‘defascistization’. Of course, Badoglio served under Mussolini in Ethiopia and Greece, so arguably, he was not an appropriate person to investigate fascist crimes. Historians have highlighted how this was an exquisitely political move, designed to gain the trust of the Allies and control the progress of the purge from above. Badoglio’s exclusion from the government after the liberation of Rome in June 1944 called the procedure into question, although the High Commission continued to exist.

The history of the High Commission for Sanctions against Fascism and, in particular, the experiences of provincial delegates to the commission, such as Scardia, illustrate some of the difficulties that arise during a period of occupation when the occupiers, with or without the cooperation of a newly formed or reconstituted central national government, try to use local power structures and institutions to achieve their objectives. Such difficulties are exacerbated when the interests of the occupiers, the various elements that comprise the national government, and local authorities in different regions change over time and no longer align.

The High Commission for Sanctions against Fascism was a novelty in the Italian institutional context, called to work on an equally new theme, which made the different types of investigations into Fascist crimes (administrative, criminal, and economic) the responsibility of a government agency extraneous to the classic instruments of institutional control by the state (such as the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Justice). The High Commission did not have the authority to pass legal judgment on those found guilty of having kept the Fascist regime alive or having collaborated with the invading Germans. It was only allowed to initiate criminal proceedings, which were then managed by the judiciary.

The Allied Control Council greeted the establishment of this body with scepticism but also saw its benefits after the disastrous outcome of defascistization in the liberated southern provinces between July and September 1943. After a severe purge, Allied CAOs were unable to address numerous practical problems or extricate themselves from the Italian bureaucracy without the help of expert people who were often also fascists. It was an issue as thorny as it was immense, not only because it had immediate political implications but also because it had an impact on the fragile Italian public institutions that the war had weakened. As Winston Churchill pointed out, the Allies could not count on ‘British and American gauleiters’ to rule the country directly. Instead, they had to work with a model of administration very similar to that existing in the British colonies. The CAOs were to control the actions of the Italians, using pre-existing structures to administer the newly occupied territories.

The High Commission, after the exclusion of Badoglio from the Italian government and his replacement by Ivanoe Bonomi, was under the control of the anti-fascist politician Count Carlo Sforza, who had returned to Italy in September 1943 from exile in Britain and the United States, but its various branches – such as those responsible for the purge in public administrations, illegal enrichments and criminal trials against fascists – began to move at different speeds just a few months after its establishment. Sforza had demanded the appointment of a political deputy high commissioner from each of the parties in the anti-fascist government as the head of each branch. Mauro Scoccimarro, a communist leader, had been appointed to control the purge in the public administrations. In October 1944, he succeeded in passing a law for the establishment of provincial delegations dependent on his office, capable of implementing the preparations for the purge at the local level. It was an innovation of particular importance, not so much for its legal value – the practice remained almost unchanged – but for its social one. For the first time, offices were provided in which any citizen in liberated Italy could see first-hand how the work of purging his province was carried out thanks to the opening of this special office where everyone could submit complaints and be updated on the work undertaken by the delegates.

These delegations were the last authorities created by the post-fascist government of the Kingdom of Italy at the local level. Since the invasion of Sicily, the Allies had used the existing Italian administrative structure. The prefects remained to preside over each province, flanked by the various allied military government bodies formed after the provincial capitals’ occupation. Until the Summer of 1944, this division of roles was generally respected, with prefects chosen by the Allies from among those who were experienced administrators but whose careers were less compromised with fascism. But things began to change during the Allied advance towards central Italy. During the months after the armistice in September 1943, National Liberation Committees (CLN), composed of anti-fascist political parties, had sprung up everywhere. The ambition of these committees was to transform themselves into local governing bodies, in complete discontinuity with pre-war state centralism that had been compromised by its association with the Fascist regime. Those with the most significant say in how local administrative structures were formed were the CAOs, especially in the provinces yet to return to the Italian government. Their attitude towards de-fascistization greatly depended on their profession, education, and social background. These officers were not career military men but professionals in civilian life, selected on the basis of the linguistic, legal, or engineering skills deemed most helpful in organizing the activity of Allied military governments. The delegates, therefore, had to operate within a hierarchy of powers that restricted their freedom of action, particularly at the local level.

As one citizen delegate pointed out in an article outlining his work, their role was like that of prosecutors, ‘who take part in the trial but have no power over the sentence’. Delegates came first and foremost from within the judiciary and were mostly lawyers. Still, they could also be magistrates, clerks, and simple workers, depending on who made their appointments in the field. Their political background strongly influenced them, but since each delegation was composed of three individuals, the rule that was generally followed was to choose one from each of the three main anti-fascist parties that were represented in the local CLN.

Things began to change after the Liberation of Northern Italy and the end of the Second World War in Europe, when the delegation system also spread into northern parts of Italy previously occupied by Germany. In August 1945, the Italian government – following the opinion of the Allied Control Commission – decided to expand the delegates’ competencies to include criminal proceedings against Fascists and investigations into illicit enrichment. This investment in the provincial delegations seemed to signal a rosy future for them, but national politics was to result in a different outcome for Italian de-fascistization. The national government, led after December 1945 by the Christian Democrat Alcide de Gasperi, was animated by a moderate component that had initially frowned upon defascistization. The two main left-wing parties considered defascistization to be a process that was too complex and would take too long to complete. From the centre, it appeared that the program was not sufficiently well established in the autumn of 1945 to accomplish its aims and reach a successful conclusion. As a result, the most straightforward political solution was to cease the activity of the High Commission at the beginning of 1946.

The dynamics that came to the fore during this brief experiment with regime change and implementing an internal political purge in Italy are relevant for understanding the logic of occupation and the exit of a country from ‘total war’ more generally. The delegations, although entirely dependent on policies decided by the central national government, were confronted with logics of power, political moods, and social upheavals that originated at the local level. Most notably, the delegations tried to respond to the widespread perception that the defascistization programme directed from the top had become too mild. In the provinces, people demanded revenge for the violence suffered, particularly during the Nazi-fascist occupation, so the delegations were a sort of buffer between anxiety for popular justice and the respect for the rules demanded by the central government. Even the Allies understood the importance of the local delegations before the last offensive in the Spring of 1945, when they tried to use them – together with other types of purge commissions set up by the CAOs – to help maintain public order and assuage public opinion. It is noteworthy that this extra-judicial instrument was not used in other European countries grappling with a purge of collaborators during and after the Second World War. In France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, post-war authorities relied on pre-existing civilian or military judicial structures to prosecute ‘traitors’. What made the Italian case special was the effort of investing time and resources into creating novel institutions that lay outside the traditional legal framework, such as the High Commission for Sanctions against Fascism. The Allies, in particular Brigadier-General Gerald Ritchie Upjohn, a British former barrister who was head of the ACC Civil Section, soon understood how politically complex the matter was and how the occupiers ultimately depended on the support of the Italian people. Therefore, enabling a former enemy state to purge itself through its own institutions seemed a good compromise to the occupiers, who were keen on stabilizing the country as quickly as possible. The consequence, however, was that this pragmatic approach to political purges that took into account local factors and the mood of the population, as well the interest of the occupiers in maintaining public order and devolving power and responsibility to Italian authorities, ultimately facilitated the survival and subsequent growth of neo-fascist movements in Italy. Stability under occupation came at the expense of more far-reaching political renewal projects.



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Picture credits:

Cover picture: Ivanoe Bonomi and Carlo Sforza in 1944
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Giovanni Brunetti is a PhD student at the University of Verona, Italy