Giacomo Antonini in Toledo, Spain, picture taken by his new friend, the Dutch diplomat and writer Reijnier Flaes, (pseudonym F.C. Terborgh), 23 March 1935
“Hindsight is the most exacting science”, someone once said to me. Indeed, the main danger for an historian who tries to understand what caused someone to decide, in a distant past, to choose a wrong path, is to interpret his move with the knowledge of what happened later. So I shall try to understand Antonini’s situation in January 1935.
I repeat: he came from a background of education and privilege. He was already in his 20s by the time of Mussolini’s accession to power. He will have seen through the populist rhetoric and to have had ambivalent feelings about Fascism: welcoming on the one hand its preservation of order while probably deploring the populism.
His Dutch friends knew he was apolitical and had fairly objective views on fascism in Italy, as I demonstrated with his articles for Dutch literary magazines. He was not a member of the National Fascist Party of Mussolini, at that time. So, seen in that light, his collaboration would seem to be inexplicable. However, the evidence in the Central State Archive in Rome is irrefutable.
Taking into account all I know about Antonini, I conclude that the main reason he agreed to become an OVRA informer, in January 1935, was very mundane: he could not resist the money he was offered. It is known that many fiduciari cooperated not out of strong political convictions, but because the OVRA paid well.
Since 1933, Antonini’s financial situation was desperate. He and Moussia (used to a life of luxury), had come penniless from Berlin, they lived in a small rented apartment in Paris where they had to take paying guests to make ends meet and they were both facing problems to arrange their respective divorces.
Antonini’s divorce was the most problematic. Hetty Marx was uncooperative and in 1935 reluctantly agreed to a legal separation only. Moreover, in Italy and Switzerland (their marriage had taken place in Ascona), an expeditious divorce was impossible.
Karin Antonini told me, during my visit in 2001, that there were only two countries where Antonini could obtain a divorce at reasonably short notice: Hungary, requiring him to be a local resident for at least one year, and Latvia. Latvia required a minimum residence of half a year and allowed interim travel outside the country. So Antonini chose Latvia and first stayed there, as I know from Flaes’ diaries, during two months in the summer of 1935. In January of that year, however, he still had no idea of how to finance that costly expedition to Latvia. Bellavia’s offer was most welcome.
It seems that Antonini did not see too much wrong in Bellavia’s proposition, he simply needed the money, and he would be serving a patriotic purpose. As I am writing these words, I am thinking of Hannah Ahrendt’s expression: « The banality of evil » . ‘Someone ambitious, used to authority, thinking he has to do his duty, incapable to clearly distinguish right from wrong, follows orders without thinking any further. Of course this does not exonerate such a person, his deed is unforgivable, he is guilty.’ Moravia had a similar person in mind, he called him « The Conformist ». But Antonini, I think, could distinguish right from wrong and must have lived with a guilty conscience for the rest of his life.
As I mentioned before, Bellavia must have viewed Antonini with some distrust. He knew that Antonini was a long-time expatriate Italian, who had left Germany with his wife in 1933, because of their fear and dislike of Hitler and anti-Semitism. No doubt the OVRA knew that most of Antonini’s friends were foreign anti-Fascists.
It is therefore not astonishing that in his reports, made directly to Arturo Bocchini (the head of both the State Police and the OVRA in Rome), Bellavia always referred to Antonini as L’emarginato’, the social outcast, a term he strictly reserved in those reports for people he viewed as despicable, anti-Fascist expatriates like the Rossellis. So why did he recruit Antonini, at the risk of enlisting a double agent?
I think that the OVRA took the high risk decision to go for Antonini for precisely the reasons which made him so suspect in their own eyes. They urgently needed an informer ‘in pectore’ of Giustizia e Libertá (GeL). Carlo Rosselli and his colleagues well knew that they were continuously running the risk of being infiltrated, but they would not so easily suspect someone with Antonini’s background and reputation.
Moreover, at the time, OVRA feared that the cover of two of Bellavia’s most trusted agents inside GeL could be blown at any moment, so there was an urgent need for a timely replacement. These agents were René Odin, an engineer (code name ‘Togo’) and the writer Dino Segre/Pitigrelli (“Pericle’). Both were heavily involved in spying on GeL’s activities in Turin, which finally resulted in a wave of arrests in that city in May 1935.
Bellavia was delighted with his catch. Proudly, he reported about ‘our new collaborator’, i.e. Antonini, to his boss Bocchini in Rome already on 10 January 1935:
“Allow me to relate that the emarginato knows well Aldo Garosci, Nicola Chiaramonte and Anna Pohl as well as Mario Casciani. […] He knows the republican Flavio Pilla. He knows the painter Filippo De Pisis, Lionello Venturi, Mario Bonfantini, Giacomo Ca’ Zorzi [the writer Giacomo Noventa].”
Antonini’s reports can be found in two different files ( fascicoli ) of the OVRA, today kept in the Central Archive: in the fascicolo of Bellavia, OVRA’s Paris ‘capozona’, and in a fascicolo of his own. He reported mostly to Bellavia but sometimes directly to Rome.
Already on March 2, 1935, just before leaving for Madrid and Tangier (to visit Flaes/Terborgh and Slauerhoff, see article 41 and the picture at the head of this article), Bellavia sent to Rome a report by Antonini about a long discussion with Carlo Rosselli (George Talbot, 2006 , page 136):
“The discussions moved on to Italian literature. Rosselli mentioned the banning of Moravia’s novel ‘Le Ambizione sbagliate’, describing it as a howler (‘grossa corbelleria’) on the part of the regime, because while admittedly the novel runs counter to the directives of the regime, it would have had absolutely no political importance. Letting it come out, according to Rosselli, would have demonstrated abroad Fascism’s strength and assuredness. But blocking it demonstrates that Fascism is prisoner to the priests because it is they who insist on censorship. According to Rosselli, Fascism has made a martyr of Moravia—an intelligent young man of extraordinary ability—but no danger or exceptional personality—a martyr who becomes a writer– victim of the regime for the rest of Europe, and someone persecuted for non-political reasons. Rosselli concludes that Fascism could not have done antifascism a greater favour than to ban Moravia’s novel.”
Antonini won the complete trust of Carlo Rosselli. In June, 1935, he attended, on GeL’s behalf, a congress of anti-Fascist writers in Paris. In the fall, Carlo Rosselli sent him on important confidential missions to Berlin and London. In the summer of 1935, as said before, he spent two months in Riga to prepare for his divorce from Hetty Marx, this must have been in August and September. He went to London on an important mission for Rosselli also in the spring of 1936.
It so happens that a specimen of Moussia’s handwriting which Karin gave me in 2001, is dated 10th May, 1936, when he was about to return from this second London mission, during which he tried, on behalf of GeL, to establish contact, via the historian and former editor of “The Times”, Henry Wickham Steed, with Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill.
This is the last letter before our reunion at the Gare du Nord at 6 o’clock ? on Tuesday. Write to me the precise time of your arrival. I shall come with my brush, my powder, my night gown and we’ll stay at the hotel. I’ll let Natou know and will not say anything to the others. I need you totally for me – I need to lose myself in Paris to find me back in you. We shall appear Wednesday at noon 6 rue Corot va bene?- You will not have time to write – Send a telegram! Gine my Gine – I dream- I think and I wish that our reunion be sweet —–
Yesterday evening I have lived a miracle —-
[On the side]: Gino I kiss you – I press myself against you – I love you very much – tenderly passionately – I am yours – Mouche”
This sweet letter refers to “the others” and to “Natou” (diminutive of her daughter’s name Natasha, who was almost 12 years old at the time). “The others” may well refer to Antonini’s literary friends who met every day in the nearby Café Murat (article 44).
Antonini did not hide his heavy involvement with Giustizia e Libertà from his friends at the Café Murat. The best proof of that is that, on one occasion, he introduced one of those friends, the German writer Paul Krantz, writing under the pseudonym Ernst Erich Noth, a fervent anti-Nazi who lived in Paris in exile, to Carlo Rosselli, who invited him to have a long discussion on politics. I paraphrase from Antonini’s report to the OVRA of that long discussion, held on Monday evening March 15, 1937:
“On Monday evening, the presence of the German writer Ernst Erich Noth provided the occasion for a long political discussion. They covered a lot of ground: domestic politics in France, the European political situation, the possibility or probability of a European war, the Spanish civil war, etc. they disagreed on all or almost all these topics. Noth condemned the attitude of the Communists. He doesn’t want to see a war, so he supports the line of Blum’s government on the Spanish question and is sympathetic towards England. His conclusion was that ‘despite all its defects, a French or English type of democracy is the best arrangement. ‘It leaves us the relative freedom, unlike elsewhere, to spend an evening airing different, even subversive, political views without the fear that tomorrow one of us will be hauled off to prison or worse.’ […]”
The sentence which I record here in bold letters, is particularly chilling in view of what happened a few months later.
Carlo Rosselli on the right, and his brother ‘Nello’ on the left.
(to be continued)