Remembering Italy's Cervi brothers amid far-right surge

Adelmo Cervi, 74, has become a leading voice against the rise of far-right populist parties in Italy.

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    Remembering Italy's Cervi brothers amid far-right surge
    The Cervi brothers' legacy has been enshrined in art, music and cinema [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

    Via Aemilia, Italy - Church bells echo throughout a cemetery as 74-year-old Adelmo Cervi walks to the monument dedicated to his late father and six uncles. 

    "I only come here when there are official ceremonies," he tells Al Jazeera. "I don't believe in cemeteries. If I want to speak to them, I look at their photos and remember their story."

    Nearly 75 years ago, on the morning of December 28, 1943, Italian soldiers dragged the seven Cervi brothers, among them Adelmo's father, Aldo, from the jail cells where they had been held for more than a month.

    They led them to the outskirts of Reggio Emilia, and a firing squad shot them.

    The Cervi brothers were anti-fascists who had led the local peasant resistance to Benito Mussolini's rule.

    They had been arrested a month earlier after fascist forces surrounded their farmhouse, firing a salvo of bullets and forcing the men to surrender.

    They were not given a proper burial until October 1945, five months after the last vestiges of Italian fascism were toppled.

    With thousands of locals following their flagged-draped coffins, their father Alcide uttered a sentence that became ingrained into the national consciousness: "After one harvest there comes another."

    Adelmo Cervi lost his father and six uncles when he was just four months old [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

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    Only four months old at the time of their murder, Adelmo, now with a head of gray hair and an unkempt beard, cannot remember his father or his uncles.

    Yet, his life has been sculpted by their legacy of resistance to authoritarianism and fascism, he says.

    Adelmo has spent decades keeping their memory alive.

    In recent years, he has also been a leading voice against the rise of neo-fascist parties as a surge in far-right activity grips Italy.

    Far right on the rise

    Parties such as the self-described fascist group CasaPound and its neo-fascist counterpart Forza Nuova have rallied in cities across the country, putting a special emphasis on running candidates in local and regional elections.

    With more than 400,000 refugees and migrants arriving in Italy since 2014, far-right groups have exploited the humanitarian crisis to widen their support base and push for nativist and anti-migrant programmes. 

    Immigration has become a central election issue, and CasaPound plans to run candidates in national elections on March 4.

    The growth of CasaPound, a party which openly praises Mussolini's legacy and clenched nine percent of the vote in the Ostia district of Rome last November, has fed anxiety among critics and anti-fascist activists.

    Last month, more than 5,000 CasaPound supporters assembled in central Rome, marching through the capital in neatly organised, military-like fashion.

    Paramedics treat an injured person that was shot in Macerate [EPA]

    Forza Nuova, founded two decades ago, will also put its candidates on several ballots. Its base has since grown to some 20,000 followers over the years.

    On February 3, a far-right assailant opened fire on a group of African migrants in Macerata, a small city in central Italy. At least six people were injured.

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    It marked the 142nd attack by neo-fascist groups since 2014, according to Infoantifa Ecn, an anti-fascist site that monitors far-right violence.

    A former candidate for the League (also known as the Northern League), an anti-immigrant populist party headed by Matteo Silvini, was subsequently arrested for the shooting. 

    A week later, several thousand anti-fascists and anti-racists stormed the streets to rally against the rise of the far right.

    "If we give them [the far right] space today, then they will grow and grow in the future," Cervi argues.

    "It would be a tragedy for all of the people who died to bring democracy to this country."

    'Bandits and criminals'

    That tragedy is deeply personal for people like Cervi, who was raised by his grandfather, Alcide, and mother after his father's murder.

    Alcide, known to many in Italy as Papa Cervi, had been a conservative Catholic until he found himself imprisoned by fascist authorities. During his time in jail in the early 1930s, he became a communist and follower of militant anti-fascism.

    After his release, Alcide instilled anti-fascist values in his children, who grew up to fight against Mussolini's rule.

    From 1938 onwards, in their modest farmhouse, they printed and distributed anti-Mussolini propaganda and harboured anti-fascist fighters and dissident intellectuals.

    In July 1943, townspeople heard news on the radio that Mussolini had been dismissed and arrested, and flocked to the square to celebrate. The Cervis joined the festivities and passed out a celebratory pasta dish to locals.

    Yet, fascism had not entirely collapsed.

    Two months later, Mussolini was rescued by allied German forces. Adolf Hitler had plans to arrest the king and restore Mussolini's rule over the war-ravaged country.

    Mussolini subsequently declared the Italian Social Republic, effectively a Nazi satellite state, in the German-occupied parts of the country. 

    The Cervi brothers retreated to the mountains near Reggio and set up partisan units to fight fascist forces and their German backers.

    Aldo Cervi, Adelmo's father, was killed along with his six brothers in 1943 [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

    On November 24, 1943, as the brothers visited home, fascist forces surrounded the Cervi family's farm and opened fire. "It was considered a place for bandits and criminals," Adelmo explains.

    They surrendered and were held for more than a month before they were shot by a firing squad on the outskirts of the town.

    "It was all very hard on my grandmother," Adelmo says.

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    "Aside from losing her children, the house was burned down," he recounts of fascists setting the farmhouse ablaze in 1944.

    "They not only killed my father and my uncles - they killed by grandmother … she died of a broken heart shortly after."

    Almost a year and a half later, on April 25, 1945, the National Liberation Committee of Northern Italy announced that it had taken control of the remaining swaths of the country and issued death sentences for the entirety of the fascist leadership.

    Three days later, Mussolini was shot dead by partisans in Giulino, a small village in northern Italy. 

    'Main push was dignity'

    While his family grew into a national symbol of resistance, Adelmo says they continued to live an impoverished life. He dropped out of school before graduating to help his grandfather on their farm.

    His earliest memories are of his grandfather recounting the tale of his father and uncles when he was four or five years old. 

    "I remember my grandfather having people over and telling people the story of my father and uncles," he says. "People always talk about the factory workers, but no one talks about the peasants."

    Alcide Cervi addresses the Italian Communist Party congress in 1956 [Emilio Ronchini/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images]

    The Cervi Institute, on the outskirts of Via Aemilia, was created to honour the family's memory and promote democratic values.

    It is next to the family's farmhouse, which was eventually turned into a museum.

    For Albertina Soliani, president of the Cervi Institute, the seven brothers represent the often-overlooked role of rural communities in the resistance to Mussolini's rule.

    "The main push was dignity," she tells Al Jazeera, sitting in the institute's library. 

    "To understand the resistance, we have to understand how fascism was born: It came from the conservative people who were rich and obtained power."

    Explaining that the "resistance came in all forms, in the rural areas and up in the mountains" and comprised "Italians and foreigners", she adds: "It wasn't just the intellectuals and the bourgeoisie [in the cities].

    "In the rural world, people fought for peace and solidarity. Their aspirations were to be independent … And they gave dignity to the rural [Italians]."

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    In the years following Italy's liberation, the Cervi brothers' story became part of the national mythology of anti-fascism and democracy.

    Politicians regularly visited the farmhouse to pay homage to the family, and the Cervi brothers' story was immortalised in films, books, poetry and songs.

    When Alcide died in 1970, an estimated 200,000 people came to mourn his passing. 

    "It's not only the story of this family - it's the story of the people," Soliana concludes.

    'Heavy price for fighting fascism' 

    With groups like CasaPound and Forza Nuova on the rise, Adelmo has become increasingly active in anti-fascist projects and education initiatives in recent years.

    He speaks at demonstrations, public schools, universities and in debates.

    In addition to advocating the rights of refugees and migrants, he also tracks down young people who are involved in far-right groups to warn them of the dangers to democracy.

    The older generation, he says, should educate the young to prevent the conditions that lay the foundation for the far right.

    "Many of the kids in the younger generation don't know the history and don't understand the dangers of what happened," he says. "I've met many teachers that don't understand this part of our history."

    For his part, Cervi tries to stress the role of capitalism as a seed for fascism and its contemporary currents.

    Without an effective alternative to the far right, Adelmo fears for the fate of future generations.

    "These new movements, of course, use populism and claim they are against capitalism," he says.

    Against this backdrop, he laments the failure of the institutional left in addressing the growing inequity and socioeconomic problems working-class Italians endure. 

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    "These new fascist groups run in elections, but they shouldn't be allowed to run in the elections," he says.

    "After the sacrifices made by people like my family, groups like Forza Nuova and CasaPound should not be allowed to exist."

    Pounding his fist on the library table in the Cervi Institute, he insists: "We need to listen to the needs of the people because my father and uncles - like others - paid a very heavy price for fighting fascism."

    Adelmo concludes: "If we allow them to continue, we can't cry afterwards."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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