A Bold and Dangerous Family by Caroline Moorehead – book review

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by Edith Cody-Rice 

The world wars of the 20th century and the periods in between have produced an endless array of true stories crying out to be told and today’s writers could write one a day for the rest of their lives and never exhaust them. Sadly, so many worthy individuals have gone unnoticed by the wider world that any author who brings them to our attention is to be respected. Caroline Moorehead, the accomplished English biographer, has recorded many compelling stories, in particular, A Train in Winter, the true story of 230 French women resistance fighters in World War II who ended up together in a concentration camp.

Now she has brought to life, for those of us who did not know them, the Italian Rosselli family, a mother and two grown sons, wealthy Tuscan Jews, who fought the  fascism of Mussolini even when fascism was fashionable and before the brutality of the Nazis revealed its true dangers to the world. We have forgotten that leading French, English and American politicians thought Mussolini was doing a fine job of organizing the Italians, even if liberty was totally suppressed.

Carlo and Nello Rosselli were sons of Amelia Rosselli who had separated from their gambler father early in their lives and created a literary life of her own, writing and performing plays. They grew up with their elder brother Aldo who enlisted in and was killed in World War I. Initially poor after their parents’ separation, when their father died they came into an inheritance that made them quite wealthy. The brothers, in their 20’s and 30’s used their wealth to resist and try to destroy the rising fascist movement. They endured isolation, imprisonment and punitive confinement on the isolated Italian islands off the coast of Italy where Mussolini sent troublesome intellectuals. Carlo escaped from “confino” on the island of Lipari and thereafter fought fascism from France, principally through his writing, becoming a leader of the exiled anti-fascist community. Nello remained in Italy, endured prison and confinement and became a respected academic historian, using history to make anti-fascist points. Both brothers were murdered, probably on the orders of Mussolini, while they were on holiday together in France in 1937. By then they had been fighting fascism for over a decade and were just 36 and 39 years old.  Their coffins were followed to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris by 200,000 people and in 1951, their bodies were reinterred in Italy with full honours due to leading anti-fascist figures.

The brothers were family men, loving to their spouses and children and they adored their strong mother, who had taught them to take responsibility and who stood by them, taking care of their wives and children and supporting them in every way possible. Because they were Jewish they suffered the humiliation of antisemitism, although they escaped Hitler’s purges. Towards the end of the war, Carlo and Nello’s surviving families were able to make it to the United States. Amelia, her daughters-in-law and grandchildren returned to a hero’s welcome in Italy in 1946.

Caroline Moorehead handles her material deftly but she also had an absolute treasure trove of personal letters (the brothers and their mother corresponded nearly daily) and the voluminous reports of spies held in Italian archives. No fewer than 42 spies were involved in surveillance of Carlo. As written by Caroline Moorehead, the family comes alive and as importantly, we see through the eyes of this family the insidious rise of fascism and how incredibly difficult it was to defeat. Mussolini came to power in 1922 and was not defeated until 1943 when he was voted out of power by the Grand Council, imprisoned, freed by the Germans, given a small state in Northern Italy to govern and finally shot by partisans as he tried to escape with his mistress to Switzerland. His body and that of his mistress where hung from meat hooks in a Milanese square, so despised was Mussolini by then. But all of the Rossellis’ efforts, and they devoted their lives to these efforts, could not prevent the destruction of Italy by fascism and later the war. A cautionary tale and we owe it to them and to history to read it.