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100 years ago – why was Giacomo Matteotti murdered by Mussolini’s secret police?

ALFIO BERNABEI presents evidence that it was the Italian Socialist MP’s attempt – weeks before his death – to build an anti-fascist platform in Britain that cost him his life, as he vainly sought to prevent Italy from falling into dictatorship

AT THE end of his four-day clandestine visit to London in April 1924, Giacomo Matteotti, the Italian secretary of the Socialist Party and a prominent MP, was asked by the Daily Herald if he was not afraid to return to his country. 

“My life is always in danger,” he replied. “This is what I want you to understand.” He had every reason to fear for his life. Regarded as the arch-enemy of Mussolini, who was head of government and foreign minister, he had been denied a passport to prevent him from meeting representatives of foreign organisations. It wouldn’t be long before someone would let him know that he had gone a step too far. 

Less than two months later, the search for his body was continuing in and around Rome. 

Kidnapped by five men on the afternoon of June 10 just after leaving home, his death was given for certain after traces of blood were found in the car used for the abduction and tracked down to a garage two days later thanks to its number plate being reported to the police. 

Five men were arrested and found to be working for a secret police organisation that had been set up earlier in the year by Mussolini and some of his closest associates. They wouldn’t reveal what they had done with the body. 

Matteotti’s remains were recovered on August 16 in woods 15 miles outside Rome.

One hundred years after the crime that changed the course of Italian history — from democracy to dictatorship — and dozens of books written on the subject, questions remain about the precise motive for Matteotti’s killing. 

Two clues point to his London mission as the key event that brought about the decision to eliminate him. 

The first clue is in the minutes taken during his meeting with Labour Party and trade unions representatives. The second is a mock obituary published within hours of his assassination while not even his wife, Velia, or his friends knew that he had been kidnapped. 

What made him risk his life with his visit to Britain? 

A socialist since his teens, Matteotti was elected MP in 1919 aged 34, the same year the Fascio di Combattimento, led by Mussolini, was founded in Milan. 

In 1920, after the Socialist Party split between radical leftists and reformists, he was elected secretary of the new Unitarian Socialist Party with 61 MPs. Following the coming to power of Mussolini in October 1922, he relentlessly condemned fascism as an organisation supported by armed gangs of criminals bent of destroying democratic institutions. 

He knew that time was running out to save the country from disaster; the divided opposition in parliament seemed incapable to face up to the threat. 

Counting on the contacts he had established with international socialist organisations and comrades in various countries in Europe, he decided to seek urgent assistance turning particularly towards Britain. 

He had spent some time in Oxford and London perfecting his studies in jurisprudence and, as he put it, he was a great admirer of “the England of [William] Gladstone and [John] Bright.”

His hopes of finding help in Britain must have risen with the election of the first Labour government under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald who had expressed strong sympathy with the Italian Socialist Party. 

As soon as the new government was installed in January 1924, he was quick to send to William Gillies, the international secretary of the Labour Party, and to representatives of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Trades Union Congress a copy of his 91-page pamphlet, Un Anno di Dominazione Fascista (A Year of Fascist Domination) in which he detailed evidence of the systematic use of violence by the fascist militia. 

A copy landed at the Foreign Office and in March his efforts to make himself heard in Britain were rewarded when the ILP journal, The New Leader, published a summary of this document. 

The author of the article, Charles Roden Buxton, noted how the content was “no mere catalogue of atrocities, but a complete review of the proceedings of the Fascist Party during the year 1923 in methods of government” and concluded: “It is impossible to resist the weight of evidence accumulated in this pamphlet.”

A footnote quoted a number of Mussolini’s utterances in praise of force, including the warning: “Woe to him who touches the Fascist Militia; he is asking for a lead bullet.”

But Matteotti knew that a pamphlet wasn’t enough to press his call for assistance. He needed to travel to London and meet face to face with sympathetic figures at the highest possible level, even if this might put his life in danger. 

He applied for the renewal of his passport. The request was turned down. Instead of stopping him, this must have made him even more determined to accomplish his task to reach out for help and be herd in person. 

The timing seemed propitious. The annual meeting of the information committee of the ILP was scheduled for April 19 in York with delegates of national and international trade unions and officials of the Labour Party as well as of the Socialist International, such as Friedrich Adler and Tom Shaw of the group’s secretariat. 

No public appearance could be contemplated for one who was travelling clandestinely; instead a secret meeting was arranged. It was held in London on April 24, two days after his arrival in Britain.

Two pages of minutes were taken. Matteotti explained the methods used by the fascists to make their advance; first they had ensured that “no possibility” remained of trade unions functioning; then they had “turned their attention to the democratic government and destroyed it too.” Coming to the point he asked for “moral and material assistance.”

The minutes do not say how the word “material” was explained or interpreted by those present at the meeting. But Matteotti knew that two years earlier the British trade unions had been first in the world to enact a protest against fascism which had greatly alarmed Mussolini; in August 1922, they had announced the boycott of an Italian steamer at Cardiff manned by a fascist crew and threatened to reject similar crews at all British ports prospecting potential damage to Italian maritime commerce. 

This protest had faltered, achieving nothing. Could a firmer stand now be considered in the face of evidence of trade unions headquarters set on fire and shop stewards persecuted or even killed? Could some significant deterrent to the advance of fascism be explored going beyond words of solidarity?

It is not known if Mussolini was informed over the content of this meeting. What can be given for certain is that following the publication in The New Leader of the article summing up the pamphlet, A Year of Fascist Domination, the Duce had proof that his arch-enemy had successfully begun to establish an anti-fascist platform in London with help from officials close to the British government. 

As far as it was known, MacDonald might have stayed in power for a whole five-year term with Matteotti held as a favourite interlocutor — and one perfectly capable to produce a constant flow of damning criticism of fascism and its practices in a place like London from where news could easily reverberate across the world. Most likely this was what brought about the decision to have him killed. 

A chilling indication that Matteotti’s “English” campaign was a key motive for his assassination can be found in a short article that went into print at around midnight on June 10, soon after the head of the gang of kidnappers visited the pro-fascist newspaper Corriere Italiano to reveal that Matteotti had been killed a few hours earlier. 

The title of what can only be described as a “death foretold” mock obituary suggested a foreign substance: “Il sale inglese dell’On. Matteotti” (The English salt of Matteotti MP). English salt? This sinister piece of writing highlighted Matteotti’s attempt to besmirch fascism in England and accused him of having come to personify the “antinazione” — the anti-nation: a traitor to his own country who sought to build anti-fascist platforms abroad for as long as he stayed alive. By now, the traitor with a foot in England was no more, buried in woodland outside Rome.

Alfio Bernabei’s exhibition, Enduring Tempest, dedicated to Matteotti’s secret visit to London, is at Charing Cross Library, 4-6 Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0HF, open till July 13.

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