Fascism and the Mafia
Christopher Duggan - Yale University Press, 1989 - £16.95
Long before Hollywood glamorised the mafia, the issue of law and order occupied a central position on the political agenda in Italy. The failure of united Italy to resolve her southern problem, the questione meridionale , was blamed on the intractable criminality of Neapolitans, Calabrians and Sicilians. In fact, the south saw little benefit in northern administration with its incomprehensible language and hated burdens of conscription and taxation. However, successive governments, including the fascists, responded with large-scale violence on the grounds that Sicily's rejection of the state revealed the hand of a vast criminal conspiracy, the mafia. Dr Duggan's splendidly readable study sets itself two tasks, to demolish the idea of a centrally organised mafia and to reconstruct one of the Italian state's most determined efforts to destroy it, that made under fascism.
Considerable light is shed on the southern problem by this vivid account of the obsessive anti-mafia drive mounted in the 1920s by the Prefect of Palermo Cesare Mori. With the fascist regime worried about its lack of success in the south, the mafia was a convenient excuse. Indeed, the radical Sicilian fascists saw the mafia as a criminal network at the service of the old elites. To their chagrin, the deeply conservative Mori, who had been a fierce opponent of the left as questore of Turin in 1917 and of the fascists in the Emilia in 1921, concentrated his efforts against the lower classes, going to some lengths to protect the local aristocracy.
A resolute and violent man, 'with hair on his heart', Mori terrorised areas of the island as if they were enemy territory, mounting sieges and massive nocturnal round-ups, seizing hostages including women and children. The arrests ran into the thousands. After lengthy delays, mass trials were held at which severe miscarriages of justice were perpetrated. Mori was opposed by the local fascist leader Alfredo Cucco and later by the island's military commander, General Antonino Di Giorgio. He defeated both with flimsy charges of mafia connections. Mori was fortunate that his clash with Cucco coincided with Mussolini's push to domesticate the fascist party. However, with doubts arising that he had framed his enemies and with Mussolini anxious to capitalise on fascism's alleged triumph in exterminating the mafia, Mori was withdrawn. He had not crushed the mafia, so much as cowed part of the island. Sicilian criminal life was disrupted but not eradicated. Mafia activities were not reported only because officially they did not exist.
Both Dr Duggan's understandable distaste for Mori's blanket repression and his debunking of the idea of a centralised mafia lead him to understate the reality of Sicilian violence. As he himself makes clear, there were higher levels of crime in Sicily than elsewhere in Italy. Even priests and children carried weapons. Aristocrats, lawyers and politicians extended their patronage (manutengolismo) to the speculative middle class leaseholders (gahelloti) who were often at the centre of a criminal group or cosca. They used thugs to run protection and extortion rackets, and impose monopolies in the cattle, fruit, fish and, in Palermo, building trades. For the Sicilian sociologist, Gaetano Mosca, the mafia was an informal network which linked these independent cosche. The harshness of rural poverty, the role played by private violence in maintaining the social order and the Sicilian code of silence, omerta, help explain how a mafia style of behaviour was rooted in the economic and cultural fabric of the island. That there was no centrally organised mafia and that Mori ruined innocent lives does not, however, mean that the mafia was an idea rather than a brutal daily reality.
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