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The Devil in the Hills

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Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy
By Sergio Luzzatto, Translated by Frederika Randall
Metropolitan, 2016primo levi's resistance

For three months in the fall of 1943, the Italian writer Primo Levi joined a small band of partisans based in the Piedmontese Alps. More than thirty years later, Levi described the group in characteristically modest terms: “We were cold and hungry, we were the most disarmed partisans in the Piedmont, and probably also the most unprepared.” Much of their time was spent wheedling supplies from the locals, who were often suspicious of their aims. The rest was spent looking for ammunition. According to Levi, they had nothing but a “tommy gun without bullets and a few pistols.”

In his fascinating new book, Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy, Sergio Luzzatto explains that, however insignificant Levi and his comrades may have seemed to themselves, they had attracted the attention of officials in the Italian Social Republic. Popularly known as the Republic of Salò, after the town in Lombardy where it was headquartered, the Republic had been formed in September 1943 when the Germans reinstalled the deposed Mussolini as head of a satellite state. Italy was split in two: in the south a government supported by King Victor Emmanuel III worked with the Allies, while in the north fascism persisted.

Salò took its orders from Berlin; Luzzatto focuses on how that obedience played out in a small corner of northern Italy. He does so by showing how the actions of individuals made a difference in a time when so many of the larger political entities were in flux. One of those individuals was the zealous Police Prefect for the region of Aosta, Cesare Carnazzi. Carnazzi was eager to arrest two kinds of people: the partisans who were forming the nascent Italian Resistance and Jews who were to be deported to satisfy the demands of the Republic’s Nazi allies. In the mountains of Piedmont, those people were often the same.

On December 5, 1943 Carnazzi ordered three agents, led by a man named Edilio Cagni, to infiltrate Levi’s band of partisans. Cagni, “a pure and disinterested hunter of human PrimoLeviprey,” as Levi later described him, was skilled at his work, and the agents quickly insinuated themselves amongst the disorganized partisans, who in this valley never numbered more than 100. A week later, after staging needless military exercises to waste the partisans’ precious ammunition, Cagni and his subordinates slipped away to meet the forces sent by Carnazzi to capture the partisans. Levi and his comrades were taken down the valley to Aosta where they were imprisoned and interrogated.

Levi is famous because of what happened next: he was deported to Auschwitz and through amazing fortune survived to become the greatest chronicler of that terrible experience. But Luzzatto insists that the short time Levi spent in hiding in the Alps matters just as much as what came after. Primo Levi’s Resistance is about the after-effects of significant events, whether in the life of a nation or of an individual. Like so many readers, Luzzatto has been shaped by Levi’s example. Assigned Levi’s extraordinary Holocaust memoir If This Is a Man as a school text, Luzzatto emerged from the experience “as changed as an adolescent can be by the reading of a book.” Thus began “a kind of civil worship and literary veneration” of Levi, who stood for Luzzatto, as for generations of readers, as “the epitome of civilized intelligence and dignified memory.”

ifthisisamanBut one of Levi’s memories might not have been so dignified. Many years after that first schoolboy encounter, Luzzatto started wondering about Levi’s reticent descriptions of his time as a partisan. He was particularly struck by a passage in Levi’s autobiographical text The Periodic Table in which Levi explained what happened once he and his comrades were arrested. They were put one man to a cell and forbidden from talking to each other:

This prohibition was painful because among us, in each of our minds, weighed an ugly secret: the same secret that had exposed us to capture, extinguishing in us, a few days before, all will to resist, indeed to live. We had been forced by our consciences to carry out a sentence and had carried it out, but we had come out of it destroyed, destitute, waiting for everything to finish and to be finished ourselves; but also wanting to see each other, to talk, to help each other exorcize that so recent memory. Now we were finished, and we knew it; we were in the trap, each one in his own trap, and there was no way out except down.

What is this ugly secret? Luzzatto asks. What kind of sentence is Levi talking about? Who carried it out? And was Levi himself involved?

Luzzatto answers these questions as fully as the historical record allows. He discovers a story emblematic of the confusion of the early days of the Italian Resistance. Luzzatto likens his task to using “a zoom lens rather than a wide angle”: by uncovering the events alluded to by Levi and by tracing their widening repercussions, Luzzatto uses “one story from the Resistance to illuminate the Resistance as a whole.” He believes historians have a duty to help the present understand itself through the past. The events in Piedmont may seem unimportant or even tawdry, but they have larger significance:

It may seem a thin history, politically useless and morally futile, about men who hated other men. Yet ultimately, I believe, it’s only such an intimate perspective that allows a history of the Resistance to speak to us today. It allows us to see that conflict as a clash between people battling not just out of hatred but because they have different conceptions of humanity, justice, and society. The historian too, must grapple with these people, to avoid seeing them either as saints or as monsters, and to help renew (along with the best of them) our values and our memory.

The story begins in the days before the spy Cagni infiltrated the partisans, when two other men joined the resistors. Luciano Zabaldono and Fulvio Oppezzo were young hotheads, more interested in stealing cars than fighting fascists. Luzzatto says they conformed to the image the Republic of Salò was putting out about the Resistance: that theperiodictableprimolevithey were nothing but bandits. From the moment Zabaldono and Oppezzo arrived they made trouble for the partisans, extorting food from the locals, thereby exacerbating already tense relations, and even, when the partisans sought to rein the boys in, threatening to denounce their supposed colleagues to the police.

The partisans reacted swiftly. In the early morning of December 9, 1943, Zabaldono and Oppezzo were shot without warning from behind. Luzzatto concludes: “the two were the very first victims of the Resistance in Valle d’Aosta. But they did not die under attack from German or Salò forces. They lost their lives to their own companions.”

Luzzatto is unable to determine who did the actual shooting. Based on what he has uncovered about partisan justice in 1944-5, Luzzatto believes the judgment would have been collective. He also notes Levi’s use of “that weighty ‘we’” in the central passage from The Periodic Table: “We had been forced by our consciences to carry out a sentence and had carried it out.” But in the end, Luzzatto is not especially interested in who made the decision or pulled the trigger. He doesn’t condemn the actions of the partisans that morning in December 1943 even as he is certain that the punishment was disproportionate to the crime, referring to the “irreparable punishment meted out to Oppezo and Zabaldano for having confused adventure with banditry, and banditry with the partisan fight” and, even more baldly, to “a high-handed decision by inexperienced commanders, a spray of bullets from a Beretta to punish the bullying of villagers or the theft of a few kilos of flour.” In so doing, Luzzatto successfully challenges the myth of the Resistance as unimpeachable moral good without capitulating to the mentality of what he condemns as “crudely revisionist antipartisan books about the Italian civil war.”

Coat of Arms of the Italian Social RepublicWhat interests Luzzatto is whether it is possible to come to nuanced conclusions about a chaotic time. Here as always Levi is his lodestar. Luzzatto characterizes Levi as a man who spent his life drawing out the moral ambiguities of the fight against fascism, the way, for example, the Nazis conscripted their victims into perpetrating injustice, from the lowliest overseer of a potato peeling detail all the way to the Sonderkommandos, the units of Jewish prisoners forced to operate the crematoria. In the essay collection The Drowned and the Saved, his last work, Levi argued that none of us is ever in the place of another, which means we cannot predict our own behavior let alone their’s. The upshot is that we should ponder the totalitarian history of the 20th century “with compassion and rigor.”

No matter how important Levi is to Luzzatto, however, it quickly becomes clear that he is more presiding spirit than main actor in Luzzatto’s tale. After describing Levi’s arrest and deportation—from Aosta, where his captors concluded he should be treated as a Jew rather than as a partisan, he was sent to the transit camp at Fossoli, and from there to Auschwitz—Luzzatto abandons Levi for long stretches, concentrating instead on the rise of the partisan movement. He is especially interested in how the actors in this struggle were remembered. Because he is most interested in how the partisans enacted justice, he concentrates on the fate of perpetrators such as Police Prefect Carnazzi and the secret agent Cagni.

the drowned and the savedBoth Carnazzi and Cagni were initially sentenced to death by firing squad, but over the next two years they appealed each successively more lenient verdict. In the end, each served only a few months. Those verdicts, Luzzatto argues, were informed by the shifting sense of justice in Italy in the years after the war as the country moved from an era of “emergency and revolution” to one of “regulations and reaction.”

But these men also benefitted from some surprising personal circumstances. Despite Carnazzi’s zeal in upholding fascist law, he was also instrumental in saving a Jewish family from deportation. Cagni is an even stranger character: he served after his arrest as a double agent for the American Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA), helping them to arrest Nazi sympathizers as well as informing against Communist elements in the Resistance.

In fleshing out the portraits of these two men, Luzzatto isn’t suggesting judgment is impossible. Nor is he recuperating villains as heroes. But he is insisting on the complexity of the past. Nowhere is this conviction more interestingly developed than in the book’s final chapters, in which Luzzatto uncovers the posthumous afterlives of Fulvio Oppezzo and Luciano Zabaldono. Remember them? They were the young hotheads shot by their comrades, the ones Luzzatto calls the first victims of the Resistance in the Valle d’Aosta. Luzzatto travels to Oppezzo’s hometown where the central piazza and the local school are named after him. Luzzatto recounts how Oppezzo was transformed into a martyr of the Resistance. As a parish bulletin from 1952 put it, “During those most difficult days of the nation he saw and chose his place without hesitation: for Italy!” This canonization bears no resemblance to the haphazard circumstances, which even Luzzatto’s tireless inquiries are unable to determine with certainty, that led Oppezzo and his friend to join the partisans in the hills.

4Zabaldone was similarly lionized, even though his journey from rebellious boy (he left school at age 12 and never settled to anything) to political rebel is even more obscure than Oppezzo’s. But he too was mourned as a hero of the Resistance. In 1945 the two men’s bodies were exhumed from the shallow graves where Levi and his comrades had buried them. Zabaldone was interred with two other men from his neighborhood in Turin. A funeral notice lauded their valor: “They are and they will always be alive and among us; their sacrifice will be an example and a spur to our future deeds.”

Memory is indeed alive, as Luzzatto shows, but it is more complex than the bombast of postwar Italy admits. One of the most moving parts of the book comes when the author meets Zabaldone’s nephews, one of whom has researched this uncle he never knew, this hero of the Resistance whose portrait hangs over the bar in the family restaurant. The nephew, too, has carefully underlined that passage from The Periodic Table. He too suspects his relative was murdered in shady circumstances. But like Luzzatto, he isn’t interested in either exonerating his uncle or in unmasking the murderers. He—and by extension Luzzatto—stand as examples of level-headed historical understanding.

LeviOnce again, Levi is the exemplar of such behavior. He returned from the camps in time to testify at Cagni’s first trial. Searching the trial records, Luzzatto is initially disappointed by what he finds, only two terse sentences: “I was taken away and interrogated by Cagni at Aosta. I was identified by [one of the other double agents], who supplied extensive information about our band and the National Liberation Committee.” As Luzzatto says, this statement is “practically telegraphic” in its concision. His disappointment turns to appreciation, however, as he reflects on how remarkable it was that Levi was there to testify at all. Here Luzzattto makes his most speculative claim: that the significance of the testimony lay not in what it accomplished against Cagni but “in what it did in the mind of the man then writing If This Is a Man.” Luzzatto distinguishes “the witness Levi” from “Levi the Witness,” the former “eager for justice and revenge,” the latter “analyzing morality and human nature.”

I wish Luzzatto had made more of this distinction. He might for example have cited the contradictory aims Levi offers in the Preface to If This Is a Man. On the one hand, he wants the book to document “a detached study of certain aspects of the human mind.” On the other, he apologizes for its “structural defects,” which result from “an immediate and violent impulse,” a need to tell his story to the world. The distinction between detachment and passion is everywhere in Levi’s writing. Luzzatto misses an opportunity to examine more carefully what witnessing meant to Levi, which might have allowed him to develop his own argument about how historians should represent the past. Are historians supposed to recount the past, or advocate for (a version of) it? Are historians witnesses?

Luzzatto doesn’t answer these questions because, in the end, Primo Levi’s Resistance isn’t really about Levi as a writer and thinker, despite Luzzatto’s attention to Levi’s style. Instead it’s about Levi as a partisan, as an actor, as someone who did something, maybe even something morally dubious. The problem is that we only know the latter Levi through the former. Luzzatto has uncovered a lot, but what actually happened that morning in December 1943 when two men were killed, especially Levi’s role in it, remains a mystery.

partigia Based on the title of the American edition and the way its publisher has pitched it, readers might be surprised to find that the book is more about the Resistance and less about Primo Levi. It doesn’t help that the publisher speaks of a “shocking episode,” which, it hints, will make us reassess Levi’s moral worth. I wish Metropolitan had seen fit to keep the original title, Partigia, which Luzzatto takes from a poem Levi published in 1981. Partigia is a colloquial term “widespread in Piedmont” for “partisans without many scruples, decisive, light-fingered, or quick to brawl.” Zabaldone and Oppezzo were partigia, but so too, it seems, were Levi and his comrades. In a careful reading of the poem, Luzzatto explains that “Partigia” is addressed to the retired partisans, who are urged to go back into the mountains again in order to make sure “the enemy does not surprise us.”

Yet the enemy is not, as we might expect, revisionist history or renascent fascism or even Holocaust denial. Instead it’s closer to home:

What enemy? Every man’s his own foe,
Each one split by his own frontier,
Left hand enemy of the right.
Stand up, old enemies of yourselves,
This war of ours is never done.

For Luzzatto, Levi’s poem, which he offers as a distillation of the writer’s philosophy, refuses the consolations of good and bad, enemy and friend, right and wrong. But it doesn’t do so in favor of relativism. “This war of ours is never done”: there are always battles that have to be fought. For Luzzatto, the story of the Italian Resistance is “a story of unquestionable good, the fight against Nazi-Fascism, intermixed with a story of profound wrong, a wrong no human being, even the best, can say he is totally free of.”


Primo Levi’s Resistance deserves a wide audience. Luzzatto organizes his material about the turbulent and complex events of the years 1943-46 with impressive clarity. Nonetheless Anglophone readers might find themselves hard-pressed to keep up with the many names, places, and organizations. Fortunately, they will be helped by the book’s accompanying material, including a decent index and an excellent map. Yet there’s no getting around the fact that the book, although not academic per se, is specialized, and readers who approach it as a biography of even a small but significant part of Levi’s life will come away disappointed.

LeviSurvivalinAuschwitzYet Primo Levi is central to Luzzatto’s argument. Because he is a writer of such ethical nuance, so ready to offer himself as anything but a hero, Levi has paradoxically become a figure we can admire—even love—unreservedly. Luzzatto is willing to reassess Levi—his suggestion that those few months in the mountains were formative for the writer’s later investigation of moral complexity is ultimately convincing—but he isn’t interested in making sensational or revisionist claims about him. Primo Levi’s Resistance doesn’t cut Levi down to size, doesn’t tarnish his memory. Levi’s careful self-critique in his monumental body of work has rendered that superfluous.

As Levi told us so forcefully in his remarkable books, complicated, ethically fraught situations resist easy judgment. But they also call for judgment. Remember that what Levi needs above all in jail is to not be isolated, to engage with others. He needs to talk through what they have done, not in order to whitewash their terrible but necessary action, but in order to be human: we “want[ed] to see each other, to talk, to help each other exorcize that so recent memory.” As in the poem “Partigia,” it falls to each of us to wrestle with our own complicity with oppression and violence. What is permitted in the struggle against an enemy? Can violence be morally just? We will answer that question best, Levi shows us, if we bear witness to the enemy within ourselves. The idea of critical and communal reflection is that Luzzatto to bring together the two strands of his story, one about the fate of the Resistance in postwar Italy and one about the fate of Levi during his brief time as a member of that Resistance. Levi, Luzzatto concludes, carried “only one set of moral baggage: a notion of dignity.” Readers are thus allowed to worship Levi as much at the end of the book as Luzzatto does in the beginning. That the vision of Levi as humane and decent, modest and clear-sighted should outlast this investigation of a morally ambiguous time is a consolation all the more powerful since Levi himself gave us the tools to be critical of just such a formulation.

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College and blogs about books at eigermonchjungfrau.