The story of Silvio Corbari is a tale of war, love, and betrayal, enriched all the more by the sensational events which surrounded this man during one of Italy’s darker periods, the German occupation. His life may seem like a plot from an adventure novel or a movie, but it is in actuality the true story of a man who risked all in the name of pride and country. It is a story which deserves to be known.
A boy from the “Land of Black and Red”
During the first decades of the 1900’s, the Emilia Romagna region of Italy maintained an agricultural driven economy based on the medieval concept of landed property: a few wealthy families owned enormous tracts of land which were in turn worked by thousands as farmhands. The marked difference between social classes, especially in rural areas, the lack of a true middle class, in conjunction with poor conditions for the working class, caused the wide spread of socialist ideology throughout the area. In a move to improve their wages, the agricultural laborers grouped themselves into cooperatives and began a series of strikes, some of which ended in violent clashes between the opposing sides.
Despite the overwhelming propaganda, the rise of Fascism did not improve the situation for this class of laborers. One of the points of the first Fascist manifesto stated “The land to the workers” but actually, at least in the Emilia Romagna region, it came about quite the opposite as the Fascist Blackshirts constantly defended the landowners, and during heated exchanges attacked the socialist cooperatives. Instead of becoming an instrument to defend the oppressed, the Blackshirts were used by the oppressors as a means to maintain control and power.
As mentioned, this situation often led to bloody clashes between the two factions, and ultimately, to widespread repression of the workers organizations when Fascism rose to power. Hence, the already weak bargaining power of the agricultural workers was practically annihilated under the Fascist boot heel of the Blackshirts. Because of these vastly contrasting points of view, Emilia Romagna gave rise as both the homeland for Mussolini and many others fascist personalities, and also served as the core of a strong anti-fascist movement.
Silvio Corbari, born in 1923 in Faenza, grew up in this volatile environment, on the ‘wrong’ side of the social divide; he thus very soon in life developed a strong aversion to Fascism. In all other regards however he had a normal youth; he completed primary school plus the working-starting course, (which was a good level of instruction for a working class boy in those years). Once his studies were complete, he obtained gainful employment in a local workshop. He also had a passion for reading and acting, especially when the character he was portraying was in disguise. This aptitude would become a great help to him in the future.
By the end of 1942, Corbari was married and had a daughter, and like many of his fellow countrymen, he was called up for military service. During the period of his life spent in the army, he experienced considerable problems due to his contempt for authority, especially when his platoon was ordered to perform parade drills in front of the Fascist leaders; something that he steadfastly refused. Thus, more than once was Corbari sentenced to spend a few days in the Army jail of Faenza.
During this time Corbari’s anti-fascist beliefs strengthened even more, and he began to contact and recruit others with like views to form a small clandestine outfit. So, when Mussolini was deposed on July, 25, 1943, Corbari already was the established leader of his own little anti-fascist group.
The Birth of the Partisan Brigade
For most of the summer of 1943 the group did little more than partake in some street brawls against some disbanded Blackshirt members, but this situation changed drastically when Italy signed the Armistice with the Allied powers on September, 8, 1943. The Regio Esercito local command of Faenza was left without any orders from the high command, as was most Army units across all of Italy, on a course of action to undertake now that the Armistice was signed; the fundamental unanswered question facing local Army commanders was whether they were to resist the Germans and engage on sight or were they to allow the Germans to pass north to escape the Allied advance, the second scenario possibly an accord agreed upon previously with the Germans. Shortly after the announcement of the Armistice a German column, which greatly out gunned the Italian forces, was spotted heading towards the city, thus to avoid capture and imprisonment since the Italian forces had no answer to these questions, the Commander ordered the disbandment of all the army units inside the city.
Corbari realized that this was the right time to transform his group into a true fighting formation, so in the days that followed, while the civilians ran to the abandoned army depots looking for food and clothing, Corbari and his men conducted a raid to collect as many weapons and ammunition as possible. The Germans set up to occupy the city in force, so Corbari’s group was forced to move to the mountains outside of the town once their supply raid was completed.
It was here Corbari met a group of officers and soldiers who were trying to form the first nucleus of organized resistance, and drawn to their shared ideas, he decided to join with them. In a short range of time a partisan brigade was created. The brigade consisted of two companies; Corbari and his group were assigned to the one called “Compagnia della Samoggia”. They were but 35 men, however thanks to Corbari’s foresight, they had 7 heavy machine guns, 30 light machine guns, 100 Mod. 91 rifles, handguns, and several hundred hand grenades.
Typically, a Partisan brigade had a structure based on two commanding figures; the military commander and the political commissioner. The military commander was usually a former officer of the Regio Esercito whose responsibilities were the common military functions including planning of actions, organization of the units, and the distribution of the guns and so forth. The political commissioner was often a civilian (if possible a graduate or an undergraduate) who represented the C.L.N. ( National Liberation Committee) which was the union of all the anti-fascist parties. Since C.L.N. was practically the Comando Supremo of the partisan units, the political commissioner acted as a liaison officer who submitted to the C.L.N. approval request on important operations, and whose position also was responsible for keeping contact with various intelligence units and with the clandestine organization called S.A.P. (Patriotic Action Squads). The S.A.P was composed of civilians who appeared outwardly to live a common life, but actually secretly worked for the resistance. Even though Corbari’s partisan brigade was one of the firsts created, it already followed this standard command structure.