Gaetano Salvemini (1873–1957)

Historian, humanitarian socialist, and activist intellectual

Updated: June 07, 2014

Gaetano Salvemini was an Italian-born historian, political journalist, and leading anti-fascist intellectual. As his most recent biographer has noted, he became Mussolini’s single greatest intellectual foe and his cultural and political influence extended not only throughout Italy, but also into much of Europe and the United States (Killinger 2002, 5–6).


Career in Italy: Between Political Activism and Academia

Salvemini was born in 1873 to impoverished smallholders in the southern Italian region of Apulia. The poverty of the region, along with his parents’ leftwing political leanings, indelibly shaped his own political and social ideals. His father was a radical republican and his mother was a socialist.  After completing his secondary education at a seminary liceo, Salvemini attended the University of Florence, where he eventually earned his Ph.D. in history.  During his university years, Salvemini became a socialist and a political activist. Although he later abandoned the Italian Socialist Party for independent humanitarian socialism, he maintained a commitment to radical reform throughout his life.

Salvemini served on the faculties of several Italian universities before becoming a professor of history at the University of Florence in 1917. In addition to traditional scholarly works on subjects as diverse as thirteenth-century Florence and nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian politics, Salvemini wrote hundreds of political articles for left-leaning journals such as Critica Sociale, Avanti!, La Voce, and his own L’Unità during the prewar period. A strong socio-economic emphasis, influenced by his socialist ideas, informed both types of writing. However, in his political pieces, often written under a pseudonym for protection, he was much more polemical and directly criticized the long-standing political process of transformismo (a system of building coalitions by trading political influence), the Italian liberal system under Giovanni Giolitti, and even the weakness of the Italian Socialist Party.

When World War I began, Salvemini lobbied for Italy’s entry on the side of the Entente. In fighting for democracy abroad, he believed, Italy would rediscover its own democratic roots. Salvemini himself saw military action in 1915 and 1916. At war’s end, he became still more overtly and formally political; he stood for and won a seat for the Socialist Party in the Italian parliament. In the Chamber of Deputies, he established himself as a great defender of the lower classes by demanding housing, education, and infrastructure on their behalf (Rossi 1957, 27). Two years later, he left formal politics—though not political journalism—and returned full-time to his academic post in Florence.

Although generally an astute observer of political dangers, Salvemini was slow to understand the threat fascism posed in the immediate postwar period. As late as 1922, he believed the movement was too small to be a serious political challenge. It was different from nationalism only in its excess, and could be understood within the context of Italian postwar disillusionment. Moreover, Mussolini was not fundamentally different from Giolitti who, according to Salvemini, had been a dictator from 1902 to 1913. However, after the murder of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 and Italy’s subsequent turn in a more totalitarian direction, Salvemini became the most vocal leader of the anti-fascist opposition in Florence.

Salvemini was arrested in June 1925 for his leadership of the Florentine Cultural Circle—an informal anti-fascist organization consisting of figures such as Carlo and Nello Rosselli, Ernesto Rossi, and Piero Calamandrei—and for his involvement in the anti-fascist journal Non Mollare. He escaped from his captors in August and made his way first to France, then to England, and finally to the United States. Oddly, exile offered Salvemini a “sense of freedom, of spiritual independence.” Rather than “exile” or “refugee,” he preferred the term fuoruscito (political exile), “a man who has chosen to leave his country to continue a resistance which had become impossible at home” (Salvemini 1960, 88–89). He first arrived in the United States in 1927 for a lecture tour and brought with him a clear anti-fascist agenda. The tour was organized by a New York promoter introduced to Salvemini by the radical—and later socialist—economist and politician Francesco Nitti.


Anti-Fascist Activism in American Exile

Fascism, Salvemini had come to recognize beginning in 1924, was the single greatest threat to Italy and Europe, and it could only be toppled by external force—American force.  In speeches, articles, and pamphlets, Salvemini played his part in an international campaign against fascism by trying to win Italian exiles and emigrants, especially among the working class, to the cause. As he soon learned, the task would be difficult, especially at first. Many Italian emigrants found in Mussolini’s Italy a source of pride, largely because of the successful Fascist propaganda proffered in widely-circulated, Italian-language newspapers such as Il Progresso. Genesero Pope, a building supply magnate with close ties to Mussolini, owned Il Progresso and three other papers, all of which provided favorable coverage to the Fascist regime. Sobered by the realization of these truths, Salvemini nonetheless did his best to demythologize Mussolini’s rise to power and to show clearly the demise of democracy in Italy in his speeches and his written work (Salvemini 1927).  

In 1929, Salvemini, along with the Rosselli brothers and Emilio Lussu, established a new international anti-Fascist organization, Giustizia e Libertà (GL). A third alterative between fascism and communism, it was to be “a democratic, active, militant, aggressive movement, of the sort that existed in the first half of the nineteenth century, when political liberty was won by revolutionary methods” (Garosci 1973, 170). Its members rejected Marxism-Leninism as well as the liberal state, and pursued, instead, a free, democratic republic based on social justice (Salvemini 1960, 119–121). The émigrés, they believed, “should do abroad what could not be done by anti-fascists who were still in Italy: that is, help them to keep the democratic tradition alive, thus preventing the victory of dictatorship from becoming total and final” (Salvemini 1960, 124).

Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 fostered a sense of urgency among the Italian exiles. Salvemini helped to create yet another anti-Fascist organization named after Giuseppe Mazzini. As the organizer and leader of the Mazzini Society, Salvemini played his most important role in the United States. He and the organization’s other leaders launched a campaign to mobilize the American public and government against totalitarianism, monarchism, and clericalism with a particular eye toward the postwar reconstruction of Italy. They correctly anticipated a strong U.S. role in determining the future of Italy and, fearing that U.S. leaders would tolerate Mussolini or an Italian kingdom governed by his fascist collaborators, wanted to convince the Allied forces to adopt their republican, secular view of Italy’s future. Within six months, however, the group began to shift its focus under the leadership of Max Ascoli, a journalist and political philosopher at the New School for Social Research in New York. Ascoli was much more engaged with the work other European intellectuals, such as his New School associates Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse, than Salvemini, whose circle consisted predominantly of Italian émigré intellectuals. Moreover, while Ascoli was fairly Americanized, Salvemini—the fuorusciti—intended to return to Italy after the war. Under Ascoli’s leadership, the Mazzini Society was transformed from a small cadre of Italian émigré intellectuals into an American popular movement, and Salvemini withdrew from active participation.

Other activities brought Salvemini into contact with prominent Italian leaders such as the Republican Carlo Sforza and the Catholic priest and politician Luigi Sturzo. While he was willing to make common cause with them in efforts such as the Italian Emergency Rescue Committee, which raised transportation money for Italian refugees, Salvemini never formed a close working or personal relationship with these men, whose political beliefs differed significantly from his own. He was particularly critical of Sforza, with whom he vehemently disagreed about the composition of the post-Mussolini government.

In 1940, Salvemini became a naturalized American citizen.  Although he was aware of America’s flaws, he realized that its political system was the best “imperfect” democracy. As he wrote to the anarchist Armando Borghi, “with all its immense defects, [American democracy] is, on the whole, preferable to any other regime” (Salvemini 1967). He also believed that as an American citizen, he would have greater opportunity to influence U.S. policies toward Italy. And, indeed, several government agencies, including the State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sought his advice on Fascism and Italian matters in general.

Salvemini’s relationship with the FBI began in 1940, in the context of American domestic surveillance, and lasted until 1944. In 1940, J. Edgar Hoover ordered all special agents to prepare reports on persons with Nazi, Fascist, or Communist sympathies for inclusion in a “Custodial Detention” index. During the war, the American government drew on the experience of several prominent Italian émigrés such as Salvemini and Mario EinaudiSalvemini, who had become a recognized authority on Italian fascist activities in the United States, was approached as an expert on information about organizations that the agency considered at least potentially dangerous. The FBI was particularly interested in a list he had compiled of Italian-Americans engaged in fascist activities in the United States, though it sought his advice in other matters as well. Salvemini provided copies of the list not just to the FBI, but also to the Office of Naval Intelligence, Army Intelligence, the Dies Committee (later renamed HUAC), and to the Coordinator of Information (predecessor of the Office of Strategic Services). Even as he provided information to government agencies, Salvemini continued to voice criticisms of the Roosevelt administration and Allied policies toward Italy in newspaper and journal articles, especially after 1943. As a result, his influence was limited to providing information, and he too fell under suspicion by the FBI for his political ideas. Between 1944 and 1945, the agency intercepted, translated, and distributed to appropriate agencies a large portion of his correspondence with Ernesto Rossi, who was at the time living in Geneva, Switzerland and in close contact with the leaders of the Italian resistance (Killenger 1986, 193–197).

Beyond his political activities, Salvemini became the first Lauro de Bosis Chair of Italian History and Culture at Harvard in 1933. The appointment, renewed every year until 1947, provided him with a regular income, valued colleagues, access to excellent research facilities, and a stream of intellectually curious American students. Although he did not publish a single historical work in the areas of his professional training—medieval and modern European history—he did write four books and countless articles on the fascist regime. Moreover, he influenced a generation of history students at Harvard both in and outside of the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, he advised graduate students such as H. Stuart Hughes, Norman Kogan, and A. William Salomone, all of whom became key figures in the new generation of postwar historians writing about Italy (Killinger 1994, 43–44).


“Intellectual Guidance” for Postwar Italy

After Mussolini’s fall in 1943, Salvemini increasingly worried that the Allies and the Italian moderates were planning a conservative restoration in Italy—a move that would put the country’s political system far from his vision for Italy’s postwar future. Both behind the scenes and in his public statements, he demanded specific concrete reforms: the restoration of individual freedoms; decentralization of power; provision of land, housing, and justice for peasants; and an end to the governmental role of the Vatican. Along with his Italian-American collaborator George LaPiana, Salvemini published What to do with Italy in 1943—a work that was to become a touchtone in debates about the meaning of the war and the future of Italy on both sides of the Atlantic. These “American citizens by adoption” who had become “part of the intellectual and social framework of American life,” wanted to provide “moral and intellectual guidance” for the postwar reconstruction of Europe (Salvemini and LaPiana 1943, xi–xii). The authors identified the roots of fascism in nineteenth-century liberal Italy but also in the interwar period. In the fifty years after unification, Italians had made some progress toward democracy. For all its strengths, however, the Italian parliamentary regime suffered from a serious disease:  “the falsification that the government made of the will of the electorate every time there was need” (Salvemini and LaPiana 1943, 85). Benito Mussolini bore the greatest responsibility for fascist Ventennio, but there was culpability in all sectors of Italian life: the intelligentsia, the middle classes, the conservatives, even the working classes. Hence, a thoroughgoing reorientation of Italian politics and society toward full democracy was necessary.

While Salvemini argued that Italy needed more democracy, his visit to his homeland in 1947 also convinced him that Italy first needed “a period of democratic pedagogy, based on theories of democratic elitism and democratic empiricism” (Tintori 2011, 140). Combined with his conception of democratic competition and political participation—developed largely during his stay in the United States—this made him an outsider in postwar Italy, polarized as it was into two competing ideological camps: the Communists and the Christian Democrats. He hoped that the Action Party, emerging from Giustizia e Libertà, could provide a third force, a Socialist-Republican coalition, able to unite reformist socialists and genuine democrats. During his trip, he met with many younger activists and was sanguine about the possibility that they could be educated to adhere to a third way—especially if they were guided by his former students, friends, and collaborators still living in Italy. These included the novelist Ignazio Silone, the jurist Piero Calamandrei, the journalist Ernesto Rossi, and the historian Aldo Garosci. Yet Salvemini’s hopes for a new Italy began to wane as he saw the restoration of many old attitudes and institutions within the Cold War context.  

Salvemini retired to Italy in 1948, an insider turned outsider who continued to intervene in Italian culture and politics until his death in 1957. Although he maintained contact with American friends such as H. Stuart Hughes, Ruth Draper, Water Lippmann, Felix Frankfurter, and Arthur Schlessinger Sr., he now focused his limited energies exclusively on Italian cultural and political life. He contributed articles to Il PonteCritica Sociale, and Il Mondo into his eighties and lobbied for electoral reform, a “third way,” and even European federation. In the last three decades of his life, Salvemini offered significant transatlantic cultural leadership to European émigrés in the United States, and helped shape the attitudes of American policymakers during and after the war. His exile experience also provided him with fresh insights and a new perspective as he sought to explain the rise of fascism and thus to shape the memory of the war and political life in Italy after 1945.

Selected Publications

Salvemini, Gaetano. The Fascist Dictatorship in Italy. New York: Holt, 1927.

Salvemini, Gaetano. Lettere dall’America 1944/1946. Edited by Alberto Merola. Bari: Laterza, 1967.

Salvemini, Gaetano. Memorie di un Fuoruscito. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1960.

Salvemini, Gaetano and George LaPiana. What To Do With Italy. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943.

Selected Bibliography

Garosci, Aldo. Vita di Carlo Rosselli. Florence: Vallecchi, 1973.

Killinger, Charles. Gaetano Salvemini: A Biography. Westport: Praeger, 2002.

Killinger, Charles. "Salvemini at Harvard: A Case Study." Italian Journal 8, no. 5-6 (1994): 43-44.

Killinger, Charles. "Wartime Anti-Fascism: Gaetano Salvemini and the American Authorities." In Support and Struggle: Italians and Italians Americans in a Comparative Perspective, edited by Joseph Tropea et al., 189-205. New York: The American Italian Historical Association, 1986.

Rossi, Ernesto. "Salvemini il non-conformista." Il Mondo 12 (1957): 21-27.

Tintori, Guido. "An Outsider’s Vision: Gaetano Salvemini and the 1948 Elections in Italy." Modern Italy 16, no. 2 (2011): 139-157.

Archival Collections

Archivio Gaetano Salvemini, Istituto Storico della Resistenza in Toscana, Florence, Italy.

Records of the Allied Control Commission (Italy), National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

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