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il martire fascista

29 april 2020

Adriano Sofri's Il martire fascista is an oddly constructed and executed book. It's one of those non-fictions that really merits only article-length treatment, but is eked to 223 pages by notes, appendices, excurses, and quotation at great length from source documents. Though much of the book just relays texts directly from archives, the central story is, as Sofri's subtitle puts it, equivoca e terribile: murky and ghastly.

What follows technically includes spoilers, so if you don't want to learn them, read no further. If you do not read Italian, and doubt that Il martire fascista will ever be translated, you might as well read on.

In 1930, a pair of Slovenian activists murdered a Sicilian named Francesco Sottosanti, who had been assigned to teach school on the far northeast marches of Italy, in territory that had been Austro-Hungarian till the First World War. Sottosanti was tasked with "Italianizing" the local Slovenes, a program that included breaking them of their tendency to speak their native language, and drilling them in the best practices of Fascism.

Many Slovenians objected to this project; I called them "activists" above because to some they were terrorists and to others they were freedom fighters. The killers in question, a pair of very dangerous customers named Černač and Zelen, would eventually become Yugoslavian resistance heroes. But in 1930, they were somewhere between poachers and rebels. Their mission was to kill the teacher Sottosanti.

Sofri's main discovery was that Černač and Zelen killed Sottosanti all right, but they killed the wrong Sottosanti.

How the heck many could there be? Sofri discovered that there were two Sicilian Sottosantis, brothers in fact, who were schoolteachers in the Slovene region of Italy in the late 1920s. The murdered man, Francesco, was by all accounts a truly nice guy for a strict Fascist, and the outpouring of grief that followed his murder had genuine elements to it, even among the Slovenes that he was busy assimilating. The guy that Černač and Zelen should have killed was Ugo Sottosanti, a vicious gym teacher who was accused by some local parents of spitting into the mouths of children who dared to speak Slovenian in class. (To make matters even more terribile, Ugo was said to have tuberculosis.)

Ugo Sottosanti was such an nasty individual that as soon as the Fascist government heard of his doings, they shipped him home to Sicily. But when Francesco showed up for the 1930-31 school year, a contract was still out on maestro Sottosanti, and the killers killed the only one they could find.

Francesco Sottosanti became "the Fascist martyr." Publicizing the killers' mistake would have helped neither side, rhetorically. Getting the wrong guy didn't reflect well on the hit men, and the fact that they'd covered up Ugo's horrific teaching methods didn't reflect well on the Italian authorities. Bizarrely, the best thing seemed to be for both sides to frame the murder as a political killing (though the actual motive was far more personal). The official stories were terrorism or martyrdom, though enough clues survived for Sofri to unravel some of the truth, 85+ years later. Francesco's body went a hero's progress across the length of the Italian nation, and was buried with full Fascist honors in Sicily. His supposed crimes, really his brother Ugo's, became a rallying point for Slovenian resistance to Mussolini.

In an even more bizarre coda to the story, Mussolini went to Sicily, in 1937, and was fêted by Ugo Sottosanti. Apparently not as tubercular as he was made out to be, Ugo survived many years and became a pillar of Fascist physical culture in his native island. Sofri reprints photographs of Ugo conducting an exhibition of synchronized gymnastics and of Il Duce watching approvingly.

As I said, Sofri reprints every available document about the case, and even at that gets only to a slim volume with a lot of white space and illustration. But the story of the Sottosantis is indelible, and speaks to the ethnic tensions that still rend Europe today. Sofri reflects that many in the EU have never really known national borders: but that many also want to rebuild them. He notes that even as he was writing, some nationalist Italian leaders proposed building a Trump-like wall to keep out Slovenians and other migrants from the east. But borders and the mentality that reinforces them lead to violence like the Sottosanti murder, equivoca e terribile.

Sofri, Adriano. Il martire fascista: Una storia equivoca e terribile. Palermo: Sellerio, 2019.