A Short introduction of the Strike in March 1944 and of Political Deportation from Prato

Political Deportation and the General Strike in March 1944
by Camilla Brunelli

Tens of thousands of Italian citizens, men and women, arrested after 8 September 1943 for political or racial reasons, were caught up in the SS death machinery. Among the deportees for political reasons, many were arrested after the general strike that took place in occupied Italy in March 1944. The reason for their
arrest was given in their dossiers as “Schutzhaft”(preventive custody), a “legal” pretext invented by the Nazis that allowed them to send to concentration camps all those who opposed the regime, claiming they posed a danger for the security of the Reich.

Participation in the general strike in March 1944, organized in northern and central Italy by the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (Committee for National Liberation) comprising all anti-Fascist parties, was impressive, considering that it took place under Nazi occupation. Among its aims were ending the transfer of workers for forced labour in Germany, opposing the exploitation of resources in favour if the Third Reich’s war industry and preventing the Germans from dismantling the factories, as they had begun to do in some industrial areas. The main objective, however, was to provide a decisive contribution, through mass social opposition, to topple Fascism and Nazism. The slogans were: bread, peace, work and freedom.

The international press immediately understood the importance of this strike, as is made clear by an article published in the New York Times on 9 March 1944: “As a mass demonstration nothing has occurred in occupied Europe to compare in scale with the revolt of the workers in Italy.”

The repression which followed the general strike was extremely harsh and was facilitated by the crucial assistance of the Fascist militia. The roundups were indiscriminate, causing the arrest not just of workers who had joined the strike, but also of people who had nothing to do with the protest. The Nazi occupiers, while indeed incensed by the ever-growing civilian resistance in Italy, welcomed any occasion for repression and any pretext for reprisals that allowed them to deport great numbers of men and women who would be made to work for the war industry. After the armistice of 8 September 1943 and the occupation of Italy that followed it, even the former ally was seen as just a huge reservoir of workforce. Therefore, while stepping up, in Italy as elsewhere, the deportation of Jews for the “final solution”, roundups were also quite often carried out indiscriminately, and the men and women thus arrested were labelled “enemies of the Reich”.

In Prato, a town with a vast textile district, the strike was everywhere. An industrial action so thoroughly organized with the cooperation of the partisans and with such ample participation caught Fascist and German authorities by surprise.

On 7 March, after a massive allied air raid that had left the town in ruins, the manhunt was unleashed. Passers-by, people who had lost their home in the bombing, lookers-on, workers going to or returning from work were stopped by Fascist militia squads, many from out of town, assisted by the Carabinieri, who had been incorporated in the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (National Republican Guard), and taken to the Castello dell’Imperatore (Emperors Castle), at that time headquarters of the GNR. The roundup lasted through the entire afternoon and evening of the 7 March (women were not deported on this occasion, even if they had joined the strike). The next morning, on 8 March, when the total number of people arrested turned out to be meagre, it was decided to “pay a visit” to some of the factories, in order to capture workers who had returned to work after striking on the previous days. Among the factories thus visited were the Lanificio Lucchesi and the Rifinizione Campolmi, where the Lazzerini Library and the Textile Museum are today.

The people captured in Prato were taken to the Scuole Leopoldine (a former school) in Florence, which functioned then as a regional gathering point, to which hundreds of persons captured in other parts of Tuscany had also been taken. Some were released because of various kinds of intervention, but most were taken to the central railway station, Santa Maria Novella, in the afternoon of the 8th, put into sealed cattle wagons and sent towards Germany. Along the way, more wagons were added to the train at Fossoli and at Verona, carrying other workers that had been captured in the Milan and in the Turin areas. On the 11th the train arrived at Mauthausen, in Austria (since 1938 annexed to the German Reich), where during the First World War there had been a camp for prisoners of war. The KL (short for Konzentrationslager, concentration camp in German, although the abbreviation KZ is more commonly used) of Mauthausen, with its 49 sub-camps, was one of the worst in the entire Nazi concentration camp system, and the SS themselves ranked it as a third level camp, for “incorregibles”.

Through the deep snow, guarded and beaten by SS men, the deportees reached the camp enclosure on top of a hill. Then followed the usual procedure: registration, shaving, disinfection, shower, transfer to “quarantine”, where they underwent humiliations and tortures. Around 25 March most of them were transferred to the sub-camp at Ebensee, which at the time was still being built, while others remained in the main camp of Mauthausen and were assigned to slave labour in the stone quarry owned by the SS. Others ended up, and died, in the camps at Gusen, Bad Goisern, Linz or in the “euthanasia” centre at Hartheim. The “Nacht und Nebel” (night and fog) decree of 12 December 1941 ordered that relatives, friends and acquaintances of the deportees at home should be kept in the dark about their fate. Many families in Prato waited in vain, for months, for the return of their loved ones.

Besides the huge number of persons arrested after the general strike of March 1944, a total of 154 men arrested in other circumstances were also deported from Prato to the Nazi camps. Only 24 came back.

Reading Suggestions

Guidebook-Catalogue of the Prato Museum and Documentation Centre of Deportation and Resistance

Ultime voci: memorie dei combattenti della Federazione provinciale di Prato dell’Associazione Nazionale Combattenti, 10 vol., Associazione nazionale Combattenti e Reduci (National Association of Combatants and Veterans), Prato

Il libro dei deportati, ricerca diretta da Brunello Mantelli e Nicola Tranfaglia, promossa da ANED (National Association of Former Deportees), Mursia, Milano 2010

ANEI (National Association of Former Internees), Resistenza senza armi. Un capitolo di storia italiana (1943-1945) dalla testimonianza di militari toscani internati nei lager nazisti, Le Monnier, Firenze 1988

Enzo Collotti (a cura), Ebrei in Toscana tra occupazione e RSI – Persecuzione, depredazione, deportazione, Carocci, Roma 2007

Michele Di sabato, Il sacrificio di Prato sull’ara del Terzo Reich, Nuova Fortezza, Livorno 1987

Michele Di sabato, Dalla diffida alla pena di morte. La persecuzione degli antifascisti nel pratese, Pentalinea, Prato 2003

Elisabetta Faldi, L’ultimo anno di guerra a Prato, Pentalinea, Prato 2004

Daniela Jandl, Prato ed Ebensee. Venti anni insieme per la pace / Prato und Ebensee. Zwanzig Jahre gemeinsam für den Frieden, Pacini, Pisa 2007

Marco Palla (a cura di), Storia ddella Resistenza in Toscana, vol. I e II, Carocci, Roma 2006 e 2009

Marco Palla (a cura di), Storia dell’antifascismo pratese (1921-1953), Pacini Editore, Pisa 2012

Angela Spinelli, Le comunità contadine del pratese nella lotta di liberazione e nell’assistenza ai prigionieri evasi britannici 1943-1945, Università di Firenze, Facoltà di Magistero 1981

Ilda Verri Melo (a cura di), La speranza tradita. Antologia della deportazione politica toscana (1943-1945), coordinamento di Andrea Devoto, Pacini, Pisa 1992 (seconda edizione 2014)