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Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Pertini, born in Stella (Liguria) in 1896, was called up in November 1915 and assigned to the 1ª Compagnia Automobilist (1st Driver Company) of the 25º reggimento di artiglieria da campagna (25th Field Artillery Regiment), stationed in Turin and later on the Trentino Front, at the disposal of the headquarters of the First Army, where he remained till late 1916. Like all holders of a high school degree, he was eligible for the officer corps, and could have become a Second Lieutenant after attending a crash course; however, Pertini was a Socialist and a neutralist, and as such refused to attend the course and preferred to enlist as a private. In early 1917, however, General Cadorna ordered that all holders of high school degrees were to mandatorily attend the officers’ course to become junior officers; Pertini thus attended the couse, and in April 1917 was sent to the Isonzo Front as a Second Lieutenant in the machine-gun section of the 277th Infantry Regiment, “Vicenza” Infantry Brigade.
In August 1917, during the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo, Pertini distinguished himself in the capture of Mount Jelenik, in the Julian Alps; between 21 and 23 August he led his men in a series of assaults on well-fortified Austro-Hungarian machine-gun positions, capturing all of them along with many prisoners and much equipment. For this action, Pertini was recommended by his superiors for a Silver Medal for Military Valor; the procedure for its assignment, however, became stuck in bureaucracy, and in the 1920s the Fascist regime (see below) covered up the whole affair, so that it would take another seven decades before the medal was finally awarded.
During a gas attack, Pertini was badly poisoned by phosgene and only survived thanks to his orderly, who carried him on his shoulders till the nearest field hospital and then threatened with his pistol the medics who, thinking Pertini to be already beyond saving, had first refused to treat him. Instead, not only did he survive, but he made a full recovery and returned to the frontline.
After Caporetto, Pertini followed his unit in the retreat through Friuli, after which he was stationed on Mount Pasubio, in the Vicentine Alps (near the Asiago Plateau), where he remained till the end of the war; during this period he was promoted to Lieutenant. On 4 November 1918, after Vittorio Veneto, Pertini entered Trento with his machine-gunner platoon. He was stationed for some time in Dalmatia after the end of the hostilities, being finally discharged in March 1920.
After the war, Pertini joined the Italian Socialist Party and became a staunch opponent of the rising Fascist regime; Fascist gangs repeatedly devastated his lawyer’s office in Savona and physically assaulted him, once for wearing a red tie, another for laying a wreath to honor the memory of Giacomo Matteotti, the Socialist MP murdered by Fascists in 1924. In May 1925 he was arrested for handing out leaflets denouncing the involvement of the monarchy in the establishment of the Fascist dictatorship, as well as the illegal acts and violence committed by Fascists. During the interrogation and subsequent trial, he declared that he would keep fighting against the regime, no matter the punishment. He was sentenced to eight monts in prison, and as soon as he was out of prison, he immediately resumed his anti-fascist activities; in October 1926 he was again assaulted by blackshirts, who broke his arm. He then moved to Milan, but shortly afterwards he was sentenced to five months of confinement; evading arrest, in December 1926 he fled to Corsica in a motorboat along with Filippo Turati, the old leader of the Italian Socialist Party. He lived in exile in France from 1927 to 1929, working various jobs (taxi driver, bricklayer, film extra), after which he re-entered Italy with false documents, passing through Switzerland, in March 1929.
There, he tried with others to re-organize the Italian Socialist Party (now outlawed by the regime and thus underground) and to plan an attempt on Mussolini’s life, but in April 1929 he was recognized in Pisa by a Fascist from Savona and arrested. He was tried by the Tribunale Speciale per la difesa dello Stato and sentenced to ten years and nine months in prison, followed by a further three years of special surveillance. Refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the tribunal, Pertini did not defend himself during the trial, and instead urged the judges to go on and pass the sentence, which had already been decided. He was first imprisoned in Santo Stefano island, off the coast of Lazio, but in December 1930, after the deterioration of his health conditions, he was transferred to a different jail in Turi, Apulia. In November 1931 he was again transferred, this time to Pianosa, an island off the coast of Tuscany. In October 1932 he had a clash with one of his jailers, which resulted in a further sentence to nine months and 24 days. In September 1935 he was transferred to Ponza, another island off the coast of Lazio; in September 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, despite having completed his sentence, he was sentenced to another five years of confinement in Ventotene, yet another island-prison for political dissidents (same archipelago as Ponza), for being an “extremely dangerous element for national order”.
On 13 August 1943, a few weeks after the fall of the regime and Mussolini’s arrest, Pertini was finally released; he then went to Rome and re-established the Italian Socialist Party, of which he became deputy secretary. After the Armistice of Cassibile (8 September 1943), he became a member of the military council of the National Liberation Committee (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale, CLN) and participated in the fighting against German troops trying to enter Rome near Porta San Paolo; after the occupation of Rome he went underground, but was arrested on 15 October 1943 and imprisoned in the Regina Coeli jail. He was sentenced to death, but before the sentence could be carried out, on 24 January 1944 he was freed thanks to a plot devised by fellow Socialist Resistance members of the “Matteotti” Brigade, who forged documents ordering his release and managed to infiltrate phone communications, sending a false phone call ordering the release of Pertini and another six prisoners.
He resumed his clandestine activities in Rome for some time, then he left for Northern Italy, but was soon recalled to Rome (which in the meantime had been liberated by the Allies) by the CLN; as he felt his presence there was not needed, however, he decided to go back to the North. He was flown from Rome to southern France (also liberated by the Allies) and then crossed the Alps and re-entered Italy. Between March and April 1945, he prepared and then launched the final insurrection in Milan with other prominent anti-fascists. In the same days as Milan was liberated, Pertini’s younger brother Eugenio, a member of the Italian Communist Party, was executed by the Nazis in the Flossenburg concentration camp.
After the war, Pertini became a member of the Constituent Assembly, which wrote the new Constitution of Italy, as well as one of the most important members of the Italian Socialist Party. In 1968 he was elected president of the Chamber of Deputies, and ten years later he became the President of the Italian Republic, probably the most beloved and respected President in Italy’s history. He died in 1990, at age 93.