History of Communism in Europe

Volume 14, 2023

Left-Wing Radical Politics and Emergency Powers in Interwar Europe

Pascal Girard
Pages 65-85

Italian and French Democracies’ Containment of Communist Unrest in the Early Cold War

After a brief interlude of legality ending in 1947, France and Italy faced violence fuelled by Communist organisations; the most important took place from the autumn of 1947 to the autumn of 1948 and greatly impressed governments and public opinion, sustaining fear of a Communist uprising. Facing this challenge to public order were resolute Ministers of the Interior Mario Scelba and Jules Moch. Their policy gained them the reputation of reso­lute anti-Communists going beyond the limits of democratic legality. This paper questions this simple picture. In fact, for centre-right and centre-left govern­ments ruling these two countries, emergency powers were linked to the state of (civil) war and both ministries’ policies relied mainly on the application of the existing penal code and the mobilisation of existing forces. Moves to strengthen repressive laws depended on a long and uncertain parliamentary process and, without wide political consensus and solid parliamentary majorities, they often proved to be too little or too late. Judiciary repression was sometimes inefficient, leaving the Ministries infuriated by impunity. With the fear of world war peaking in 1950, there were legal efforts to thwart possible Communist support for a Soviet invasion; but those did not appear any more fruitful than prior attempts, and faded when internal matters seemed more urgent than the declining “Red Threat” in the 1950s. This study also highlights the fact that the repression by the Italian state, relying on former Fascist laws and sometimes infringing on civil liberties, was more violent than in France. Casualties caused by law enforcement persisted even after the decrease of Communist activism, underlying the histor­ically higher level of social and political confrontation in Italy.