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Italian Resistance Movements during WWII

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The Italian resistance movement (Italian: Resistenza italiana or just Resistenza) comprised different ideological and political groups. Opposing the occupying German forces and the Italian Fascist puppet regime of the Italian Social Republic during the later years of the war they were known as the Italian resistance and Italian partisans.

Outline of the situation

In 1943, the Allied occupied Sicily, the Mussolini regime collapsed and the newly formed Italian government announced that it would cooperate with the allies. Resistance to the Germans was widespread throughout Europe. At that point the Nazi troops rapidly occupied northern Italy to prevent the Allies marching northward along the peninsula. After a brief captivity Mussolini was rescued by the Germans, and set up a puppet regime in the region occupied by Germany in northern Italy. So there were a lot of resistance forces in northern Italy against the German occupation and in opposition to Mussolini’s regime, most of whom stood together with the Allies.

In Western Europe the resistance movement centered around the underground (secret) organizations that committed sabotage, aided downed Allied fliers, and worked with Allied intelligence agents. Women were often important couriers between these agents. In Italy, the Balkans, and parts of France, resistance took the form of guerrilla warfare. The guerrillas, often called partisans, sabotaged factories and military installations, attacked German and Italian troops, and encouraged the population to resist occupation. Communists were particularly active in the partisan movement; this helped the Soviet Union gain control of some countries after the war.

When Germany was finally defeated in 1945, Mussolini’s regime also collapsed after which he was captured by a resistance organization, shot and thrown on the street of Milan.

The main resistance

Guerilla formations included three politically varied groups:

  1. the communist Garibaldi Brigades, the Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom)
  2. Brigades related to the Partito d'Azione, and the socialist Matteotti Brigades.
  3. Smaller groups included Christian democrats and monarchists, such as the Brigate Fiamme Verdi (Green Flame Brigades),

The partisan strength was estimated at around 70,000-80,000 by May 1944 and according to one estimate, the resistance lost some 50,000 fighters throughout the conflict.

Automatic weapons became more common as they were captured in combat and as the Social Republic regime soldiers began defecting, bringing their own guns. Beretta MABs began appearing in larger numbers in October 1943, when they were spirited away en masse from the Beretta factory which was producing them for the Wehrmacht. Other supplies included explosives, clothing, boots, food rations and money (used to buy weapons or to compensate civilians for confiscations).

The mountainous regions

Due to the dreadful conditions and limited supplies the guerrilla warfare involved smaller groups of 40-50 fighters ambushing and harassing the Nazis and their allies. The partisans had no permanent headquarters or bases, making them difficult to destroy, relying heavily on the local populace for support and supplies.

  • Promissory notes were issued in exchange for the supplies, to be converted after the war.
  • Fighters used donkeys to move equipment at night while during the day the peasants used them in the fields.
  • The Nazis tried to split the populace from the resistance by adopting a reprisal policy of killing 10 Italians for every German killed by the Partisans.

Urban resistance

  • Networks of safe houses were established to hide weapons and wounded fighters.
  • People largely supported the resistance because of economic hardships, especially inflation.
  • Pasta prices tripled and bread prices had quintupled since 1938; hunger unified the underground and general population


Women in the resistance

Women played a large role, around 35,000 Italian women were recognized as female 'partigiane combattente' (partisan combatants) and 20,000 as patriote (patriots). Divided into these groups based on activities. The majority were aged between 20 and 29 and were generally kept separate from male partisans. Few were attached to brigades and were even rarer in mountain brigades. Female countryside volunteers were generally rejected though in urban areas had significant influence.

1944 uprising

During the summer and early fall of 1944 partisans attacked behind German lines. German casualties fighting partisans in summer 1944 amounted to 5,000 killed and between 7,000-8,000 missing/"kidnapped" (including deserters), and a similar number seriously wounded.

The Germans committed war crimes, including summary executions and systematic reprisals against civilian population. Resistance captives and suspects were often tortured and raped. Some of the most notorious mass atrocities included:

  • the Ardeatine massacre (335 Jewish civilians and political prisoners executed without a trial in a reprisal operation after a resistance bomb attack in Rome), the
  • Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre (about 560 random villagers brutally killed in an anti-partisan operation in the central mountains)
  • the Marzabotto massacre (about 770 civilians killed in similar circumstances) and

  • the Salussola massacre (20 partisan murdered after being tortured, as a reprisal).

In all, an estimated 15,000 Italian civilians were deliberately killed, including many women and children. Not all resistance members were Italians; many foreigners had escaped POW camps or joined guerrilla bands as so-called "military missions".

Among them were Yugoslavs, Czechs (deserters from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia army (in Italy for guard/patrol duty in 1944), Russians, Ukrainians, Dutch, Spaniards, Greeks, Poles, German defectors and deserters disillusioned with National Socialism and Britons and Americans (ex-prisoners or advisers deployed by the SAS, SOE and OSS).

Some later became well-known, such as climber and explorer Bill Tilman, reporter and historian Peter Tompkins, former RAF pilot Count Manfred Beckett Czernin, and architect Oliver Churchill.

Assisting escaped POWs

Another task carried out by the resistance was assisting escaping POWs (an estimated 80,000 were interned in Italy until 8 September 1943), to reach Allied lines or Switzerland. Some fugitives and groups of fugitives hid in safe houses, usually arranged by women as this was less likely to arouse suspicion.

Italian Jews were aided by DELASEM, a rescue network extending throughout occupied Italy that included Jews and Gentiles, Roman Catholic clergy, faithful/sympathetic police officers and even some German soldiers. Since Jews were considered "enemy aliens" by the Social Republic regime, they were left with little or nothing to live on, and many were deported to Nazi concentration and extermination camps where about 7,000 died. DELASEM helped thousands of Jews by offering food, shelter and money.

Some of its members would later be designated Righteous Among the Nations.

1945 uprising

  1. Bologna was attacked by partisans on April 19 and was liberated on April 21 by the Italian Co-Belligerent Army and the Polish II Corps under Allied command.
  2. Parma and Reggio Emilia were freed on April 24.
  3. Turin and Milan were liberated on April 25 through an insurrection following a general strike that commenced two days earlier; over 14,000 German and Fascist troops were captured in Genoa on April 26–27, when General Reinhart Meinhold surrendered to the CLN.
  4. The forces of German occupation in Italy officially capitulated on May 2..

A score-settling campaign ensued against pro-German collaborators, thousands of whom were rounded up by the vengeful partisans. Controversially, many of those detainees were speedily court martialled, condemned and shot, or killed without trial.

Liberation Day

The Resistance, the commitment to reconquer Italy's liberty and independence was a great civil engine of ideals, but above all it was a people in arms, a courageous mobilization of young and very young citizens who rebelled against foreign power."