A Memory of Leone Ginzburg, 75 Years After His Death *

Giulio Saputo
Chief Editor of the online journal Eurobull

The 5th of February was the 75th anniversary of the death of Leone Ginzburg, tortured to death by the Nazis in Rome. On the wall of the building that hosted the clandestine typography in which Ginzburg was captured, there is a plaque to remember him:

A police ambush in the typography of “L’Italia Libera” tore Leone Ginzburg from the clandestine struggle. Italian for his passion for Risorgimento, European for his thoughts and ideals, he was born in Odessa on 4-4-1909 and died in Regina Coeli, a victim of Nazi terror, on 5-2-1944. May his memory live on in the heart of those who hope and fight for a just freedom”.

We are talking about a great intellectual, a partisan who chose to participate in the Italian Resistance with the Partito d’Azione and Giustizia e Libertà. “Rise up and be regenerated” (in It. “Insorgere e Risorgere”), a motto by Emilio Lussu, represents very well these 35000 fighters (amounting to 20% of partisans) active in the 20 months of the Italian Resistance. Among the fallen, about 4500 people, there were a very high number of middle- and high-class people (among which we count also Ginzburg): this sacrifice was probably due not only to their scarce experience, but also to the vision of politics coming from the Rosselli brothers, in which the need of action overshadowed every other impulse, even survival. A vision of the world that has at its centre “the action assisted by reason and (…) illuminated by moral light”; freedom conceived as “means and end”, and “liberalism (…) as the ideal inspiring force, socialism as the practical creative force”. The ideals of this “democratic revolution” were based on a strong historicism coming from Gobetti’s interpretation of Risorgimento, formed by “heretics” and “without heros” for bringing about an historical line  coming from a distant past, but with a considerable contemporary relevance: “the truth of our interpretation of history – wrote Carlo Levi at the time – is conditional on our action: the legitimacy of the latter lies in the continuation of a tradition”.

They were living, in the war and in the struggle against fascism, the conviction that they could give to Italy and Europe a new rebirth. A collective Risorgimento that would erase the abominations of Nazi-Fascism, considered as the end of humanity, with a view to build a “new world”.

As we are aware that that battle is a long way from being concluded even today, in a European Union which is prisoner of nationalism and of the dangers of the authoritarian drifts of the current political-institutional system, we report as a necessary example of a proactive historical memory the lives of these people.

Leone was born in Odessa on 4 April 1909, from Fëdor Nikolaevič and Vera Griliches, in a Jewish laic family, the last of three brothers. The father was an industrial; the mother, of Saint Petersburg, was active in social works and in the field of education. On the political point of view, the Ginzburg family had different positions: the father was a liberal, close to the Constitutional Democratic Party, while the mother sympathized for a minor left party, the national-socialists; his brother Nicola was social-democrat and his sister Marussa was instead close to the revolutionary socialists. After the outbreak of the revolution, the family moved to Turin, where Ginzburg graduated in the high school “Massimo D’Azeglio” and, for a while, was in Berlin. In class he stood out for his great culture and for a certain ethic intransigence of Kantian inspiration that will characterize him for all his life. Enrolled in the Faculty of Law, he has as classmates Bobbio, Foa and Galante Garrone. He meets also Pavese, enrolled in the Faculty of Literature, and thanks to him he meets Garosci and Argan. During these years, he abstains from any opposition activity until he obtained the Italian citizenship (1931), that he requested when he came of age: the premise, almost the necessary prerequisite of his political action. The sense of belonging to the Italian national community goes always along (since his childhood writings) with a strong polemic against every nationalism and a profound and deep-rooted pro-European attitude. In 1928, once he meets Croce, he decides to move to the Faculty of Literature.

In 1932, a scholarship brings him to spend April and May in Paris. Here he meets again Garosci (who had fled from Italy), attends the circles of political exiles and meets Rosselli and Salvemini. He decides then to join the clandestine antifascist movement. When he goes back to Italy, the ranks of the Turin antifascism have been recently disrupted by the tough sentences of the special court and Ginzburg decides to reorganize them, starting with a series of contacts and creating, during summer, a new group of Giustizia e Libertà in Turin. As members of the group there are Augusto Monti, Carlo Levi, Barbara Allason, Massimo Mila, Carlo Mussa-Ivaldi, Professor Michele Giua and his son Renzo. Shortly after, Vittorio Foa, Mario Levi, Sion Segre adhere as well and contacts are established with Carlo Muscetta and Tommaso Fiore. Between the end of 1932 and the start of 1933, Ginzburg tries to organize the escape of Ernesto Rossi from the prison in Piacenza, but the attempt has no results, also because of the transfer of the prisoner to another jail. Meanwhile, he becomes lecturer in Russian literature, but when the regime decides to require a pledge of allegiance also from teachers, he does not hesitate to choose the definitive renunciation to the academic activity – despite the brilliant perspectives of that career.

In 1934, his GL group suffers about sixty arrests and Ginzburg himself is imprisoned. Once he gets out of prison on 13 March 1936, he is obliged to live under special surveillance. Two years later, due to the racial laws, he is deprived of citizenship and becomes stateless. On 12 February 1938, he marries Natalia, daughter of Professor Giuseppe Levi, and he is engaged in the activity of the publishing house Einaudi. In June 1940 , right after Italy’s entry in the war, he is sent, as “civilian war interned”, to Pizzoli (L’Aquila) as “a dangerous antifascist” and he is subject to special surveillance.

On 26 July 1943, after the fall of the regime, Ginzburg goes to Rome and resumes his contacts with the leading group of the Action Party, meeting – among others – Manlio Rossi-Doria, Carlo Muscetta, Nicolò Carandini, Ugo La Malfa and Franco Venturi. With Venturi, he leaves for Turin to re-establish other contacts, and on August 27 he is in Milan, where in Rollier’s house he takes part in the foundation of the Movimento Federalista Europeo (European Federalists Movement). A few days after, between September 5 and 7, he attends in Florence a clandestine congress of the party, in which take part also Ferruccio Parri, Emilio Lussu, Riccardo Lombardi, Riccardo Bauer, Enzo Enriques Agnoletti and many other Action Party members he had already met. The esteem and  trust in his regards are such that, after September 8, he is awarded the direction of the clandestine journal “L’Italia libera” (Free Italy), published in Rome. In the capital, where he has also received the assignment to manage the Roman office of the Einaudi publishing house, he lives under the fake name of Leonida Gianturco.

On November 20, 1943, he is arrested in the editorial office of Italia Libera and he is brought to Regina Coeli prison. During the first days of December, his real identity is revealed, and he is transferred to the prison row controlled by the Germans. He is tortured and beaten up during the interrogation. Sandro Pertini, imprisoned with him, remembers to have met him, bloodstained, after the last interrogation; and that Ginzburg was able to tell him “Woe to us if tomorrow (…) we will include all the German people in our condemnation. We have to distinguish between the people and the Nazis”.

The 4 February he feels very bad; in the evening, he writes the last letter to his wife Natalia and calls a nurse, who refuses to get the doctor. On the morning of February 5 he is found dead, and only then will his wife be allowed to see him.


From a political point of view, it is possible to indicate four names who have been decisive for Ginzburg: Mazzini, Cattaneo, Gobetti and Croce. Mazzini, for his national fervor, his ethical vision and his call to action. With Cattaneo he shares federalism, both for its aversion to the centralist state and its perspective of the United States of Europe. Leone is a convinced federalist, since the articles he publishes in “Giustizia e Libertà” with the pen name MS: “in a certain sense, it is not possible to adhere sincerely to GL without being federalists”, he writes in 1933. With Gobetti, he shares his ethical and political intransigence, that goes together with a great cultural openness; his criticism of  pre-fascist Italy; his already mentioned concept of autonomy; his liberalism founded on ethical bases, able to look forward to a social democracy. In Croce, with whom he exchanges a rich correspondence, he sees the man of the Manifesto of 1925. His difference with the great philosopher lies in the choice he made to conspire in hiding, his refusal of social conservatism and his sense of insufficiency about a “religion of freedom” not embodied in more concrete political programs.

After his death, many are the displays of affection coming from the friends who survived. Ernesto Rossi frankly writes to Bobbio: “I’ve seen Leone a few times, but before meeting him, Foa, Mila and Monti had talked to me about him in Regina Coeli and their speeches had already given me an idea of his value (…); after his death, I have too a sort of cult of his memory (…). Carlo Rosselli and Leone Ginzburg: two leaders that could have managed the action of our small group of “melancholic crazy guys” (…). But, although we missed them, their influence on our action remained”. Bobbio remembers him several times with emotional words: “He died alone, as if he had nothing else to say. Instead, his speech had just begun.”


* Original article (in Italian): https://www.eurobull.it/un-ricordo-di-ginzburg-a-75-anni-dalla-morte

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