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Resistance from everyday Ukrainians remains crucial to success

What antifascist organizing in Rome during World War II tells us about the power of resilience

People attend a ceremony for slain Ukrainian volunteers Yuriy Horovets, Maksym Mykhaylov, Taras Karpyuk and Bohdan Lyagov in Kyiv on March 7 during the war against Russia. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)
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As the Ukrainian army and civilians continue to fight the Russian invasion, their psychological toughness and persistence is on full display and essential to long-term victory.

The Ukrainian army’s success can also be attributed to the broad support of everyday citizens, who are explicitly modeling their homegrown resistance on the tactics used by antifascists during World War II, in active fighting, sabotage and perseverance. The reverberations of the Via Rasella attack — a lesser-known action by the Italian resistance against their Nazi occupiers — is a reminder that war is as much a psychological battle as it is a military one.

On March 23, 1944, Rome experienced one of the most consequential acts of resistance of the war, one that would galvanize antifascists across the country. That morning, members of a partisan guerrilla warfare team called “Gappisti” lay in wait. A Nazi parade was planned in honor of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the first fascist organization in 1919, begun by Mussolini and fewer than 150 disgruntled supporters. Rosario Bentivegna posed as a sanitation worker pushing a garbage can, smoking a cigar and sweeping up along a narrow section of Via Rasella in central Rome. His partner Carla Capponi mingled with onlookers.

The Nazis had occupied much of Italy for the previous six months, having anticipated its surrender by sending trains of soldiers southward after Mussolini was deposed in 1943. They would meet the Allied army’s mainland invasion south of Rome, where the fighting had been stalled all winter. All were eager to change the course of war.

As a column of soldiers came into view at the March parade, Bentivegna used his cigar to light 40 pounds of explosives hidden in his garbage can before briskly walking away. The explosion scattered Nazi soldiers and debris. When the dust began to clear, Capponi pulled her gun from her trench coat pocket to take aim at Nazis, driving them down the street toward other Gappisti, who fired upon them as well. Then the woman disappeared into the frantic crowd.

The bold action killed 52 Nazis, injured more than 100 and sent a clear signal to Nazi forces that the antifascism resistance was not backing down. It also sparked a horrific Nazi retribution that Hitler declared “would make the world tremble.” The next day the Nazis kidnapped hundreds of Romans — some from the infamous Nazi prison and torture chamber on Via Tasso, others from streets across the Eternal City — and took them to the sacred Ardeatine cave outside of the city walls, where they were assassinated.

As news spread, these events inspired — and inflamed — partisans and their supporters across occupied Italy, and helped to grow the movement against Nazi Germany in Rome and beyond. As historian Halik Kochanski has explained, this high-profile event allowed the resistance to circumvent a highly censored national press and “helped change the mood of a country.”

News of successful actions that destabilized the Nazis brought more people into the fold, both as armed members and in critical support roles. And it fostered resilience: Romans continued to hide members of the resistance, despite the increased punishments for doing so, and partisans nimbly shifted their leadership when members were caught or compromised.

The Via Rasella attack was also intended to send a message with its precise timing and target. An Italian journalist had written in his diary that day that it was “a significant gesture carried out on a significant day and so all the more meaningful in itself.” This message resonated with Italian citizens who were looking for ways to contribute to this fight against tyranny.

It worked.

In the wake of the Via Rasella attack, Gappisti in Rome and regions to the north became bolder — assassinating Nazi and fascist leaders, bombing bridges and tanks and providing critical intelligence for advancing Allied forces. And many more joined their ranks after learning of these more visible actions, including tens of thousands of women, whose relative freedom of movement was vital to the resistance. Nazis did not believe women were active in the resistance, allowing them to pass through their many checkpoints with little scrutiny.

They were conscripted to transport everything from radio transmitters to gun caches to documents. They also placed bombs, wrote and disseminated underground newspapers and acted as spies, often operating in plain sight, posing as a mother or niece running errands. This was a boon for advancing the feminist agenda in Italy, and many female resistance members would become leaders within the new postwar government, including Capponi herself.

On this anniversary of the Via Rasella attacks, we are reminded that the resistance to any armed invasion and occupation depends upon more than those fighting on the front line. Its power lies in the psychological battle as well, which galvanizes a country to work together against a great foe.

As the Ukrainians are demonstrating today, their resistance is sustained by actions as diverse as youths adapting a smartphone app to coordinate aid and women sewing camouflage nets sent to the front line in packages with baked goods and notes of support. It’s not only about firepower — although that certainly helps — but also fostering the will and resilience of a people willing to risk their lives for a cause.