Indro Montanelli


Indro Montanelli

Indro Montanelli (April 22, 1909 - July 22, 2001) was an Italian journalist and historian, known for his new approach to writing history in books such as "History of the Greeks" and "History of Rome". He has been widely considered the greatest italian journalist of the XX century.

Career

Indro Montanelli Bassi was born at Fucecchio, near Florence.

Throughout his career he retained an idiosyncratic and particularly undiplomatic style, even when this made him very unpopular among his peers and employers. This is particularly well illustrated in his book "La stecca nel coro" (which translates as "Going against the current") which is a list of leading articles he composed between 1974 and 1994 in the newspaper "Il Giornale" which he founded and directed after being sacked from the very prestigious "Corriere della Sera", in October 1973. It was during this experience, in 1977, that the Red Brigade terrorists shot him four times in the legs, in the streets of Milan.

The 1920s and 1930s

Montanelli's career began with a Law degree from the University of Florence in the early 1920s, where he wrote a thesis on the electoral reform of Mussolini's fascism. Allegedly, in this thesis, he maintained that rather than a reform it amounted to the abolition of elections, which goes some way to illustrate the ambiguous nature of the Italian fascist censorship. According to him, it was a short experience of the French cultural atmosphere in Grenoble, while he was taking language lessons, that he realised that his true vocation was that of the journalist.

Montanelli began his journalistic career by writing for the fascist newspaper "Il Selvaggio" ("The Savage"), then directed by Mino Maccari, and in 1932 for the "Universale", a magazine published only once fortnightly and which offered no pay. Montanelli admitted that in those days he saw in fascism the hope of a movement that could potentially create an Italian national conscience that would have resolved the economic and socioeconomic differences between the north and the south. This enthisiasm for the fascist movement began to wane when in 1935 Mussolini forced the abolition of the "Universale" along with other magazines and newspapers that expressed opinions on the nature of fascism.

But it was in 1934, in Paris that Montanelli began to write for the crime pages of the daily newspaper "Paris Soir", then as foreign correspondent in Norway and later in Canada (where he ended up working in a farm in Alberta!). From there he began a collaboration with Webb Miller of the United Press of New York. It was on this occasion that Montanelli conducted his first interview with a celebrity: Henry Ford - who surprised Montanelli by admitting he did not own a driving license. While working for the United Press he learned to write for the lay public in an uncomplicated style that would distinguish him within the realm of Italian journalism.

The war in Abyssinia

When Mussolini declared war on Abyssinia with the intent of making Italy an empire, Montanelli immediately abandoned his collaboration with the United Press and became a voluntary conscript for this war. He believed then, along with many Italians of the time, that this was the chance for Italy to bring civilization to the 'savage' world of Africa, an enthusiasm that Montanelli blamed also on his passion for the works of Rudyard Kipling. In spite of these initial passions, it was this very experience that led to Montanelli's biggest change of mind with regards to Italian fascism.

This amounted to the realisation that the Abyssinia experience was none other than a pretext to elevate Mussolini on an ever higher pedestal, a show more than the substance of a revolutionary change of the colonization and civilization of Africa. With few exceptions, such as the defense of Gondar, the conquest had been uneven, uneventful and inglorious (the Italians dropped gas bombs from aeroplanes on the Abyssinian ground troops who defended themselves with spears). One of the fascist leaders of the time, Farinacci, not finding enemies, began throwing hand grenades in the lake of Ascianghi: one exploded in his hand resulting in a silver medal award.

Montanelli began writing about the war to his father who - in Montanelli's total ignorance - sent the letters to one of the most famous journalists of those times, Ugo Ojetti, who published them regularly on the most prestigious Italian newspaper: "Il Corriere della Sera".

The Spanish Civil War

On his return from Abyssinia, Montanelli became foreign correspondent in Spain for the daily newspaper "Il Messaggero", where he experienced the Spanish Civil War on the side of Francisco Franco's troops. In this period he shared a room with Kim Philby, who, decades later, would reveal himself to the world as one of the greatest Soviet mole spies that ever existed. One day he disappeared, taking with him Montanelli's socks and other underwear. After the capture of the city of Santander, Montanelli wrote that '(...) it had been a long military walk with only one enemy: the heat'. This judgement contrasted with the propaganda of the times that painted that 'battle' as a glorious bloodshed on the side of the Italian contingent. For this article he was reimpatriated, tried and expelled from the Fascist party and from the 'journalist book'. When, in the trial, he was asked why he had written such an unpatriotic article, he replied: "Show me a single casualty of that battle: because a battle without casualties is not a real battle!" The trial ended with a full absolution.

Foreign correspondent with the Corriere della Sera

The ambiguous nature of the Italian fascist dictatorship manifested itself once again when, in 1938, the then minister of culture, Bottai, offered Montanelli the job of director of the Institute of Culture in Tallinn, Estonia, and lecturer in Italian at the University of Dorpat. In this period the then director of the "Corriere della Sera", Aldo Borelli, asked Montanelli to engage in a 'collaboration' as foreign correspondent (he could not be employed as journalist, because this had been forbidden by the fascist regime). Montanelli began to correspond for this newspaper from Estonia and Albania (during the Italian annexation of this country).

The German-Italian bike tour (1939)

In August 1939 the "Corriere della Sera "needed a tall and blond reporter to be sent to the German Alps to report on a propagandistic cycling tour where Italian fascists and exponents of the Hitlerjugend demonstrated their brotherly attitudes to each other. While the Germans were tall, blond, athletic with new and shiny bicycles, the Italians were small, dark and scrawny with second-hand bicycles. Throughout the trip towards Berlin, the Germans remained at the slow Italian pace in order to avoid unnecessary humiliation. As a result, the ride was uneventful and boring. So much so that Montanelli - who needed to send a daily piece to his newspaper - invented the story that on seeing peasants ploughing the fields, the cyclists had abandoned their bikes and had begun ploughing alongside the peasants. This story was liked so much by the then Italian minister of internal affairs, Starace, that it led to mayhem. The German and Italian cyclists must have been flabbergasted by the sudden award of medals and congratulations that came from Rome and Berlin. It is perhaps not surprising that they also acquiesced to pretend that the fictitious event really took place.

Invasions of Poland, Baltic countries and Finland

In August 1939 Germany declared war on Poland and invaded it. Montanelli was sent to report from the front in a Mercedes accompanied by German state functionaries. In the vicinity to the city of Graudenz the car was stopped by a convoy of German tanks. On one of these stood Hitler himself, but a few feet from Montanelli. When Hitler was told that the only person in casual clothes was Italian, he jumped out of the tank and eyeing Montanelli like a madman, began a ten minute hysterical speech followed by military salute and exit. Apart from this episode - which Montanelli was forbidden to report - there had been little to report because the invasion of Poland was completed so rapidly that it was over within weeks. It was allegedly him who reported about the Skirmish of Krojanty and created a myth form it.

Montanelli was not welcome in Italy, and decided to move to Lithuania. The joint German-Russian invasion of Poland instinctively told him that more was brewing on the Soviet Union border. His instinct was correct because shortly after his arrival in Kaunas - the seat of Lithuanian government - the Soviet Union declared an Ultimatum to the Baltic Republics. At this point Montanelli continued to travel towards Tallinn as it was his wish to see the last of a free and democratic Estonia, which was soon invaded by Soviet Union. At this point, Montanelli was not popular in Italy, nor Germany because of his pro-Estonian and pro-Polish articles and had been expelled by the Soviet Union for being a foreigner. So he was forced by the events to cross the Baltic sea and reach Helsinki.

In Finland Montanelli began writing articles about the Lapps and the reindeer, although this was not for long as Molotov had made requests on the Finnish government for the annexation of part of the Finnish land to the Soviet Union. The Finnish delegation, headed by Paasikivi, had refused to give in to these requests and on their return it was clear that war was in the air. Montanelli was not able to write about the details of the talks between the Soviet and Finnish delegations, as they were shrouded in strict secrecy, although he was able to interview Paasikivi, who was happy to fill him in on everything except for the content of the talks.

Throughout the so-called Winter War which ensued, Montanelli wrote hotly pro-Finnish articles both from the front and from bomb-stricken Helsinki writing about the almost mythical enterprises of the battle of Tolvajarvi, and of men like captain Pajakka who with 200 Lapps successfully confronted 40,000 Russians in the region of Petsamo. Back in Italy Montanelli's stories had been followed with great enthusiasm by the public, but not so enthusiastic was the response of the fascist leaders who were committed to an alliance with the Soviet Union. When Borelli, director of the" Corriere della Sera", had been ordered to censor Montanelli's articles, he had had the courage to reply that "thanks to his articles the "Corriere" increased its sales from 500,000 to 900,000 copies: are you going to reimburse me?". When the Winter War was over, and the non-aggression pact was signed between the Soviet Union and Finland, Montanelli was personally thanked by the elusive Mannerheim himself, for writing in favour of the Finnish cause.

Invasion of Norway

Before his return to Italy Montanelli witnessed the invasion of Norway, and was arrested by the German army for his hostility towards the German-Italian alliance. He escaped with the help of his friend Quisling, and made a run for the north of the country where the English and the French were disembarking their troops at Narvik. He was met by the one-eyed, one-armed Major Carton de Wyart who explained that there were no more than 10,000 Allied troops in Norway - many of them not even trained for battle. Nobody seemed to know where their garrison was. The British wanted to go inland and attack the Germans, but the French wanted to stay put and consolidate their positions. After having seen the clockwork invasion of Poland by the German troops, this disarray was a worrying sight. When the Germans began bombing these positions the Allies were forced to embark once again and beat a hasty withdrawal to England.

Condemned to death

After witnessing war and destruction in the Balkans (where the Soviet Red Army slaughtered the Hungarian and Romanian population), and the disastrous Italian invasion of Greece, Montanelli decided to join the partisan movement against the fascist regime, by joining the Partito d'Azione. Here he met with socialist Sandro Pertini (who would be president of Italy from 1978).

He was eventually once again captured by the Germans, tried and condemned to death. In the Milan prison of San Vittore he met with a young lad whose job was to collect the dirty laundry: Mike Bongiorno, who would later become one of the most famous quizmasters of Italian TV. In the prison he also made the acquaintance of Generale Della Rovere, who was said to have been arrested while on a secret mission on behalf of the Allies. The reality was that this man was a thief called Giovanni Bertoni, a spy for the Germans. But Bertoni was so taken in by the military character he was playing that he refused to relay any information to his German masters and was executed like a real general. After the war Montanelli was to devote a book to this incident ("Il generale Della Rovere", 1959, later turned into a movie with Vittorio De Sica and Totò).

Salvation came at the end of 1944 with the help of unknown conspirators who arranged for his transfer to a prison in Verona. The transfer was then transformed into a dash for the Swiss border. The identity of these conspirators remained a mystery until decades later, when it appeared that it had been the result of collusion by several agencies. Among them, Marshall Mannerheim allegedly put pressure on his German allies ("You are executing a gentleman" he said to von Falkenhorst, the commander of the German troops stationed in Finland) resulting in Berlin's opening of an inquiry.

In 1945 while hiding in Switzerland, he published the novel "Drei Kreuze", later appeared in Italian with the title "Qui non riposano" ("Here they do not rest"). Inspired by Thornton Wilder 's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey", the story begins on September 17th 1944 when a Val d’Ossola priest buries three unknown corpses and commemorates them with three anonymous crosses.

Last years

Montanelli continued his career at the "Corriere della Sera" newspaper in Milan, famously authoring deeply sympathetic articles from Hungary, during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. In 1973, together with Enzo Bettiza, he founded and directed the Milan daily "Il Giornale".

On 2 September 1977, Montanelli was shot in his legs by a commando of the Red Brigades, outside the milanese head-office of the Corriere della Sera, and narrowly escaped death by blood loss.

When Silvio Berlusconi, the proprietor of "Il Giornale", entered politics and founded a new right-wing party Forza Italia, Montanelli came under heavy pressure to switch his editorial line to a position favourable to Berlusconi. Montanelli never hid his bad opinion of Berlusconi: "He lies as he eats", the journalist declared. In the end, protesting his independence, he founded a new daily, for which he resurrected the name "La Voce" ("The Voice"), which had belonged to an historical newspaper run by Giuseppe Prezzolini. "La Voce", always an elitist paper, folded after about a year, and Montanelli returned to "Corriere della Sera".

From 1995 to 2001 he was the chief letters editor of "Corriere della Sera", answering a letter a day on a page of the newspaper known as "La Stanza di Montanelli" ("Montanelli’s Room"). In spite of having been a renowned anti-Communist all his life, Montanelli spent his last years vigorously opposing Silvio Berlusconi’s politics. He was mentor of a relevant group of mates, followers and students as Mario Cervi, Marco Travaglio, Paolo Mieli, Roberto Ridolfi, Andrea Claudio Galluzzo, and Roberto Gervaso.

He died on July 22 2001 at the "La Madonnina" clinic in Milan. The following day, "Corriere della Sera" published a letter on its front page: "Indro Montanelli's farewell to his readers".


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