The Fall of a Monument

June 17, 2008 • Specialist Journalism • by

Message, Nr. 3, march, 2008

After having meticulously investigated one year in the life of Indro Montanelli, historian Renata Broggini reveals a number of embarrassing details about one of Italy’s most famous journalists.

“A truly great journalist is not objective. Many of the anecdotes that I have told have been invented, by me and others, because they allow me … to paint a truthful picture.” Mind you, this is not a quote by Tom Kummer, the Swiss borderline-journalist and master of forged interviews with Hollywood superstars, but by Indro Montanelli, arguably the most eminent Italian journalist of the 20th century. Montanelli used to work for Corriere della Sera before he went on to become the founder of Il Giornale, today Italy’s sixth largest daily newspaper.

His attitude towards objectivity in journalism makes it seem likely that he has adopted a similar approach towards his own life, probably telling anecdotes about himself that may prove untenable on closer examination (not unlike, for example, German reporter icon Egon Erwin Kisch and the great American journalist Henry Louis Mencken).

Down to the Last Detail

This is exactly the starting point which Renata Broggini, media researcher and historian from the Swiss canton of Ticino, chose for her new book Passaggio in Svizzera. L’anno nas¬costo di Indro Montanelli (“Passage through Switzerland – Indro Montanelli’s hidden year”). It is a historical analysis, meticulously researched down to the last detail, of Montanelli’s stay in Switzerland, between August 1944 and May 1945.

The things Broggini has brought to light are interesting indeed. Her book opens in February 1944, when Montanelli was arrested by the fascists in a villa at Lake Orta, west of Lake Maggiore. At that time, the journalist was trying to get in touch with a partisan commanding officer – an offence for which he was sentenced to six months in jail, to be served in Milan’s San Vittore prison. He was released again at the beginning of August 1944.

From there, Montanelli fled to the neighbouring canton of Ticino, Switzerland, where he was to stay for one year – the period which Broggini focuses on in great detail in her book, in which she reveals a number of hitherto unknown details and embarrassing facts. All of which bear only a slight resemblance to the stories Montanelli himself was fond of telling about his time in Switzerland.

In Direct Contradiction to his Autobiography

As a case in point, the author reveals that Montanelli, who liked to portray himself as a staunch anti-fascist, in reality was on good terms with a number of Nazis and fascists. Many of the facts presented by Broggini – which she collected from various documents in archives in Bern and Bellinzona and in the Public Record Office in Rome – stand in sharp contrast to the account given by Montanelli in his autobiography.

By taking his liberties with the truth, Broggini claims, Montanelli also invented the (tall) tale of how he ended up before a military tribunal only days after his arrest and his subsequent arrival in the prison of Gallarate (where he stayed three months before being transferred to San Vittore). According to Montanelli, he was “defended by an assigned council who, after a speech of two minutes, sought reprieve from the court of appeal. After a consultation of less than 15 minutes, the judges returned and the president of the court pronounced the death sentence. […] This was on 20 February 1944.” (In: 2007, p. 83) In vivid terms, he goes on to describe how “Major Boheme rolled out the scroll and, without looking at me, read aloud: death sentence.” (loc.cit.) In later accounts, Montanelli even claimed that the death sentence had been signed by Mussolini himself.

In reality, however – Broggini maintains – Montanelli was never sentenced to death. To substantiate her claim, Broggini quotes from a telegram, sent on 4 May 1944 to the police headquarters of Milan by police officer Tullio Tamburini, in which it becomes clear that at that time inquiries against Montanelli and his wife were still under way and that no final decision had yet been made.

Another example for Montanelli’s casual handling of the facts is his claim, circulated in various Italian newspapers, that he was an eyewitness to the execution of Benito Mussolini and his lover Clara Petacci, which took place at the end of April 1945 in Milan. With the help of several documents, Broggini establishes that Montanelli was staying in Bern at that time.

Liar, Liar

For Broggini, this convicts Montanelli of having lied on more than one occasion, as a way to embellish and “streamline” his autobiography – although he surely wasn’t the first one to do so. This fall of a monument, which Broggini must have intended all along, has provoked a bitter controversy in Italy. Those in defence of Montanelli are asking why this book has appeared only now, seven years after Montanelli’s death, and call into question Broggini’s true reasons for having spent ten years doggedly investigating one single year in the journalist’s eventful life.

Indeed, the readers of Broggini’s  book will detect a low-key but ever-present bitterness towards the book’s protagonist. Her analysis is partial, not a single page contains any hint at Montanelli’s greatness. However, so far no one has contested the factual correctness of Broggini’s body of evidence.

Perhaps we would be well advised to take Montanelli at his own word. For the quote above not only attests to his serious search for deeper truths, but also to his casual approach to handling the facts – especially when dealing with events that could pose a bit of a problem for the man himself. It almost seems as if Montanelli had guessed that, one day, someone might find out the truth about some events in his life. Perhaps, then, his quote was intended to forestall the fiasco that we are witnessing today.

The Dilemma of Italian Journalism

The way Montanelli handled himself there may irritate some observers, especially those adhering to the Anglo-American tradition of serious and truthful journalism. However, those who are a bit more familiar with Montanelli and his editorial legacy will find a lot of his complex and, yes, fascinating personality encapsulated in the sibylline statement quoted above.

On closer inspection, this quote also hints at one of the basic dilemmas of Italian journalism: the fact that Montanelli could, with some confidence, assume that many Italians would agree with him that a man of his calibre shouldn’t be expected to bother too much with such a trifling thing as the truth…

References:

Renata Broggini: Passaggio in Svizzera. L’anno nascosto di Indro Montanelli. Milano: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 2007.

Indro Montanelli: Soltanto un giornalista. Milano: Rizzoli, 2002.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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