The Ossola Republic

In autumn 1944, partisan groups liberated a sizeable territory around Domodossola from the Nazis and founded their own republic. But the resistance fighters were at odds with one another and after just over a month the dream of an independent state came to an end. The story of a tragedy on the border with Switzerland.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

On 3 September 1943, fascist Italy surrendered unconditionally. The Third Reich immediately began to occupy the country and disarm its troops. Some sections of the Italian army joined the Resistance and became partisans. This reaction mainly had to do with the tough stance adopted by the German armed forces, known as the Wehrmacht. They broke the promise given to send Italian soldiers home, and instead imprisoned them and shot dead any who resisted. This led, in autumn 1943, to the creation of strong guerrilla cells in northern and central Italy, who subsequently engaged the Germans in numerous battles.

In the Ossola territory, between Valais and Ticino, there were five active partisan groups in the summer of 1944: the Monarchists (around 1,100 men), the Christian Democrats (around 800 men), two autonomous groups (around 500 men each) and the Communists (around 900 men). In September 1944, the various guerrilla cells began to conquer the territories around Domodossola until they finally had the town completely surrounded. There were about 400 German and Italian soldiers in there at this time. While these soldiers were well trained and even better armed, they massively overestimated the partisans and were war-weary. Although the attacks from all sides gave the impression that they had been planned by one party, they had not been discussed and just happened to appear coordinated. This brings us to one of the biggest problems of the guerrilla war in Italy: The various guerrilla cells had different political views, which also means they had different political objectives. So, while there were indeed joint operations, there was also repeatedly rivalry and dangerous competition.

The internal power struggle between the partisans

The hostilities between the various partisan groups were also evident in the Ossola Valley. On 9 September 1944, the German-Italian troops surrounded in Domodossola signed a ceasefire agreement with the partisans. However, the Communist guerrillas were not a party to this treaty. The other groups stressed that this was due to time constraints. However, the remaining partisans actually wanted to divide the captured weapons among themselves. They also knew that the Communist resistance fighters had received the order from their High Command not to negotiate with the Germans. That would have jeopardised the desired ceasefire. There were therefore several heated encounters between the various partisan groups, and it was only thanks to great negotiation skills and luck that an armed conflict was avoided. Finally, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the Italian fascists withdrew on 10 September. On the same day, the Ossola Republic was proclaimed.

But the Communist resistance fighters did not give up their claim to power. On 13 September, they unilaterally attacked the town of Gravellona to the south of Domodossola. Their intention was to repair their tarnished image with a glorious victory and, as a result, demand to be involved in the government of the Ossola Republic. When they realised that they could not drive out the Nazis and fascists stationed there, they asked the other partisan groups for help. The latter did send a few men, but only after a delay and only in small numbers. It was no longer possible to avert defeat. This 13 September is a good example of how the actions of the resistance fighters in Ossola and throughout northern Italy were often determined more by self-interest than by the notion of freedom. The partisans were mainly concerned about exerting their own influence on the future politics of the territory under their control.

The Ossola Republic

However, the ongoing rivalry between the various partisan groups should not detract from what was achieved in Ossola. Until the territory was recaptured by German-Italian troops between 9 and 14 October 1944, the young republic set an extremely fast pace of development. The provisional government, in which the Communists were also represented despite all their differences, introduced a joint military command, established a supra-regional police force (the Guardia Nazionale), enabled freedom of the press again, produced its own stamps and reorganised the school system. In addition, it dissolved the fascist trade union and organised public transport with Switzerland, which worked perfectly again after just a few days. In post-war Italy, the Ossola Republic was repeatedly viewed as a model for a democratic state – a model which had produced a functioning administration in next to no time, but which collapsed again so soon in October 1944.

The collapse of the republic

At the end of September, 13,000 Italian soldiers who had been trained in Germany were positioned near to the Ossola Republic. In addition, the Wehrmacht and the SS assembled around 3,000 men. Some 3,000 partisans faced these 16,000 heavily armed soldiers. But the guerrillas kept calm. They fully expected to receive help from the Allies. On 25 September, two fighter-bombers had bombed the German positions in Gravellona and Baveno, and Radio London had already twice broadcast the signal to drop weapons and ammunition. The resistance fighters had earlier created two airfields. However, at the last minute the Allies changed their plans and focussed on Yugoslavia.

The partisans managed to hold out for a few days, but the superior power of the opposition was too great and the cooperation between the various guerrilla cells was too uncoordinated to prevent the recapture of Ossola by the Nazis and fascists. On 14 October 1944, the German-Italian troops marched into Domodossola, and, on 23 October, the republic was dissolved and 35,000 inhabitants of Ossola fled to Switzerland. Two thirds of the partisans were killed or also fled across the border. The adults were housed in refugee camps, while the children were placed with host families all over Switzerland. The fact that Switzerland provided assistance in autumn 1944 without much bureaucratic fuss is still remembered to this day by the population of Ossola Valley.

The Ossola Republic existed for a little more than a month in autumn 1944. Photo: Archivio fotografico Istituto storico Piero Fornara - Fondo Resistenza

The republic even had its own flag. Photo: Archivio fotografico Istituto storico Piero Fornara - Fondo Resistenza

Partisans of Ossola in action. Photo: Archivio fotografico Istituto storico Piero Fornara - Fondo Resistenza

The approximate borders of the Ossola Republic.

Partisans fighting and retreating from nazi-fascists in October of 1944, close to the Swiss border. Anyone who could, fled to Switzerland. Photo: Archivio fotografico Istituto storico Piero Fornara - Fondo Resistenza

Refugees from the Ossola Valley (Italy) crossing the border in Gondo on 1st of October 1944. Photo: Photographer unknown, Staatsarchiv Aargau/RBA

Nurse Maria Peron took care of wounded partisans in the Ossola Valley. Photo: Archivio fotografico Istituto storico Piero Fornara - Fondo Resistenza

The government of the Ossola Repbulic consisted of seven men. The president was Ettore Tibaldi. Later he became mayor of Domodossola and national politician. Photo: Archivio fotografico Istituto storico Piero Fornara - Fondo Resistenza

Children of the Ossola area, like these arriving in Brig in 1944, were placed with Swiss families by the Swiss Red Cross. Photo: Archivio fotografico Istituto storico Piero Fornara - Fondo Resistenza

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