Yesterday, I could not get Bella Ciao out of my inner ear.
You have heard it even if you do not know it or its origins, not that anyone is sure about those. It may have been composed by an anonymous Italian Woody Guthrie as a lament; as a lullaby to the same kind of unfortunates our commie folk singer sang to in This Land Is Your Land; or it may have been an inspiration as deep as the haunting, almost unbelievably brave Hebrew poem Eli, Eli.
But Bella Ciao was the one on my brain, and I think the reason is that whatever its origins amidst the near-slavery of southern Italian agricultural laborers, it became associated with the idea of the partisan, the volunteer freedom fighter of modern times. He might be in uniform, as were the brother-commandos of Eli, Eli’s author, or not; but, like the Boston Minutemen, he called himself a patriot.
Volodymyr Zelensky is a partisan. Not in the sense of someone who reflexively opposes the other party, but in the sense of the men of 1776 and Hannah Szenes (Senesh). He was elected, in fact, very much on the strength of being, with all due caveats for different eras, like the men of ’76, quite willing and even eager to compromise and negotiate to avoid blood and ruin, but firm on principles. That means he did not want to mix it up with the Russians but wanted them to understand he would not let his country be re-absorbed by theirs. He was also saying that with the kind of corruption pervading Ukraine, there was more than enough to do to clean up their act without needing a Russian war — which, in fact, there was, in the Donbas region, and which he was doing his best to manage, neither to win nor lose but to try to find the line the Russians would respect — sort of like us in the bitter “wars of peace” we have waged in recent decades.
Such wars are unwinnable, due to one side’s commitment to rationality and the other side’s disregard for whatever price it must pay to have everything.
In the context of unbalanced (“asymmetrical” I believe is the fashionable term) wars, the partisan acquires a heroic image, which, as it happens, often corresponds to his, or her, real character: a Geronimo or a Cochise, a Joan of Arc, a Kahina, fighting against overwhelming odds. The songs that spring up around the partisan — or the older songs that are re-appropriated in the service of the legend — are as often as not apolitical. Bella Ciao, like the Sephardic Kindja mia or the French Le Temps des Cerises, and so many others, is not a protest song or a marching song or a fighting anthem, but a love song, as is Eli, Eli, written by a doomed commando behind Nazi lines.
Bella Ciao in the rewrite of the 1940s — when Italian anti-fascists, including socialists, liberal democrats, and communists, took it up in their guerilla war against the Nazi German army and Italian fascist government — refers specifically to a partisan, partisano, whose lover appeals to him to take her with him to die together, sort of like in Seven Spanish Angels except they have a political purpose.
Bella Ciao wound its way into the post-World War II political protest songbook. It was taken up by different factions, though usually of the left, just as were Israeli theme songs, not only Eli, Eli, but more overt ones like Hatikvah, the national anthem. The left, though it is hard to grasp this, was for a few short years at the forefront of trying to extend across the globe the revolution that began in the American colonies, so, of course, the cause of Israel was natural.
Did they sing Bella Ciao in the streets of Budapest in the frightful days of 1956? Israelis sang Hatikvah, of course, when in those same weeks their army moved against tyrants who wanted to kill them all. Americans cheered and sent aid to Israelis and Hungarians, but our governing policy men played a cautious hand due to the nuclear danger.
But put yourself in their shoes. In a similar way, you cannot really reproach the men and women of today in Washington, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and London who are playing it cautious. On the contrary, they are surely right to be cautious.
This too is why you cannot really get mad at people like Bill Kristol’s former employee Tucker Carlson or our often right and incurably narcissistic ex-prez. But you could expect from them a little empathy. You know: “We’re friends of liberty everywhere but, sorry, we can’t do everything. Hang in there, and we’ll try to help.’
What is needed is firm-cautious, not weak-cautious. Both are high-risk when dealing with men who may be tempted to push nuclear triggers. But weak-cautious in historical experience is more high-risk than firm-cautious, as we famously learned in Munich in 1938.
So far, we are not in a Munich moment. But we are seeing a remarkable resurgence of the Atlantic Pact that saved western Europe — following the mistakes of Yalta that lost eastern Europe, granted — and that, for a few short years, before it all went to hell, put the world on a nervous but true path toward freedom. Institutions such as NATO turn out to be useful in critical moments. We should temper the exasperation for which we give them.
I asked my friends if they knew Bella Ciao. No? Well, why should you, given these times and strains. But maybe they are humming it in Kyiv. And Eli, Eli.