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Book Excerpt: We Were All Gods, by Benjo Maso (1 of 2: A Phone Call From Rome)

Wewereallgods_mediumIn the first of two extracts from Benjo Maso's We Were All Gods (see Unbelievable News From France for the second extract) the 1948 Tour de France has reached its rest day and sport and politics are about to collide.  As the French celebrate Bastille Day the Italians on the Tour are about to receive news from home of an assassination attempt on Italian Communist Party Leader Palmiro Togliatti. For Gino Bartali this leads to one of the strangest requests ever made of a cyclist.

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A Phone Call From Rome

Wednesday, July 14th, Cannes (day of rest)

Sport and politics have nothing to do with each other. Few people still believe in this cliché today, but in 1948 it was a carefully-maintained illusion. That's why the journalists covering the Tour studiously avoided any reference to issues that were not directly related to sport. The reader who leafs through their reports of July 1948 won't have the slightest idea that, while the Tour was taking place, Israel was fighting for its independence, the western powers were trying to raise the Berlin blockade by means of an air lift, Yugoslavia's Tito (having broken with Stalin) left the Comintern, and in France the Schuman government fell. Reporters separated sport and politics so carefully that, although they did mention that the vehicles displaying advertisements had been halted at the French-Italian border, they did not add that this happened because of a strike by customs officials.

Of course, the notion that sport takes place within a small, enclosed world was an illusion, nothing more. Never was this more obvious than on the day of rest, July 14th. It had already been demonstrated in 1947 that social and political circumstances could directly influence the progress of a Tour. Now it became clear that this influence could also operate in the opposite direction.

July fourteenth is a national holiday in France, and in Cannes all kinds of celebrations had been organized until late in the evening. These did not noticeably improve the mood in the Italian camp. Gino Bartali's teammates were beginning to ask themselves whether they had done the right thing in going to France. That was especially the case for Bevilacqua, who was capitano, a leader, in his own country but so far had barely been able to get himself noticed in France. That wouldn't matter if the Italian team won the Tour, because the glory of an Italian victory would put him in a good light too. But now that Bartali seemed to be down and out, Bevilacqua started to worry about his own reputation.

In the meantime, the handful of Italian journalists who still had some confidence in Bartali were hoping to find a plausible reason for his mediocre performance so far. Some of them theorized that it might have something to do with the visit from his wife Adriana. One reporter even claimed that she had tearfully implored her husband to be careful, with the result that he no longer dared to make aggressive descents. De Martino's statement in the Gazzetta dello Sport was much more suggestive: ‘Bartali has been embraced by too many people. Too much love always leads to sin, and that's true not only for the fans.' This suggestion was, in fact, just a modern version of the ancient belief that contact with the feminine affects a warrior's combativeness. This is why no women were allowed in the Tour's caravan. The only exception the organizers were willing to make were the three nurses in the ambulance, although they had to accept with extreme reluctance that L'Humanité sent a female reporter, Marie-Louise Baron, to cover the Tour. L'Intransigeant had immediately taken advantage of this precedent to obtain accreditation for the actress Annabella as a special reporter for two days, but to the organizers' relief that was as far as it went. A reporter who smuggled his fiancée along in his car was sent home without mercy.

Binda attached little value to his compatriots' speculations about the reasons for Bartali's failure. According to him it was simply a question of age. For a thirty-four-year old, a Giro d'Italia and a Tour in the same season were just too much. An older man needs more time to recover. It was entirely possible that Bartali would be able to win the stage from Cannes to Briançon, but the next day he would undoubtedly feel the after-effects.

Bartali did not share Binda's pessimism at all. According to Corrieri, the setback of the Turini did not cause him a moment's doubt. He was still extraordinarily angry with himself. His mood didn't improve until after his morning massage, when his trainer Colombo told him that his muscles were in optimum condition for the first time since the start of the Tour. He felt even better after receiving two telegrams. The first was from Monsignor Montini - later Pope Paul VI - who granted him a special blessing in the name of the Holy Father. The second was from the Italian Prime Minister, Alcide de Gasperi, who wished him success in the Alps. No doubt Bartali's mood would have improved further if he had known how the French national team were reacting to his defeat the day before.

With his victory in the last stage, Bobet naturally believed that he had proved he was the undisputed leader. Teisseire, Robic and Vietto were twenty to thirty minutes behind and seemed to have no chance. Perhaps he could have convinced everybody if he had put his foot down, so to speak, and asserted himself, but he was still too young and inexperienced for that. During team discussions he usually said little or nothing. His accomplishments should have been enough to convince his teammates, but they continued to underestimate him. They were still waiting for his collapse which thereby, of course, they only helped to bring closer. Obviously Archambaud should have intervened in his role as team captain, but the small amount of authority he had enjoyed at the outset had completely vanished by this time. The result was that Bartali's defeat, far from strengthening Bobet's position on the French team, actually weakened it. First of all, his popularity with his teammates had certainly not grown. The whole story of the boil, which had won him so much public sympathy, was regarded with some scepticism. ‘I don't doubt he was in pain,' Vietto said, for example, ‘but we're all in pain. The difference is that we don't cry about it.' Much more important was that each man suddenly believed in his own chances again. Now that the unassailable Bartali had been beaten, the road ahead seemed to open up for everybody once more. Take Robic, for example. He had always been convinced that he would win the Tour, but now he was sure of it. In the stage that ended in Cannes he had gained on Bartali for the first time. The twenty-seven minutes that still separated him from Bobet and Lambrecht were, in his opinion, easily overcome. Bobet's collapse could not be far off, and Lambrecht was no climber. Moreover, at the foot of the Pyrenees in 1947 he had been just as far behind, and this time he had not one but two mountain stages to set matters straight. While Bobet stayed in his room all day, Robic carried on like a future winner. He gave interviews, signed autographs, went donkey-riding on the beach, took a few journalists along to a friend's farm and was photographed milking a goat, and visited a sanatorium where he told the patients about the Tour and his expectations for the stages to come.

Teisseire, too, believed he was far from out of it. In any event he wanted to ride his own race and didn't have the slightest intention of sacrificing himself for Bobet's sake. René Vietto visited an acupuncturist for treatment of his painful knee and talked about dropping out, but he did that almost every day. Bartali's failure had given him new hope as well. With a brilliantly victorious stage he could retrieve his Tour in one fell stroke. Just like Bartali, he regarded the Izoard as his mountain. True, he had lost the Tour there in 1939, but in the Monaco-Paris race of 1946 he had been the first to reach the top. The day before, Vietto had urged Apo Lazaridès to give Bobet all possible support, but in the stage to Briançon he reserved his protegé's help for himself. That meant, in fact, that Bobet could count only on Paul Giguet, who would be of little use to him in the mountains.

The Belgians had total faith in the prospects of Impanis. To overcome the beginnings of a head cold he stayed in his hotel room all day, but he assured the journalists that otherwise he felt in tip-top shape. The next day Ockers would not budge from his side for even a minute, so as to be able to help him in case of misfortune. The same thing went for Van Dijck, at least if he were able to keep up. The other Belgians had no instructions other than to finish within the time limit. Karel van Wijnendaele assumed they would drop too far behind on the ascents to be able to give much support to their leader. There was full agreement on this score. Briek Schotte, for example, who had lost a lot of time on the Turini and had dropped to eighteenth place, said that he would give everything to finish among the top ten but unfortunately was too weak a climber.

While the racers, in the warm weather of Cannes, weighed their chances for the coming days, an event took place in a still warmer Rome that would give the further course of the Tour a very special meaning. Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Communist Party, left a session of Parliament at 11:35 a.m. with Nilde Jotti, officially just his secretary but in reality also his mistress. Their purpose was to eat an ice-cream cone in a nearby bar. They walked down the steps at the rear of the Montecitorio, the Parliament Building. Togliatti halted for a moment to loosen his necktie. At that moment one Antonio Pallante, a twenty-four-year old law student, approached him, pulled out a revolver and shot him in the chest three times. Nilde Jotti threw herself on her lover's body and screamed: ‘Murderer, murderer!' The man fired a fourth shot but missed. Moments later he allowed two policemen to overpower him without offering resistance. A parliamentary messenger came outside to see what was the matter, ran back in and shouted: ‘Togliatti has been shot!' Seconds later the news reached the Chamber.

Togliatti was quickly taken to a hospital, and an hour-and-a-half later, while the surgeons were getting ready to operate on him, the news of the assassination attempt was broadcast over the radio. Everywhere in Italy people spontaneously stopped working. Farmers and labourers demonstrated in city squares, factories were occupied, the offices of right-wing parties were pelted with rocks, and the first riots broke out.

Togliatti had not lost consciousness and had urged the faithful ‘not to do anything stupid and to stay calm.' A quarter after one, Togliatti was put under anesthesia, and the surgeons began the task of removing the bullets. Reporters, members of the Communist parliamentary group and Prime Minister De Gasperi gathered in the hospital and waited for news. Hundreds of thousands of Italians were glued to the radio. If Togliatti were to die of his wounds, nobody could predict what might await the country. Nothing was impossible, not even revolution or a civil war. After all, Italy had already been in a condition of acute social and political tension for months.

Until May, 1947, the Communists had been part of the government and had generally pursued a very moderate course. But from the moment they went into opposition they became steadily more radical. International developments played a major role in this. The Christian Democrats were great champions of the Marshall Plan and the American economic aid associated with it. The Communists were fiercely opposed to it because they realized full well that accepting the Plan would bring Italy into the US sphere of influence. After the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, warmly welcomed by Togliatti and sharply rejected by the Christian Democrats, the parties' hostility to each other became even stronger. The parliamentary elections of April 1948 were seen as being decisively important for Italy's future fate. The Communists and the larger part of the Socialist Party formed a Popular Front that had a real chance of securing an absolute majority. The Christian Democrats could depend on the active support of the Catholic Church, which threatened leftist voters with hell and damnation. Both camps mobilized every ounce of strength available to them. Even popular sports heroes were pulled into the election fight. The Christian Democrats offered Binda, Bartali and Coppi positions on the electoral list high enough to make their election possible. Coppi got the same offer from the Popular Front. Binda was the only one to accept but did not win a seat. Bartali and Coppi limited themselves to a public call to vote ‘patriotically,' that is, non-Communist.

The election turned out to be a terrible disappointment for the Popular Front. It received no more than 30 per cent of the vote, while the Christian Democrats, with 47 per cent, secured an absolute majority in Parliament. The Communists refused to accept their defeat meekly and accused their opponents of intimidation and large-scale fraud. Within the parliamentary chamber, extremely unpleasant exchanges took place between Prime Minister De Gasperi and Togliatti, who once went so far as to threaten an armed uprising.

In view of the events of the preceding months, it was no wonder that many Communists saw the attempt on Togliatti's life as offering an occasion to revenge themselves. Others, in contrast, feared that the right-wing parties were looking for a great day of reckoning, in emulation of Mussolini who had ordered the assassination of the Communist leader Matteotti in 1924. In the event, when De Gasperi tried to make a government statement in the Chamber the next day, he was constantly interrupted by left-wing deputies who shouted that he was a murderer with blood on his hands.

To the great relief of many people, the surgeons issued a statement at 2:50 p.m. that the operation had been a success. Togliatti's condition was still critical, but the immediate threat to his life seemed to have receded. That did not prevent disturbances from spreading over the entire country. In many places mobs disarmed police constables, while telephone exchanges, radio stations and armouries were occupied. In some cities the Communists even assumed power and installed interim administrations. After the surgeons' bulletin, De Gasperi returned from the hospital and immediately called an emergency session of the cabinet. Especially the Minister for Internal Affairs argued for tough measures. The leadership of the Communist Party had also gathered. They were greatly outraged, but the majority nevertheless shrank from the use of force, being of the opinion that any armed insurrection has to be carefully prepared and must be based on rational considerations and not on emotion. Everyone did agree that a general strike should be called for the next day.

Many Italians in Cannes had listened to the French noontime news, and when Bartali came down from his room for lunch he found a group of worried Italian journalists in the hotel lobby. Most had received instructions to return to Italy at once and had come to say goodbye. At first Bartali thought they wanted to leave because they had lost confidence in him. His face turned red and he immediately announced that they could not expect an interview if he were to win the Tour. They calmed him down and told him what had happened in Italy.

Bartali found the news of the assassination attempt deeply worrying. Florence was a ‘red' city and if an armed encounter were to take place, his own family might be right in the line of fire. He asked himself whether he, too, would not be well-advised to return home. The journalists counselled him to wait for the time being and to take no precipitate action. He tried to phone his wife, but could not get through to Florence.

The tension was broken somewhat by a visit from Bartolo Paschetto, one of the leaders of the Catholic Action movement. He brought along an enormous cake decorated with icing in the colours of the Italian flag. Bartali suggested to his teammates that they go to the beach, find some shade there, and eat the cake. After all, it made little sense to stay in the hotel and wait for news from Italy. Of course, Bartali knew that a cyclist's stomach was easily upset and it was not very smart to eat a large piece of pastry the day before a mountain stage. The bottle of vermouth and the pack of cigarettes that also went along were at first sight even less sensible, but there was an emergency in Italy, after all.

Bartali and his teammates returned to the hotel at six. Soon afterwards he heard a page calling his name: a phone call from Italy. First he thought his wife had succeeded in getting through, but to his amazement his caller turned out to be Prime Minister De Gasperi. Bartali had got to know him in Catholic Action in 1935, and in the course of time they had become good friends. De Gasperi asked him how he was and whether he thought he could win the Tour. Bartali answered that the Tour had another week-and-a-half to go and that anything could happen. The Prime Minister said that of course he realized that, but asked once again how good the prospects for a final victory were. It was important for the country, he added. Bartali could do no more than promise to do his utmost. He did assure De Gasperi that he was ninety percent sure he would win the next day's stage. The Prime Minister expressed his best wishes and ended the conversation.

The most striking thing about this incident is not that De Gasperi believed a Tour victory could contribute to calming popular emotion. The same thought probably crossed a lot of Italian minds at that moment. Much more remarkable is that at the height of the crisis he took the trouble of phoning Bartali. At this point the first deaths had already occurred and the situation seemed to be deteriorating by the minute. That the Prime Minister interrupted the deliberations with his cabinet to spur Bartali on is the clearest illustration of the enormous importance accorded to the sport of cycling in Italy at that time.

Just as remarkable is that De Gasperi was evidently convinced that he could encourage Bartali by pointing out the importance of the remaining stages for the national interest. As Jacques Goddet wrote, Bartali was at a critical point in his career. If he were beaten in the Alps, he would have to acquiesce in the supremacy of Fausto Coppi. Bartali himself had already announced that, in the event of a defeat, he would definitely withdraw from the sport, even though he did promise to complete the Tour in any case, if only out of respect for his colleagues and the organizers. As though the burden resting on Bartali's shoulders was not big enough, De Gasperis also placed the fate of Italy in his hands. Some people succumb under great pressure and others are stimulated by it. During his long political career De Gasperi never took unnecessary risks, and he must have known what he was doing. After all, he had known Bartali for years.

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Extracted from Wij Waren Allemaal Goden: De Tour Van 1948 (We Were All Gods) © Benjo Maso (translation Michiel Horn).

Our thanks to Benjo Maso for granting us permission to use this extract from We Were All Gods.

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You'll find a second extract from We Were All Gods - Unbelievable News From France - here. Both extracts are also available for download as a single PDF document.

You'll find an interview with Benjo Maso on the Cafe Bookshelf.