Adriano Olivetti, Industrialist, Typewriter King… Antifascist?

On Espionage and Resistance in World War II Italy

When Mussolini threw in Italy’s lot with Hitler’s Germany in 1940 (May 28) he might reasonably have expected the war to come to a rapid end. Countries were being mowed down under the relentless Nazi advance: Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, then Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In May 1940 the Germans were poised to carve up France and marched down the Champs-Élysées in Paris a month later. Victory was inevitable and it would soon be time for the two dictators to start dividing up the spoils. When Italian troops marched north into the French Alps in June 1940, they met severe weather and developed frostbite but little opposition. That same summer Marshal Pétain signed a groveling armistice with his old enemy, Germany. Britain would be next.

Then the winds of war began to change direction. Italy attacked Greece but was ignominiously repulsed and had to be rescued by Hitler’s armies. Other defeats followed in North Africa. In the spring of 1941 Italy lost Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia, involving heavy losses of troops and equipment. Once again the Germans had to intervene. During the next two years Rommel’s Afrika Korps and General Montgomery’s Desert Rats waged a bitter, hard-fought war in the desert. In October 1942, Montgomery beat back Rommel at El Alamein, and by May 1943 the entire army of Italian and German troops had surrendered. Libya, under Italian control since 1912, was lost forever, along with thousands more troops and their equipment. But perhaps Mussolini’s worst decision was to send almost a quarter of a million men to join Hitler’s reckless invasion of Russia, badly equipped and inadequately prepared for the bitter winters. The results could have been predicted.

He was now an American agent, Number 660.

By 1942–43 the Fascists were losing public confidence at home, along with political power. Martin Clark wrote, “[A]s the war was being lost and the Fascist regime was collapsing, the political and diplomatic manoeuvres . . . became intense. In the background was heard the distant rumble of guns in Libya and bombs on Milan, of strikes in Turin and food riots in Matera, of runs on banks and anti-Fascist congresses; in the foreground, in Rome itself, shadowy figures—some resolute, many fearful—held worried conversations and sent out oblique signals to friends and foe alike.” One of them was Adriano Olivetti.

Italian captains of industry who collaborated did not have to deal with the kind of vindictive retaliation that followed the liberation of France in 1944. In the first place, the period of German occupation was relatively brief. But more to the point, Italians had been invaded and occupied for centuries, leading to that art of deceit, camouflage, dissimulation, and betrayal that Machiavelli so much admired. With what scrupulous courtesy and every sign of humble attentiveness did they listen to the commands of their conquerors, how anxiously and submissively would they await the verdict of their efforts. And how assiduously would they work behind the scenes to carry out acts of undreamed-of treachery and revenge, how expertly play double games their enemies could not even begin to imagine, let alone match.

This was the case in Ivrea. While responsive to the war effort, Adriano Olivetti and his managers covertly aided the partisans, fed anyone in the town who appeared at the workers cafeterias, and developed false papers that were miracles of cunning. All this could be expected of Adriano, whose role as protector was in a context that included not only friends, family, and workers, but the nation itself. On who knows what pretext he began to make repeated trips to Bern, Switzerland. He had made contact with the big man himself, Allen Dulles, head of the Office of Strategic Services. He was now an American agent, Number 660.

Allen Dulles, the master spy, who took up residence in Bern late in 1942, was already a veteran of the intricate games of espionage being carried out in this seemingly neutral country. Dulles began his career in espionage in World War I as a junior member of the U.S. legation where, as David Talbot, his biographer, writes in The Devil’s Chessboard, he was already developing the veneer of charm, masking calculation, that would make him so successful in years to come. Affecting the manner of a dashing cavalry officer, the tips of his mustache honed to fine points, Dulles danced with aplomb, played expert games of tennis, and gave cocktail parties in an Art Nouveau fortress on the cliffs of Bern called the Bellevue Palace. He was a great hit with the ladies and popular for a casual ease that was so often mistaken for genuine friendliness.

A case in point is the anecdote Talbot relates when, during World War I, Dulles was working at the legation along with a pretty young Czech émigrée. Quite soon thereafter they were having an affair. One day he was advised by his British counterparts that the lady was passing secrets to the Czechs and Germans. This could not be allowed to continue. Dulles must have replied, “Leave it to me,” or words to that effect. He arranged to take the young lady out to dinner “and afterwards he strolled with her along the cobblestone streets to an agreed-upon location, where he handed her over to British agents. She disappeared forever.” Talbot also wrote, “Dulles was capable of great personal cruelty, to his intimates as well as his enemies. He was [untroubled] by guilt or self-doubt. He liked to tell people—and it was almost a boast—that he was one of the few men in Washington who could send people to their deaths.”

From the OSS, Dulles would go on to become head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (1953–61), but that was yet to come when he entered Switzerland at the height of World War II. The only way to get there was to land in Portugal, travel through neutral Spain, then the south of France, nominally under Vichy control, and by train to Geneva. When Dulles left New York on the Pan American Clipper, November 2, 1942, he was in as much of a hurry as anyone can be who tries to be on time in the middle of a war. He knew that Operation Torch, the top secret Allied invasion of North Africa, was planned to begin on November 9. He was also aware that as soon as the invasion was known the Nazis would use that pretext to take over Vichy-controlled France and his route through France would be closed off at twenty-four hours notice. However, he had a week. That seemed long enough.

During World War II those who could afford it shuttled between New York and Lisbon on the small but luxurious flying boat that accommodated 25 people on the long and arduous journey across the Atlantic via the Azores, and also often stopped in Bermuda. Its seasoned crews navigated by the stars at 16,000 feet and needed to be experts in maritime conditions as well. For instance, planes could not take off on waves that were more than three feet high. The plane landed safely in the Azores, but then bad weather set in. By the time Dulles had landed in Lisbon and then flown on to Barcelona, it was already November 8. He writes in The Secret Surrender that he was lunching with some Swiss friends at Port Bou on the Spanish frontier when a Swiss diplomatic courier came up to the table in great excitement. “Have you heard the news? The British and Americans are landing in North Africa.”

At that point Dulles almost turned back. “If I was picked up by the Nazis in Vichy France, the best I could hope for would be internment for the duration of the war.” One gathers that he rather enjoyed the prospect of melting into the crowd, running for cover, making contact with the Resistance, and being spirited across the frontier illegally, a “black” crossing as he termed it. He would go on.

All went well at first. When he arrived at Verrières on the French side of the border, he was amazed to find himself smothered in kisses by the natives, who somehow thought the war had ended. The train was bound for Annemasse on the Swiss border. This, as he knew, was going to be much trickier. He had been warned that a Gestapo agent in plain clothes would be stationed there. There was certainly someone answering that description who scrutinized the passengers’ papers as, one by one, they filed through the gates at the station. He was the only person asked to step aside. The agent said nothing but a gendarme did. He was very sorry but the monsieur could not proceed. Dulles summoned up his best French “and made him the most impassioned and, I believe, the most eloquent speech. Evoking the shades of Lafayette and Pershing, I impressed upon him the importance of letting me pass. I also let him glimpse the contents of my wallet.”

The gendarme, it seemed, was not impressed.

Dulles spent a few anxious hours before the same gendarme reappeared. His train for Geneva was about to leave at noon. The man whispered, “Allez passer. Vous voyez que notre collaboration n’est que symbolique.” (Get going. You understand, our collaboration with the Germans is just a formality.) Dulles raced for the train with seconds to spare. He learned later that the French had waited for the moment when the Gestapo agent, whose routine never varied, left for lunch at the nearest pub and his noon siesta. Dulles wrote, “Within a matter of minutes I had crossed the French border into Switzerland legally. I was one of the last Americans to do so until after the liberation of France.”

He was feeding deliberate misinformation to the watchers while establishing unsuspected avenues of communication behind the scene.

Dulles took up residence in Bern in a handsome 14th-century mansion in the Herrengasse, on a high ridge terraced with grapevines and with the river Aare below. He wrote that the house was chosen so as to “give cover” to visitors who might not want to be seen at his door. This, however, sounds disingenuous, since Talbot points out that his arrival was publicly announced in one of the papers and he himself “wandered openly through the streets in a rumpled raincoat and a fedora cocked carelessly on the back of his head. He did not have a bodyguard and he did not carry a gun. He met openly with informers and double agents in cafés and on the city streets.”

Germans did their best to double-guess his motives. They planted spies outside his house, his cook turned out to be another German informant, and his Swiss janitor stole carbons from the bottoms of his wastepaper baskets. All he would volunteer was, “Too much secrecy can be self-defeating.” Of course he did not mean a word. It is clear that in various devious and well-calculated ways, he was feeding deliberate misinformation to the watchers while establishing unsuspected avenues of communication behind the scene. His operations were certainly successful, particularly with respect to new recruits and that sub-specialty of the spy world, double agents, so useful because they already came equipped with all kinds of insider information. None of these was hard to find in this European center of political and financial intrigue, “a teeming espionage bazaar,” as Talbot wrote. Meanwhile Dulles, with his candid smile and big-handed welcome, went on weaving his tangled web.

When Adriano Olivetti claimed to have friends in high places, for once he was not exaggerating. A fascinating and lengthy memorandum from OSS records, dated June 14, 1943, has been released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. It reveals that for months Olivetti had been actively plotting to remove Mussolini and planning his replacement, and that his co-conspirator was no less than the future Queen of Italy herself. Some time in the summer of 1942 he visited Princess Marie José Charlotte, wife of Umberto, Prince of Piedmont and heir to the throne, in their summer palace, a 12th-century castle in Sarre that they had extensively refurbished overlooking the Val d’Aosta. The Princess was the third and final child of Prince Albert of Belgium and his wife, the former Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria. She married Umberto in 1930.

Some accounts give the impression that Adriano and the Princess were alone in their plans to bring down the Fascist dictator, but this was hardly the case. The idea began with a young university professor, Carlo Antoni, a student of Benedetto Croce, philosopher, historian, and politician, and the group assembled around them was formidable. There were Count Nicolò Carandini, who became the first ambassador to Great Britain after the war; Manlio Brosio, a prominent lawyer and diplomat; Ivanoe Bonomi, a distinguished anti-Fascist; Luigi Einaudi, who became the second president of the Italian Republic in 1948; and a young diplomat from the Vatican, the future Pope Paul VI (1963).

Adriano’s complicated plan involved members of the Italian intelligentsia in exile, specifically the friends in Giustizia e Libertà, now in Paris. A British secret service report, now released and in British government archives, continues that Olivetti thought it was important to establish “a nucleus outside of Italy to which the anti-Fascist elements in Italy can adhere. His idea some months ago was that there should be, in effect, two Italian governments, one outside which would assume an attitude of belligerency against the Axis, and a government inside Italy which would throw out Fascism, but assume an attitude of non-belligerency, or semi-neutrality, as he said the country was too exhausted to immediately be thrown into war against Germany.” The two governments would fuse into one as soon as possible, but in the interim he proposed a national committee of refugees on the outside and anti-Fascists on the inside. He proposed to bring into the committee Luigi Salvatorelli, former editor of La Stampa and committed anti-Fascist, Dr. Ugo La Malfa, founder of L’Italia Libera and the Action Party, Carlo Levi, and Emilio Lussu, politician, writer, soldier, and another Action Party member.

Quite what the Princess thought of this rather Byzantine solution is not recorded. But it is clear that Adriano and the Princess liked each other and that he made numerous trips to the Sarre Royal Castle in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. She represented the newly evolving royals, with their easy informality, their spontaneity, and penchant for doing slightly outré things like driving their own cars. Her husband liked a formal court and the trappings of grandeur; she wrote books and went dashing off to concerts and festivals. Adriano’s trips were interspersed with efforts to interest and include prominent Italians such as, for instance, Benedetto Croce, who was not very encouraging. He went to see the pope. He attempted to solicit the backing of the 84-year-old Enrico Caviglia, a hero of World War I, but was equally unsuccessful. (The great man died in 1945.) Adriano had already visited Marshal Badoglio, who would become prime minister and usher in the country’s first postwar government. The British government report continues, Olivetti “found him in excellent form and desirous of examining the whole situation and expressed great resentment against Mussolini. He asserted that he himself had no political ambitions. . . . He did not commit himself as to . . . whether he thought he could effectively take action.” Badoglio was not about to move a finger until the Allies did first.

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mysterious affair olivetti

From The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti: IBM, the CIA, and the Cold War conspiracy to shut down production of the world’s first desktop computer by Meryle Secrest. Copyright © 2019 by Meryle Secrest Beveridge. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meryle Secrest
Meryle Secrest
Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England, and lives in Washington, DC. She is the author of twelve biographies and was awarded the 2006 Presidential National Humanities Medal.





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