A tale of Battisti and his death as a patriot

Treason in the Austro-Hungarian empire could often lead to execution

British soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front during the first World War. Italy famously changed sides in 1915, entering the war on the side of Britain, France and Russia. Photograph: Reuters

British soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front during the first World War. Italy famously changed sides in 1915, entering the war on the side of Britain, France and Russia. Photograph: Reuters


If I were to ask you to name a patriot executed in 1916 by a colonial power for his nationalist beliefs, you might think of Pádraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, James Connolly et al. If one adds that the patriot in question was executed in the grounds of the prison where he was detained, you might think of Kilmainham Gaol.

My “patriot”, however, had nothing to do with the Easter Rising, rather he was an Italian irredentist, Cesare Battisti by name. He was garroted to death in the grounds of the Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trento, (historically, Trent) on July 12th, 1916, having been found guilty of treason against the Austro-Hungarian empire. In a modern Italy, devastated by the federalist regional claims of the xenophobic Northern League, 41-year-old Battisti’s patriotic story sometimes gets ignored.

However, on a tour of the Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento recently, I was reminded of his story, recalling as it does that Pearse, Plunkett and others were not the only nationalist martyrs in the first World War-devastated Europe of 1916. Born in the splendid northern Italian city of Trento, in the foothills of the Alps, Battisti had long campaigned for Italian-dominated, Hapsburg-ruled territories such as the areas around Trento and the port of Trieste to be part of modern Italy.

When the first World War broke out, he decided that “Austria’s difficulty would be Italy’s opportunity”. When Italy famously changed sides in 1915, entering the war on the side of Britain, France and Russia and going into battle with the old Hapsburg enemy, it failed to honour a pre-1914 pact with Germany and Austro-Hungary. Battisti felt the moment had come.

In August 1914, he had already made a public appeal to King Vittorio Emanuele II, calling on Italy to declare war on its Austrian allies, thus creating the conditions for the “liberation” of Trento and Trentino . Through his newspaper Il Popolo, socialist Battisti had already long campaigned for the “autonomy” of the Italian Tyrol.

When Italy entered the war in 1915, Battisti enrolled in the army, despite the fact he was technically a subject of the Hapsburg empire. In the summer of 1916, during a less than successful defence of the Italian position on Monte Corne in the Alpine foothills, he was taken prisoner.

On July 10th, along with another irredentist, Fabio Filzi, he was taken to Trento to stand trial for treason. He and Filzi were transported on an open hay wagon and, along the way, they were subjected to physical and verbal insults, also occasionally being stoned by people in the streets.

The Hapsburg regime did not mess about with them. Battisti was tried on July 11th when he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The next day, July 12th, he was garroted to death in the castello courtyard.

The execution was not without incident. Battisti had requested that, as an enemy prisoner of war, he be executed in his military uniform and by a firing squad. The court ruled, however, that he be hung as a common traitor. And when the Viennese hangman first tried to strangle Battisti, the rope broke.

In today’s beautifully maintained Castello del Buonconsiglio, you can visit the dreary prison cell in which Battisti spent his last hours. He had asked that he might be allowed to write a farewell note to his wife, Ernesta, but that was denied him.

However, thanks to a sympathetic Austrian guard, he was able to leave a note for his brother, the text of which is displayed outside his prison cell: “Dear Brother, They have condemned me to death. The sentence will be carried out immediately. I send to you the greetings that I cannot send to my family. Take them for me, when you get the chance, to my dear Ernesta, who has been a saint for me, and to my sweet children, Cigino, Livietta, Camillo . . . I go to my fate with a calm, untroubled spirit. I say to the children: be good and look after mammy, Cesare Battisti.”

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