Seventy Years Ago in Italy

by M. D. Aeschliman
The moral spectacle of the war in Italy can enable us to value what we ought to value.

San Cresci, Tuscany — Looking out over the upper Sieve Valley of Tuscany north of Florence, one finds it nearly impossible to believe that just 70 years ago it was the site of the last fierce act in the Nazis’ battle for southern Europe. It took nine brutal, bloody months — August 1944 to April 1945 — for the Americans, the British, and their polyglot allies to conquer the last 60 miles of mountains before entering Bologna and the plain of the Po River. The great General Władysław Anders’s heroic Polish Corps — which had captured Monte Cassino at great cost, and despite feeling deeply betrayed by Roosevelt’s concession of their country to Stalin at Yalta in February — entered Bologna from the east at 6 a.m. on April 21, 1945.

This year, after one of the rainiest and coolest summers in a century, the Tuscan Mugello — the rural, northeastern, and most mountainous section of the province — looks amazingly green, fertile, and prosperous. There is now a reservoir near the headwaters of the Sieve River, and the fields and forests are gold and green, much greener than in August 1944, when so much of this part of rural Italy — of all of Italy, for that matter — was heavily under subsistence-farming cultivation. Today the silver olive groves, the green vineyards, the varieties of oak and chestnut, the Roman pines and cypresses, the sunflowers and fig trees, not to speak of herbs, aromatic plants, and many-colored wildflowers, make up a paradisal setting of peace and well-being, to which thousands of northern and western Europeans (and Americans) flock for their summer holidays. But from a hilltop on the south side of the Sieve Valley one can also see — twelve miles away — the jagged modern monument rising above the Futa Pass on the north side of the valley, a monument at the top of the German World War II military cemetery, containing 30,000 graves.

Despite some fine books published in English, the war in Italy is not as well known as, and lacks the glamour and prestige of, the German–Russian war on the Eastern Front, 1941–1945, or the Anglo-American D-Day assault and subsequent liberation of France and conquest of Germany itself, from June 6, 1944, to V-E Day, May 8, 1945. Though he was right ultimately about so much else, Winston Churchill was wrong to think of Italy as “the soft underbelly of Europe.” The Italian peninsula is rugged and mountainous. Despite the speed and success of the Allied invasion of Sicily and Marshal Badoglio’s surrender of Italy to the Allies on September 8, 1943, the Germans soon occupied most of the peninsula and dramatically rescued the fallen Mussolini from captivity, setting up his puppet regime in the north. They systematically fortified defensible military lines, from Monte Cassino in the south (the Gustav Line), to the Lake Trasimeno Line in the center, to the ominous final Gothic Line, stretching through the forbidding Apennine Mountains from Versilia on the Tuscan coast of the Mediterranean to Rimini on the Adriatic.

Brilliantly and ruthlessly led by Generals Albert Kesselring, H. G. von Vietinghoff, and Frido von Senger, among Germany’s best commanders, the German troops were amazingly disciplined, competent, and tenacious. Despite complete, deadly Allied control of the air and increasing sabotage by Italian Partisans behind German lines, and despite clear evidence that Germany was losing the war in the East, had lost it in North Africa, and was losing it after June 1944 in the West, German soldiers maintained high morale in Italy until the very last months of winter–spring 1945, a fact that astonished many observers, including the Anglo-American writer Iris Origo, who lived with her Italian husband in southern Tuscany, and U.S. Tenth Mountain Division rifleman Thomas R. Brooks, who fought in the campaign in the Apennines of Tuscany and Romagna and has written a detailed, definitive account of its last phase, The War North of Rome: June 1944–May 1945 (1996). The dogged, fanatical loyalty of German troops was to cost the lives of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers: Americans — including Japanese-American (Nisei) and African-American units — British, Canadians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Poles, Brazilians, Indian Gurkhas (and Punjabis and Baluchis), Greeks, re-committed Italians, and a Jewish brigade. It was also to cost the Germans themselves astounding casualties and ultimately to serve no sane purpose.

Contrary to the later pop nihilism about war of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, Allied troops had the advantage of fighting for a cause they believed to be just. We live in an information-saturated, strangely ironic, pervasively relativistic late-modern culture; as the great sociologist Daniel Bell wrote, “the essence of modernity is that nothing is sacred.” Thomas Brooks’s detailed stories of battles, units, and individuals reveal an older idealism and heroism among the Allied troops that now seems particularly poignant and full of pathos. The reader, especially one able to visit some of the contested landscapes himself, is the spectator at a tragedy. But not a pointless one.

The terrifying, apocalyptic events of world history since 1914 cannot really be comprehended by the kind of hedonistic or utilitarian optimism so common before 1914, which is once again the public ideology of our own commercial Western cultures and even of our schools. The events of the last hundred years — remorselessly continuing, daily, on TV and computer screens and in newspaper headlines — cannot be credibly fit within a master narrative of cumulative, collective, irreversible human progress and improvement. In Paradoxes of Progress, the Berkeley molecular biologist Gunther Stent argued that “the most meaningful [contemporary] definition of progress can be made from the purview of . . . the will to power.” But, he continues, “it is a totally amoral view of progress, under which nuclear ballistic missiles definitely represent progress over gunpowder cannonballs, which in turn represent progress over bows and arrows.” Science and technology augment power, not wisdom. In the middle of World War II — specifically, in 1943, as the Italian campaign moved north — C. S. Lewis, himself badly wounded in World War I, wrote to Arthur C. Clarke: “I agree that technology is per se neutral, but a race devoted to the increase of its own power with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the Universe.”

In a famous essay, William James argued the need for “a moral equivalent of war,” recognizing that in some ways and cases war does or can bring to a high pitch not only human morale (at its worst, fanaticism) but also human courage, devotion, and self-sacrifice. The Italian campaign was replete with the best and the worst. Consider the profoundly costly egotism of the American general Mark Clark (1896–1984), who at the last moment broke the agreed-upon and functioning plan — devised by the British supreme Allied commander for the Mediterranean, General Harold Alexander — to surround and entrap the German Tenth Army in Rome. On June 4, 1944, Clark and his forces entered the vacated city, now of no strategic importance, thus leaving a hole in the entrapping Allied net, which allowed the German army to escape and rejoin its compatriots at the Lake Trasimeno Line — and to fight on. The American military historian Carlo D’Este described Clark’s egotistical decision to present himself as the conqueror of Rome “as [being as] militarily stupid as it was insubordinate.” It would end up costing many thousands of Allied soldiers’ lives.

On the other side of the moral ledger, General Lucian K. Truscott Jr. (1895–1965), who took over command from Clark of the American Fifth Army in the Tuscan–Romagnolan Apennine campaign on the Gothic Line in the winter–spring of 1945, was notoriously abstemious about having himself credited in dispatches, insisting instead on identifying and crediting lower-ranking officers, individual soldiers, and units for their successes. Just after the final defeat of the Wehrmacht, at the American Nettuno War Cemetery near Anzio Beach, where he had himself led troops, Truscott was asked to give the Memorial Day address. According to Bill Mauldin, who was there, Truscott “turned his back on the assembled [military] windbags and [civilian] sparklers and talked to the crosses in the cemetery, quietly, apologizing, and then walked away without looking around.”

But in August of 1944 — even though Clark’s grandstanding entry into Rome had allowed orderly German withdrawals up the Italian boot — the Allied forces were optimistic. By coordinated movements down the Arno Valley — containing the beautiful Tuscan cities of Florence, Lucca, and Pisa — they advanced from above Arezzo, through the Chianti hills, through the western Tuscan hills and fields of the Maremma, and along the coast. They soon drove the Germans off of Monte Pisano and Monte Albano and out of the cities of Livorno, Pisa, Lucca, and Florence and into the mountains to the north. The Allied commanders knew that General Kesselring had been playing for time in order to complete the defensive fortifications for the Gothic Line, about a hundred miles of mountains stretching from Versilia on the Mediterranean to Rimini on the Adriatic.

The construction of the Gothic Line fortifications overseen by the German Todt organization was undertaken by the “rake-up,” or rastrellamento — the forced, conscripted services of hundreds of Italian men, 16 to 55 years of age; it was another spur to recruitment for the anti-Nazi Italian Partisans behind German lines. And as Bernard Berenson and Iris Origo both noted, from late 1943 on, peasants up and down the Italian boot aided, often at great risk, escaped Allied prisoners: a fact explained by one of them, British major P. Gibson, in these terms: “Simple Christianity impelled [Italian peasants] to befriend those complete strangers” — who had recently been enemies — “feed them, clothe them, and help them on their way.” Gibson continued: “All over Italy this miracle was to be seen, the simple dignity of a humble people who saw in the escaped prisoners not representatives of a power to be withstood or placated, but individuals in need of help.”

By August 25, 1944, British soldiers on the eastern front of the Allied assault on the Gothic Line, near the Adriatic, expressed the widespread optimism encouraged by Allied commanders: “Two days to reach Bologna, four days to reach Venice, and a week to reach Vienna!” In the event, the Poles were not to enter Bologna until April 21, 1945 — eight months, and many deaths, later.

On the southern shoulders of Monte Falterona (which stands over 5,000 feet) in eastern Tuscany, both the Tiber and the Arno Rivers originate: the first flows due south through Umbria to Rome and the Mediterranean; the second pursues a more circuitous course south and west through Florence and Pisa to the same sea. But from the Adriatic coast to Monte Falterona and then westward across the Mugello and Romagna to Liguria, the Apennines run down the center of the peninsula, making one of the great geographical and cultural divides of Italy. Rivers and creeks originating on high and steep peaks such as Monte Cimone (7,000 feet) and Monte Cusana (6,900 feet) — higher than anything in the eastern United States — plunge precipitously down sheer cliffs into roaring torrents when the winter snows melt. The defensive fortifications on the heights made the Gothic Line a trial by fire and blood for the Allied troops, augmented in the autumn by rain and mud, in the winter by snow and ice, and in the spring by the swollen mountain torrents flowing toward the north Italian plain and the Po valley. For most of the terrain, mules had to be used, as roads were nonexistent or impassable by military vehicles.

In The Prince (1513), Machiavelli had presented the cruel tyrant Cesare Borgia as a “heroically” shrewd despot brutally cleaning up the lawless mountains of the Romagna. The exiled Tuscan Dante sometimes perched in a castle in the mountains of Romagna and looked longingly southwest toward his beloved Florence. Neither the virtuous Dante nor the cynical Machiavelli could ever have imagined the truly infernal character of modern warfare, the murderous destructiveness of modern armaments, which would turn the Tuscan and Romagnolan highlands into killing fields and graveyards. As Stent pointed out, modern “progress” has perfected ingenious techno-military means but often devotes them to obscure, contemptible, or even satanic ends.

The varieties of philosophical liberalism and naturalism — ultimately inextricable from each other — lead their votaries into conceptual mazes and moral absurdity, as Dante showed in Canto III of his Inferno. Looking back on the previous ten years from the vantage point of 1923, the great Dantean poet-seer T. S. Eliot wrote about “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” He was to live through worse, in the fire-bombing of London during the Blitz of 1940–41. In the years since 1914, Hell had come on earth; intermittently, and in several forms, sophisticated and simple, it is with us still.

The brilliant poet-playwright and clever Machiavellian Christopher Marlowe foreshadows the paradoxes of the anthropocentric “humanism” that would lead to modern moral and conceptual confusion and catastrophe: “I count religion but a childish toy / And hold there is no sin but ignorance” (The Jew of Malta, c. 1590). But this is an ambiguous “emancipation” or “enlightenment.” One of the German commanders in Italy, the aristocratic, stoical General Frido von Senger, would say of German soldiering after it was clear that the “Thousand-Year Reich” would last only twelve: “Troops who had seen the light were more dependable than the misguided followers of Hitler. He who looks his destiny in the face will understand the adage ‘Nec metus nec spes.’ Neither fear nor hope.” The great “culture-bearing” nation that had experienced the exalting ecstasy of devil-worship had ended in the depths of emotional-psychological despair, organized homicide, and national suicide.

“Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,” the poet Carl Sandburg wrote after World War I. “Shovel them under and let me work — / I am the grass; I cover all.”

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
      What place is this?
      Where are we now?

  I am the grass.
  Let me work.

History is largely a story of sin and tragedy, despite the commonplaces of our liberal and liberated culture. But from sin and tragedy, catharsis can bring wisdom and some degree of peace. John Henry Newman noted that meditation on the Crucifixion had similar effects to those of the experience of tragedy — the exertion of moral imagination, through painful imaginative experience, eliciting pity and awe. The old adage has it that we never really appreciate or value things unless we either work for them or lose them — “suffer” for them in some sense. But the moral spectacle of history can provide the catharsis, through imaginative sympathy, that enables us to value what we ought to value and reject what is worthless, foolish, false, or evil.

General Truscott was right to address the silent graves and crosses at Nettuno Cemetery near Anzio in May 1945. It is an arresting image that lingers in the mind. And a nation that forgets those who died in a noble cause has no future as a moral order.

— M. D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia) has lived intermittently in Tuscany since 1971. His father was in the Tenth Mountain Division, U.S.A., and saw combat action in the Pacific in World War II. One of his uncles went ashore in France on D-Day.