Seventy Years Ago in Italy
The moral spectacle of the war in Italy can enable us to value what we ought to value.

German World War II monument at the Futa Pass


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.


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