The Italian Soldier’s Journey in the Soviet Union
By Dr Nicolò Da Lio
Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters.
On June 22nd, 1941, as German troops invaded the Soviet Union, Hitler accepted Mussolini’s offer for an Italian Army Corps to be sent in Russia. In July, Corpo d’Armata Autotrasportabile (truck-movable corps) was transformed in to the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia (CSIR) and sent to USSR. Hoping to expand his influence over the Eastern Front, Mussolini offered three more divisions on July 2nd, 1941. Hitler finally accepted the Italian offer for another two Corps on December 29th, 1941 as Operation Barbarossa failed its ambitious objective, the Germans sought any help they could get. The new Armata Italiana in Russia (ARMIR) arrived in USSR in the summer of 1942.
Of all the war theatres involving Italian forces, the Eastern campaign was the most ideologically driven. The Soviet Union represented the apex of communism, materialism, and atheism. These three elements were fascisms’ proclaimed enemies. However, fascism was not the only actor in the Italian political, cultural, and social scenario of the time: Italy was ruled by a polyarchy of different and disorganised 'institutions, bureaucracies, interest groups,' each of them with different goals. The war against USSR involved fascism, but the Catholic church and the Royal Army were also included because of their cultural or military role. These three different institutions offered different reasons to fight in the East.
The Army legitimised its role in the Soviet Union using a language that mustered all the possible linguistic registers. Fascism, anti-Bolshevism, Christianity, racism, and nationalism appeared in the most vernacular forms in journals as Dovunque, In bocca all’orso and Fronte Russo.
Living in an environment that did not offer different narratives about the war against the Soviet Union, the Italian soldier could easily portrait himself as a defender of the Motherland, the Christian faith, and the very notion of family. Coherently with Royal Army propaganda, members of the Regio Esercito could see themselves as liberators of the Soviet peoples oppressed by Bolshevism, bringers of a new civilisation to a barbarian race, or Christian crusaders fighting in and for a land lost in atheism.
Army propaganda identified Slavs, communists, and Jews as enemies against whom any degree of violence was legitimate. Although the Regio Esercito legitimised his war in the Soviet Union with the same anti-Semitic slogans used by the Wehrmacht, Italian military recognised that Slavs could be redeemed by Roman Catholic and Fascist civilisation. Nonetheless, Italian soldiers and officers were to base their role as conquerors on cultural racism. A territory administrated thanks to a racial hierarchy built on violence was what the Italian Royal Army was asking from its troops.
Violence was the determining factor in the relationship between occupiers and civilians. Aggressive policing, guerrilla warfare, and requisitions seemed to be less frequent in CSIR and ARMIR rear areas than in German sectors. Thus Italian occupational policies in the Soviet Union differed slightly from those applied by German forces. On the other hand, as Italians were subordinated to German commands, Italian units could not follow an independent policy towards Jews, as they did in other occupations like Southern France or Yugoslavia, where autonomous Italian Armies enforced specific assimilation policies.
German orders ruling occupational policies were given ample diffusion in the territory subject to Italian military control. Major anti-partisan operations were rarely organised in Italian sectors, but Italian troops cooperated with German forces and applied their methods. The Italian Army applied the German directive that ordered the execution of all Red Army soldiers found in rear areas. Civilians who helped Red Army soldiers were to be shot or hanged. Civilians who were not registered in local communities were to be shot too. General Nasci of the Alpine Corps encouraged the use of hostages to be executed in case of troubles. On the other hand, Italian troops were ordered to avoid collective reprisals against Russian villages. Lastly, the Italian Army was to live off the land: local resources were to be used in the most ‘integral, radical, pitiless way’.
Diaries and Epistolaries
Army propaganda often influenced troops. Letters demonstrate that many soldiers internalised anti-communist and anti-Slav racism, and perceived themselves as warriors of an ‘anti-Bolshevik crusade,’ struggling to Christianise a population forced to forget its faith by an atheist regime. Some soldiers understood that war against the Soviet Union was ‘not a matter of conquering terrain,’ but aimed at ‘Bolshevism’s complete destruction and annihilation.’ Soldiers considered essential to fight ‘the dangerous Judaic-Jewish-Freemason minorities’ ruling USSR. Indeed, many soldiers used an ideological rather than a racial language to describe their enemies, who were defined as ‘Bolsheviks,’ ‘communists’ and ‘reds,’ as well as ‘God-less’ and ‘anti-Christians.’ Colonial experience and culture reinforced the racially connoted language. Others used some racially connoted sentences to describe people who ‘stink of Russian.’ Slavs were inevitably described as ‘childish’ and capable of ‘dreadful cruelty’ because of a ‘primitive mentality.’ Some asked for ‘German inflexibility’: the only way to keep Slavic barbarism in check.
Soldiers’ violent behaviour was encouraged by the boundaries set between civilisation and barbarity, and between humanity and bestiality. Violence was accepted especially if directed against Jews, who were the prominent targets of fascist propaganda. As a Bersagliere noted, ‘the hanging of some Jews is an ordinary story here. They are getting paid for what they deserve.’ Interestingly, such overt confession was relatively rare. Soldiers and officers usually described a panorama devoid of the victims of the Axis forces.
The economic rationalisation that tried to legitimise the Axis war against USSR was particularly useful with Italians educated to perceive Italy as a poor, young ‘proletarian’ nation struggling for its ‘place in the sun.’ Therefore, as Russians could not properly administrate their rich land, Axis powers could legitimately claim and conquer the resources needed to achieve Europe’s economic independence.
As the war progressed, the soldiers’ experience started to drift from what they were told about the Soviet Union and Slav peoples. The richness of the land impressed soldiers and officers, by the presence of large and advanced industrial complexes, and by the population’s mild character and high level of education. Experience differed so much from Army propaganda that some propaganda officers advised their superiors that politicised language could no longer win the soldiers’ hearts. Army officers actively tackled apathetic soldiers and tried to re-mobilise their subordinates using patriotic as well as fascist mottoes.
As we have seen, soldiers and officers seem to have internalised at least some of the different propagandistic messages aimed at them. Quantitative indicators, such as the low disobedience, self-harm, and desertion ratio, can confirm that the war in the East was accepted, but the degree to which the different legitimising discourses were assimilated cannot be ascertained.
Epistolaries interrupt their narrative as the Italian retreat begun in the winter of 1942-1943. On the other hand, post-war memories are mostly concerned with the Italian retreat, thus can fill the gap left by contemporary accounts. While only a fraction of memorial books described the journey to the front and the offensive war, the return is the central part of all narrations. The retreat is often compared to an apocalyptic journey, an ‘Anabasis,’ a ‘tragic Odyssey,’ a ‘titanic struggle’ of ‘biblical proportions.’ Typically, Russian front veterans describe themselves as innocent victims of a war they did not want, and whose political reasons they did not understand.
The memory of the Eastern front experience could be enriched by a broader understanding of the dire consequences of Nazi ideology. Therefore, Italian soldiers tended to mark their distance from German policies and art of war. Wehrmacht’s military prowess was admired for its efficiency and capabilities but was feared for its brutality and contested for its apparent indifference towards traditional war customs.
After the war, Italian military-men described their shock when they met Jews used as forced labour, but few if any soldiers went beyond the most elementary piety, and therefore did not question the political legitimacy and extreme violence of the war in the East. To many, all that mattered was the cataclysmic nature of the retreat of the winter of 1942-1943, the Germans’ reluctance to help a retreating ally, the corrupted fascist leadership that forced hundreds of thousands of under-equipped Italian soldiers into a war that they could not possibly win, and finally the Army’s backward culture, whose officers were obsessed by social distinctions and did not care about soldiers’ welfare.
Political self-indulgence could indicate that the political nature of the war in the East was considered a weaker reason to fight if compared to more traditional drivers, such as pre-political loyalty to National institutions like the Army. Self-indulgence also meant that uncontested fascist motives did survive the war. While anti-Semitism was banned, anti-Slavism still thrived. Anti-communism could still be expressed in post-war memoirs written in the Cold-war political environment.
It seems that soldiers’ identity was based on a deep, pre-political culture. For most men, military service was an experience ‘where [one] lives true life, a life deprived of egoism, hate, human misery, where we all feel equal and united for a single goal, for a single ideal.’ This soldiering ethos was often parallel to the passive obedience to whom held legitimate power and had a higher social position taught and asked the soldiers. This kind of language was part of the Army’s own military culture but easily blurred with fascist values. Political and ‘total’ mobilisation, on the other hand, seemed to be lacking for an ideological war that should have been the last confrontation between two opposing world orders.
Whatever could have been their most intimate reasons to fight, the men of CSIR and ARMIR all fought a traditional war for fascisms’ new European order, until defeat in battle re-oriented their identity.
Dr Nicolò Da Lio obtained his Bachelor’s Degree and his Master’s Degree at the University of Padua, with the supervision of Silvio Lanaro and Giulia Albanese. He earned his PhD at the University of Western Piedimont, with the supervision of Marco Mariano and Maurizio Vaudagna. His research interests are Italian political history, war and society studies, mainly focused in the role and culture of the Italian Army within Italian society. His PhD thesis highlighted the evolution of the Royal Army’s institutional culture between 1922 and 1945.