Victoria Belco, War, Massacre, and Recovery in Central Italy, 1943-1948 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010). 592 pages.
Reviewed by Cindy Brown (University of Western Ontario)
Victoria Belco’s War, Massacre, and Recovery in Central Italy, 1943-1948 is a monumental study of three villages in Arezzo, Italy that draws on a wealth of Italian, British and American archival sources to portray how ordinary Italians both the endured and recovered from the Second World War. War, Massacre, and Recovery reveals the complexity of war in Arezzo province and by extension casts light on problems that plagued the rest of the country during and after the war. Belco focuses on the years between 1943 and 1948 which “span the most intense period of war for Italy and the most intense period of the country’s reconstruction.” (Belco, p. 5) Belco’s work reveals much about the suffering of Italian civilians and the destruction caused by war. Her study addresses the impact Allied aerial bombardment, foreign occupation, resistance, and German massacres of civilians had on Italians in the Arezzo province and how they rebuilt after the war. Belco paints a thorough picture of a unique and complicated war experience. But this study represents only one of the countless examples of how Italians endured the war.
Belco does not purport to do anything but tell the story of the people of Arezzo endured the war. The suffering and devastation found in Arezzo province is both similar and unique to that found elsewhere. After the fighting front moved northward, local and national officials began the rebuilding and healing process, including mourning the dead. Officials developed criteria favouring those who died for the cause of liberation. Those killed and injured by war as well as their surviving family members were categorized into “political victims” or “victims of war.” (Belco, p. 169) Italians killed or wounded serving as partisans (after the armistice of 8 September 1943) held equal status to victims in so-called reprisal killings. Both were considered political victims and thus more deserving than Italians killed by more indiscriminate hazards of war such as aerial bombardment or landmines. Despite this dichotomy between political victims and victims of war various levels of Italian government fostered a shared identity of victimhood among survivors. Unfortunately, Belco found the practice did not always translate into meaningful support from the state. (Belco, p. 171)
Two especially compelling issues stand out among Belco’s important findings. Firstly, Belco’s study reveals that the people of Arezzo did not trust the state to rebuild their province. The war and its aftermath did little to reconcile the already poor relationship between the Italian state and its citizens. However, Belco found that Italians took matters into their own hands to rebuild their shattered society and in the process acquired a level of agency they did not have before the war. In the end, the national government was unable to cope with the massive challenge of rebuilding. Reconstruction was carried out on a local level, depending on local initiative, money and organization.
The strength of Belco’s work is her interpretation of the effects of war on Arezzo, making this a must read for those in the war and society field. The war passed relatively quickly through the province of Arezzo but was brutal nonetheless. Its location on the main rail line from Rome to Bologna made the area a target for Operation Strangle, the Allied attempt to cut German supply lines with airpower. Air raids on road and rail junctions also destroyed homes, farms, businesses, aqueducts and terrorized the population. An already desperate population then felt the wrath of the retreating German army as it massacred civilians in ‘reprisal’ killings throughout June and July, 1944. As Belco describes, the people of Arezzo suffered the actions of both warring parties.
One of the great historical problems of Italy’s Second World War is that it happens very differently in each region. Geography and the evolving nature of the military campaign exacerbated existing regional diversity. Mountainous terrain gave advantage to the German defenders, isolated many communities from the war, and placed others firmly in the path of destruction. The Allied advance north was at times rapid and unopposed. At others the front stagnated for months, subjecting Italians to months of bitter fighting. For the Allies, Italy was the secondary front to Normandy and therefore Allied armies had to wage the campaign with less. They also felt obliged to provide Italian civilians with enough to eat for both moral and pragmatic reasons. Hungry, desperate Italians behind Allied lines presented possible danger to supply lines. The Allied requirement to do more with less meant that the presence of Allied armies had a greater impact on the local population. As Belco describes, Allied armies requisitioned supplies, property and imposed restrictions on Italians to support the war effort. (Belco, p. 111)
Belco is more critical of Allied bombing than of German reprisal killings. Her critique is based on the principle that Allied raids in the Arezzo area achieved nothing. “Although it did not drive the Germans out of Central Italy, Operation Strangle successfully killed and injured Italian civilians, greatly disrupted civilian life, and severely damaged he civilian landscape.” (Belco, p. 52-53) The purpose of Operation Strangle was to disrupt the road and rail movement of German supplies and troops leading up to the decisive battles for Rome in May – June 1944. Belco’s findings reflect the common understanding of many that the Allied purpose was to chase the Germans from Italy. In fact, Operation Strangle formed part of a global Allied strategy which called a major offensive against German forces in Italy to prevent them from reinforcing France after the D-Day Landings in Normandy. (Operation Overlord). General Alexander defined the greater strategic object of the Italian campaign: “To force the enemy to commit the maximum number of divisions to operations in Italy at the time Overlord is launched.”# Operation Strangle then is not about driving the Germans out of Italy but keeping them there. Ultimately Belco is right to expose Italian suffering under the weight of Allied bombs. Whatever important purpose Operation Strangle had, there is no doubt the Italians paid a heavy price.
Victoria Belco’s case-study is a significant contribution to our understanding of the impact of the Second World War in Italy. Belco’s recognition of how the burden of war weighs on civilians caught in the middle reminds us that modern warfare does not happen in a vacuum but leaves deep scars on local populations long after peace is declared.