Bartolini, Guido. "The Italian Memory of the Invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II"

Abstract: After World War II the memory of the war campaigns fought by Fascist Italy in the Axis War tended to be marginalised in the Italian memory culture. Among these neglected war theatres the Eastern Front was the one that received more attention: not only did it constitute a matter of political disputes during the 1950s, but was also often the subject of literary depictions. Yet the representation of Italy's participation in the attack to the Soviet Union was particularly biased and uncritical. Affected by the experience of defeat and by war traumas, the public memories of this war campaign conveyed to the Italians a series of self-absolving myths, which were structured around concepts drawn from Catholic culture. Numerous historical works published in the last decade have exposed the limits of this memory discourse and might have paved the way to a renovation of the Italian memory of the Axis War.


Key Words: World War II, Retreat from Russia, Vectors of Memory, Schematic narrative templates, Italiani Brava Gente.


Guido Bartolini is a PhD candidate in Italian Studies and visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London. In his doctoral thesis he looked at the literary representation of the Axis War in Italian narrative (1944–1974) and put it in relation to the Italian collective memory of the Second World War. His work combines theories of memory, narratology, thematic criticism, and the historiography on Fascism in order to show the contribution of cultural production to the dissemination of a memory of the past. His main research interests concern 20th century Italian culture and the legacy of the Fascist past. Before undertaking a PhD he studied in Florence, Bristol, and Oxford, where he worked on Italian Fascism and on the relationship between modern culture and the Classics. He is the author of Lo Spirito di Paideia: Educazione classica e cultura moderna, (Arezzo: Helicon, 2015).


On the summer 1941 three Italian divisions, amounting to a total of 62.000 soldiers, joined the Axis army that had initiated the Operation Barbarossa, which marked the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. In the following winter, after the initial successes, the Axis forces were halted and Hitler decided that more troops had to be deployed on the Eastern Front. Hence, in the summer 1942 six more Italian divisions were sent to the Soviet Union, joined the previously small Italian contingent, and formed the 'Italian Army in Russia' (ARMIR) which was composed by a total of more than 230.000 men.[1]

For Fascist Italy the Eastern front neither represented the main theatre of military operations, nor the most strategically important. In fact, far more troops took part in the invasion of Greece, while the North African front was the most crucial for Mussolini's dreams of establishing Italy's control on the Mediterranean Sea.[2] Nonetheless the military invasion of the Soviet Union conserved its significance, as it is proved by the fact that the Italian troops sent there were mainly formed by elite corps and were generally better equipped than those operating on other war fronts.[3] This war campaign appeared to the Fascist ruling class as a necessary move for the establishment of the Axis total domination on Europe, which would have solved Italy's lack of raw materials. Furthermore, the participation in the operation Barbarossa should have attested Italy's loyalty to Nazi Germany and tightened the alliance between the two fascist dictatorships.[4]

Another important reason that pushed Mussolini to believe in the necessity of invading the Soviet Union have to be found on the symbolic level and in the ideological connotations that this offensive had. The war against the Soviet Union appeared, indeed, as a necessary struggle that Italy had to fight to liberate the world — and the Russians too — from the plague of Communism, an ideology that had pushed people to repudiate the belief in God and that, therefore, had to be opposed for the sake of Christian civilisation. This war, therefore, assumed the traits of a modern holy crusade that should have proved the superiority of Fascism over Communism, as the propaganda of the regime incessantly stressed.[5]

During the year and a half spent on the Eastern front, Italian troops took part in both military and anti-partisan operations, administered vast areas, had the power to apply the death penalty, and were in charge of the economical exploitation of many of the lands that the Axis forces occupied. The Italians took also part in the Stalingrad siege: they were positioned on the rear front, along the River Don, where they controlled an area of more than 270 km, from Pavlosk to the mouth of the river Choper.[6]

Here, on the 16th of December 1942, they were overwhelmed by the counterattack of the Red Army. The breakthrough of the Soviets on the river Don marked the beginning of the Axis defeat on the Eastern front and led to a tragic and chaotic retreat. From mid December 1942 to the end of January 1943 Italian soldiers – together with Germans, Romanians, and Hungarians – had to march backward through the snow while being surrounded by the enemy. At the end of the retreat 85,000 Italians had disappeared, either killed or imprisoned. Only 10,000 of these men survived the war and the Soviet camps.[7]

In the postwar years, the attack to the Soviet Union – and the entire Axis War experience – had a complex legacy within the Italian memory culture. In fact, the Italian memory of the Second World War was deeply affected and altered by what happened in the last two years of the conflict and during its aftermath. After the fall of Fascism in July 1943, on the subsequent September the Kingdom of Italy surrendered to the Allies and then swapped side, joining the war against Germany. This plunged the centre-north of the country into a Civil War fought by Fascist supporters and Antifascist freedom fighters up to the spring of 1945, when Mussolini was eventually captured and killed. At the end of the war, the Antifascist movements that had animated the Civil War conquered political power and, through a referendum, Italy became a constitutional Republic.

These events had a strong impact on the way the memory of the Second World War was negotiated and constructed. The active opposition that a small, but substantial part of the Italian people had shown against the Fascists and the Germans led to the widespread assumption that the Italians had freed themselves from the allure of Fascism.[8] This belief was strengthened by the idea that the aftermath of World War II constituted a moment of complete rebirth of the nation.[9] During this phase Italian politicians, intellectuals, and other opinion makers downgraded the importance of the Axis War for the history of democratic Italy, presenting the wars of aggression that the Italians had fought as members of a Fascist dictatorship as events of the past, whose responsibility should have entirely been ascribed to the ill will of Mussolini and other Fascist leaders. While this conceptualisation aimed to spare the country from an excessively punitive peace-treaty that could have been imposed by the Allies, it also contributed to detaching democratic Italy from the responsibility for the Axis War. [10]

By contrast, the event of World War II that acquired significance for both the identity and memory of the new democratic country was the war of Resistance against Fascism and Nazism that had been fought during the Civil War. The memory narratives that were developed around the Antifascist struggle claimed that this event had constituted a complete break with the past, which had revealed the true nature of the Italian people. Through the decades, although controversies and polemics continued to surround the memory of this event, the Antifascist Resistance became the central element of the Italian memory of the Second World War and, during the 1960s, it acquired the support of political institutions becoming, as Stephen Gundle puts it, the 'civic religion' of democratic Italy.[11]

While the Italian collective memory was constructed around the Antifascist Resistance, the memory of the Axis War remained confined to the periphery of the public discourse about World War II, constituting what historian Giorgio Rochat has called a 'weak memory'.[12] This war was scarcely discussed on the public space and little information about it was transmitted from a generation to another. As a result of this peripheral status within the discourse of World War II, only those segments of the Italian population who had been directly affected by this war remained interested in the preservation of its memory. Hence, through the decades, the army and the associations of veterans have been the few public actors who have engaged with the memory of this war.[13]

Yet even for these groups the Axis War was not an event easy to remember. First of all, it was a war that had taken place entirely outside the Italian borders, often in far away and unknown locations, and therefore did not possess the same proximity and concreteness of the events that had happened in Italy during the Civil War. More importantly, this war had been planned and fought by Fascism, a political system that had been overturned and from which democratic Italy wanted to sever any connections. Finally, the Italian campaigns in World War II had been informed by numerous military defeats and failures, even against a country as weak as Greece. As a result, the Axis War was the source of a disconcerting and troublesome memory that, rather than boosting national pride, raised unsettling questions about Italy's unreasonable will to power, while revealing, in quite abrupt ways, the deficiency that had affected the Italian ruling class, the incapacity of its military establishment, and the underdevelopment of its industry.

Yet, despite remaining a controversial and uneasy topic that never acquired centrality in the Italian memory culture, in the postwar years public narratives on the Axis War took nonetheless shape. Alongside the veterans and the army, conservative politicians played a particular important role in this process. In fact, especially during the 1950s, conservative groups touched often upon the memory of the Axis War with a twofold aim: expanding their political consensus by gaining the support of the families of the veterans and trying to reduce the growing importance of the memory of the Resistance, which constituted an important source of legitimisation for the Left.[14]

One of the most evident attempts to capitalise on the memory of the Axis War for political purposes occurred during the political election of the 18th of April 1948. This was a seminal date in the history of modern Italy. In fact, not only was it the first time – besides the constitutional vote of 1946 – that the Italians freely voted with universal suffrage after more than twenty years of dictatorship; but this election was also perceived as a decisive moment for the future of the country.[15] The electoral spectrum was indeed divided between Conservative forces, led by the Christian Democracy, and progressive ones, led by the Italian Communist Party. These two movements not only championed different internal policies, but they also had an extremely divergent position in relation to foreign policy, with the former being closer to the NATO and the latter to the Soviet Union.[16]

The Italian vote concentrated in a nutshell all the tensions of the Cold War era and, not surprisingly, the electoral campaign was harsh, with both sides making large use of aggressive slogans and scaremongering attitudes.[17] In the visual propaganda promoted by the Christian Democracy and by the civic movements that gravitated in the conservative area one can find several references to the Axis War and, in particular, to the 'Russian campaign' — as the attack to the Soviet Union was, and still is, commonly named in Italy. These electoral posters appear particularly important as they offered to the Italians one of the first visual narrativisation of this war in the postwar years.

In one of the posters, in the foreground, an old and sad-looking woman, wearing the traditional dress associated to mourning, looks down, lost in her memories; in the upper side a common soldier is depicted in the moment in which he is about to fall, deadly hit by a bullet. The poster reads: 'mother, if you had been able to vote, we would not have had the war', suggesting that the Christian Democracy is the only party that could guarantee peace. This image, which presents several references to the catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary, addresses the Axis War from the point of view of the family of the fallen, presenting the war as a useless and avoidable bloodshed, in which many Italian soldiers unjustifiably died.[18]

Another famous political leaflet of that time refers to the Russian campaign in a similar manner. The drawing shows a skeleton, kept behind a barbed wire fence, who points at a hammer and sickle. While on the top a written line reminds the viewers of the thousands of Italian prisoners of War that never returned home from the Eastern front, on the right hand corner the leaflet shouts: 'Mum, vote against them also in my name'. Here again the representation of the war is filtered through the grief of the mothers who lost their children in the war and the Soviet Union – and, therefore, the Italian Communist Party that was affiliated to it – is presented as the entity that was responsible for their death.[19]

In these posters the political and historical context that brought the Italians to the war is completely overlooked and ignored; what remains is only the grief of the families who lost their children, who died while serving the nation. In this way the Italian soldiers who participated in the Axis War and invaded other countries are clearly depicted as war victims, as much as anyone else who suffered and died during the war. This representation was not simply due to a biased oversimplification that commonly characterises political propaganda, but had instead deeper connections with the Italian culture of the postwar years. In fact it is possible to establish several links between the representations sketched by these simple posters and other more complex depictions of the Axis War, developed, for instance, in the field of Italian literature.

Despite the marginal role that it occupied in the liturgies of the state, in the public discourse about World War II, and in the memories of following generations of Italians, the Axis War has often been the object of literary mediation. This literary production counts hundreds of books and includes both fictional stories set during the Axis War and, in the vast majority of cases, non-fictional war memoirs, written by veterans.[20] The study of this cultural production, however, shows many irregularities and unbalances in the way in which the Axis War was narrated in Italian culture. In fact, not all the theatres of war where Italy fought obtained the same degree of attention. While experiences on the North African front and, in particular, in the Soviet Union have been mediated by innumerable publications, the Greek campaign and the occupations in the Balkans have been extremely marginalised, with only a few dozens of narrative texts addressing them.[21]

Historian Mario Isnenghi has reflected on the reasons why the 'Russian campaign' has become one of the most memorable events of the largely neglected Axis War, despite not being the front where most soldiers operated. He contends that this was mainly due to the almost mythical value that the Italians conferred on Russia. [22] In fact, since the October Revolution of 1917, Russia had been one of the most discussed foreign countries in the Italian media: feared by the conservatives, lambasted by the Fascists, prised as a new paradise for humankind by the Communists, during the twentieth century Russia populated the imagination of the Italians.

Moreover, the allure that this nation exercised was intensified by the admiration for the greatest name of its national literature – above all for Puškin, Čechov, Tolstoj, and Dostoevkij. As a result, the idea of a war on Russia's unknown lands of disproportionate dimensions, which was enriched by reminiscences of the Napoleonic expedition filtered through the pages of War and Peace, attracted and stimulated the Italian audience. Finally, it is important to bear in mind that, if compared to other defeats that the Italians experienced during World War II, the one on the Eastern Front appeared easier to explicate, given the disproportion of power between Italy and the Soviet Union, making this segment of the Axis War less controversial.

While many of the books written on the Russian campaign were the products of unknown soldiers and, lacking literary qualities, obtained little attention from the public and the critics, some of them achieved great editorial success. It is the case, for instance, of Il sergente nella neve, the poetic war memoir by Mario Rigoni Stern, of Centomila gavette di ghiaccio, the gruesome and epic war novel by Giulio Bedeschi, and, to a lesser extent, of the books by Nuto Revelli, which not only were successful in their own time, but they also continued to be bought and read by following generations of readers.[23] As a result, these books played a crucial role in the transmission of a memory of the Russian campaign, constituting some of the most important 'vectors of memory' of the Axis War in Italian culture.[24]

Yet the representations of the war that these and other texts on the Russian expedition developed present a series of problems. Already by looking at the subject that a vast majority of these books chose to narrate one can realise that the Italian representation of the invasion of the Soviet Union has been affected by a sanitising selectivity. In fact, the main event that these books recount – in many cases the only one that they relate – consists in the last phase of the war, when the Italian troops had to retreat from the river Don. As Isnenghi underlines, these war narratives move mainly from East to West, focusing on the episode that marked the end of the Russian campaign, without lingering on what happened during the first year and a half of the invasion.[25]

By recounting the tragic days of the retreat during which many soldiers starved and froze to death these texts denounced all the limits that affected the Fascist aggression of the Soviet Union, such as the lack of organisation, the scarcity of automatic vehicles, the inadequacy of the equipment – which was inappropriate for the Russian winter – and the weakness of the weaponry. Moreover, these books revealed all the shortcomings of the Axis alliance by showing how the struggle for surviving in the low Russian temperatures led to many episodes of poor cooperation, and often of direct opposition, between the Italians and the Germans. Finally, through a representation of the war that focused on the terrible suffering that the Italians had experienced and on the horrors that they had to face in order to get away alive from the Eastern front, the literature on the Russian expedition developed a firm and inexorable condemnation of war and an indirect defence of the value of peace, as several Italian critics have often underlined.[26]

Yet, the fact that the withdrawal from the river Don became the main 'lieu de mémoire' of the Russian campaign distorted the narrativisation of this event, giving an extremely partial representation of what the Italian participation in the war on the Eastern Front entailed.[27] By focusing on the terrible and chaotic days of the retreat that led to the destruction of the Italian army in Russia, these texts present the Italians as wrecked soldiers, who struggled for the safety of their lives in a desperate attempt to survive and go back home. This depiction follows a pattern of self-victimisation in which the Italians never occupy the position of perpetrators of wrongdoings, but – similarly to the political leaflet that was considered above – only that of war victims.[28] Moreover, the story of the retreat offered the perfect context for the celebration of the endurance and extraordinary resilience of the Italian soldier who, while being clearly defeated in the war, was still capable of actions of heroism to try to save his own life and those of his companions, as many of the books on the retreat report.[29]

Self-victimisation and a patriotic celebration of the heroism of the Italians who, despite their defeat and their undeniable military inferiority, courageously strive to survive, have been two of the main traits of the narrativisation of the Russian campaign in Italian culture.[30] The idea of the retreat from Russia as a sort of 'eroic-defeat' has been repeated by an enormous number of books – it has been 're-mediated' in Astrid Erll's technical term – becoming one of the most common ways in which the Russian campaign has been narrated and remembered in Italy, forming what Marco Mondini, using the term of Jean-François Lyotard, has called a 'grand narrative'.[31]

In order to explain the formation of this master-narrative it is possible to refer to different theories. For instance, psychologist James Wertsch argues that the narrativisation of a historical event is always bond to the cultural capital of a given society, which provides the 'schematic narrative templates' – a series of concepts, values, images, and narrative structures – through which a given event can be articulated into a meaningful story.[32] In the case of the Italian narratives on the retreat from the Soviet Union, one can see how these stories have been highly informed by many of the Catholic elements that pervaded the Italian culture of the postwar years, such as the ideas of martyrdom, sacrifice, and atonement, which led to a conventionalised way of narrating this event.[33]

Otherwise cultural historian Wolfang Schivelbush, in his study on the war narratives developed by countries that went through a military defeat, has drawn attention to the psychological effects of defeat and to how this experience can alter the way a war is portrayed and remembered.[34] In the narrativisation of the Axis War in postwar Italy several of the traits that Schivelbush identifies in the narratives developed by other post-defeat societies can be found, such as the insistence on the superiority of the enemy and the tendency to look for scapegoats – which in the Italian case are usually offered by the German allies.[35]

Whatever the explanation that one wants to adduce, the narrativisation of the war against the Soviet Union as an experience of suffering and unspeakable horrors in which the Italians behaved with courage, always occupying the position of the victims, appears untenable. Without denying or diminishing the suffering that the Italian soldiers experienced during the Axis War, it must be stressed that this way of narrating the events constituted a falsification of historical reality and it has offered a self-absolving narrative that did not lead to the acknowledgement of the criminal actions committed on the Eastern front.[36]

A desire to avoid responsibility for the wrongdoings committed in the war can be recognised behind the diffusion of another powerful self-absolving belief about the Italian participation in the Axis War, the so-called myth of 'Italiani brava gente' – 'the good Italian people'. According to this stereotype, during the Second World War the Italians lacked a thirst for blood and therefore did not commit atrocities, but always maintained a decent behaviour towards the enemies and the local population of the territories they invaded. This stereotype, which originated in the Italian colonial propaganda of the nineteenth century, was re-used for colonial purposes during the Fascist regime, and became in the postwar years one of the most typified representations of the Italian behaviour in the Second World War.[37]

The literature of the Russian campaign, too, was deeply affected by this stereotype. Several authors stressed how the Italians always remained alien from violence and did not commit the brutalities that were perpetrated by the Germans. The belief in the kind-hearted nature of the Italian soldiers contributed to the formation of another stereotype, which concerns the friendly relationship between the soldiers and the locals at the time of the invasion. According to several texts the Italians and the Russians were very similar people: they were mainly humble, but honest hard-working peasants, used to a simple life, who presented several affinities, such as a natural sense of generosity and a strong attachment to the family.[38] As a result of this sense of proximity, Italians and Russians allegedly developed a sense of mutual understanding and respect, which was reflected in both the humane behaviour that the Italians had during the occupation and in the support that many Russian families gave to the Italian soldiers during the retreat.[39]

The main components of the Italian memory of the Russian campaign, such as the myth of 'Italiani brava gente', the stories of the positive relationships with the local people, the accounts of the terrible suffering experienced during the deadly retreat, and the reports of the acts of bravery of many Italian soldiers are not complete fabrications, but reflect the actual experiences of many Italians and the perceptions that they had of the war. What, however, represents a falsification is the assumption that these elements could represent the totality of the Italian experience in the Second World War. This narrative, in fact, cast aside and deliberately ignored all the cases in which the Italians committed brutalities comparable to those perpetrated by the Germans.[40] By developing this memory discourse the Italians have completely sanitised the memory of their participation in Word War II, denying their role as an aggressive invading army.

The Italian memory of the invasion of the Soviet Union – and of the Axis War in general – has been structured around a series of self-absolving ideas, which has not foregrounded the crimes committed during World War II and, in this way, has not helped the Italians to develop a sense of responsibility for what their fellow citizens did during the war. While this self-exculpatory framework has lasted unchallenged for many years, something has started to change in the last decade or so. Anticipated by Angelo Del Boca's studies on Italy's responsibility for its colonial past, a new generation of historians has addressed without hypocrisies the history of the Axis War. Scholars such as Davide Rodogno, Costantino Di Sante, Carlo Spartaco Capogreco, Lidia Santarelli, Eric Gobetti, and Davide Conti have devoted important works to the Italian occupations during the Second World War, the repression of civilians, and the creations of concentration camps for POWs and opponents.[41] Other historians, such as Mimmo Franzinelli, Michele Battini, Luigi Borgomaneri, and Filippo Focardi have worked on the history of the Italian war crimes and on how these wrongdoings were removed from the Italian public discourse of the postwar years.[42]

These works testify to the will of Italian scholars to deal with the darkest pages of the national history of World War II, which have long been overlooked. It is early to tell whether this body of historical works will manage to influence society at large, change the collective narratives about the Axis War, and spread a new awareness about the crimes that the Italians committed in the theatres were they operated. Yet the growing sensitivity that the Italian academics are showing can pave the way to a reformulation of the Italian memory of the Second World War in more plural forms, allowing more space to the recognition of the wrongdoings committed by the Italians under the Fascist dictatorship.



[1] G. Corni ‘Italy after 1945: War and Peace, Defeat and Liberation’, in L. Kettenacker, T. Riotte, eds., The Legacies of Two World Wars: European Societies in the Twentieth Century (New York: Berghahn, 2011), p. 258; G. Rochat, Le guerre italiane 1935-1943: dall'impero d'Etiopia alla disfatta (Turin: Einaudi, 2005), p. 378.

[2] The Italian soldiers deployed in Greece were more than 500,000. See Rochat, ‘La guerra di Grecia’, in M. Isnenghi, ed., I Luoghi della memoria: strutture ed eventi dell'Italia Unita (Rome; Bari: Laterza, 1997), p. 350. On Italy's strategic goals during World War II see MacGregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, 1939-1941: Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy's Last War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 286.

[3] T. Schlemmer, 'L'esercito italiano in guerra contro l'Unione Sovietica', in Isnenghi, Gli italiani in guerra: conflitti, identità, memorie dal Risorgimento ai nostri giorni, 5 vols (Turin: Einaudi, 2008), iv, tome 2, pp. 218-219.

[4] M. T. Giusti, La campagna di Russia 1941-1943 (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2016), pp. 50-55.

[5] Schlemmer, Invasori, non vittime: la campagna italiana di Russia 1941-1943 (Rome; Bari: Laterza, 2009), pp. 11-12.

[6] Ibid., p. 123.

[7] Rochat, Le guerre italiane, p. 395; L. Ceva, Storia delle forze armate (Turin: Utet, 1999), p. 323. See also H. Hamilton, Sacrifice on the Steppe: The Italian Alpine Corps in the Stalingrad Campaign 1942-1943 (Havertown, Pa; Newbury: Casemate, 2011).

[8] See C. Fogu, ‘Italiani brava gente: The Legacy of Fascist Historical Culture on Italian Politics of Memory’, in R. N. Lebow, W. Kansteiner, C. Fogu, eds., The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe (Durham N.C; London: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 149; B. Thomassen, R. Forlenza, 'The Pasts of the Present: World War II Memories and the Construction of Political Legitimacy in Post-Cold War Italy', in C. Karner, B. Mertens, eds., Use and Abuse of Memory: Interpreting World War II in Contemporary European Politics (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2013), p. 139. On the cultural history of the postwar years and on how different groups of Italians envisioned the relationship with the Fascist past see P. G. Zunino, La Repubblica e il suo passato: il fascismo dopo il fascismo, il comunismo, la democrazia: le origini dell'Italia contemporanea (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2003).

[9] R. Forlenza, B. Thomassen, Italian Modernities: Competing Narratives of Nationhood (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 179-180.

[10] F. Focardi, Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano: la rimozione delle colpe della seconda guerra mondiale (Rome; Bari: Laterza, 2013), pp. 3-4, 45-46.

[11] S. Gundle ‘The “Civic Religion” of the Resistance in Post- War Italy’, Modern Italy, 5.2 (2000), 113-132 (p. 113). On the legacy of the Italian Resistance see Focardi, La guerra della memoria: la Resistenza nel dibattito politico italiano dal 1945 a oggi (Rome: Laterza, 2005); R. Chiarini, 25 aprile: la competizione politica sulla memoria (Venezia: Marsilio, 2005); P. Cooke, The Legacy of the Italian Resistance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[12] Rochat, ‘La guerra di Grecia’, in Isnenghi, ed., I luoghi della memoria: strutture ed eventi, p. 347.

[13] Schwarz, Tu mi devi seppellir: riti funebri e culto nazionale alle origini della Repubblica (Turin: Utet, 2010), p. 178.

[14] Ibid., pp. 189-197.

[15] On the 1948 campaign see S. Cavazza, 'Comunicazione di massa e simbologia politica nelle campagne elettorali del secondo dopoguerra', in P. L. Ballini, M. Ridolfi, eds,. Storia delle campagne elettorali in Italia (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2002), pp. 204-214.

[16] The Christian Democracy prevailed, becoming the central party of the Italian political system, and, through varied alliances, it managed to remain in power for more than forty years.

[17] See A. Ventrone, 'Il nemico interno e le sue rappresentazioni nell'Italia del Novecento', in Ventrone, ed., L'ossessione del nemico: memorie divise nella storia della Repubblica (Rome: Donzelli, 2006); Chiarini, Alle origini di una strana Repubblica: perché la cultura politica è di sinistra e il paese è di destra (Venice: Marsilio, 2013), pp. 221-227.

[18] A reproduction of the poster and an interpretation of the image in relation to Christian iconography can be found in R. Leonardi, ' Il sacro come strumento politico: le elezioni del 1948, la Democrazia Cristiana e i manifesti elettorali', California Italian Studies, 5.1 (2014) 457-485 (p. 472). Accessed online at

[19] This leaflet was created by Giovannino Guareschi, journalist, writer, caricaturist, one of the most popular and renowned conservative intellectuals of the postwar years, who was author of many witty anti-communist cartoons for the 1948 election. The leaflet was published on Candido, 12 (20th March 1948) and can now be seen online at

[20] For an overview of this cultural production see M. Mondini, 'Il racconto della sconfitta: stagioni e mappe tematiche nella letteratura di guerra dell'Italia Repubblicana', in G. Mariani, ed., Fictions: Narrazioni della distruzione: scrivere la seconda guerra mondiale (Pisa; Rome: Fabrizio Serra, 2014), pp. 67-89.

[21] On the number of memoirs published on the Russian and Greek campaigns see Rochat, Le guerre italiane, p. 397; Rochat, ‘La guerra di Grecia’, in Isnenghi, ed., I luoghi della memoria: strutture ed eventi, p. 351. On the memoirs on the African front see Ceva, Africa Settentrionale: negli studi e nella letteratura (Rome: Bonacci, 1982), p. 264.

[22] Isnenghi, Le guerre degli Italiani: parole, immagini, ricordi 1848-1945 (Milan: Mondadori, 1989; repr. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2005), p. 254.

[23] M. Rigoni Stern, Il sergente nella neve (Turin: Einaudi, 1953); N. Revelli, La guerra dei poveri (Turin: Einaudi, 1962); G. Bedeschi, Centomila gavette di ghiaccio (Milan: Mursia, 1963); Revelli, La strada del Davai (Turin: Einaudi, 1966); Rigoni Stern, Ritorno sul Don (Turin: Einaudi, 1973). The great success that these authors had – for long Bedeschi's novel holds the record as the most sold Italian narrative book of the twentieth century – can be seen as the sign of the will to know that the Italian public had in relation to a part of the national history that was scarcely discussed in the public sphere.

[24] On the concept of 'vector of memory' see N. Wood, Vectors of Memory: Legacies of Trauma in Postwar Europe (Oxford: Berg, 1999), p. 2. On the role that cultural production has in the construction of the memory of the past and on how literary texts can be studied under this perspective see A. Erll Memory in Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[25] Isnenghi, Le guerre degli italiani, p. 255; see also Corni, ‘Italy after 1945', in Kettenacker, Riotte, eds., The Legacies of Two World Wars, p. 259.

[26] See for instance A. Motta, Mario Rigoni Stern (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1983), p. 20; G. Pullini, Il romanzo italiano del dopoguerra 1940-1960 (Milan: Schwarz, 1961), p. 153; G. Langella, ‘Ecce Homo: qualche conclusione sulla letteratura alpina di gesta’, in M. Ardizzone, ed., Scrittori in divisa: memoria epica e valori umani: atti del convegno in occasione della 73esima adunata dell'Associazione Nazionale Alpini (Brescia: Grafo, 2000), p. 180.

[27] The concept of 'lieu de mémoire' was coined by French historian Pierre Nora to refer to any entity, whether material or non-material, which constitutes a significant symbolic element of the memorial heritage of a community. See Nora, 'Preface to the English Language Edition', in Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, 2 vols (New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 1996), i, p. xvi.

[28] Thomas Schlemmer has been among the first scholars to powerfully point out the distortions that a similar way of narrating the past had produced. In his seminal work on the Italian participation in the invasion of the Soviet Union, he stresses how the Italians should be seen as invaders and not as victims. See Schlemmer Invasori, non vittime: la campagna italiana di Russia 1941-1943.

[29] Mondini, Alpini: parole e immagini di un mito guerriero (Rome, Laterza, 2008), p. 178; Corni, Raccontare la guerra: la memoria organizzata (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2012), pp. 19, 64-67, 131-134. See also Mondini, 'Narrated Wars: Literary and Iconographic Stereotypes in Historical Accounts of Armed Conflict', in Mondini, M. Rospocher, eds., Narrating War: Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives (Bologna: Il Mulino; Berlin: Ducker & Humblot, 2013), pp. 25-28.

[30] Heroism and victimhood have also been key themes of the Italian war films of the postwar years, see G. Fantoni, 'Brotherhood of Arms: Patriotism, Atlanticism and Sublimation of War in 1950s Italian War Movies', in T. Cragin, L. Salsini, eds., Resistance, Heroism, Loss: World War II in Italian Literature and Film (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2018).

[31] Mondini, Alpini, p. xii. See also Mondini, 'Manly Heroes and Innocent Victims: Italian Representations of Warfare after Defeat 1945-1961', in P. Tame, D. Jeannerod, M. Bragança, eds.,
Mnemosyne and Mars: Artistic and Cultural Representations of Twentieth-Century Europe at War (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), p. 140.

[32] J. Wertsch, Voices of Collective Remembering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 87-117.

[33] Forlenza, 'Sacrificial Memory and Political Legitimacy in Postwar Italy: Reliving and Remembering World War II', History and Memory, 24.2 (2012), 73-116 (pp. 76-78); Schwarz, Tu mi devi seppellir, p. 252; Focardi, Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano, p. xvii.

[34] W. Schivelbusch, La cultura dei vinti (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2006), p. 16-21.

[35] On the role that the Germans play in the Italian memory of the Second World War see Focardi, Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano.

[36] Far from being a characteristic of the narratives about the Eastern-front, a self-exculpatory framework affects, in general, the way in which the Italian memory of the Axis War was moulded. In fact in many of the narratives on the North African front, on the Greek front, and on the occupations in the Balkans, the Italians are portrayed as victims of the events, without being ever shown as perpetrators of violence.

[37] A. Del Boca, Italiani, brava gente?: un mito duro a morire (Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2005), pp. 47-48. See also Fogu, ‘Italiani brava gente', in The Politics of Memory, p. 147; S. Patriarca, Italianità: la costruzione del carattere nazionale (Rome; Bari: Laterza, 2010), pp. 208-218; Forlenza, 'Sacrificial Memory', History and Memory, p. 83.

[38] Corni, Raccontare la guerra, pp. 37-48.

[39] In the postwar years this belief was reinforced by the propaganda of the Italian Communist Party, which used the image of the alleged good relationship between the Italians and the Russians during World War II as a sign of the possible collaboration between democratic Italy and the Soviet Union. A clear example of this is the war drama film 'Italiani brava gente', a Soviet-Italian production directed by Giuseppe De Santis in 1963 and distributed in the Soviet Union as 'Они шли на Восток'.

[40] On the Italian war crimes committed on several theatres of war see Del Boca, Italiani, brava gente?: un mito duro a morire; G. Oliva, Si ammazza troppo poco (Milan: Mondadori, 2007).

[41] Rodogno, Il nuovo ordine mediterraneo: le politiche di occupazione dell'Italia fascista in Europa, 1940-1943 (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003); C. Di Sante, ed., Italiani senza onore: i crimini in Jugoslavia e i processi negati 1941-1951 (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2004); C. S. Capogreco, I campi del duce: l'internamento civile nell'Italia fascista 1940-1943 (Turin: Einaudi, 2004); E. Gobetti, L’ occupazione allegra: gli italiani in Jugoslavia 1941-1943 (Rome: Carocci, 2007); D. Conti, L’occupazione Italiana dei Balcani: crimini di guerra e mito della 'brava gente' 1940-1943 (Rome: Odradek, 2008). Also non-Italian historians have worked on these issues: beyond the important work by Thomas Schlemmer quoted above see T. Ferenc, Si ammazza troppo poco: condannati a morte, ostaggi, passati per le armi nella provincia di Lubiana 1941-1943 (Ljubljana: Istituto per la storia moderna, 1999); J. H. Burgwyn, Empire on the Adriatic: Mussolini's Conquest of Yugoslavia 1941–1943 (New York: Enigma, 2005).

[42] M. Franzinelli, Le stragi nascoste: l'armadio della vergogna: impunità e rimozione dei crimini di guerra nazifascisti 1943-2001 (Milan: Mondadori, 2002); M. Battini, Peccati di memoria: la mancata Norimberga italiana (Rome: Laterza, 2003); L. Borgomaneri, Crimini di guerra: il mito del bravo Italiano tra repressione del ribellismo e guerra ai civili nei territori occupati (Milan: Angelo Guerini, 2006); Focardi, Criminali di guerra in libertà: un accordo segreto tra Italia e Germania federale 1949-55 (Rome: Carocci, 2008).



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