The First Allied Occupation in Western Europe? Some Considerations of the Italian Experience as a “Hybrid Case” (1943-1945)
Fabio De Ninno, University of Siena
To understand the peculiarities of Italian civilians’ experience of occupation during the Second World War, it is necessary to consider the specificities of the military events that occurred in the peninsula from 1943 to 1945. On 9 July 1943, US and British troops landed in Sicily. The invasion led to the collapse of the Fascist Regime (25 July 1943), the arrest of Mussolini and his subsequent liberation by German troops, and the establishment of the puppet regime of the Italian Social Republic. The Allied landings in Southern Italy on 3 September 1943 transformed the peninsula into a battleground between the Wehrmacht and the Allied armies until the surrender of German forces in Italy in April 1945. Italians were also involved in a civil war as different factions supported or fought against the German occupiers and the Italian fascist regime in the centre-north.
In Allied-controlled territories, the so-called ‘Kingdom of the South’, anti-fascist political forces attempted to rebuild the Italian state in alliance with and supported by the Allied powers; an ambiguity recognised in the official Allied description of the Italian status as a ‘co-belligerent’ power. American historian David W. Ellwood emphasised the contradictions in this aspect of the relationship between the ‘Kingdom of the South’ and the Allied powers by defining it as an ‘allied enemy’. Italy was therefore at the same time the first Axis power defeated and occupied by the Allies and the first European country liberated and subject to their reconstruction efforts.
Ambiguity seems the right term to describe both the dual nature of the Allies as occupiers and liberators and their reception by the Italian population. The Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories (AMGOT) and the Allied commissions, the bodies tasked with managing the occupation, were tested for the first time in Italy. Italian civilians experienced a new form of government that also provided the American and British military occupiers with a testing ground for their later occupations. Above all, the double-faced nature of the occupation led to a seemingly paradoxical outcome: the implementation of an occupation that entailed benevolent policies, but that was also marked by violence.
For the Allied authorities, the main objective was to maintain public order. Therefore, the exploitation of Italian economic resources was avoided. Instead, the Allied occupation alleviated some of the most severe hardships experienced by the Italian population since 1940, particularly by resolving food and healthcare emergencies resulting from three years of war and the disruptive German occupation. This was part of the broader Allied ‘relief in the aftermath’, to use the phraseology of Jessica Reinisch, which found its first application in Italy. Italian scholars have illustrated this mainly through regional and local case studies or through research on specific topics such as the fight against malaria and food relief provided by the UNRRA. Beneficial effects of the Allied occupation also extended to the transformation and greater effectiveness of parts of the Italian administration. For example, local healthcare services were reformed in occupied Sicily, with a similar model later adopted in the rest of Italy.
Nevertheless, a comprehensive account, written from a grassroots perspective, on how these benefits of the Allied occupation were received by the Italian population is still lacking. Leonardo Paggi has described the changes in mentality from a militaristically oriented society during the war to a well-being and welfare-oriented society afterwards. However, how much this change was due to the interactions between Italians and a technologically superior, prosperous enemy-allied force is not yet entirely clear. A broader grassroots perspective could (re-)open the debate on how the occupation contributed to the spread of the American ‘irresistible empire’ in Italy, to use the influential phraseology of Victoria De Grazia.
Apart from these benevolent dimensions of the occupation, it is worth remembering that Allied rule came into being through the application of violence. Allied forces had established their hold over Italy through air attacks that according to a study by Gioannini and Massobrio killed between 80.000 and 100.000 civilians. They also committed war crimes, including massacres against civilians and mass rapes. The sexual violence by Allied troops was so widespread (some post-war estimates put the number at 60,000), that historians Tommaso Baris and Gabriella Gribaudi have underlined that in some areas such as southern Lazio, they exercised a lasting influence on memory, local politics and even gender relations between Italians. Women were subject to a partial social exclusion, considered to be outcasts due to the violation of their bodies. These violent faces of air war and occupation help to explain the ambiguous nature of the liberators in Italian post-war memories. For example, as the work of Jacopo Pili on Anglophobia in Fascist Italy shows, the perception of British air attacks as more ‘terrorist’ than American attacks, spread by Fascist propaganda, was a crucial element in enabling American GIs to develop more positive relations than the British with the local population, an aspect partially common also to the French experience. Moreover, studies based on a grassroots perspective have also shown that ambiguous attitudes toward the ‘liberators’ were particularly evident in areas such as Sicily and Southern Lazio, where many war crimes were committed following violent fighting. These ‘regional’ experiences and memories in Italy may be comparable to those of the Allied liberation of France described by Hilary Footitt. For example, in the case of Normandy, massive tactical bombings and widespread destruction resulted in significant tensions with Allied troops. Therefore, an interesting approach could be to compare regions such as Sicily and Normandy to explore how this defined the locals’ relations with occupying forces and how this influenced longer-term post-war political attitudes.
A comparative perspective also seems essential to understanding the long-term origins of attitudes towards occupiers within local societies. This has been well established for other cases of occupation during the mid-twentieth century. For instance, the recent conference at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies on ‘Gender Relationships between Occupiers and Occupied during the Allied Occupation of Germany after 1945’ (2019) underlined the importance of deeply rooted racism in German society. Claire Miot, for example, has traced the wide-spread assumption within German society that French colonial soldiers committed most rapes back to racist stereotypes against North African troops, stirred by Nazi propaganda and ideology. Similar origins can be found, according to Nadja Klopprogge, in the racialization of sexual violence conducted by American troops. Existing research on gender relations and sexual violence in occupied Italy has identified some similar dynamics. Thus, denunciations of sexual violence by Italian women were usually directed against French colonial troops and Afro-American soldiers. By contrast, in post-war public memory, systematic acts of violence conducted by the German occupiers seem to have occupied a less prominent role and were mostly relegated to local memories. Scholars still, however, need to establish the exact causes for the different ways of remembering the multiple occupations experienced by Italians during the 1940s.
As we have seen, Italian civilians’ experience of the first Allied occupation in Western Europe during and after the Second World War can be usefully compared with the later French and German cases and highlights some of the paradoxes of American and British Second World War occupations generally. In Italy, a collapsed pre-existing Fascist racial state was replaced by an ‘enemy ally’ in the south, while the centre and north was occupied by the German army and a partially restored Italian fascist state, the ‘Italian Social Republic’. The American and British armies brought a contradictory liberation that was both beneficial and violent, making the Italians former enemies but not proper allies. In that sense, Italy prefigured many of the aspects of Western Europe’s subsequent Allied occupations, but was also a unique ‘hybrid’ case.
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Cover picture: Watercolour painting by Ian G.M. Edie, The Dock Area, Messina, Sicily, 1943.
Source: Imperial War Museum © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3676)