Tag Archives: Italy

Il Duce Gets The Boot-Mussolini Dismissed From Office (25 July 1943)

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

On 25 Jul 1943 the Fascist Grand Council formerly voted Mussolini from power and was arrested later after meeting with King Victor Emmanuel III. So what happened to the once all powerful Duce? Let’s find out.

Italy had entered into the Pact of Steel with Germany in 1939 which committed Italy to fighting along with Germany if it declared war or was attacked. Mussolini entered the agreement knowing full well Italy did have the resources or industrial capability for a sustained military conflict. Mussolini had grand ambitions about expanding the Italian sphere of influence in the region and even into central Europe. Mussolini believed that Fascism was on the march and aligning with Hitler seemed a good choice at the time. Italy had successfully invaded Ethiopia (1935-1937) though not without them putting up a strong fight. Using mustard gas against troops and civilians had gotten Mussolini severely criticized and international sanctions.

The war in Ethiopia and his intervention on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War had brought Italy closer to Germany with a treaty of mutual interest in 1936.  And he needed coal from Germany since international sanctions over Ethiopia had made acquiring it more difficult. Mussolini believed a German-Rome Axis would be how Europe would turn but relying on Germany to supply items like coal meant Italy was more dependent on Germany rather than a true partnership. Mussolini tried to get all kinds of concessions from the British and French after the Munich Agreement in 1938; none were given. He made it clear in speeches (and those by others) that they wanted territory in France, Tunisia, a small part of Switzerland, and Albania. He upped his demands to demand free access to the world’s oceans by breaking British control of key places such as Gibraltar.

From the viewpoint in London, Paris, and elsewhere, his bellicose talk signaled major territorial ambitions. The Fascists mostly supported this though some, like his foreign minister Count Galeazzo Ciano, were concerned about aligning with Germany. Taking on both Britain and France became accepted since they were the major colonial powers that Italy saw as blocking them from achieving their rightful position in the world. On 7 April 1938, Italy invaded Albania and took control in three days. The formal military alliance with Germany (the Pact of Steel) was signed on 2 May 1939 cementing further the military ambitions of both countries together. The Italians thought war with Britain and France would not occur for years but dreadfully miscalculated Hitler’s ambitions.

Italy was not ready for major war operations until 1942 according to his own advisors. The Pact of Steel had said neither side was to enter war until 1943. Italy desperately needed this time in order to get its industry running and lacked critical military industrial production. Both Britain and France had highly developed military industrial production, but Italy was woefully behind in key areas such as automobile production (key to making tanks and other mobile artillery). Additionally Italy needed to acquire all the needed raw resources needed for war production. Italy was primarily an agriculturally based economy with small pockets of industrial sectors. They needed to setup a supply chain to bring in all the raw materials like coal and import steel. Italy’s merchant marine was not managed in preparation for war and would lose those ships as they were in foreign ports when war was declared by Italy in 1940.

Prior to that, raw materials being sent from European ports to Italy were subject to seizure. Coal, for instance, was shipped out of Rotterdam. The British declared it contraband and seized it, infuriating Mussolini. The Germans offered to ship by train over the Alps while the British countered saying they would supply all of his country’s needs if Italy supplied them armaments. The British hoped to lure Italy away from its alliance with Germany. And it appeared to work as Mussolini had approved a draft contract to provide military equipment. It was suddenly scrapped under intense pressure from Germany caused Mussolini to fold. This decision would come back to haunt him much later down the road.

Italian debt, already large when Mussolini, came to power, had increased thanks to his generous support of General Franco in Spain that increased it. The blockade of coal was strengthened and deeper reliance on German imports of raw materials occurred. The economy was bolstered by the important of goods from Germany, but inflation was occurring causing basic goods and service to become more expensive. When Italy entered the war in 1940, its merchant marine in foreign ports were seized leaving the country without hardly any means of getting needed supplies by cargo vessels.

Adding more to the woes, the warnings of his advisors were accurate. Italy’s army was huge making it a major land force on paper but in reality lacked modern transport and weapons. The army, because of the weak economy, did not have the needed armaments or supplies for war, and was the major reason it failed. Lightly armored infantry is no match for a fully equipped company of troops with full battle-ready equipment like the British had. Along with both a navy and air force that did not work together well, Italy was ill-prepared for general warfare except for a country that had a worse military than it had. There was poor leadership as well at the top that never had clearly defined military objectives and seemed to go at the whim of whatever Duce wanted them to do. They easily took the lower portions of Vichy France and Corsica. About the only good thing they did in taking that was providing a refuge for fleeing Jews. The Italians did not follow the German lead much regarding the Jews, which caused the Germans frustration over the Italian non-compliance in this area.

The succeeding campaigns in North Africa and Greece ended badly. In North Africa the British pulled up a good fight and had routed the Italians. Then the Germans arrived with Rommel in charge making it a much tougher campaign for the British and later the Americans, Greece was a total debacle. They invaded from Albania, but the Greeks pushed them back into Albania ending up in a stalemate that cost both sides. Once again, the Germans invaded (the British were using Greece to fly bombing raids into Romania) and successfully took Greece and Crete. Only Yugoslavia was a success but that was because the Germans were part of the campaign and once the country was divided up, Italy got the coastal area.

By 1943 though, things had gotten worse for most Italians. Food and other items were rationed, wartime inflation made everything more expensive, and the war itself was unpopular with most Italians. Mussolini was no longer seen as the great leader and the recent bombing of Rome showed how his boasts were hollow. The invasion of Sicily and later the south by Allied forces showed the proverbial “writing was on the wall.” Mussolini knew that his military could not successfully fight the Allies but stuck to the war because he saw no other option but to fight it out. The Fascist Grand Council knew the war was lost and that Mussolini had lost his stature with the people.

On the night of 24 July and in the early morning of 25 July, the Grand Council met with Mussolini. Accounts of the meeting indicate he was sick, tired, and felt the burden of the military reverses suffered by the Italian military. To some, it seemed he was looking for a way out and it was given to him. The Grand Council voted to remove him from power and transfer some of his duties to the King. While some opposed it, the vote was carried by the majority. Even his son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano voted for his ouster. Mussolini seemed dazed by the vote and while his supporters tried to get him to act, he seemed unable to do anything. He would go to his meeting with the King (unshaven and groggy) where he would be arrested. The King told him that General Pietro Badoglio would be taking over as Prime Minister and that the war was lost. He and his family were assured of their safety, and he was whisked away.

When it was declared Mussolini was out, the general response was one of relief. His fellow Fascists did not stage marches or protests over his dismissal and did nothing to release him from his incarceration on La Maddalena (he would be moved elsewhere). Hitler was furious and knew that the Italians would seek an armistice with the Allies (which was true but in public said otherwise to keep the Germans at bay). For the Allies his dismissal was good news as they hoped it might bring an end to the Italian campaign. And many Italians thought it would as well, Unfortunately the Germans had other plans and that would drag out the war in Italy until June 1944, but that is a story for another time.

 

Sources


Remembering History: Rome Bombed by United States (19 Jul 1943)

Daily News, Los Angeles- Headline on Bombing of Rome
Source: RareEarlyNewspapers.com (All Rights Reserved)

By 1943, Italians had seen shortages in basic goods and supplies requiring rationing as their merchant marine had been decimated by the war. This led to a lot of grumbling about the war and its effects on Italy. Mussolini’s popularity had begun to wane. He had convinced Italians that the Allies would never bomb the eternal city of Rome. Then on 19 July 1943, the U.S. bombed the Rome railway yards.

Both President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had made a public appeal for Italians to reject Mussolini and save their country. The Allies by this time had invaded Sicily, and thanks to a clever deception, Hitler thought it initially a diversion. The Axis had been furthered weakened by its defeat in North Africa which had seen losses by both German and Italian forces. The advance of the Allied troops shook the Italian government. The bombing of Rome really caused panic in Rome as people went out into the streets.

It was much worse though as panic gave way to anger at Mussolini. People started destroying effigies of the dictator. And oddly, there was actually celebration of the attack as it was seen as leading to Mussolini’s demise. Hitler met with Mussolini to shore up his confidence after the attack. The attack had shaken him as well. Mussolini appeared unusually quiet in the meeting (he spoke poor German) and relied on the transcript later. Hitler tried to restore his confidence worried he might cave in and seek an armistice with the Allies. In the end, Mussolini agreed to continue the war though by this time he knew the truth. The Italian army was beaten and there was no way they could win the war. He could not tell that to Hitler fearing what he might do in response.

Hitler for his part was concerned that either Mussolini would surrender, or his own people might remove him. He quietly ordered Rommel to take control of the Greek islands in case something went wrong in Rome. The Germans would be ready to pounce when it did. And events happened faster than expected. Within a week the Fascist Grand Council would relieve Mussolini and he was put under arrest by the King.

Sources

Book Review: The Assisi Underground:he Priests Who Rescued Jews

The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews
Ramati, Alexander Stein and Day, New York 1978

Alexander Ramati’s The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews recounts how in Assisi that Jews were saved by Catholic priests, nuns, and locals. And remarkably none of the Jews sheltered by them were captured by the Nazis.

The fall of Mussolini in August 1943 brought the German occupation of northern Italy, which meant that Jews faced arrest and deportation to concentration camps. In the Vatican, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty ran an operation to help conceal Jews and later escaped allied prisoners of war. Through a network of priests and others, Jews were also transited to outlying cities and towns like Assisi, where this story takes place. Assisi is a unique city owing to its religious significance. St. Francis and St. Clare both came from here and the city has a rich and deep spiritual history with famous churches (Basilica of San Francesco, Basilica of Santa Chiara, Cathedral of San Rufino, and Church of San Damiano). The city is also a major Christian pilgrimage site.

Father Rufino Niccacci, a Franciscan, and Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini would lead the efforts to conceal in Assisi. Father Rufino would be summoned to meet with Bishop Nicolini after the Germans occupied Rome to help Jews that had fled get to safety. Father Rufino was stunned and asked why he was being asked to do this. Bishop Nicolini responded he wanted someone who would not lose his head in dealing with the Germans and OVRA (the Italian secret police). The group of Jews was being disguised as Catholic pilgrims heading home. Father Rufino’s task was to make sure they got to Florence. One of the group, a Rabbi, asked the Bishop to safeguard the Torah until he returned, which the Bishop was happy to do so.

The trip itself by train was uneventful until the Germans at one point boarded to check identification papers. Fortunately, an allied bombing cut that short and the train had to quickly move on. Rufino thanked God and the British for their intervention. So began Father Rufino’s involvement in the Assisi Underground. At first the task was simply to try to move Jews out of the country (by land to Switzerland, to a port where they could get on a ship, or across a river in the south to get into Allied controlled Italy). Those options became impossible as the Germans began cracking down and the Swiss were refusing entry to but the very old or pregnant. This meant Jews had to be concealed for the long haul requiring the use of convents, monasteries, and private homes to hold them.

It also meant having to come up with skillful counterfeit identification documents, which was done by a local printer (Luigi and Trento Brizi). Their birthplaces were all in areas under Allied control, so there was no way to verify them. For those who could easily move about (many were native born Italians so spoke Italian well), they taught them various Catholic customs and traditions so they would pass easily and not stand out. Some men were disguised as monks and learned how to look like they were in deep prayer in church should anyone notice them. Those who had stronger accents generally had to stay concealed as that would raise suspicions. Concealing was not enough since raids were not uncommon, so they set up a system that in case a raid was spotted coming to Assisi, bells would ring 5 times and Jews would go into a more secure place to avoid being caught. Many who lived in private homes showed their counterfeit identification and were never arrested.

Assisi under German occupation meant the city faced the possibility of being bombed, so effort was made to change that by having it declared an open city. While the city, the Bishop, and the Vatican sought this, help would come from an unlikely source: Colonel Valentin Müller. Müller as a doctor was in charge of treating wounded German soldiers in Assisi. As a devout Catholic, he appreciated the spiritual side of the city. He wrote to Field Marshal Kesselring asking Assisi to be declared a hospital city. This was agreed to, and German troops and military police departed leaving only the hospital staff and its patients in Assisi. Colonel Müller became a familiar site through his walks, drinking wine in the public area, attending church, and seeing the holy sites with Father Rufio as his guide. He also met with Bishop Nicolini and had extra food rations sent to them during Christmas. Father Rufio believed he had been sent by God to help Assisi.

Despite it being a hospital town, the regional SS along with the OVRA were hard at work to find antifascists, partisans, and of course Jews being hidden. The local SS captain ordered raids of convents, monasteries and churches and had no scruples about violating areas deemed off limits by the religious order. Rufio fell under suspicion from this SS captain after returning from a expedition south near the Allied demarcation line (he went there to test out it being used to smuggle Jews across the river) where smuggling was going on. He would be arrested at one point by this SS captain, forced to endure three days without food and water, and then taken to an execution site to see what happens to those who oppose them. Rufino did not give him anything and faced execution but was reprieved and released from custody thanks to some high-level intercession.

During this time, the Jewish children still attended school but not in public. Thanks to people such as Don Aldo Brunacci, lessons would continue so they would not lose time in getting educated. Brunacci also working with Bishop Nicolini, found housing for over 300 Jewish refugees. For Father Rufino, working with Jews opened his eyes about who they were. Since Jews were mostly in the large cities like Rome, he never encountered them and thus had no experience in their customs and practices of Jews. He learned much during this time which opened his eyes and appreciated more deeply the Jews he was helping.

When the Allies defeated the Germans at Monte Cassino, it was the end of the German occupation. Sappers were sent to Assisi to mine the city, but Müller received orders (counterfeit it turns out) from Kesselring that Assisi was an open city. Müller ordered the German army and the SS out and started the evacuation of the German wounded that were scattered over the city. Before he left, Müller left all the medical supplies to Assisi. When the British arrived, they were greeted with joy by the people of Assisi. All of those who had been hidden during the occupation came out of hiding in joy. For Father Rufino and Bishop Nicolini, it was a great moment in time. Most of the Jews that were hidden would return home though one family did choose to stay. The wife of one of those who had died while being hid now had her name changed to Weiss with a Star of David above it. As Jews recorded their stories of survival in Assisi, others outside became aware of the remarkable effort to conceal and save Jews from being deported and killed in the Nazi death camps.

This remarkable story shows how Catholic priests, nuns, and bishops took the risk of helping Jews from being caught by the Nazis. They did not for any fame or glory but because it was the right thing to do. They certainly knew the risk. Many religious in other places under German occupation had been arrested and sent to concentration camps (often to die there from infections or execution). The Vatican could not publicly support this for obvious reasons that it would result in the Germans occupying the Vatican. So, the public posture was to appear neutral but behind the scenes to do anything they could to assist (such as Monsignor O’Flaherty). Both Rufio and Nicolini, along with Don Aldo Brunacci would be recognized by Yad Vashem, which would award them Righteous Among the Nations. This is a very special honor given to non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler was given the same honor as well as were others who risked their lives to help Jews during this time. Colonel Müller would return in 1950 with his family and be warmly welcomed. At the time the book was published, there was no official recognition of his role in helping Assisi during this time. There is now with the road to the hospital bearing his name and a plaque.

The book is well written and really gives you a good look at how they concealed Jews (and others as well) during the German occupation. The fact it was a simple Franciscan priest who spearheaded the effort speaks as well to the simple faith that guided his and others to do it. There was never any question of doing it, just the logistics. The Jews that were saved were grateful and let it be known. Ramati had learned of the story when he was there after the liberation and said that one day, he would write a book to chronicle this remarkable story. And it is a book worth reading to see how the accomplished it under German control. Whether Müller knew what Rufino was doing is not clear, but as Ramati reveals from interviewing his son, he probably did and why him being there made a difference.

The book was made into a 1985 movie The Assisi Underground starring Ben Cross as Father Rufino and James Mason as Bishop Nicolini (it was his last movie). It is okay but takes liberties with the source material and adds an unneeded search for a scientist. Maximilian Schell plays Colonel Müller pretty close to the original (there were a few deviations from the book but not too many). Read the book and then watch the movie is my humble suggestion.

Stars: 4
Genre: History/non-fiction
Audience: 15+

The book is out of print though checking your local library would be a good place to start. Libraries are part of a shared network so even if they do not have it, you can retrieve the book to be checked out. Amazon does have it available for purchase as a used book, so you can also try there. The movie can also be found in many libraries and as of the date of this posting, available for free viewing by Amazon Prime members.

The Assisi Underground and Related Books

Remembering History: Germany and Italy Sign Pact of Steel (22 May 1939)

The signing of the Pact of Steel on 22 May 1939 in Berlin
Photographer unknown
Public Domain/WIkimedia Commons

On 22 May 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Friendship and Alliance that became known later as the Pact of Steel. This began the formal military and political alliance between the two countries. Initially Japan was to be part of the agreement but there was disagreement on the focus of the pact. Germany and Italy wanted it aimed at the British Empire and France, while Japan wanted the Soviet Union to be the focus. The agreement was signed without Japan but would later join in September 1940.

The agreement brought together two countries that opposed each other in World War I. It also required each country to come to the aid of the other if it were in armed conflict with another nation. Neither party could make peace without the agreement of the other. One of the assumptions of the agreement was that war would start in three years at the latest. Italy needed the time to get its war production into high gear. The agreement was for ten years but there was some concern within the Italian government the agreement would suppress Italian autonomy. The agreement was still signed despite these objections, which also came from Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Hitler, however, would soon declare his intentions of invading Poland. Mussolini was not happy he was not consulted on this, nor about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. Italian forces did not commit fully to war until June 1940 when German forces had defeated British and French forces with lightning speed. Italy seized Nice as its prize. Other countries it tried to invade proved more difficult. Greek partisans brought the Italian force to a halt. Germany would intervene to help there and in Yugoslavia where Italian troops also pushed back by partisans. A disastrous attack on British Egypt from Italian Libya required German assistance as well. The economic consequences of the war were bad for most Italians generating widespread resentment that would lead one day to Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943.

Sources:

History.com
School History
World War II Database


Remembering History: Mussolini Caught Fleeing Italy and Executed (28 March 1945)

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

Attempting to flee Italy into Austria dressed in a Luftwaffe coat and hat, the deposed dictator of Italy–Il Duce–Benito Mussolini was caught by partisans along with his mistress Clara Petacci. The partisans executed him and Petacci, transported their bodies to Milan, and hung them upside down so that everyone (especially his supporters) could see he was dead. He ruled Italy from 1925-1943, when he was deposed and subsequently imprisoned. He was rescued by Hitler’s forces and made the puppet leader of the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy. With German troops in retreat, he hoped to avoid being captured by either British or American forces. Pictures of his body being hung upside down in Piazzale Loreto in Milan would be spread to prove that Il Duce was no more.

Sources:
History.com

Remembering History: Italian Fascist Party Founded and Ardeatine massacre (23 March)

Remembering History:

  • Mussolini Founds Italian Fascist Party (23 Mar 1919)
  • Germans Massacre Italians (23 Mar 1944)

Mussolini Founds Italian Fascist Party (23 Mar 1919)

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

Benito Mussolini, publisher of Socialist newspapers and veteran of World War I, founds the Fasci di Combattimento (“Fighting Bands) based on 19th century Italian peasant revolutionaries. In forming this party, more commonly called Fascist Party, Mussolini formally broke away from his Socialist peers creating a movement that fused elements of Socialism and Nationalism into this new movement. Fascism repudiated, as both Communism and Socialism does, democracy and civil liberties with governance done by a single party with a powerful central figure. Fascism rejects the Communist argument against capitalism and instead argues it can be made to serve the nation without taking it away from its owners. Nationalism, also derided by Communists, was elevated, and made an important element to bring people to support the goals of the new order.

Italy was suffering the after effects of World War I. Inflation was high, the morale of the people was low, and the parliamentary democracy that ran Italy seemed weak and ineffectual. Worse despite Italian support for Great Britain and France, they got little from the Treaty of Versailles which made Italians unhappy as well. Mussolini’s Fascist Party stepped in during this time to offer an alternative to the chaos. And it drew many wanting to remake Italy into a more powerful nation. Dressed in black shirts as their uniforms, they began a program of intimidation and terrorism against Communists, Socialists, and those that supported the current system.

In October 1922, Mussolini led a march on Rome which led to King Victor Emmanuel III appointing him as prime minister. He formed a three- member cabinet and presided over the parliamentary government. Using his Black Shirts and others, they quickly came down hard on political opponents and anyone who disobeyed the new orders edicts on how things were to be done. By 1925, the parliamentary government was formally ended with the proclamation of Mussolini as Il Duce (The Leader).

Adolf Hitler admired Mussolini’s rise to power and copied his tactics and beliefs in forming the National Socialism movement in Germany.

The rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual. And if liberty is to he the attribute of living men and not of abstract dummies invented by individualistic liberalism, then Fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State. The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism, is totalitarian, and the Fascist State — a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values — interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people.”  Benito Mussolini, The Doctrine of Fascism, 1932

Germans Massacre Italians (23 Mar 1944)

 In July 1943 the allies landed in Sicily beginning the Italian campaign. Rome itself was being bombed and Allied troops would likely land in the south and march north once they completed the Sicilian operation. The war had not gone well for the Italian military with more defeats than victories (and often the Germans having to assist them). The rationing of food, higher costs, and people generally upset with how things were being run by Mussolini led to widespread dissatisfaction. Believing the war was no longer in the interests of Italy, in late July Mussolini was rejected by his own Grand Council and arrested. Pietro Badoglio, the new Prime Minister, negotiated in secret with the allies to surrender and its terms. The Germans though were not going to allow the Allies access to Italian airbases or other support facilities. The armistice declared on 8 September by Badoglio resulted in the Germans taking Rome forcing the new government and the king to flee. Rome was occupied from September 1943-June 1944 when the Germans left making it an open city.

During the occupation of Rome, the German’s came down hard on its citizens especially those who had aided in the ouster of Mussolini and anyone who opposed them. It was not a happy time to live in Rome with German troops everywhere along with their vicious elements of the SS operating as well. The Italian partisans, who had been fighting Mussolini, now turned all their efforts on the Germans. They began acts of sabotage, coordinated attacks on Germans, and causing all kinds of mayhem. It led to a 23 March 1994 attack on a SS unit. A bomb was tossed at them killing 33 soldiers. The Germans were outraged, and reprisals were ordered. 335 Italian citizens were rounded up and taken to the Ardeatine caves. They were all shot dead as revenge for the deaths of the SS soldiers. 250 were Catholic, 70 were Jews, and the remaining unknown.

Fosse Ardeatine, Roma, Italia
24 November 2005
Image credit: antmoose (Flikr via Creative Commons)

After the killing was done, the cave was sealed. When the Allies liberated Rome on 4 June 1944, the massacre became widely known. It shocked Rome, all of Italy and the world when the details emerged. In the postwar trials that took place, many were held to account for their part in it. Generals von Mackensen and Mälzer were sentenced to death in 1945 by a British military tribunal. Field Marshal Kesselring was sentenced to death in 1947 though pardoned later. Former SS Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler was sentenced to life in prision in 1948 by the Italians. There is also an interesting story of Kappler’s game of wits with Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who spearheaded the Vatican’s assistance to allied soldiers who fled to the Vatican for protection against the Germans. He visited Kappler in jail which led to his conversion to Catholicism. In 1997 his wife managed to smuggle the now old and frail Kappler (who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer) to West Germany. Italy wanted him back but West Germany saw no point to it: he was dying from cancer and in fact died a year later from it.

The Ardeatine Caves outside of Rome have become a national memorial.

Sources:

Mussolini founds the Fascist party (History.com)
Fascist Party (Britannica.com)
“The Doctrine of Fascism” (1932) by Benito Mussolini (pdf)

Germans slaughter Italian civilians (History.com)
Ardeatine Caves Massacre (U.S. Holocaust Memorial)
The Italian Resistance and the Ardeatine Caves Massacre (National WWII Museum)
Mausoleo Fosse Ardeatine

Balvano Train Disaster (2-3 Mar 1944)

One of the deadliest train disasters in railroad history occurred during World War II in Italy when over 500 people would suffocate to death.

It began simply enough. On the evening 2 March 1944 freight train 8017 left Salerno, Italy to a rural area south of the city. This required it to pass through the Galleria delle Amri Tunnel Pass just outside Balvano. Although a freight train, it was common for a lot of civilian and military people to hop on the next convenient train. By the time the train had reached Balvano, the last train stop between the two long tunnels in the Apennines Mountains. it had 650 people aboard. It reached the stop near midnight and had to stop for maintenance.

At ten minutes to 1 am, the train began its ascent into the Galleria delle Amri. The tunnel was poorly ventilated with 1.3% grade. Not long after entering the tunnel the train came to complete stop for 3o minutes. The exact reasons are still unclear. Either the train could not pull the overloaded freight cars, or it was waiting for another train to exit from the opposite direction. Some argue that humidity had caused the train wheels to slip, and sandboxes were not helping.

Unfortunately, due to wartime restrictions, the train was burning low grade coal which produced a lot of excess and odorless carbon monoxide.

The train driver tried to reverse the train but fainted before he could accomplish it. An additional complication was that it was a two-locomotive set up. The driver in lead car could not communicate with the driver in the other one as they were not the same locomotive model. That driver was still trying to push forward. A brakeman walked back to Balvano getting there about 05:10. Quickly a locomotive was dispatched and got there by 0525. It was too late. Many people had exited the freight cars hoping to find better air in the tunnel and died there. There were so any corpses on the rails prevented it from removing the train. About 40 people in the last freight cars were alive. A second rescue mission at 08:40 was able to bring the train back to Balvano. The only train crew to survive was the brakeman and a fireman from the second locomotive.

Due to wartime restrictions, the US and Italians kept it out of the news. A commission was established to determine what happened. Blame was put on the low-quality coal and the station masters tolerating stowaways. The Italian railway company, Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane, declined all responsibility owing to the end of the war setup between the Italians and US. The Ministry of Treasury, in order to quell criticism, issued compensation to identified civilians (but it occurred 15 years later). A limitation on freight tonnage was introduced and the use of both diesel and steam locomotives for such routes were introduced, Steam engines were banned in 1959 and the line was electrified in 1996. Except for the train crew, the stowaways were buried in four common graves in Balvano cemetery.

Sources:

Train passengers suffocate, 2 Mar 1944 (History.com)
Deadliest Train & Railroad Accidents In History (WorldAtlas)
Balvano train disaster (Wikipedia)

 


Remembering History: Germany and Italy Sign Pact of Steel (22 May 1939)

The signing of the Pact of Steel on 22 May 1939 in Berlin
Photographer unknown
Public Domain/WIkimedia Commons

On 22 May 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Friendship and Alliance that became known later as the Pact of Steel. This began the formal military and political alliance between the two countries. Initially Japan was to be part of the agreement but there was disagreement on the focus of the pact. Germany and Italy wanted it aimed at the British Empire and France, while Japan wanted the Soviet Union to be the focus. The agreement was signed without Japan but would later join in September 1940.

The agreement brought together two countries that opposed each other in World War I. It also required each country to come to the aid of the other if it were in armed conflict with another nation. Neither party could make peace without the agreement of the other. One of the assumptions of the agreement was that war would start in three years at the latest. Italy needed the time to get its war production into high gear. The agreement was for ten years but there was some concern within the Italian government the agreement would suppress Italian autonomy. The agreement was still signed despite these objections, which also came from Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Hitler, however, would soon declare his intentions of invading Poland. Mussolini was not happy he was not consulted on this, nor about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. Italian forces did not commit fully to war until June 1940 when German forces had defeated British and French forces with lightning speed. Italy seized Nice as its prize. Other countries it tried to invade proved more difficult. Greek partisans brought the Italian force to a halt. Germany would intervene to help there and in Yugoslavia where Italian troops also pushed back by partisans. A disastrous attack on British Egypt from Italian Libya required German assistance as well. The economic consequences of the war were bad for most Italians generating widespread resentment that would lead one day to Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943.

Sources:

History.com
School History
World War II Database


Remembering History: Mussolini Caught Fleeing Italy and Executed (April 28, 1945)

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

Attempting to flee Italy into Austria dressed in a Luftwaffe coat and hat, the deposed dictator of Italy–Il Duce–Benito Mussolini was caught by partisans along with his mistress Clara Petacci. The partisans executed him and Petacci, transported their bodies to Milan, and hung them upside down so that everyone (especially his supporters) could see he was dead. He ruled Italy from 1925-1943, when he was deposed and subsequently imprisoned. He was rescued by Hitler’s forces and made the puppet leader of the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy. With German troops in retreat, he hoped to avoid being captured by either British or American forces. Pictures of his body being hung upside down in Piazzale Loreto in Milan would be spread to prove that Il Duce was no more.

Sources:
History.com

Remembering History: Italian Fascist Party Founded

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

On 23 March 1919, Benito Mussolini founded the Fasci de Combattimento, a name drawn from peasant revolutionaries from the 19th century. These “fighting bands” as they were commonly called back then, became the foundation of the Italian Fascist Party. Mussolini, who had been committed to Socialism but disenchanted how it did not support defending France during World War I, broke away from his former allies to found this new party. The Fascist Party incorporated many aspects of Communism and Socialism within its ideology (please see my write up on Fascism here) but differed when it came to private property and nationalism. Mussolini believed that using nationalism could unify a nation without having to seize private property but rather convince the owners to serve the state in its goals. And like Communists and Socialists, Fascists did not believe in democracy but one party and, more importantly, one person rule.

Why This Is Important

The Italian Fascist Party would inspire others to follow in the same vein such as Adolf Hitler in Germany, Franco in Spain, and Salazar in Portugal. And still inspires movements today.

Why  Fascism Appealed to Italians

Italy faced many problems in the wake of World War I though it had been on the winning side. It acquired new territory as the Austrian-Hungarian empire was dismantled but the cost of the war left Italy in an economic depression. Italy lost 600,000 in battle, 950,000 wounded and 250,000 crippled for life. The cost of the war on the nation’s treasury was staggering resulting in its currency having reduced value, unemployment spiked and massive inflation set in as well due to the devalued currency. Despite being on the winning side, Italians felt betrayed at Versailles as their delegation was ignored. The government came across as weak and having little pride in Italy. This is what gave Mussolini his opportunity. With millions unhappy with how things were being done by the parliamentary government combined with a feeling of betrayal at Versailles, Mussolini knew he would be able to bring the Fascist Party to power. In October 1922, he led the Fascists on a march to Rome where King Emmanuel III asked him to form a new government. He was appointed head of the Fascist cabinet and appeared to work with the parliamentary government. Backed up by his own brutal police force, he became the de facto dictator of Italy and suppressed a Socialist revolt in 1924. In January, 1925 he proclaimed Italy a Fascist state and he was its leader (Il Duce). He would remain in power until 1943 when he was removed from office.

Sources:

1. Books
Pipes, Richards : Communism: A History, Modern Library, New York 2001

2. Internet
Britannica.com
History.com
History Learning Site