The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943-June 1944 By Robert Katz (Simon and Schuster, 418 pp., $28) Click here to purchase the book.
THERE WAS A BRIEF PERIOD in European history, roughly from the beginning of the eighteenth century to 1941, when it was easy to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants; when wars were fought by soldiers clothed, equipped, and trained by the state; when men trained to be murderers on behalf of the state were severely punished if they tried to use the same methods when not in military service. During the last sixty years, however, irregular forces have increasingly replaced, or at least complemented, the regular armies. This ominous development in the methods of warfare raises such terribly difficult issues as the legal rights and the moral obligations of both occupation armies and armed resistance movements. The question arises again and again: how are occupation armies to react to the presence of the local equivalents of the legendary Vietnamese "peasants in black pajamas," who may be armed with grenades and guns? How are ordinary civilians to behave in the presence of an increasingly frightened and brutal occupation army? The danger to them from both occupiers and resisters is very great, making it difficult, if not impossible, to remain bystanders.
In the terrible history of World War II, few events illustrate these dilemmas better than those discussed in Robert Katz's very fine book, which is rich in dramatic accounts and challenging analyses. Written with great journalistic verve, Katz's book is also remarkably well documented. The crucial events that it studies occurred on March 23, 1944, when the bombs and the grenades of a group of Communist partisans tore into a marching company of SS policemen in Rome's historic center, killing thirty-three and wounding more than one hundred. A few bystanders were also killed. A day later, in what became one of the war's most infamous reprisals, the SS executed 335 Italians in a cave on the outskirts of Rome. These two incidents have entered history as the Via Rasella bombing and the Ardeatine Caves massacre. Katz, who has lived in Tuscany for a long time, is well qualified to deal with the Italian aspect of these fatal problems. He proved his willingness to tackle difficult issues in one of his previous books, which provoked the family of Pope Pius XII to sue him for "defaming the memory" of that controversial pontiff. As he explains in his new book, that lawsuit almost landed him in jail.
KATZ WISELY BEGINS HIS BOOKS with the events of late July 1943, when King Emmanuel III, the army high command, and the fascist Grand Council in Rome overthrew and imprisoned the dictator Mussolini, who had been leading the country and the fascist movement to ruin. Soon thereafter came a secret armistice agreement with the Allies, who were by then in southern Italy, and the flight of the king as well as of the newly appointed prime minister, Army Marshal Pietro Badoglio, to Allied-held territory. These developments left the seat of government empty and the military commanders without any instructions, allowing a German takeover as well as the rescue of Il Duce by a force of parachutists. The freed Mussolini promptly proclaimed a fascist republic at Sal in northern Italy. What made these successful German countermoves possible was a series of brilliant military operations under the command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, which not only stopped the Allied military advance but also succeeded in disarming and enslaving the numerically superior Italian armies. By mid-October, the German positions in southern Italy were stronger than they had been when Italy was still a Nazi ally.
Katz skillfully describes the enormous difficulties that the multinational Allied armies--British, American, Polish, French, East Indian, Australian, New Zealander, Brazilian, Moroccan--faced in the mountainous Italian terrain. The two successive amphibious landings south of Rome, at Salerno in September 1943 and at Anzio in January 1944, were near disasters, because the amassed Allied vehicles impeded one another's progress, and because of jealousies between the British and the Americans, and because of the undoubted bravery of the Germans. Another problem for the Allies was that the best of their troops were gradually siphoned off from Italy in order to prepare for the landings in Normandy. When the Allies finally broke through the Italian front in May, 1944, it was the selfishness of U.S. General Mark Clark, the commander of the Fifth Army, that prevented the encircling and the destruction of the German forces. For Clark, it seemed far more important to reach Rome before the British than to defeat the enemy, as Katz and many military experts maintain.
Following the collapse of all semblance of government in Rome, a National Liberation Committee attempted to step into the breach. This resistance umbrella organization consisted of the representatives of the major anti- fascist political parties, but while the committee was often paralyzed by inter- party rivalry, a much more active Military Council, operating under the aegis of the committee, ordered immediate action. Here, amazingly, dedicated anti- Communist army officers were able to cooperate with progressive Catholics, left- wing Socialists, and even the Communist GAP (Patriotic Action Group) Central. The Communists, who hoped to create a revolutionary situation and to change Italy forever, were the best-organized, the bravest, and the most brutal of all the partisan groups. What counts most, as Katz makes clear, is not the successes of the resistance, which were militarily insignificant (though later, in northern Italy, the partisans became a serious problem for the Germans), but the heroism of the resisters. Monarchist generals and young Communist intellectuals risked death in action, and when captured, as the majority sooner or later were, they defied the most abominable tortures inflicted upon them by the German and Italian thugs of the "Koch Gang" and SS Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler's Gestapo.
Until the Allies captured Rome on June 4, 1944, they bombed the capital on several occasions, causing thousands of casualties and exasperating the population--less because of the loss of life and property than because the bombings seemed to indicate that liberation was being delayed. Indeed, there was no shortage of popular enthusiasm for the Allied cause, but the general anti-Nazi uprising hoped for by the resisters never materialized, simply because most Romans just wanted to get by, a fact that Katz might have emphasized more. It is true, though, that the Germans and the Italian fascists felt quite isolated in the capital, which increased the ferocity of their response to partisan provocation.
The Germans' most useful ally seems to have been the pope, whose main concerns were that the Vatican's neutrality be respected, that Rome not be damaged, and that there be no Communist takeover at the moment of liberation. This agenda caused Pius XII to remain silent even at the sight of the deportation, in October, 1943, of more than one thousand Roman Jews, who had traditionally been the pontiff's charges. (One must add, though, that the pope did not forbid the hiding of thousands of other Roman Jews in churches, monasteries, and convents as well as by individual Catholic clerics.) The deportation of Roman Jews boasts a respectable scholarly literature, most notably Susan Zuccotti's excellent Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy; and Katz adds some new information culled from various archives. He also provides a convincing description of how the Romans trusted the pope, whom they saw as the savior of their city. In truth, the pope played a significant role in the Germans' proclaiming Rome an open city; and not only the population but also the Allies profited from this, because they could conquer the city in June virtually without firing a shot.
On the Allied side, the British were the most reluctant to treat Rome officially as sacred ground, but in reality all the combatants silently agreed to deal with it as cautiously as possible. Relatively little was destroyed in Rome, no more than in Paris. In Paris it was the German local command that resisted Hitler's wish that the city be burned, but Hitler himself seems to have wanted to avoid the wholesale destruction of Rome. Compare all this to the Germans' ruthless treatment of Belgrade, Leningrad, and Warsaw, as well as their willingness to expose Budapest to a prolonged siege--but then the kind of atrocities that marked the Via Rasella and Ardeatine Caves massacres were nearly common occurrences in eastern and southeastern Europe. Only in such western countries as Italy and France could the killing of a few hundred civilians lead to a public uproar; only there would such incidents become the symbols of a nation's heroism and suffering.
THE VIA RASELLA ATTACK WAS planned and executed by a few young men and women- -a laboratory worker, a government clerk, a bunch of university students. They noticed that a German military police company daily chose the same route, the same time, and the same song for its march back from a shooting range to the barracks, and that this route led through the narrow passageway of the Via Rasella. To carry out the attack, which is breathtakingly described by Katz, the partisans obtained the permission of their superiors in the resistance. The scene must have been horrifying, with body parts flying around, wounded men lying next to their own arms and legs, several Germans permanently blinded, and the survivors in total panic. Since the German soldiers did not know where the attack had come from, they sprayed the neighboring buildings with bullets, causing further deaths. Hitler and Himmler demanded massive retaliation, whereas German diplomats in Rome insisted on no reprisals, as that might make the local population even more hostile. The decision to shoot ten Italians for every dead German represented a compromise decreed by Kesselring, the southern front's supreme commander. The procedure had to be improvised, since this was to be the first German reprisal in Italy.
Responsibility for the executions fell on Kappler, who spent a whole night trying to draw up a list of Italian Todeskandidaten--men who, for one reason or another, were doomed to die in any case. Since there happened to be only three men in Rome under death sentence for anti-German activity, Kappler was forced to cast his net wider, until the jails in the city were nearly emptied of political prisoners. Female members of the resistance movement in captivity were not even considered, but seventy-eight perfectly innocent Jewish men were added to the roster, by the "logical" argument that because Jews were under a collective death sentence, one might as well dispose of some of them on this occasion. The victims were transported by truck to the Ardeatine Caves, where they were killed in groups of five, with a shot in the back of the head, but because most German policemen were untrained in such things, the initially well- organized shootings deteriorated into a drunken chaos.
During his trial, in 1948, Kappler claimed that he had threatened eventual shirkers with execution. As a result of this statement, all his co-defendants were acquitted, but it was later shown that no such threat had been uttered, and that a junior officer had refused to fire his gun. He was in no way punished for his disobedience; nor was any other German soldier or policeman punished anywhere else in Hitler's Europe for refusing to kill Jews and other victims. Later it turned out that 335 (not 330) persons had been executed, among them a general, many other officers, Communists, intellectuals, Jews, and a priest from the resistance movement. Remarkably, none of those about to be killed, most of them young and politically committed, turned against their executioners. This, too, should show how wrong it is to blame the Jews, who were often elderly people, children, and women, for allowing themselves to be slaughtered. Only one victim tried to run away: he turned out to be an Austrian military deserter pretending to be Italian. He was caught but not taken back to the caves, because only Italians were to be killed there. He survived the war.
KATZ THOROUGHLY DISCUSSES the papal reaction to the bomb attack and to the execution of the hostages. Katz thoroughly discusses the papal reaction to the bomb attack and to the execution of the hostages. German diplomats had appealed for the pope's help in preventing a massive retribution, but the pope was so outraged by the partisan attack, which raised the specter of a Communist takeover, that he did nothing. The day after the Via Rasella attack, the semi-official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano warned against the repetition of such acts, mostly because it would lead to the death of many innocent people. This, in turn, drew the wrath of Kesselring, who protested that those executed were convicted criminals.
Following the Via Rasella attack, the Germans increased the number of their SS policemen in Rome from a few hundred to a few thousand, who then arrested, tortured, and executed many resistance fighters. Even Katz's main hero, the American O.S.S. agent Peter Tompkins, whose secret broadcasts from Rome greatly helped the Allied cause, was forced to hide for his life. When the Americans arrived at last on June 4, they were greeted by delirious masses. Undoubtedly, many of the celebrants had previously hailed Il Duce with the same delirious enthusiasm.
Kesselring, Kappler, and some of the others responsible for the Ardeatine Caves massacre were arrested after the war and tried by either a British or an Italian military court. Charged with repeatedly ordering the massacre of civilians, Kesselring was sentenced to death by a British military court in 1947, but because many in the West, including Winston Churchill, objected to the sentence, it was commuted to life without parole. He was freed in 1952. Kappler's trial took place in 1948, after the West had begun to rally against Soviet Bolshevism. By then, many Italians had forgotten the days of Rome the "Open City" as it was filmed by Roberto Rossellini in 1945. In Rossellini's shattering film, a devout priest and an atheistic Communist fight together against the Nazi and fascist beasts, while the actress Anna Magnani, playing the role of the representative of the people, lends her support to their heroic struggle. By 1948, however, the Communists--not the Germans--were for many the enemy.
The court trying Kappler benefited from his painstaking description, lasting eight days, of what had happened in March, 1944. The death penalty having been abolished in Italy, Kappler was given a life sentence without parole, less for the killing of the 330 people than for the killing of the supernumerary five. As one would have said in the Soviet bloc at the time, Kappler had "over- fulfilled his norm." Katz explains that the five extra men got there as the result of a miscalculation, but when the Germans realized their mistake they saw no choice but to get rid of the five who had seen it all. Kappler's other crime, which in itself deserved the most severe punishment, was his unhesitating use of torture against political prisoners in Rome.
IN ONE OF THE MANY IRONIES of World War II, the SS company bombed at Via Rasella was part of a Bozen (Bolzano, South Tyrol) battalion, meaning that, although German-Austrians by nationality and conviction, the men hailed from an area that had been part of Italy between the two wars. Similarly, the SS company that massacred nearly 642 French civilians at Oradour, in June, 1944, was made up mostly of Alsatians--that is, that they had been, and would become again, French citizens. At their trial in 1953, public sentiment in Alsace- Lorraine forced the virtual acquittal of these "Frenchmen dragged into German service against their will."
One wonders what the point of the massive executions was, considering that afterward the German High Command made only a brief announcement. In any case, there was not much resistance activity in Rome in the few weeks left before the arrival of American and other Allied troops. Note also that the entire tragedy might have been avoided by a rapid American advance on Rome. In January, 1944, when the Allies landed at Anzio, a bare thirty miles from Rome, they took the Germans so much by surprise that a single American jeep carrying a lieutenant and a driver easily made it into the capital and returned unscathed. Katz quotes Kesselring's chief of staff, General Siegfried Westphal, who later wrote that, for the Germans, this was a "breathtaking situation" in which "no one could have stopped a bold advance guard entering the Holy City." But the American commanders hesitated, and Kesselring rallied enough troops to counterattack.
The German army in Italy surrendered to the Allies only a few days before the complete surrender of all German forces in May, 1945; before that time, there was extensive guerrilla activity in the northern part of the country, mostly by Communist partisans, who established themselves in large areas. According to Claudio Pavone and other historians, there was a genuine civil war between the partisans and the fascists, marked by atrocities on both sides.
IN COURT, BOTH KESSELRING and Kappler invoked the defense of "superior orders," but by then the Nuremberg International Court had rejected such a defense, and even the wartime German Nazi Military Code had made amply clear that superior orders did not legalize murder and other illegal acts. Whether the Ardeatine Caves massacre can be justified on the basis of international law has been the subject of much controversy. The Hague International Convention of 1907, which regulated relations between the occupiers and the civilian inhabitants of an occupied country, postulated that the latter obey reasonable orders by the occupier; thus a certain degree of collaboration with the enemy was judged to be necessary. As for civilian resistance, the convention authorized it only during an enemy invasion, and even then only if the guerrillas, short of being in uniform, were wearing a conspicuous badge or armband, carrying their weapons openly, organized into a discernible command structure, and abiding by the laws of war. Such conditions no underground fighter during World War II even dreamed of obeying. Yet it was made clear at The Hague that the occupying power was entitled to treat violators of the above rules as common criminals.
Nor was hostage taking, and thus hostage shooting, necessarily illegal; after all, one might see it as a relatively humane measure when compared with random revenge and retribution. This right was recognized at one of the so- called American follow-up trials at Nuremberg, that of Field Marshal Wilhelm List and other German commanders in southeastern Europe. But the court did not say how many hostages one was allowed to shoot for every dead soldier. Judging by the German measures taken in Russia and the Balkans during World War II, Kesselring's ten-to-one ratio was not one of the most barbaric. Before the end of the war and following the German surrender, the Allied occupation forces, especially the French and the Soviets, took and occasionally shot hostages as well as burned down houses and even a few villages, in retribution for real or suspected German Werwolf partisan actions.
Robert Katz's two other most admired heroes, the partisans Elena (Carla Capponi) and Paolo (Rosario Bentivegna), received the highest Italian military decorations after the war; they married each other and became Communist deputies in parliament. Neither they nor the other partisans ever publicly wondered about the correctness of their actions on that fatal day in March, 1944. Yet in the long run the Italian Communists did not profit from their wartime heroism and ruthlessness: the Party did not manage to come to power, nor did the partisans' dream of a just and equal society become a reality. Only from the standpoint of postwar Italian nationalism was the Via Rasella attack not a wasteful exercise. It strengthened the image abroad, so carefully cultivated by both the Italian government and the film industry, of the Italians as brave anti-fascists and the innocent victims of Teutonic barbarity. No mention was ever made of such other possible Italian national symbols as the gassings of Abyssinian villages; the aggression against Albania, Greece, France, and Yugoslavia; and the concentration camps set up in the Italian occupation zones in southeastern Europe.
As for the Germans, or at least the more conservative among them, they now had their martyrs languishing in Italian prisons. All the German political parties, Social Democrats included, put pressure on the Italian government to release Kappler, "who had only obeyed orders." Owing to Italian public opinion, however, it was not until 1977 that Kappler was transferred to an unguarded military hospital; from there he "escaped" with the help of his German wife, whom he had married while in prison. He died in Stuttgart the following year.
Finally, there was the case of SS Captain Erich Priebke, Kappler's second in command at Rome Gestapo headquarters, who escaped to Eva and Juan Peron's Argentina at the end of the war. For this he used the famous "Rat Line" created by Catholic Church officials to facilitate the flight of such major war criminals as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele. As Katz explains, thousands of other Nazi war criminals went the same way. But Priebke was unmasked in Argentina in 1996 and extradited to Italy. Having been tried and freed by a military court, public demonstrations forced his re-trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the following year; the trial resulted in a life sentence without parole. Subsequently, however, his sentence was commuted to fifteen years under house arrest. In his case, too, Priebke's undoubtedly punishable crime would have been his extremely brutal treatment of prisoners.
The partisan activity in World War II, directed against the abominable Nazis, is generally seen as justified; but the question must be asked why the anti- Soviet guerrilla activity of, say, the same Polish partisans who had previously fought the German occupiers was not equally justified. And why not the guerrilla wars waged by the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan, the anti- American struggle of the Vietcong in Vietnam, the Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel, or the recent anti-American guerrilla activity in Iraq? Armed resistance during World War II was romanticized because the Nazis were such an appalling enemy, and because in that war the guerrillas' targets were still mainly soldiers. Innocent victims, such as the wives and the children of German servicemen who died because they happened to be in a military train that was blown up by partisans, were collateral damage. But ever since the 1950s, when the much-applauded Algerian freedom fighters began to lob bombs into crowded shops and cafs, innocent civilians have become the favorite targets of guerrillas everywhere. And today we tend to describe freedom fighters as terrorists.
Terrorist attacks will not go away; the question is whether to repress them with utter ruthlessness or to try to win over both partisans and local population with a certain degree of moderation. There is no proof that one method is more efficient than the other, but it is certain that the first method causes enormous suffering. The Hague Conventions regulating irregular warfare have been more a failure than a success. What is needed is a recognition of reality, namely that future wars will increasingly consist of civilians shooting at soldiers from hiding and frightened soldiers killing innocent civilians. And what is needed, in the aftermath of such a sobering recognition, is an attempt to create a new international law for the more efficient regulation of this type of horrible warfare. Robert Katz's book provides fine arguments for this necessary debate.
This review appeared in the March 22, 2004 issue of the magazine.