Robert Katz’s History of Modern Italy
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To describe the emotions of the mind and the crowd of ideas that arise on entering this "mistress of the world" is impossible. All is confusion and agitation. The eye moves rapidly from side to side, eager to grasp every object, but continually diverted by some new scene; all is wonder.
Washington Irving, who arrived in Rome in 1805

Rome today is centuries of history piled one atop another. Move about this eternal city, as they call it, and like it or not you roil the dust of time. Turn any corner, catch a play of amber light, listen not to the din that surrounds you but to what the stones have to say, and you've opened the pages of a robust tale.

On a shining spring day while writing this book, I walked down the Via Rasella. It is a short, narrow, and, considering how central it is, relatively quiet street. It descends from the Barberini Palace on a slope of the Quirinal, one of the seven hills of classical Rome. As an icon of a singular event of the 270-day German occupation of Rome during World War II, the Via Rasella has haunted three generations of Romans and has helped shape the very character of the present-day city. "When people hear me say that I live on Via Rasella," someone nearing sixty who is a lifelong resident said recently, "...they hear 'Via Rasella' and they say, 'Oh, where that thing happened...' 'What thing?' I say -- I make them say it first. 'You mean you live there and you don't know what happened?' they say. 'Oh, I know, all right,' I say, 'and where do you think my father is?'" The "thing" that happened in Via Rasella was an attack of unprecedented proportions carried out by the Roman Resistance against the occupation forces. It was a clash that led to Rome's Ardeatine Caves massacre, a pivotal episode in World War II in Italy. The Via Rasella is the place where the disparate worlds of nearly all the characters in this story collide.

I know the Via Rasella probably as well as any visitor, but I was drawn there again that day. I wanted to visit the street as one might call on an aging, lifelong friend. I feared it had suffered physically in all the refurbishing that took place prior to the Holy Year 2000. Rome, behind a seemingly endless screen of scaffolding, had scrubbed itself to the bone in preparation, sandblasting into oblivion the grime, in some cases, of two thousand years, bathing its incomparable beauty in a sea of sienna and ocher paint. It looked stunning when it came out for the Jubilee, but by now Romans were beginning to miss not the grime but the truth-telling texture of plain old wear and tear.

Decades earlier, I had written of the signs that were still visible twenty years after the Via Rasella attack -- mostly bullet-riddled building facades. There were ugly pockmarks in the stucco, with no commemorative plaque or other indication of how they got there. That only added to the mystique when you discovered what they were and understood what they represented. Now well over a half-century had gone by, and though I had seen those bullet holes many times in the interim, I wondered how they had fared in the big spruce-up.

The nature of the street had changed considerably, even in my time. As Italy had grown to become one of the world's leading economic powers, Via Rasella, like all of Rome's centro storico, or "historic center," had gentrified. What used to be a block that housed families rich and poor, aristocrats shoulder to shoulder with the popolani, had become well-to-do, single, professional, chic. The first difference that caught my eye were the computer-generated notices slapped on the walls. "The residents of Via Rasella," the signs proclaimed with rather charmless sarcasm, "thank their kind dog owners for the expressions of thoughtfulness they leave on the street every day." The walls themselves were freshly painted and I despaired. But farther down the street, where the Via del Boccaccio intersects, a building that had escaped the ubiquitous makeover displayed the very same spray of bullet holes that I had first noticed so long before. Some days later I learned that permission for the owners of that building and others to fill and cover the holes had been denied by the Belle Arti, the fine-arts authority that looks after the permanence of the nation's historical treasures. Some owners cheated, I know, just as some Romans have long sought to still the voice of the Via Rasella, but on a few buildings that violence frozen in time was undisturbed. I was reassured. Ghosts never sleep.

It was the boldest and largest resistance assault, never to be equaled in any other of the German-occupied European capitals. At 3:45 on the afternoon of March 23rd, 1944, a heavily armed column of 156 SS police marching through Rome, was attacked in the Via Rasella by ten partisans, nine men and a woman, most of them students in their twenties. The target, the 11th Company of the 3rd Bozen SS Battalion, was a new, anti-partisan police formation. The partisan strike force was made up of members of the central unit of GAP (Gruppi di Azione Patriottica, or Patriotic Action Groups), the military arm of the clandestine Communist party.

As the police column proceeded up the street, one of the partisans, in the guise of a municipal street cleaner, lit the fuse of a home-made bomb concealed in his trash can and decamped. Some fifty seconds later, twenty-four men were blown apart in an earth-shaking explosion. Other partisans engaged the dazed rear guard with grenades and gunfire, and as nine more SS men, and two hapless civilians, lay dead or dying, they disappeared into the hideaways of the Roman underground.

Notified at his headquarters in East Prussia within minutes of the attack, Hitler shrieked for revenge, demanding a reprisal that would “make the world tremble.” His bile alone set in motion a hastily assembled killing machine in Rome that would overcome even internal opposition from the occupiers themselves. The next day, 335 men and teen-aged boys – a near-perfect cross-section of the male social makeup of Rome, but not one of whom even remotely connected to the attack – were seized from various parts of the city, trucked to an abandoned labyrinth of caves in Via Ardeatina, near the Christian catacombs of ancient Rome, and slain in groups of five. It was the first and the prototype of the worst wartime atrocities perpetrated on Italian soil.

The Via Rasella attack had been timed to coincide with twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations of the founding of Fascism to signal that the end of the long nightmare was near. It was designed to represent a dramatic escalation of the partisan movement’s battle for Rome and galvanize the population for a general uprising. But other powers in Rome had differing designs on the eternal city. The resistance was the bane not only of the occupiers but also of the Vatican and to some extent the Allies, and none of them, like the resistance itself, was free of dissension and intrigue. No one, with few exceptions, wished to harm Rome. Good intentions, to repeat the proverb, paved this hell.

The dramatic story of Rome under the German occupation (September 8, 1943-June 4, 1944) and how on the last day it was saved from destruction remains largely untold, particularly outside of Italy. This may be surprising but the reason easily grasped. No English-language work on the subject has appeared in the last twenty years, leaving untapped an outpouring of significant primary material that has since become available. The CIA release between 2000 and 2002 of the so-called crown jewels of America’s wartime intelligence – hundreds of thousands of the long-classified documents of its predecessor agency, the Office of Strategic Services, is only the latest example. The declassified diplomatic papers of the Vatican archives relating specifically to the occupation of Rome have barely been skimmed, likewise those of the Italian archives; similarly underreported – and entirely unpublished – is the mass of material generated in the mid-nineties by the two Rome trials of former SS officer Erich Priebke as well as that of trials in the late seventies and eighties, including my own. * Thus the early books that in some way dealt with the occupation did not have the benefit of the now nearly complete and nuanced big picture.

Consider that big picture.

On the evening of September 8th, 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, went on the air to stun the world, and Rome most of all, by announcing the signed capitulation of Italy – the first of the Axis powers to surrender unconditionally. What happened over the next few hours, and what it meant globally, is still breathtaking more than half-a-century later:

For the Allies: Timed to Eisenhower’s announcement was the launch of World War II’s first full-scale invasion of the European mainland. Landings on the shores of Salerno, south of Naples – and later Anzio – initiated Churchill’s “soft-underbelly” strategy of penetrating what would prove to be an imaginary weakness in Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” and would end in one of the bloodiest military campaigns in U.S. history, not to speak of the devastation of Italy.

For the Germans: Hitler regarded the Italian defection – which had followed the arrest of Mussolini some weeks earlier – as an act of treachery that had to be punished draconically. His supreme commander in the south, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, was momentarily caught off guard, however, by the September 8th surrender, and began a tactical retreat from the capital. But when Kesselring learned that the Allied landings – expected just north of Rome – were actually taking place 160 miles to the south, he made a lightning decision to turn back and seize Rome. His task was greatly facilitated by one of the most craven acts in Italian history, the pre-dawn flight from the capital by the king and his new government, abandoning the city and leaving no one in charge. Courageous but ragtag opposition to Kesselring’s onslaught on the part of the disoriented Italian army and some civilians was crushed leaving the Germans as the masters of Rome – but at the same time it breathed life into a long-unthinkable idea whose time had come: armed resistance.

For the Vatican: Vatican City was ringed with Wehrmacht troops, its lifeline to the outside world attached all but umbilically to Hitler’s whim (part of which included a threat to kidnap the pope). Until now Pope Pius XII had labored assiduously to be seen by both the Western Allies and Germany as a peerless neutral and so spare Rome from the havoc of war and play a decisive role as peacemaker. He was convinced that Stalin’s Russia was a greater evil than Hitler’s Germany, and he had been hoping to broker a general rapprochement between the western Allies and Germany to contain if not roll back godless communism. Moreover, that strategy of “neutrality” was what lay behind his already controversial policy of silence in the face of the Holocaust. Now, in occupied Rome, the most crucial test of that silence was at hand. He had not protested the distant slaughter of Europe’s Jews, but should the Nazis lay the terror at his front door, could he still have nothing to say?

For the Italians: An ignoble war fought abroad that was now nominally over was about to come home with a vengeance. Rome would awake that morning of the first day to find itself being taken prisoner by the Third Reich. Yet the Allies were heading its way, and the vision of Rome as eternal, somehow shielded from the “excesses” the Germans had visited upon the other cities of Europe, would seem intact. Before long, however, it would darken and shatter.

In the days leading up to Italy’s surrender, the government that had deposed Mussolini had declared Rome an “Open City” – a demilitarized zone, harmless and thus a measure to preserve its countless wonders from the ruins of war. Reaffirmed but not respected by the German occupiers and consequently the Allies, this open city would from the outset be a sham. In a matter of weeks Rome would become all but unrecognizable, a mockery of an open city, whose walls would shake under the roar of German military traffic to the front and the thunder of Allied bombs. It would swell to nearly twice its usual size, hosting, but always more frugally, a million refugees from the countryside. Rome would be a city of spies, double agents, informers, torturers, fugitives, hunted Jews and hungry people.

In this atmosphere a resistance movement would arise, only to become sundered by internal crises. The six anti-Fascist parties in Rome, awakened from a forced hibernation of twenty years, would form a timid, clandestine union but only the new generation of young men and women of the political parties themselves, the partisans, would prove capable of striking militarily against the German occupiers. Their mission would be to create an armed, insurrectional threat within Rome to discourage the Germans from attempting to hold the city. The overriding danger – indeed, Hitler’s plan should the Allies try to take Rome – was a fierce engagement in street-by-street combat. For a city with its nerves worn thin and desperately short on food, this would bring calamity, ruin, and a tremendous loss in civilian lives. It could mean the end of everything treasured and beautiful about Rome.

This Open City was thus a tinderbox of four conflicting agendas, each incompatible with the other: the Allies trying to capture Rome as their first shining prize of war but discovering impregnable armor instead; the Germans trying to throw the intruders back into the sea, holding Rome hostage and using it rapaciously as a staging ground and a supply line to the front; the pope trying to bring the West and the Germans to terms and save the world from “communism” as well as Rome and Vatican City from physical destruction; and, finally, the partisans trying to redeem Italy’s honor, first, by making Rome untenable for the occupiers.

What a change from the early days of that same summer of 1943.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I note here that the Vatican raised a tenacious challenge to my book on the Ardeatine Caves massacre, Death in Rome, in which I found that Pope Pius XII knew in advance that a Nazi reprisal for the attack in Via Rasella was about to take place and, consistent with a policy of neutrality, made no discernible attempt to forestall it. A ten-year freedom-of-speech court battle in Rome begun in 1974, produced – apart from a smoking-gun document from the Vatican’s own archives that proved my case incontrovertibly (see appendix: “Pacelli v. Katz, et al.”), volumes of valuable testimony from some of the principal figures in the occupation. Many had been interviewed by me for my book, but as a result of the trial I continued to interact with several of them for years after publication. Although most are deceased now, I still have my original notes and correspondence and they will have more to say here.

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