Reappraising Italy’s Role in World War Two

Attack at British Lines    Attacco in Marmarica di una posizione britannica nell’autunno 1941           (Attack on a British position in the autumn of 1941, Marmarica)

 Dr James Sadkovich is a well respected historian who has done much in the

last few decades to reevaluate our understanding of Italy’s role in the war.

He is highly critical of much of the Anglo-American literature that has come

out since the end of the war, both by popular and academic historians. As he

himself puts it, to discount or downplay Italy’s role in the Mediterranean

theater is to simply “distort the reality of the 1930s and 1940s” and

moreover, that it is “absurd to focus on Italy’s weaknesses when Britain’s

weaknesses were at issue”.

Anyway, I would urge anyone with the time, the inclination and the money

to purchase or obtain Sadkovich’s books and articles dealing with Italy’s role

in the war. What he writes will certainly open your eyes to new vistas and

realities about the truth that has been concealed and obfuscated by

accepting as gospel, the writings and interpretations of Anglo-American

historians, both popular and academic.

BELOW IS A SELECTION OF HIS ARTICLE but it is worthwhile obtaining it in full online for $19.

History is above all else informed interpretation, based on an array of

available and ascertainable data which the historian weighs carefully

before assembling the most significant into a coherent narrative or a

comprehensible analysis. Since new data occasionally come to light

and new questions are constantly posed, history is also a

reinterpretation of both the past and past interpretations – and thus

inherently and unavoidably revisionist. But history is also myth, the way

that we explain the past and thereby understand and justify the present

order of things. Certain interpretations are thus preferred to others,

certain data rejected or ignored because inimical to the received

interpretations, and new interpretations of hallowed myths less than

welcome. History is therefore also inherently and unavoidably

reactionary, and the dialectic of history continually pits the determined

iconoclast against the established idolaters in a struggle to rewrite past

realities and recast current illusions.

The tendency of historians to construct and consecrate myths is

nowhere more obvious than in the description and assessment of war.

Data tend to be sifted through a patriotic sieve that lets pass only that

which is compatible with the national honour and consonant with the

nation’s image of itself, a sort of selective sifting that is particularly

evident in Anglo-American works on Italy during both major wars

this century. Readers of English are thus relatively badly informed on

the Italian war efforts, in part simply because most Anglo-American

historians tend to eschew the study of Italian and other ‘minor’

languages in favour of’major’ tongues, and they consequently write

less about Italy, Albania and Greece than about Britain, France and

Germany. But linguistic ignorance is not solely to blame, since a

strong echo of wartime propaganda and a residual nationalism is

apparent in books by both popular and academic historians, who

tend to view the second world war as a struggle of the forces of light

against those of darkness. The war thus becomes a crusade by the

Anglo-American powers finally and for all time to make the world

safe for democracy by defeating the duplicitous enemy to the east and

the technocratic barbarians on the Rhine, with the archaic samurai

transformed into a demiurge and Hitler into a Germanic Satan. In the

process, Italy and Russia have been almost totally ignored.

Given the fascination with Hitler, Nazi regalia, martial arts and

samurai swords, the continuing success of badly-done ‘docudramas’

on prime-time television, and the plethora of books dealing with

Nazism and the Rising Sun on supermarket book racks, it would seem

that not a few of us would like to forsake the humdrum of democracy

for the sleek uniform of the SS, or at least trade our places in the car

pool for a seat in a Spitfire during the Battle of Britain. It is a safe bet,

though, that only a peculiar few nurse the desire to pilot a Macchi 202

or join the Ariete Division, since for most readers of English, the

former could be a brand of pasta and the latter a rock group. Of course,

most Italians could easily identify the Macchi as a high performance

fighter aircraft and Ariete as a crack Italian armoured unit,   and a

spurt  of publications by very good scholars has recently increased our

knowledge of fascist Italy. But few English  speakers read Italian

periodicals,  few Anglo-American scholars study Italy, and few

Italian books are translated into English. The  average  English speaker

consequently lacks access to this new, as well as to a lot of old, material.

It  is typical of our lack of interest in the ‘lesser evil’ against which the

Allies campaigned that while books by Albert Speer and Joachim Fest

have been quickly translated for the English public, no one has bothered

to bring out an English edition of Ugo Cavallero’s diaries, even though

they were originally published in 1948 and represent the daily record of

the Italian Chief-of-Staff  from 1941 to 1942. That Badoglio’s tendentious

book has been  translated is perhaps indicative of an ideological bias as

well as  a lack of interest, and even recent works by excellent Anglo-

American historians have tended to ignore current scholarship and to

cling to tenaciously to received interpretations of the Italian role in the

second  world war.

As a result, for most readers and writers of English, the Italian war

effort is still viewed as vacillating between tragedy and farce;

Mussolini is seen as a nasty little dictator and a bit of a mental

featherweight incapable of fathoming the industrial and economic

exigencies of war or of matching Hitler’s tactical ‘genius’; and the

Italian soldier, like Italian generals and politicians, serves merely as

the object of ethnic jokes. After mid- 1941, when the Germans arrived

in the Mediterranean and the ‘guerra parallela’ came to an end, Italy’s

role seems so insignificant to most Anglo-American writers as to be

negligible historically. Italian failures in 1940 are projected forward

and backward in time in order to discount Italy as a military power of

any significance in the twentieth century, and analysis is reduced to

comments on Italian morale and fascist ‘bluff’.

But to discount Italy as insignificant is to distort the reality of the

1930s and 1940s. Lord Chatfield, Britain’s First Sea Lord in 1935,

may have believed that the British could ‘re-assert [their] dominance

over an inferior [Italian] race’, but he also worried that Italy posed ‘a

real menace to [Britain’s] Imperial communications and defense

system’ – an opinion that Hankey and others would have endorsed No

one ever expected Italy to defeat Britain, but the British were worried

that the Italians could cripple their navy and leave them  helpless in the

face of German or Japanese attacks, and the British already saw a threat

to their imperial communications in Italy’s penetration of the Middle

East, its support of Arabs and Zionists, and its bases in Eritrea, Abyssinia

and Somaliland.

It is thus absurd to focus on Italy’s weaknesses, when Britain’s

weaknesses were at issue, and simply to adopt Churchill’s version of

events is to take sides, not study history. So weak was Britain

militarily and diplomatically that in 1934 London had to depend on

Italy to stymie the Nazi putsch in Austria, and in 1935-6 could do no

more than ‘bluff’ Italy over Ethiopia. Britain’s worries over the

Italian ‘threat’, like its ‘appeasement’ of Nazi Germany, were

admissions of weakness: by placating Hitler, London could afford to

put off Mussolini, since concessions on the continent did not

compromise the Empire, whereas adjustments of the status quo in the

Mediterranean and Africa would have done so. Austria was expendable,

Malta was not; and the limits to British ‘appeasement’ of Italy

were reached with the anodyne of the 1938 Easter Accords.

To play down the threat posed by Italy to Britain is to misunderstand

the importance of the Empire and the Middle East to London,

and thereby to pretend that the elimination of fascist Italy

was not as crucial to the security of the Empire as the destruction of

Nazi Germany and militarist Japan.


‘Understanding Defeat: Reappraising Italy’s Role in World War II’

Author: James J. Sadkovich

Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan., 1989), pp. 27-61

Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.

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