Anglo-American bias and the Greco-Italian War of 1940-41

Italian soldiers resting before the battle

Dr. James Sadkovich, ‘Anglo-American bias and the Italo-Greek War of 1940-1941’,  The Journal of Military History  58.4 (Oct 1994): 617.

   In his article and much of his work, Dr. Sadkovich has succeeded in exposing a long held historiography of bias towards the Italian war effort. For too long, popular writers and academic historians of the Second World War have dismissed the Italian military as largely ineffectual and its leaders as incompetent and clueless about what they were getting themselves into. The truth could not be more different. Mussolini and his general staff knew exactly the risks they were taking to ally themselves to the Germans as well as being fully aware of the limitations and vulnerabilities of their country’s economy and military in the event of a protracted war. Mussolini took that enormous gamble in June 1940 when he ordered the incursion into France, thereby aligning Italy for good or for ill, with the fortunes of Nazi Germany. It was a calculated gamble, one that did not pay off in the end. But contrary to many Anglo-American writers, it was not a harebrained or foolish decision at all: it was simply that, a risky and calculated gamble that in the end, left his country devastated.

   To begin with, Sadkovich argues that most monographs and translations available in English discount the Italian role and place Italian strategic interests in either a German or British context. In his article, he specifically deals with the Italo-Greek war, but what he writes can be applied to North Africa and the Mediterranean in general. The Italians were there in great numbers, but their presence was shadowy, under-reported and given short shrift by Anglo-American historians who often describe the Italian soldier as lacking in martial skills and not having their heart in the war, preferring instead to stay home and eat pasta and drink wine and play mandolins and sing romantic songs to their mistresses, and so on. It is a perpetuated but carefully contrived stereotype and hardly reality. The vast majority of Italian men neither know how to play a mandolin nor do they sing to their mistresses, whatever Hollywood and popular imagination may dream up. The Italian soldier was no braver nor more cowardly than any other. Of course there were instances of cowardice and lack of will to fight, especially if one’s belly is empty, or you’re literally dying of thirst, suffering from frost-bite or cooking in 45 degree heat with little ammunition left. But there were episodes, numerous episodes, of brilliance, courage and daring by either individuals or battalions as well.

   Secondly, according to Sadkovich, Anglo historians often portray Mussolini as a clownish second fiddle to Hitler and that Italians were in a subservient role to the Germans and should behave themselves lest they upset German plans. In other words, Italian war policy and goals were seen as a source of irritation and should be subsumed under German war policy and goals. In his article, Sadkovich mentions one historian who depicted Mussolini as an “unwelcome nuisance who had to be ‘carefully watched and kept in line’ so that his ‘irresponsible aspirations’ would not ‘endanger German long range plans.’’’ So the Italians were simply expected to go along with the Germans and if they didn’t, they were labeled as a “nuisance.”  As Sadkovich adroitly explains, “such a fixation on Germany and such denigrations of Italians not only distort analysis, they also reinforce the misunderstandings and myths of the Greek theater and allow historians to lament and debate the impact of the Italo-Greek conflict on the British and German war efforts, yet dismiss as unimportant its impact on the Italian.” Again I would extend Sadkovich’s argument as applicable to the entire Mediterranean and North African theatre. Sadkovich gives the example of one writer, a certain Alan Levine, “who even goes most authors one better by dismissing the whole Mediterranean theater as irrelevant, but only after duly scolding Mussolini for ‘his imbecilic attack on Greece,’” a view that would have surprised both Churchill and Hitler. The Mediterranean was no side show, but fought in deadly earnest by all parties.

 In exasperation with this view, Sadkovich goes on to demonstrate that:

 “Anglo-American historians have depicted the purportedly inept Italians as doubly culpable, first for sabotaging Hitler’s efforts to dominate the Balkans without war, and then for their supposedly brutal occupation of the Balkans, which triggered massive resistance and tied up large numbers of troops. By repeatedly asserting that Mussolini and the Fascist regime corrupted the military, provoked the conflict with Greece for frivolous reasons, and thus caused the debacle there, it is possible to avoid discussing the military reasons for the Italian check in the Pindus mountains, including the performance of Greek forces, and to lay the blame for Hitler’s errors on Mussolini rather than censuring the Nazi leader for provoking havoc by trespassing on his ally’s sphere of influence. But beyond seizing the opportunity to make glib generalizations and reiterate stereotypes, most Anglo-American historians have little interest in the Italo-Greek war and are satisfied to repeat the story of the inferior ‘Eyeties,’ who – misled by a ‘blundering’ and ‘inept’ Mussolini – were saved by the genial Hitler and his superior German war machine, which met its own ruin as a result of its generous aid to its pitiable and ridiculous ally.”

Dr Sadkovich further maintains that this relentless tendency to place any Italian initiative into a British or German context and their tacit assumptions about Italians, is essentially racist. He maintains that there is a continuous campaign by writers such as J. R. Thackrah and Denis Mack Smith (to name a few) to denigrate and downplay any achievements while at the same time, exaggerating Italian defeats and deficiencies at every opportunity. And when there are no defeats to speak of, Anglo-American historians have even made them up!  There is this underlying distaste to admit that perhaps the Italians had worn down the Greek army and bled them white, allowing the Germans an easy walk into Greece, or that the British were so worn down in North Africa that it prevented their capture of Tripoli in 1941. The British, as Sadkovich continues, have found it very hard, almost distasteful, to admit “being bettered in any way by the inferior Italians.”

   If the British could not hide or explain away a defeat or rout, then it had to be a defeat or rout inflicted on them by the Germans, occasionally the Germans and Italians as Axis partners, but certainly not by the Italians alone. It would be too humiliating to admit that. And yet, between 1940-43 much of the war in the Mediterranean was actually an Anglo-Italian one.

   Sadkovich doesn’t have much time for the British historian MacGregor Knox either. He sees Knox as being particularly “censorious” and supercilious towards the Italians when he, Knox, concludes that after Italian setbacks in Greece and North Africa, “the war once more became an Anglo-German duel.” In other words, it was back to the serious business of war now that the clownish Italians had left the stage. And yet, the Italians had never really left the stage at all, but continued to fight and fight well until 1943.

   As mentioned, Knox in Sadkovich’s eyes, took an unnecessary censorious and over-critical stance where he “seized every opportunity to criticize [the Italians], even when there was little reason to do so.”  In fact, he evens blames the Italians for things that were hardly their fault, such as Germany’s steady encroachment into the Balkans, Italy’s sphere of influence.  Like many other Anglo-American writers, Knox blames the Italians for being bad allies to the Germans. In fact, it was Nazi Germany who was the bad ally to Italy. For example, the Germans deceived the Italians about their real intentions with the Soviet Union, Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece, and who were stingy in giving Italy material aid such as trucks and weapons once the war started, as Hitler had promised Mussolini he would do. Knox criticizes the Italians for being parochial in 1940 and not understanding or predicting the repercussions of America’s involvement in the war, when in fact, it was the Germans whose continental strategy was parochial for “precluding any sort of viable Axis attack on the British empire”, particularly in the Mediterranean, where the British were at their most vulnerable. Mussolini and his generals knew the great strategic value of knocking the British out of the war as soon as possible, while Hitler dithered. Perhaps Hitler should have listened more carefully to his Italian allies about long term continental and Mediterranean strategy rather than go off and invade the Russian steppe unilaterally, with all the disasters that entailed.

   Like so many Anglo-American historians before him, Knox behaved more like a barrister than an historian in his “intent on building a case against the Italians.” Knox follows the traditional line of scolding Mussolini, berating his Italian generals, accusing them of incompetence and lacking strategic vision, calling the invasion of Greece a “farce” (a oft-used word beloved of such writers), “imbecilic” and all sorts of synonyms that would make a barrister pleading a case, proud. Knox even proclaimed that it was Domenico Cavagnari (chief of staff Italian Navy 1933-40) who singlehandedly “had lost Italy’s war at sea.” But as Sadkovich explains, many of Knox’s lawyer-like accusations and judgments don’t actually stand up to the reality. The battle of Taranto was not the great defeat and disaster the British were so quick (and desperate) to claim and the Italian Navy continued the fight for the Mediterranean for another two and a half years while protecting supply routes to Greece and North Africa with a minimum of German support. Even in Greece, Knox mislead his readers into believing that the Italians were about to be run out of Albania by the Greeks when in fact, the Italian army had stabilized the front there and was actually pushing the Greeks back into Greece and were on the verge of smashing through the Greek lines just as the Germans entered Greece in time to claim the glory for themselves. Like those before him, Knox goes into loving detail about the inadequacies of Italian equipment, arms, training and leadership ad nausea, but neglects to mention that most Italian divisions on the Albanian-Greek front did not break but remained steadfast even through severe deprivations and difficulties. Rather than command comfortably at the rear as Knox slyly suggests, “the vast majority of Italian officers from the regimental level down fought and died with their troops.”

In his conclusion, Sadkovich maintains that many Anglo-American writers like Knox have not only selectively used Italian sources, they have gleaned negative observations and racist slurs and comments from British, American, and German sources and then presented them as objective depictions of Italian political and military leaders, a game that if played in reverse would yield some interesting results regarding German, American, and British competence.

Sadkovich’s article is a damning indictment on a whole bevy of Anglo-American historians that is only slowly, very slowing, beginning to change. He and other more enlightened revisionist historians are attempting to set the record straight, using more hard primary evidence from Italian archives and much less on stereotypes,  myth and blatant lies.

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