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27 January 2016 - 03:42 PMI recently received and finished reading Emanuele Sica's Mussolini's Army in the French Riviera. The book was published as part of the University of Illinois Press's The History of Military Occupation series. Sica offers an examination the Italian involvement in France after the June 1940 surrender during WW2 war, first addressing the Italian demilitarized zone, then later the Italian occupation zone. I would rank it as a specialist’s book, offering a chronology of events and some details, but understanding it was an introduction to a complex topic more than a definitive work. A major theme is his challenge to the idea that the occupation was shaped more by ‘Italiani Brava Gente’ rather than polices and goals set by the Italian government. After I finished the book, I wondered if the Italian occupation had any real impact on the war. I would need to answer no. Besides the added strain on the Regio Esercito to garrison the area, the occupation had little real impact, if any on the war.
In his introduction, Sica states that his analysis will examine the occupation at three different levels; as historical sociology rather than using a purely national framework; the structural effects of occupation on the occupied society's environmental and living conditions; and the face-to-face interactions between occupiers and occupied peoples (pg 9). All three levels would include a compare/contrast between the Italian occupation of France, the German occupation of France, and the Italian occupation of the Balkans. While this sounds good, its usefulness was mixed. Sica didn’t do as much of this compare/contrast as he could have; the reader requires a decent background on the other two military occupations to fully understand the context; and the long-term effects of the points compared weren’t offered to the reader (how well did the different/similar approaches work in German occupied France and Italian occupied Balkans). One topic where the compare/contrast worked well is when Sica shows that the Italians could be ruthless, using their occupation of the Balkans to illustrate this point. This reinforces his theme that that it was conditions, polices, and cultural similarities, more than ‘Italiani Brava Gente’, that shaped the nature of the occupation in France. This was a good point to highlight.
Sica does a good job in addressing the various aspects of the occupation using his three levels. He provides plenty of examples to support his points/comments. focus areas. These comments are well cited and endnoted, offering the reader a good 'first look' at the occupation. I wanted more of this type of detail. The endnotes are well worth reading.
What Sica brings to the reader is that the Italian occupation wasn’t a story about the armed resistance to the occupiers, but the legal battles waged between the Italian and Vichy governments and the simultaneous internal conflict between the Regio Esercito and the Commissione Italiana per l’Armistizo con la Francia (CIAF). Treaties, laws, and regulations were the weapons of choice, not arrests, round-ups, executions and the like. The first Italian soldier’s death due to partisan activity was on 27 April 1943, a surprising bit of information that contrasts sharply to the popular understanding of the French resistance. While there were earlier attacks, Sica documents that many of them were vendettas against individuals more that organized resistance. The similarities of the French and Italian peoples in terms of religion, culture, society, etc., combined with a careful/controlled use of regulations made this occupation distinctly different from others in Europe. Sica does provide some information on the Italian internment camps, including the harsh conditions and the sometimes arbitrary arrests that put people in the camps. The escape by French Jews from the Free Zone or from the German Occupation area into the Italian zone and their protection by the Italian occupation is another interesting point in this story. In all, the Italian long-term goals are examined, with discussions on how efficiently they were implemented and whether they were effective in achieving their objectives.
The negatives for me included the lack of hard information provided on garrison size, locations, equipment, etc. There was little discussion of repartitions, the push by Italy to gain access to French military equipment, or Italian demands on the French economic system. Given my interest is mainly military, I wanted a lot more on the activities of the military units. The November 1942 ‘invasion’ itself is addressed only with a very broad brush and the Italian involvement in the attempt to seize the French fleet is barely mentioned. The 1940 invasion and the results of the September 1943 surrender also lack detailed discussion. This is not a military history but more of a political/social history. Nothing wrong with this, just that any readers desiring a purely military examination of the occupation will be disappointed.
There was a lot of research supporting the book. For me, the bibliography, cites, and endnotes (66 pages for the latter) were the added spice to the book, adding detail and pointing out areas for further research. The maps were okay, the main issue was the lack of a clear map laying the location of the three lines detailed in the armistice. I have to refer to my copy of L’occupazione italiana dei territori metropolitan francesi (1940-1943) to clearly see these demarcations.
This is a niche area and this is the only book I am aware of in English that addresses this niche. If you have a strong desire to learn about this area of WW2 history, then I recommend this book. If you have a casual interest, then finding a library with the book is a better bet. If your focus is mainly military or you are a general WW2 reader, then I would recommend you should pass.
If you are a dedicated historian/researcher of the Italian involvement in the 2GM, then you should read this book.
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