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Reappraising Italy’s Role in World War Two


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

 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 idolators 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 foresake 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 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 defence
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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