By Nicholas Perugini, Opinion Writer
On September 9, 1943, the American army invaded southern Italy. With this invasion, the Italian government officially announced its surrender to the Allies. On the same day, German forces poured into Italy with orders to disarm the Italian army. A few days later, German Special Forces rescued Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, and restored him to power. Most of the Italian Peninsula was now under German occupation. Some Italian forces were able to stage slight resistance, but many crumbled from lack of Allied support. The resulting chaos led the Italian army to dissolve within days. The German army had taken around 800,000 Italian prisoners, and Italy now joined the rest of Europe beneath the heel of Nazi oppression.
The Germans offered a choice to the captured soldiers, join the Germans and fight on or face years of imprisonment in work camps.
Only 10 percent of the men said yes to fighting, the other 710,000 decided against the war and chose to be deported. The German government saw the Italians as traitors and wanted to make their punishment severe.
Instead of classifying the Italians as prisoners of war, where the Geneva Conventions could protect them, they labelled them Military Internees. This meant Italian prisoners no longer had the same rights as other prisoners of war, like the British or Americans. The Germans treated the Italian Military Internees with little respect and sent them to some of the worst work camps in Europe.
One such camp was Zeithain, or as the Italian prisoners remembered it, ‘campo di morte’ (camp of death). Hard labor, poor shelter, and malnourishment led to many Italians contracting tuberculosis. Hundreds died at the camp. Italian prisoners were sent throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, but most worked in Germany itself.
Agriculture, coal mining, heavy industry, rubble removal, and construction were just some of the tasks allotted to the Italians. Thousands of prisoners would die from exhaustion and exposure. The Germans cared little for the life of these prisoners. They dealt cruelly, giving harsh punishments or sometimes even executions. Some estimate that around 4,600 prisoners died from execution in the camps.
My great grandfather was an Italian Military Internee and worked in a labor camp constructing bunkers for the German army. He said the guards would have their machine guns pointing inwards to the camp, not facing out because they would shoot you if you misbehaved.
Some Italian prisoners who did not work hard enough were also shot and killed by the guards.
The conditions in the camps were so terrible that by early 1944, another 100,000 prisoners agreed to serve with the Germans in order to get out of the camps. Still, over 600,000 Italians refused to fight with the Germans and continued the rest of the war as prisoners.
On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe. The plight of some Italian Military Internees was not over, however. Nations like France, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union decided not to liberate the Italians but instead put them in their own work camps.
They would eventually be released, after they rebuilt some of Europe. It is estimated that around 30,000 Italian Military Internees died in the work camps mostly from malnutrition and disease. In a twist of irony, Allied bombing raids killed over 2,000 prisoners since many Italians worked in German industry.
Popular history depicts the Italians of World War II as traitors and incompetent. After all, the country did switch sides midway through the war. However, this perception does a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of Italian Military Internees who refused to join the German Army.
They faced harsh punishment and labor in order to deny the German war machine more soldiers to continue the war. They left behind their families and homes to an unknown fate. My Great Grandfather worried about his wife who was under German occupation when he was taken prisoner. It is important to remember all the horrors committed during World War II and to realize that all sides suffered one atrocity or another. If a future war ever comes, let us be sure to remember the past so we can make a better future.
In Honor of Raffaele Fusco November 20, 1924-Febuary 12, 2017.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, March 21st print edition.
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