italy

A Flat Detective

It should have been a match made in heaven.  Murder mysteries are one of my favorite genres.  Italy is one of my favorite places on earth.  And Sicily is just paradise if you happen to like the same kinds of places that I do.

And yet something failed to click.

The Age of Doubt - Inspector Montalbano - Andrea Camilleri.jpg

The Age of Doubt is a book by Andrea Camilleri in the Inspector Montalbano series.  I had seen the Montalbano series on TV a few years ago, and the series hadn’t really caught my attention (I’m much less of a series watcher than I am a series reader), but this was my first exposure to the author’s writing.

I was unimpressed, mainly because, unlike Fred Vargas’ Adamsberg, I found the inspector to be utterly annoying in his insecurity and strangely adolescent (or perhaps even pre-teen-girl-like) in his emotional responses to pretty much everything going on around him.

At first, I was tempted to blame the translator, as I wasn’t terribly impressed with the prose even before encountering the emotional issues, but once I saw how childishly emotions were rendered, I’m giving the translator a pass.  For all I know, this is a faithful rendering of the original Italian (I can read Italian, but not well enough to judge prose quality, unfortunately).

These are small irritants, of course.  The overall review of this book is that it’s an interesting murder mystery with a melodramatic ending.  I personally found the Inspector’s emotional inner monologue to be an irritant, but others obviously enjoy it.

This series can’t be dismissed, as the late Gardner Dozois famously did every year to the even later Martin H. Greenbergs’ anthologies, as “pleasant but minor”, as it is already a worldwide bestselling publishing phenomenon.  So I’ll limit myself to saying that I prefer my investigators to have different neuroses, treated differently, and leave it at that.  If you prefer a touch of overwrought melodrama, this might be just the series for you.

In my opinion, there are better crime novels among the millions of options out there.  Your mileage may vary.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose crime novel Timeless is a fast-paced, sexy thriller.  You can buy it here.

Greater Venice – Or How a Swampy City Dominated the Eastern Mediterranean

Venetian Fortress in Crete

Many people can name the great Empires: the Roman Empire, the British Empire and even the Mongols roll quickly from the tongues of people with even rudimentary educations.

But there existed a powerful empire that many people don’t recall offhand, and that empire was the Venetian Empire.  Yes, the tiny city of Venice, mired in a swampy lagoon once possessed the largest trade empire in the Mediterranean with colonies stretching to Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, many of which they held on to for centuries.

The Arsenal Of Venice

This empire was a major actor in the crusades and in the subsequent wars between Christianity and Islam.  The Venetian Arsenal (map above) was the engine that produced most of the ships that sent crusaders on their way as well as the ships that fought–and won–the battle of Lepanto, possibly the most important naval engagement between the two warring monotheisms.

In light of its importance, it does come as a bit of a surprise that so few people know about this particular empire.  I’m a bit of a history enthusiast, but though I knew it had existed, I only recently learned the details about it.

Why is that, I asked myself.

I think there are three major reasons for its lack of fame.

The first is geographic.  This empire wasn’t a contiguous land empire in the tradition of Rome or the Mongols.  People seem to have an easier time imagining this type of structure.  For a far-flung sea empire to live in the imagination, it needs to have good marketing (the sun never sets on the British Empire).

The second and third reasons are psychological and, to the medieval / renaissance mind, possibly moral.  For one thing, the Venetian Empire’s big break came because they betrayed one (possibly two) supposed allies.  Having contracted to take a group of crusaders to the Holy Land, the Doge decided to have them sack Constantinople, an allied Christian city, instead.  The riches from that expedition were the cornerstone of the empire.

For another thing, the “crusades” fought by the Venetians were more about trade routes and money than about religion, despite claims to the contrary on both sides.  The Venetians had no problem with muslims.  They traded with them when it suited them and went to war when it suited them.  Everyone knew this, and for that reason, they never admired the Venetians in the same way as they admired the crusaders who spent time in the Holy Land (even though their own motives were also often suspect).

The Venetian Empire - A Sea Voyaye - Jan Morris

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating tale and, as you can probably imagine given my track record of buying Folio Society books, it’s one that I absorbed through reading one of their volumes.  This particular tome, The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage by Jan Morris is up to their usual standards and was a great read, mainly because of the colloquial way in which Morris (whose own story is quite interesting in itself) treats the subject: an island-hopping tour of the empire, with the history thrown in in such a way that it hardly intrudes.

This book landed squarely in our Italian period, which also helped make it interesting… even though Venice was only recently grafted on to Italy, and then by force majeure (it took Napoleon himself to do it, in fact).

I would strongly recommend this one to anyone who wants to learn about this somewhat forgotten historical period…  Or to any general reader looking for something a little bit different.  A great read, and one that will teach you a bunch of stuff you didn’t know.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer active in several genres whose most recent science fiction novel is Incursion.  You can buy it here.

 

When Italians Look Back

Ferrara Jewish Ghetto

Our Italianite period continues today with the review of one of the great Italian books of the 20th century.  Now, other than Umberto Eco, I haven’t read that much modern Italian literature but, falling victim to the Folio Society’s beautiful marketing pitch and the fact that their books are utterly wonderful, I decided t purchase The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani.

When reading the description, I expected to find a book very similar to Brideshead Revisited, which I loved.  Instead, I found a book with a darker edge and an utter lack of the poetry of elegy.  Of course, that might be down to the translation, but I didn’t feel that Waugh, as a writer and evoker of feelings, has anything to fear from Bassani.

Nevertheless, the book, which starts somewhat slowly, does become engrossing by the end, when things begin to unravel for the protagonists and the relationships between the young characters become a little more muddied.

Of course, we are told on the first page that the story has a sad ending, as it deals with a group of Jewish families on the eve of the Second World War.  The impact was lessened in my case because it became impossible to fall in love with–or even to truly sympathize—with the mercurial Micòl, the narrator’s love interest.  I generally have no problem falling head over heels for this kind of character, and what is basically a Holly Golightly character should, in my opinion, have been much more compelling.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

But if the characters left me a bit cold, the same can’t be said of the setting.  While the city of Ferrara as described by Bassani is unremarkable, the walled home of the titular family becomes a kind of unforgettable wonderland which lives on in memory long after the foibles of the characters are forgotten.

I haven’t seen the film based on the novel, perhaps it is better than the book when it comes to characters–what Micòl lacks in writing can be fixed by any decent casting director (sadly, it wasn’t… just did a google image search)–and I’d love to know what those of you who’ve seen it think.

Anyhow, if you enjoy unforgettable settings or different takes on the Holocaust, this one may be for you.  Others might prefer to read Brideshead Revisited for the elegiac content or Breakfast at Tiffany’s for Micòl done right.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of Siege, a far future science fiction book which explores what it means to be human–and why that definition matters.  Buy it here!

When Culture Catches us by Surprise

Florence Fuomo

We’ve all seen them: the books about the touristy city we’re visiting (on the Grand Tour, perhaps?).  They are generally in a wire rack, sitting beside the plaster statues of the tower of Pisa, the brass replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the I ❤ New York t-shirts or whatever serves as a knickknack souvenir for the city you’re visiting.  The place to find these things is usually a hole in the wall store about twenty feet deep and just wide enough for one person to slip between the colorful rows of merchandise.

The books are usually, and for some reason known only to the creators of tourist books, given a dust cover of thick transparent plastic, the literary equivalent of coke-bottle glasses and visible from a mile off.

As far as I can tell, the main purpose of these books in the stores is to gather dust, remind people what city they’re in and also to ensure that the rights owners of sepia-toned photographs of the city as it was will continue to receive royalties.

My parents stocked up quite a number of these in the early eighties.  They were placed in the library… and continued to gather dust (the books, not my parents).

One day, I was in an Italian mood.  An idea for a novel set in Italy just before the First World War had been buzzing about in my head for ages, so I was grabbing anything Italian I could get my hands on.  I’ve already spoken about one of the books I read, and another came off the pile of souvenir books.

Florence the City and It's Art by Luciano Berti

The one I picked up happened to be Florence, the City and its Art by Luciano Berti.  As I read, the book surprised me.  It seemed a bit too erudite to belong to this subcategory.  It truly was a history of the city, but no less of its leading families, so long intertwined with the world of renaissance art.  There were no recommendations for popular places of entertainment, no pandering to the least common denominator.

It’s not surprising when one thinks about it.  Berti, after all, is a reasonably eminent art historian, so his work was always going to be a bit challenging for the average Hawaiian-Shirt-clad tourist, but more of a mystery is why the publisher decided such a book might be a good idea.

I have two theories regarding that last point.  The first is that they truly wanted to show the value of Florence as a cultural gem of the world.  The second is the Berti was the lowest bidder and they cynically speculated that no one would open the thing.

I’ll leave the decision regarding which is true up to you, but I’m delighted they chose the path they did.  There are many worse ways to spend a couple of lunchtimes than to become immersed in the wonderful world of renaissance art.

I’m sure there are many of those books in your home.  One never actually buys them, of course, but they seem to accumulate anyway.  Do yourself a favor and read one.  Maybe you’ll get as lucky as I did.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel The Malakiad deals with a very different kind of tourism.  In the Greek heroic era it was usually advisable to do one’s touring well-armed and with a bunch of military-minded friends…

 

The Italians, by an Italian

castello-banfi-montalcino-tuscany-italy

We have a thing for Italy here on Classically Educated.  Whether it’s because that’s where a lot of the “Classic” part of our moniker took place or whether we simply like the idea of Tuscan sun falling on a suitably hilly vineyard, it’s the one modern nation (along with England, of course) that we can’t get enough of.

We’ve discussed Italy’s literature, their participation in WWII and even encouraged people to take the Grand Tour (which, back when it was a thing, was essentially a jaunt around Rome, Venice and Florence).  But the links above are just the tip of the Iceberg.  Search for the keyword Italy on this blog and you’ll be bombarded with entries.

So you can get a pretty good idea of what both I and our contributors think of that boot-shaped appendage to southern Europe, but what do Italians think about themselves?

The Italians - Luigi Barzini

To get an idea of that, I heartily recommend reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians.  Part history lesson, part politico/philosophical tract and part meditation on the national temperament, it delivers the goods.

Like most peoples, Italians are quite conflicted.  On one hand, the modern people are the inheritors of a glorious past of which they are justifiably proud.  On the other, the really glorious part took place about two thousand years ago, and the more recent past has been more of a mixed bag in which a general lack of distinction has been peppered with certain bright moments, occurrences and individuals.  The years after the Florentine renaissance ended, in particular, were grim ones.

Barzini, despite his often caustic look at his countrymen, also harbored a geniune affection for their foibles.  Reading between the lines, he seems to be telling his readers that the idiosyncrasies are what makes Italians Italian, and you can’t have one without the other.  In this, though less overtly humorous (and much more critical), he reminds me of the portrait of the English that Bill Bryson painted for us and which we discussed earlier.

The cover of the edition I read portrays this beautifully.  The man shown is not a Medici (or even a Borgia) but a mercenary who later took over a town and ruled… in a hugely humanist and enlightened way.  The perfect symbol for the people described in the text.

Oh, and you won’t forget that nose very soon…

Verdict on this one is: pick up a copy, you’ll probably enjoy it (and learn new stuff while you’re at it).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is about insane Greeks.  He promises to insane Italians next, if enough people pester him to.

A Stained-Glass View into a Simpler Time

A Stained Glass Tour In Italy

In the early twentieth century, tourism was mostly an upper-class pursuit.  Due to the way the upper classes were (and to a certain degree still are) educated in those days, this made for a very different kind of tourism.  The mere concept of going to Coney Island for a Hot Dog Eating Competition would have been met with a mixture of derision and outright disbelief.

While you’re not really going to find too many equivalents of the glorious Grand Tours in the years just before the Great War, you still found erudite madmen going off on interesting expeditions.  Heirs to Victorian obsessions, these adventurers were hobbyists and diarists that make the people who dress up as Stormtroopers for Comic Con (or worse, science fiction writers) look like normal, well-adjusted human beings.

Many of them left books behind regarding the unlikeliest of subjects, I was delighted but unsurprised when a volume entitled A Stained Glass Tour in Italy appeared at the annual jamboree at our local Anglican Church.

But, before I talk about the book let’s talk about this church.  I’m not religious in the least (and certainly not Anglican), but I love the place.  It is a lovely stone building that looks like it should be situated somewhere in fictional Wessex in the early 19th century and not a block from my house in the middle of a heavily built up sector of one of the world’s megacities.  It was the perfect spot to find a book like the one above, my copy of the Stained-Glass tome.

St Saviour's Church Belgrano

The book itself is a first edition, albeit worn frayed around the edges and well-aged, and probably the thing that I loved most about it was the fact that I was the first person in its over 100 years of history to read the thing completely.  How did I know this?  Because some of the pages were still uncut.  So, for two dollars, I purchased a journey back in time and the thrill of trying to separate pages with a steak knife (long story) without tearing them.

The book itself was a charming example of something that would never have been touched by a modern day publishing house.  A couple of wealthy friends go on a tour of northern Italy for the express and arcane purpose of viewing significant works of stained glass in the regions churches.  As they guide us through the towns they visit, the focus is on the glass and a brief history of the art form, but glimpses of life in the Italian countryside before WWI peek nostalgically through.  My lasting impression of this book is one of sunlight bathing dusty country roads and sand-colored buildings, slightly crumbling but once magnificent.

The book itself is interesting, too, with a number of laid in photographs and a strangely folded map, its production values would be dismissed as an amateur production today, but carries the stamp of the Bodley Head, a major publisher in 1911.

But it’s the writing which carries the day.  This book functions as neither a comprehensive guide to Italian stained glass nor as a reasonable tour guide for the era.  A labor of love, written – and likely published – with little or no consideration for any commercial value, in a tone that is as affectionate towards the subject as it is to any reader interested enough to open the volume.  It’s the work of a generalist who happened to love stained glass, a product of a polymath and a man of his time (Charles Hitchcock Sherrill – ambassador, athlete and stained-glassophile) that we like to think would be an avid reader of Classically Educated today.

We were definitely avid readers of his book!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  His best-known book is the science fiction novel Siege.

Eventually, the War Ended

rome-open-city-1945-700x987

Even in Italy, a country that was, to a degree ravaged by both sides in WWII, the conflict eventually came to an end, and things went back to normal, even to the point where politically charged films could be made.

Of course, the open wound that directors could stick their cameras into was the memory of the war itself and the deep divisions in Italian society.  So for our next film from the 1001 films to see before you die, we give you Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), the first of Roberto Rossellini‘s Neorrealist films, and probably the most raw.

It’s a film about fear and loyalty–both extreme loyalty and the confused, divided kind–as well as about betrayal, and the cost of not being true.

It’s also a film about strange bedfellows in which we see a Catholic Priest share the fate of a Communist revolutionary, and women dying alongside their men.

All of these effects are heightened by how it looks.  The lack of availability of adequate processing facilities as well as the difficulty in obtaining film stock means that the imagery isn’t of the quality one expected from the era; at times, it looks more like a war documentary filmed at the front than the output of a studio.

romeopencity3-1600x900-c-default

The one criticism that has been leveled against it is valid: this is more of a melodramatic piece than an unflinching slice of realism.  But even that works in the film’s favor, making it more powerful than a pure expression of realist ideas could have achieved.

But powerful as what?  This isn’t so much an anti-war film as one that decries the hypocrisy of humanity.  I feel that, melodrama aside, it shrugs its shoulders at the way we are… and therein lies its ultimate success, and its capacity to be classified as neorrealist.

It’s impossible to analyze it further without spoilers, but this truly is a film that everyone should see.  People haven’t changed since it was made, after all.

 

Ethiopia in WWII – Part 2

haile selassie

Today we bring you the second part of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ story of Ethiopia in WWII from her monumental historical novel.  We’re certain you’ll enjoy it as much as we did!

On November 14th, 1935, Stanley Baldwin’s Tories won what would be the last general election to be held in the UK for nearly ten years. Baldwin again sent his foreign minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, to Paris, where he met with Laval on December 7th. By the following day, the two of them had devised what would be known as the Hoare-Laval Plan[1]. It was a potential compromise affording both Mussolini and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellasie a way out of a war which was not especially promising for either of them. More importantly, it would have precluded Hitler’s wooing a disgraced Mussolini away from the allies who had allowed his misstep to become an embarrassment.

Put simply, the plan would have given Mussolini a portion of Ethiopia, with which he could declare victory and promote Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel to the rank of Emperor. In exchange for this territorial concession, the remainder of Ethiopia would be left intact and independent, and spared the further ravages of a continued war. Unfortunately, a French official gave copies of the plan to a pair of reporters. Details of it were published in the Daily Telegraph in London, and by two papers in Paris.

As a work of statesmanship, the plan was unparalleled, and, since everybody got something, it typified what Laval had always sought in every dispute he’d had to arbitrate. But in Britain and France, as well as in the US, the public perceived it as what it was: a compromise. In strictly moral terms, it was utterly wrong.

On December 17th, Laval’s government narrowly survived a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies. By December 27th, Paul Reynaud, leading the conservative Democratic Alliance, and Léon Blum, leading the Socialists, had joined the opposition against him, and the vote of confidence they called for was even closer than it had been ten days earlier.

On January 22nd, 1936, while Laval himself was in Geneva, the Radical-Socialist Party withdrew its support, and his government fell. On January 24th, Albert Sarraut was named Prime Minister of France.

* * *

In Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday, June 30th, 1936, Edvard Beneš, President of the Assembly, called the meeting to order, and then resigned. Belgian Prime Minister, Paul van Zeeland, came forward to take his place and continued with the next order of business, an appeal to the League from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Although Italy had withdrawn its delegation from the League on May 12th, 1936, there were still journalists from Italy in the audience. They began jeering the moment Selassie was introduced. Nicolae Titulescu, the permanent representative of Romania to the League, immediately stood and shouted, “A la Porte, les Sauvages![2]” When the offending parties had been removed, Selassie began speaking[3].

“I, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice which is due to my people, and the assistance promised to us,” he began. “There is no precedent for a Head of State himself speaking in this assembly. But there is also no precedent for a people being victim of such injustice and being at present threatened by abandonment to its aggressor.”

For the first several minutes, he summarized the atrocities which had occurred in the aggression against his nation, reminding the League that they themselves had defined Italy’s actions as aggression, and condemned them, but taken no real action to end them. And he assured the League that the atrocities which had been reported to them were factual; that he had witnessed them himself.

In the concluding minutes of his address, he explained that the League’s concern was really no longer the survival of Ethiopia, but of the League itself, and that international morality was at stake. “Placed by the aggressor face to face with the accomplished fact, are States going to set the terrible precedent of bowing before force?” he asked. “And the great Powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small States on whom weighs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia, I ask what measures do you intend to take?

“I have come to Geneva to discharge in your midst the most painful of the duties of a head of State,” he concluded. “What reply shall I have to take back to my people?”

The League of Nation’s only response was a decision by the League Council, on July 4th, to suspend economic sanctions against Italy. Fighting in Ethiopia had ended sixty days earlier.

* * *

italian troops in ethipioa with mussolini flag

Ethiopia was the final African nation to be subdued by a European power. Italy had last attempted this subduction forty years earlier, but on March 1, 1896, the Ethiopians had defeated and humiliated the Italians at the battle of Adwa. At that time, there were public disturbances in every Italian city, and full-scale riots in both Naples and Rome. Police were unable to disperse the crowd that continuously threw rocks at Prime Minister Crispi’s office, and when the army was sent to quell the riot, civilians barricaded the rail lines, preventing the army from intervening. Crispi resigned on March 14th, 1896, and King Umberto declared a national day of mourning.

* * *

In 1936, Italy was again humiliated, even though Ethiopia had been defeated. Italy’s mismanagement of the war in the first several months allowed the Ethiopians to inflict heavy casualties and impede Italian advances, in spite of being poorly equipped and inadequately supplied. When Mussolini resorted to the widespread use of poison gas against civilians and non-military targets, the profound American goodwill Air Marshal Balbo had established at Chicago in 1933 was irretrievably lost, and throughout 1936, at every theater in the US, if Haile Selassie appeared in a newsreel, the audience applauded and cheered.

And while most Italians were pleased and proud to be citizens of what was now an empire, even such a limited war was beyond Italy’s capacities. Mussolini had blamed economic hardships on the League of Nations embargo, but it had been largely ineffective, and once it was lifted, it became increasingly clear that Italy would not soon recover from building its empire, and could never recover the costs incurred by Mussolini’s disastrous victory.

* * *

That Edvard Beneš resigned as President of the Assembly on June 30th, 1936, was not coincidence. He was also President of Czechoslovakia, a country whose independence and sovereignty were guaranteed, as Ethiopia’s had been, by Britain and France.

[1] Except for the specific portion of Ethiopia ceded to Italy, Breckinridge Long, US ambassador to Italy, had drawn up an identical plan immediately prior to the Italian invasion.

[2] Show those hooligans the door. Literally, To the door, these savages. King Carol of Romania removed Titulescu from all official assignments shortly afterward.

[3] He spoke in Amharic. The quotations are from a translated text.

The Postman Sometimes Rings in Italian

Ossessione film still

Our quest to watch (and comment upon) the 1001 movies we’re supposed to see before we die continues apace, and this time we are presenting an Italian film from 1943, entitled Ossessione.  This film, directed by Luchino Visconti is one of those hugely influential films that was seen by nearly no one when it was released.

The Postman Always Rings Twice First Edition

The reasons for this lack of exposure lie mainly with the fact that the film was based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Within the context of Italy’s fascist regime, the adulterous relationship portrayed in the film was simply unacceptable to some sectors, causing it to be banned within Italy.  It then subsequently encountered legal problems in international distribution: due to the ongoing World War, no one had thought to negotiate the rights to the novel, which meant that when the war ended, the film couldn’t be distributed outside of italy.

Despite these setbacks, the movie managed to earn itself a spot on the list, and a deserved one, at that.  The film is brilliantly conceived and filmed, with the plot moving forward swiftly except in those cases where Visconti allows it to slow down in order to heighten an emotion or – even more telling – a philosophical point about society.  The emotional breaks are jagged and raw, without falling into melodrama, which is something that could so easily have happened to this particular story.

Luchino Visconti

More than that, Ossessione foreshadows the Italian Neorealist movement which gave us such great films as Roma Citta Aperta, and characterized directors such as Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini.  You can see the seeds of the movement everywhere, but most especially in small pauses where Visconti lets us catch a glimpse of how things really are – even when they have no bearing on the plot.  Of course, the movement’s working class ethic is represented by the character of Gino the tramp – even though he is an outsider to the true life of the worker.

Worth watching, even if you already know the plot – and we believe the comparison to the newer US version of the film will be interesting, once we reach that point in the list.

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The Greek Campaign

Italian Fiat Tank Captured By Greek Forces

Today we have another amazing excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Historical novel about WWII.  If you like what you see here please remember that Stacy’s Bismarck series is also available here, as are many other parts of her novel!

To a great extent, Poland is a vast flat expanse, an immense village square set between the Carpathian Mountains to the south and the Baltic Sea to the north. Something like an enormous marketplace separating Germany from the Ukraine and Western Russia. In the event of a German attack, which had been unimaginable in the summer of 1929, and seemed unavoidable by the summer of 1939, the only terrain features that might have leant any assistance to the Polish Army were two rivers, the Bug, flowing westward south of East Prussia, and the Vistula, flowing east from southern Poland, then north through central Poland to Danzig and the Baltic Sea. It has been argued that had the Polish Army made a stand behind these two rivers, the German Blitzkrieg may well have failed.

That the war began promptly on September First was not serendipity. The autumn rains begin in mid-October, and as the end of summer approaches, rivers throughout Europe are low in their beds and running slow. It is not until the end of August that a large mechanized army can be sure of crossing Polish rivers rapidly enough to strike quickly, and by the third week of October, Germany’s armoured and motorized infantry units would be immobilized by the mud, and helpless against Poland’s elite cavalry units.[1] There was, therefore, a six week time frame within which an invasion of Poland had its greatest chance of success.

* * *

Invariably, Benito Mussolini and his career are summed up in two pairs of words. Castor oil and train schedules. He established his reputation as a forceful leader by compelling incompetent government bureaucrats (as well as his political opponents) to drink castor oil. And he secured his popularity in Italy when he got railroad passenger service throughout the country consistently running on time. This he accomplished with nothing more than pencils and notebooks. Officials rode the trains, noting how long it took to go from one city to another, how long it took the passengers to get on and off the train, how long it took to load and unload their baggage, how much time was necessary for proper maintenance. New schedules were written by simple clerks armed with nothing more than this pertinent information, and then the trains ran on time. There was no overhaul of the existing rail network, and no new trains were designed or built. There was almost no money spent, and not one engineer, conductor or ticket agent drank castor oil.

Sadly, Mussolini himself learned nothing from this, his most successful undertaking during more than twenty years as Prime Minister, and which was also almost certainly his only effort grounded in reality.

The Italian invasion of Greece began on October 28th, when the mountains and valleys were awash with the autumn rains, and the rivers brimming with rapid flows. Because of the weather, Italy’s air force could not fly tactical combat support, and neither artillery nor trucks could move. At five-thirty in the morning[2], eight divisions of the Italian army went forward in three columns, with Metsovon, Ioannina and Arta as their operational objectives. This would place Epirus (the westernmost province of the Greek mainland) under Italian control.

The war plans, as drawn up by the Italian General Staff, called for reinforcements arriving from Italy, once Epirus was secure, to subsequently drive east to the Aegean Coast, splitting Greece and thus allowing it to be conquered gradually. However, General Prasca, assuming that a spectacular show of force, in conjunction with the virtually unopposed arial bombardment of Greek cities, would demoralize the population and prompt their government to surrender, had no specific plans to carry out the later phases of the invasion.[3]

No other army in Europe had greater bravery or cheaper rifles than the Italians, and no other army in history ever fought so well so often while being led so badly and equipped so poorly.

* * *

Italians fighting in Greece received their first Operational Directive two weeks after the invasion began. It had been written by General Soddu, who had been put in charge of the Greek campaign when General Prasca was relieved of command.

Greek Soldier WW2

The Greek plan of defense was as pragmatic as it was brilliant, and as effective as it was simple. They launched a large number of small counterattacks as the Italians advanced through narrow valleys between steep mountains. A handful of Greeks, with a few well-concealed artillery pieces and a limited number of shells, would inflict heavy casualties on the lumbering mass of surprised Italians. Greek infantry would descend upon them, inflicting more casualties and inciting panic. The Greeks then commandeered such materiel as they could carry and destroyed much of what they could not carry. Those Italians who counter-attacked in the treacherous fog and hazardous terrain took heavy losses.[4] In terms of equipment and resources, in numbers devoid of emotion, the Greek tactics were effective enough, but the impact on Italian morale dwarfed the more concrete effects.

Centauro Division Insignia

On the morning of November 5th, the Italian Centauro Armoured Division spearheaded what would prove to be Italy’s final attack to take place on Greek soil[5]. The tanks leading the operation fell victim to concealed tank traps. Tanks attempting to maneuver around these obstacles discovered minefields, where many of them were destroyed. Artillery fire forced the remaining tanks to attempt a withdrawal through marshes, where most of them sank. The majority of armour crewman who had survived to that point were killed by machine gun and rifle fire. Cavalry units attempting to cover the retreat suffered equally horrendous losses, and that night, Greek infantry taking up the positions abandoned by the shattered Italians were unnerved by the sight of men, interspersed among dead horses and abandoned equipment along the roadsides, who appeared to be sleeping. Anticipating minimal resistance from the Greeks, Italian High Command had not made any arrangements for evacuation of the wounded. However severe their injuries, these soldiers had resigned themselves to their duty, composed themselves, then accepted death, alone and far from home, for the glory of Rome.[6]

On November 22nd, in what could be considered the first victorious Allied attack to take place on the European mainland during the Second World War, the Greeks captured Koritsa, which is now generally known as Korce.[7]

By December Fourth, the Greeks had captured Pogradec, in Albania, and the obvious finally became apparent even to General Soddu, who issued a directive instructing his men to withdraw meter by meter, even though the only Italian units that had not already withdrawn from Greece were those finally arriving from Italy, or those that had been routed too suddenly to retreat.

Not having expected so great a degree of success, the Greeks were not prepared to press it further. They were also reaching the limits of their own supply lines, which had been tenuous from the start. Without trucks or paved roads to drive them on, and hampered by a shortage of mules, whenever the Greeks were unable to capture what they needed from the Italians, they often depended upon a network of women and children.

* * *

One weeps when one imagines an army supplied by children, and one’s sobs become wrenching when one considers to what end these Greek children were supporting their brothers, uncles and fathers. It is always appropriate to give the fullest measure of devotion to protect one’s home, family, and community. However horrible the circumstances, it is always pleasant and proper to die in defense of one’s country, even if it is a de jure crime to speak another language in that country, or a de facto crime to practice another religion. It is holy to stand in the gap and fight for the freedom of another country, another nation, another people. But had the Greeks driven the Italians from Albania, it is inconceivable that Ioannis Metaxas would have done anything more than replace the Italian street signs with Greek ones.

[1] Although Poland’s cavalry did not perform as well against the Germans as it had against the Soviets twenty years earlier, Polish cavalry consistently avoided the encirclement which was an essential facet of the German scheme of warfare.

[2] Emanuele Grazzi, Italy’s ambassador to Greece, had been instructed to inform Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas at 3:00 AM that unless his government immediately acceded to Italy’s demands–which, in effect, amounted to an annexation of Greece–a state of war would exist between the two nations as of 6:00 AM. Metaxas personally received this message from Grazzi at 4:00 AM.

[3] Reynolds Packard, UPI bureau chief in Rome at the time, later contended that the Italian Foriegn Mininster, Count Ciano, had paid bribes to a number of Greek officials in a failed attempt to secure the prompt surrender of Greece. While Packard’s contention is plausible in itself and fully consistent with events, there is neither concrete nor definitive evidence which validates it.

[4] Four years later, many of these same Italians, fighting as partisans against the German forces occupying Italy, would use the same technique.

[5] Italy’s advances into western Greece in 1941 were merely seizures of positions abandoned by the Greeks in response to German successes in Northern and Central Greece.

[6] After the war, General Charalambos Katsimitros, commander of the Greek Eighth Infantry Division, which was responsible for the majority of Italian casualties during the first few weeks of fighting, insisted that cowardice was virtually non-existent among the enlisted men of the Italian Army.

[7] In spite of the city’s population being more than ninety percent ethnic Albanian, the Greeks believed that they were liberating a Greek city. Most historians, wishing to avoid an obvious tinderbox, downplay the significance of this particular battle.