Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Massacre at Civitella

Piazza Lazzeri - Scene of Civitella Massacre
Sitting on a bench near the church in Piazza Lazzeri in Civitella, a picturesque hill-town half an hours drive from home. It's a pleasant mid-May day. Azaleas dance in a warm breeze and geraniums and poppies dazzle leaving green after-images. I can vaguely hear old time tunes from the rest-home up the the street, punctuated by the sounds of crockery and cutlery from behind shutters. There's not a soul in sight unless you count the cats sleeping in the flowerbeds.

It could be one of dozens of drowsy walled towns except that it's name will be linked forever to the unconscionable events of June 1944 – the Civitella massacre. Memorialised in street names, in the tiny museum dedicated to the victims and in numerous plaques and monuments; the facts are these.

On June 18th 1944, two German soldiers were killed and a third wounded in a skirmish with partisans in the village of Civitella. Fearing reprisals, the inhabitants evacuated the village and hid in woodland and farmhouses, but when the Germans discovered this they postponed punitive action. When the fugitives were returning and feeling secure once more, the Panzers carried out a well organized attack.

View of Val di Chiana from Civitella
On June 29th 1944, a holiday for the feast of St. Peter & St. Paul, innocent inhabitants awoke at dawn to their doors being kicked in. Some were killed in their beds. Men were then rounded up and taken out in groups of five to the piazza or the school yard and pitilessly executed with single shots to the back of the head. Villagers were forced to watch as each group was murdered. During that day 212 men, women and children from Civitella and two nearby settlements were killed. Ages of the dead ranged from 1 year to 84 years. Around 100 houses were razed by fire; some of the victims burned alive in their homes.

Walking around Civitella that fine May day, reading the memorials and accounts of survivors I was overwhelmed by a suffocating grief. The thought of all these ordinary people marched to this peaceful piazza in certain knowledge of their deaths. The disproportionate and mercilessly cold nature of the revenge.1 The scars of war are evident all over Europe, but to be honest I'd hardly given the Italian experience much thought. How lucky we were that no panzer divisions ever rumbled through British streets, we never witnessed the terror of an occupation and events like these.

Via Martiri di Civitella - Martyrs Way
Despite the horror, I felt the urge to delve a little deeper. To read the names and see the bloodstained identity documents, the head scarves, the baby vests and the little Catholic tracts carried by the victims. What a can of worms it turned out to be!

Mussolini had been ousted by July 1943 and an armistice negotiated with the allies in late summer that year at which point German forces occupied the peninsular and reinstalled Mussolini as a puppet leader. Firstly, I'd always thought of the resistance as a unified entity, as the “good Italians”, but this was far from true. The fascists of the Italian Social republic were far from spent in spite of the dissolution of the Fascist Party soon after Mussolini was deposed. In effect there was simultaneous occupation and civil war which complicates notions of “good Italians”. Many partisan groups were opposed to each other and used the cover of the situation to settle old grievances. Furthermore, partisan activity was not widely supported by the populace since it inevitably brought reprisals on them, and many believed they should have given themselves up when the Germans demanded. Partisans are blamed for deaths as often as Panzer divisions. Consequently, one sees these competing histories reflected in monuments, memorials and the writings of different groups in society.

Survivor Testimony
In Il Sangue dei Vinti (The Victors Blood) left-wing journalist Giampaolo Pansa attempted to give a fuller account of the fictions and factions of this era and was roundly condemned from all sides for challenging the idea of the resistance as uniformly “good Italians”. He's been labelled a holocaust denier, it's said he denies the ethical credentials of the entire resistance and that he places the Fascist and partisan causes on equal footing. His book signings are interrupted and he has received death threats.

But the fact remains that around 7,500 ordinary Italians were slaughtered in reprisals for partisan activity by Hermann Goerings' panzer divisions. If you come to Tuscany look into the history of the end of the second world war in these hills. Visit Civitella, visit the site of the concentration camp not even 10 kilometres from where I sit now. Listen to women in their mid-nineties talk about the rapes and intimidation. It complicates your thinking and informs the present in ways I didn't even imagine before. If you ever wonder why Iraqi mothers didn't welcome the liberating forces of democracy …. well learn the lessons of this history.
  1. Post-war investigation detailed in The Report of the British War Crimes Section of Allied Force Headquarters on German reprisals for partisan activities in Italy revealed that such attacks were carried out in accordance with the policy of Nazi Supreme Command. Documents (memos, orders etc.) found give very specific instructions on how reprisals should be executed and granted immunity from prosecution to individual soldiers from prosecution for any anti-partisan activities, “Wherever there is evidence of considerable numbers of partisan groups, a proportion of the male population will be arrested and, in the event of an act of violence being committed, these will be shot. The population must be informed of this.” Information notices posted in Italian gave more specific detail on reprisals, “for every member of the German armed forces.... wounded, fifty men will be taken from the place where the deed was committed and shot. For every (one) killed one hundred men, also taken from the locality of the crime will be shot. In the event of more than one German soldier or civilian being killed or wounded, all the men of the district will be shot, the houses set on fire, the women interred and the cattle confiscated”.
  2. I've just written a poem 'Civitella' which I can't publish in full because I've entered it in a competition. I reproduce the first stanza here and will post it on my poetry blog Crackle & Drag as soon as I am able.

In Italy's divided mind
Myth and maxim side by side
Memorials and monuments maintain
Allege, assert, contend
Insist, state, proclaim,
profess, defend, uphold
vindicate and justify.
Every factions fictions
Legends, myths, inventions,
Fabrications, romance, fantasy and lie.


  1. Fascinating & moving. I too had little idea about World War two in Italy. I was in the Sansepolcro/Anghiari area last year but never saw any information about the war. Where's the concentration camp you refer to in the post? I've been watching your blog for a while now and really enjoy your posts. Look forward to the next one!

  2. Thanks for the compliment Rob.

    The concentration camp was within the boundary of Anghiari Commune near the small settlement of Renicci. It's reckoned about 10,000 people passed through it. It was reserved mostly for Slavic political prisoners. 159 prisoners died at the camp due to the conditions they were kept in. The site is preserved as a memorial park. There were other concentration camps in Italy, but only one death camp near Trieste.