The Bad German and the Good Italian: Removing the Guilt of the Second World War 
by Filippo Focardi, translated by Paul Barnaby.
Manchester, 336 pp., £85, August 2023, 978 1 5261 5713 3
Show More
Show More

Inthe dreadful 2001 film version of Louis de Bernières’s novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a miscast Nicolas Cage plays the soldier hero. The opening scene depicts the (second) Italian invasion of Greece in 1941. Mussolini’s first invasion, in 1940, had been a political and military disaster, the first sign that Italian fascism’s ambitious war aims were unlikely to succeed. The Italian army had been repelled by Greek forces, and Hitler had to send in troops, with the Italians following on their coat-tails. In the film, Cage lands on a Greek island at the head of a smiling army. Not a shot is fired. Then, the pay-off: Cage-Corelli isn’t carrying a gun on his back, but a mandolin. The story is based on the unmistakable – and powerful – stereotype of the ‘good Italian’, which permeates the perception of Italian behaviour in the 20th century, especially in wartime, both within and outside Italy. The assumption is that Italians are peace-loving, generous, non-violent. A series of associated stereotypes holds that they are cowards, bad at war, chaotic and ungovernable.

Any events that seem to disprove this thesis are ignored, such as the Italian army’s massacre in February 1943 of more than 150 Greek men in the village of Domeniko in Thessaly in revenge for an attack by partisans that led to nine Italian casualties. General Benelli of the Pinerolo division, who was in charge of the operation, described it as a ‘salutary lesson’. In Domeniko there is now a monument to the massacre, but it is almost completely unknown in Italy.

Filippo Focardi’s study, published in Italian in 2013 and now translated into English by Paul Barnaby, unpacks these silences and assumptions. Crucial to his analysis are the linked, binary stereotypes of the ‘good Italian’ and the ‘bad German’ which, he argues, have helped to define the way people have understood the Italian experience in the Second World War, and the way it has been written about, remembered and forgotten.

The American journalist Herbert Matthews wrote in 1943 that ‘the Italian is a human being before he is a fascist or even an Italian. The German is a machine. The Italian baulks when he faces a situation that will bring death or torture to women, children, elderly people or indeed anybody. The German carries out orders with cold and mechanical brutality.’ Try telling that to the people of Domeniko, or those who experienced the fascist killings in Addis Ababa in 1937.

It suited almost everyone after Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943 to blame him personally for the disasters of the war, and to argue that most Italians had always been anti-fascist. The ‘bad Germans’ had forced the ‘good Italians’ into the war. They had been responsible for the massacres of civilians, not the Italians. They had persecuted and killed Jews, while the Italians had tried to save them. Italians were seen, in Focardi’s words, as ‘averse to war, unwilling to commit acts of violence or abuse, and ready to fraternise with and assist unarmed populations’. Sometimes these things were true – but they certainly weren’t true of all Italians, or of Italy’s fascist invading armies.

These bromides involved a lot of forgetting: the popular early support for the war in Italy was not to be mentioned; the areas of Italian society that supported fascism, or at least did not oppose it, were largely ignored; the lack of opposition to Italy’s antisemitic laws (and the gusto with which Jews were registered and rounded up) was not to be discussed. Italian war crimes in Africa, Yugoslavia and Greece were covered up – which also suited the Allies, especially as the Cold War took hold. Italian collaboration in the massacres of civilians inside the country wasn’t highlighted. Focardi quotes Ernest Renan: ‘the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common and also that they have forgotten many things.’

Focardi argues that Italy was in some ways unique in the way it looked back at the Second World War, but similar claims were made in Poland, Austria and even Germany, where the idea of the ‘good soldier’ who was merely ‘following Nazi orders’ took hold. Counterfactuals are often brought into discussions about Italy’s so-called ‘missing Nuremberg’. What if Mussolini had been arrested and put on trial instead of shot and hung upside down at a petrol station in Milan in April 1945? What if proper trials had been held for ex-fascists and senior military figures after the war, instead of the amnesty drawn up by the Communist Party leader and justice minister, Palmiro Togliatti, in 1946?

Togliatti’s rationale was that he wanted to bring the country together after the lacerations of civil war and fascism, but his amnesty led to hundreds if not thousands of ex-fascists being let off with very short sentences, or without punishment at all. Leading figures from the regime – such as the magistrate Gaetano Azzariti, who was among the authors of the antisemitic race laws of the late 1930s and presided over the tribunale della razza (‘race court’), which decided if people were Jewish or not – continued to play a role in public life. After the war, Azzariti was appointed president of the Constitutional Court.

One of the issues Focardi raises is the gap between historical research and popular opinion. Most of the myths and stereotypes have been comprehensively refuted by historical research carried out over the last three decades. Yet they remain the key ways of seeing the past for most people in Italy and beyond, just as claims about the UK’s role in defeating the Nazis have allowed other truths about the British – about colonialism and slavery, for example – to go under the radar, or even to be celebrated. In Italy, these compromises and stereotypes had consequences. Leading soldiers in Mussolini’s army successfully defended their wartime actions by arguing that they had ‘served the fatherland’ rather than the regime. This was one of the excuses used by Rodolfo Graziani, responsible for massacres and genocidal policies in Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as a ferocious figure in the repression of anti-fascist partisans in Italy after 1943. Graziani claimed that he had helped mitigate the worst aspects of Nazi repression. He was sentenced to nineteen years in prison in 1950 at a trial for ‘collaboration’ with the Nazis but served only four months before being released. He never stood trial for his crimes in Africa.

Italy’s current prime minister has direct links with the neo-fascists who continued to operate in Italy after the war, and who traced their political legacy back to Mussolini. Giorgia Meloni and her followers have always been strong supporters of the good Italian/bad German narrative, but with some twists. They would argue that ‘bad Italians’ existed, but most of them were communists (and therefore, somehow, not Italians at all); Italians were largely victims of the violence carried out by others, such as Tito’s Yugoslav partisans. Meloni chooses her dates carefully. Italy’s invasions of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Greece are rarely mentioned, but the reprisals that followed these invasions, and the fate of the estimated 84,000 Italian soldiers killed or taken prisoner in the USSR, are continually highlighted. Italy’s retreat from Russia is memorialised, but not the reason Italian soldiers were there in the first place. Meloni likes to frame the Second World War as an event in which all Italians, including fascists, were victims. Her party has spent years comparing the reprisals against fascists and others in north-east Italy in 1943-45 as equivalent to the Shoah.

Last year, ‘commemorating’ those killed in the Fosse Ardeatine massacre in Rome in March 1944, when 335 men were shot by the Nazis, Meloni claimed that they died because they were Italian. In fact, nine of the dead weren’t Italian, many were chosen because they were Jewish, and a number of others were partisans who were being held in prison in Rome. But Meloni wants to frame the war as a universal tragedy with ‘good and bad people on both sides’, to ignore the role of her political ancestors in causing the disaster, and to frame the real division as between good Italians, on one side, and bad Germans plus communists on the other. She has to be careful when she discusses the country’s ‘liberation’ from fascism and Nazism on 25 April 1945. She doesn’t refer to fascist crimes, other than by making generic statements about the ‘death of democracy’ and condemning the 1938 antisemitic laws, which she has called ‘the lowest point in Italian history’ and a ‘mark of shame’. It is a clever strategy, backed by media obfuscation and outright falsification (her party is now in almost full control of the state media) as well as subtle propaganda. This includes the cheering – but probably false – story of the cyclist Gino Bartali, who supposedly saved thousands of Jews by riding around with false documents hidden in his bicycle frame. Although there were many cases of Italians helping Jews in various places and at various times, before and during the war, there were also numerous examples of participation in antisemitic violence.

One of the great merits of Focardi’s account is that he never lets the left off the hook, showing that many anti-fascists were involved in promoting these self-absolving tropes. Communists often claimed that the Italian people had been almost entirely anti-fascist, and that most of the blame for the disasters of the war lay with individuals – above all, Mussolini – and, of course, the bad Germans. Italy’s peculiar war history, with its rapid and complicated changing of sides in 1943 after Mussolini’s fall from power, also allowed many to claim that Italy had been on the winning side.

‘There were no trials, no hearings, no findings,’ Focardi writes, and no justice for the victims of Italian atrocities in Yugoslavia, Greece or Ethiopia. He describes Italian ‘national memory’ as ‘self-centred, self-pitying and self-celebratory’. ‘When shall we see an official Italian visit to Domeniko?’ he asks in his closing pages. With Meloni in charge, such a trip is impossible.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 46 No. 11 · 6 June 2024

John Foot begins his piece about the ‘good Italian’ war myth by excoriating ‘the dreadful 2001 film version of … Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ (LRB, 23 May). However dreadful it may be as a film, its message is faithful to Louis de Bernières’s novel, on which it is based. Foot remarks that the likes of Giorgia Meloni maintain a ‘good Italian/bad German’ narrative for the Mussolini period; there may have been ‘bad Italians’, but ‘most of them were communists.’ This is precisely de Bernières’s take on ‘bad Greeks’. The novel belongs firmly with the Cold War fiction that seeks to begrime the communist resistance and absolve the fascist occupiers.

Benny Ross
Newcastle upon Tyne

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences