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The Italian War on the Eastern Front, 1941-1943 Operations, Myths, and Memories

jwsleser

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By Bastian Matteo Scianna

ItalianWarEasrernFront.jpg

Bottomline first - This is a book for a specialist or one that has a deep, long-term interest in studying the Regio Esercito (R.E.). It is not a detailed account of the activities of the CSIR or the ARMIR. If interested in the latter, what you will read doesn’t justify the cost. If you are interested in the former, then you might be wiling to pay the price.

I gave a little bit of thought on how to describe what Scianna presents in this book. I finally decided on ‘a long, detailed literature review that has some history along the way’. As in many cases, this book was originally a dissertation that has been reworked for publication. If one has ever written a thesis or dissertation, you have a chapter that discusses the available sources (literature) on the topic under discussion. I felt the majority of the book reads like a literature review, with the author raising/recounting events and discussing the way those events have been portrayed. This works for me, as I already knew much of the history but gained a significantly better understanding of the books/articles and their biases that presented that history.

I feel the best concise presentation of the author’s purpose is found in his Conclusion chapter on p. 329.

It is quite a challenge to cover a topic on which there exists so little academic literature. Much more research is needed, and the following conclusions are as indefinite and incomplete as those of any historical work - especially given the loss of many Italian primary sources. The main aim of this study has been to separate ‘what really happened’ from the myths and memories that so often blur the picture. It has thus attempted to link different historical subfields - military, diplomatic and cultural history - in order to provide a comprehensive and connected understanding of events, narratives, and memories. The difficult access to Italian military files and underdeveloped scholarship has allowed the persistence of false assumptions based on distorted outside views, biased accounts and anecdotal evidence. Focusing on one theatre and its legacy has provided a means to draw more general conclusions about Italy in the Second World War and the contested legacy of the 1940-1943 period in the Cold War.
The Chapters:
  1. Introduction
  2. Historiography: Past Problems and Recent Trends
  3. The Italian Army Before the Second World War (1861-1940)
  4. The guerra fascista - 10 June 1940-25 July 1943
  5. The Italian Operations on the Eastern Front (1941)
  6. The Italian Operations on the Eastern Front (1942)
  7. The Battle of the Don, 11 December 1942-31 December 1943
  8. The Italian Combat Performance: ‘Chicken led by Donkeys’?
  9. Narratives about Victimhood: Evil Germans, Good Italian Occupiers and Evil Soviets?
  10. Shaping the Myths: Memoirs, the Army and the Alpini
  11. Contested Memories During the Cold War
  12. Conclusion
Scianna doesn’t present anything new (at least new to me) - he does reinterpret what is generally provided as fact. He does this reinterpretation by using many primary sources and compares the use of these sources with the secondary accounts of the events that have shape our understanding of the Italian Army. Hence the book is heavily footnoted with a matching bibliography, a goldmine of sources for someone with a deep interest in the R.E. He brings together personal accounts, German liaison officer reports, German intelligence reports on Italian units and personalities, units diaries, official histories, Italian records, etc. to delve into what the historical record currently states. During this journey, Scianna identifies gaps or incomplete data where additional research is needed.

Part of this process is discussing why certain myths and memories were pushed by the various stakeholders. Why is the retreat of the Alpini in January 43 celebrated while the history of the CSIR/ARMIR between June 41-December 42 is merely treated as a brief prelude to set the understanding for the retreat? Were the officers truly incompetent? How did the equipment actually affect battlefield performance? Were the bersaglieri and the alpini truly elite formations or was that status accorded as part of the myth building? He presents primary source information that challenges these and many other common stereotypes that changes the black and white nature of them to a more nuanced, mature understanding of reality. However Scianna does recognize the limitations of the material he was able to access and argues that more research is needed to draw firmer conclusions. He offers challenges to many of the popular beliefs but recognizes that this book can only open the door.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 (pp. 87-187) provide an overview of the actual operations in Russia. I would compare this overview to the level of detail found in Germany and the Second World War: the major events and the chronology are there with bits of details to make key points, but this is not a detailed operational history. The Italian official history, Le operazione delle unita italiane al fronto Russo (1941-1943) is the better choice for that level of information. What Scianna does well is weave the common understanding of the events with his research to address three questions: the question of military performance; whether Italian soldiers were victims of the deficiencies of the fascist state; and were the Italians truly brava gente or ruthless fascist occupiers.

Chapter 10 'Shaping the Myths: Memoirs, the Army and the Alpini' is a fascinating look in why and how post-event narratives are created. The needs of the various stakeholders are examined and their champions discussed. This was at times a little difficult to follow as my knowledge of post-war Italy’s politics is rather weak. It is a reminder that the history that is, is not always the history that was. I would consider this book a good read for those learning about assessing sources as part of a masters or doctorate program.

The maps are from Glantz’s From the Don to the Dnepr and are pretty worthless: their lack of detail and small size make them unreadable without a magnifying glass. No graphics are used to depicted the movements and the unit locations (when provided) are difficult to separate from the terrain features. The maps from the Italian official history would have been a better choice, but many of those are fold-outs and likely prohibitively costly to reprint. I strongly recommend finding some decent operational maps if you wish to follow Scianna’s narrative of the campaign.

In conclusion, I must admit that I was initially disappointed when I first opened the package and did my first flip-through the book. As I started reading, I immediately was absorbed by what the author was presenting. The writing is clean and direct, the arguments well supported, and he offers multiple viewpoints in his narrative. As I stated at the beginning, this is a specialist’s book and the average reader will baulk at the cost for what it delivers to the amateur. I expect this book to be heavily cited in discussions where the topic involves the performance of the R.E.
 

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