The Republic of Salo, the Nazi puppet state set up in Northern and Central Italy after the country’s surrender in 1943, doesn’t loom very large on the radars of most English-speaking people. We know all about Mussolini’s initial alliance with Hitler, and we know about the Allied landings in Southern Italy, about Anzio and Monte Cassino, but the Republic of Salo never seems to get very much attention. This books tells of the lives of a very mixed group of characters living in Liguria and Piedmont during those troubled times, as the Nazis and the bands of Italian fascists who supported them carried out horrific atrocities against civilians, groups of Italian partisans battled both the German occupiers and their Italian supporters, and the Allies bombed targets across Italy as we waged our difficult Italian Campaign.
It’s not the best prose you’ll ever read, but it’s a brave book, based on a considerable amount of research by the reader, interviewing people who lived through those times and whose numbers are now dwindling, telling stories which haven’t received the attention they deserved. Many of the characters are Jewish, some of them Italian, some of them refugees from elsewhere in Europe. From June 1940 until September 1943, Italy occupied part of south-eastern France, and many Jewish refugees sought shelter there, because Mussolini refused to hand over Jews in Italian-occupied areas to the Nazis. When Italy initially pulled out of the war, a considerable number of those refugees made their way across the Alps into Italy. It sounds like a fictional scene from The Sound of Music, but this actually happened: there are many first-hand accounts which testify to that account. Tragically, this Nazi puppet state was then set up and the Nazis set about rounding up Jews in Italy, but many non-Jewish Italian civilians, and even officials, came to their aid, and that’s what a large part of this book is about.
This is a disputed area of Second World War history. The way it comes across in this book is that pretty much every non-Jewish person in Italy did all they could to help their Jewish neighbours, and to help Jewish refugees from other countries as well. It seems unlikely that it was so … so absolute for lack of a better way of putting it, and I’m not even going to start going into the very controversial and emotive issue of the Vatican’s attitude towards what the Nazis did. However, it’s thought that between 75% and 80% of Jews in Italy survived. That’s not as high a percentage as that for Denmark, where – an episode covered in the Leon Uris’s well-known book Exodus – people united to evacuate almost all Danish Jews over to Sweden before the Nazis could round them up, or Bulgaria, where the intervention of Bulgarian Orthodox Church leaders and others saved tens of thousands of lives, and not forgetting Morocco where the King refused point blank to hand over his Jewish subjects to Vichy France – but, compared with what happened in many parts of Europe, it’s an impressive figure. Obviously that’s not to forget the huge tragedy of the 20-25% who didn’t survive, or the many others killed during the time of the Republic of Salo.
It’s a complex area. There seem to have been local and regional variations, and obviously there would have been huge variations in individual experiences. But there certainly were stories like the fictional ones told in this book.
Many other characters are not Jewish, including nuns and priests who arranged for the children of Jewish families to be hidden in their orphanages. Some of the characters are Nazis, and spout the most evil Nazi ideology. One of them’s a doctor, who talks about how he put physically and mentally disabled children to death at a hospital in Germany, before going to work at a concentration camp. Putting those words into the mouth of a character whom you’ve created must be very challenging, but Maria Doria Russell doesn’t shirk from it. And many of the characters die – some heroically, others from illness, or caught in crossfire, or randomly shot dead by a Nazi who just felt like shooting someone over some minor incident or other. One is hanged after being mistaken for a collaborator by those who should have been thanking him. And, in a rather detached afterword, we’re reminded that the scars of those who live through some terrible times don’t heal, and that they impact on the generations who follow as well. And was it all down to one man? If it hadn’t been Hitler, would it have been someone else? I don’t actually think it would. There had to be some comeback after the unsatisfactory settlement which followed the First World War, but not this. So, then, how can it be that one man can be responsible for so many deaths, so much devastation?
This isn’t the best-written book you’ll ever read, as I’ve said, but it’s certainly thought-provoking, and much of it is based on first-hand accounts of Italy during this time.