March is a good time to read about brave women! I’ve been reading A House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead. The story Moorehead tells about women in the Italian Resistance is little known which makes it all the more fascinating.
Here’s some historical background: In 1943 the Italian military was in tatters, suffering defeat after defeat. They had lost the war in North Africa and Hitler was now expecting more Italian participation on the Eastern Front. The Allies were bombing Rome for the first time and were already in Sicily, preparing to fight their way north. In June, 1943 Mussolini’s council of advisers deposed him and set up an anti-Fascist regime headed by Marshal Pietro Badoglio. Through the summer, while pretending to continue the alliance with Germany, Badoglio negotiated a truce with the Allies. Chaos was unleashed. Germany turned on Italy and occupied roughly the northern half of the country, including Rome. The Germans found Mussolini and installed him as the head of a puppet government. The reinstated Fascists were vindictive, joining the Nazis in hunting down anti-Fascists and Jews, killing them or sending them to the camps. The Badoglio government was still functioning but the country was in shambles. Food was scarce and so were jobs.
It was in this chaos that Resistance groups formed. Moorehead tells the story of the women who were active in the resistance in Turin and the rugged mountains of the Piedmont. It was in this mountainous area of northwest Italy that anti-Fascists of various political persuasions banded together for acts of sabotage. They were united by their hope to return Italy to a pre-Fascist state. What would come after the war–what form that state would take–was yet to be determined. Resistance group politics ranged from the left (Communists) to the right.
The women in the Resistance groups were known as staffete; they carried messages, ammunition, food, and medical supplies. They spied on the German army, relaying troop movements and charming soldiers into providing information. They printed underground newspapers and bulletins. Like the men, many were captured by the Germans, tortured and killed, but their numbers increased through 1944 and 1945. Desperate and patriotic, these Italian women were determined not to be left out of the fight. Their lives are inspirational and I read the book in haste, hoping that they would all survive.
Moorehead’s book reminded me of the novel: A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, published in 2005. A Thread of Grace is set in the same time frame and also in the Piedmont but it focuses on the French Jews who traveled to Italy over the Alps when Italy broke with Germany. They were hoping for a safe harbor from the Nazis but found something quite different. It’s a moving account of the intersection of the lives of Catholics and Jews; Germans, Italians, and French; Fascistis, anti-Fascists, and Nazis at a time when making life and death choices was their daily bread.
I was also reminded of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe, a chilling account of what happened after the War, when ethnic cleansing, revenge, and displacement made Europe a nightmarish place well into the 1950s. Resistance groups, governments in exile, and former political leaders all wanted to shape the new governments and reset boundaries. The British and Americans had their own agenda–to obstruct the Communist influence–the USSR clearly had another. It’s a cautionary tale for all of us about how ending a war sometimes signals the beginning of another kind of conflict, often just as deadly.
Sheltering in place is a good time to read something challenging, something absorbing. I’ve spoken to friends who are having a hard time focusing their attention on anything other than the news about the pandemic. Any one of these three books would be a good choice for distraction. I am aware, however, that many libraries and bookstores are closed so it’s harder to get the books you need. I’ve been reading e-books and listening to audiobooks. Log into your local library and see what you can find!