By Chris Bambery
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Roman Candle

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Review of "Fatal Silence", Robert Katz, Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20
Issue 281

The Resistance in Rome carried out the most successful wartime attack on German forces of any occupied city in Europe. A bomb attack killed 32 members of an SS unit specially recruited to fight the Resistance as they marched through central Rome. In reprisal Hitler and the German commander in Italy, Kesselring, ordered the killing of ten Italians for each dead German. Around 320 political prisoners, common criminals and Jews were hurriedly rounded up, taken to caves outside the city and shot before the entrance to the caves was blown up in an attempt to conceal the crime.

The pope was the bishop of Rome and had presented himself as the city’s protector. He condemned not the reprisal killings but the attack, and he did so because the Resistance fighters were aligned with the Communist Party. Pope Pius XII had constantly done his utmost to encourage peace between Hitler and the Anglo-American allies so they could unite against the main danger, Communism.

Despite a massive PR campaign to portray the pope as defending Jewish victims of the Holocaust, his official policy was to remain silent. After the war sections of the Vatican helped organise an escape route for thousands of Nazis to Latin America.

Robert Katz’s Fatal Silence is a study of the German occupation of Rome and the four forces competing for control of the city: the Germans and their Italian fascist allies; the Allies advancing up the Italian peninsula; the Vatican; and the Resistance.

The chief victims of all this were the citizens of Rome who suffered German round-ups and conscription for forced labour, Allied bombing (despite the key US intelligence officer in the city saying it was targeting civilians rather than the German military) and, towards the end, famine. Rome’s Jewish population, one of the oldest in Europe, paid a high price as the Jews were transported to Auschwitz almost immediately following the German occupation of the city.

That occupation was not inevitable. In July 1943, following Allied landings in Sicily, the Italian king dismissed the fascist dictator Mussolini (who he had appointed prime minister), packed him off to prison and replaced him with Marshal Badoglio, formerly a faithful servant of Mussolini who had carried out mass murder during the Italian conquest of Ethiopia a few years earlier. For the next two months the king and Badoglio tried to play off the Allies and the Germans. That allowed the Germans time to move forces into Italy. The royal government also failed to follow through plans to airlift Allied forces into Rome, despite the fact that the Germans had few forces in the area.

When eventually it was announced on Allied radio that the Badoglio government had signed an armistice with the Anglo-Americans the first act of the king and his prime minister was to skip the city and head south to the safety of the Allied armies. Italian troops were given no orders except to cover the flight of the two men.

As German forces approached Rome, soldiers acting largely on their own initiative, joined by members of left wing parties, tried unsuccessfully to defend the city. The occupation brought with it the full weight of the SS and Gestapo, along with Italian fascists loyal to Mussolini now released by the Germans.

Katz does a good job in explaining how the Resistance developed in the occupied city, drawing on the Resistance archives of fighters mainly grouped round the Communist-led Garibaldi brigades. This is gripping stuff. When the activities of the Resistance are discussed it is mostly regarding their actions in the great cities of the north that they would eventually liberate before the Allies arrived. The Roman Resistance, however, waged a heroic campaign, culminating in the precision attack on the SS in the Via Rasella.

He also quotes from the long-unavailable memoirs A Spy in Rome by the OSS (now CIA) officer Peter Tompkins, who was very effective and very critical of the fact that the Allies wanted to cold shoulder the left and to rely on the right wing, who were compromised with fascism.

In the end, unlike in Naples, Milan, Turin, Venice, Genoa and other cities, the Resistance did not liberate the capital city. The reason was that the Communists were desperate to create an alliance with the right. But the right, cheered on by the Vatican, did not want an insurrection in the city that could get out of hand. They were content to wait on the Allies arriving.

At the end the only people who come out well from this story are the Resistance fighters and the ordinary people of the city. That this is something worth saying in 2004 might seem obvious, but not in a polarised Italy where the right seeks to defame the Resistance at every turn, and where after the war they sought to prosecute those partisans who carried out the Via Rasella attack, blaming them and not the SS for the reprisal killings. Robert Katz does justice to the people and resistants of Rome.

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