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French women in World War II

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Mnemosyne and Mars : Artistic and Cultural Representations of Twentieth-Century Europe at War

Par MichelPinault. Hence, in the summer six more Italian divisions were sent to the Soviet Union, joined the previously small Italian contingent, and formed the 'Italian Army in Russia' ARMIR which was composed by a total of more than For Fascist Italy the Eastern front neither represented the main theatre of military operations, nor the most strategically important.

In fact, far more troops took part in the invasion of Greece, while the North African front was the most crucial for Mussolini's dreams of establishing Italy's control on the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, the participation in the operation Barbarossa should have attested Italy's loyalty to Nazi Germany and tightened the alliance between the two fascist dictatorships.

Another important reason that pushed Mussolini to believe in the necessity of invading the Soviet Union have to be found on the symbolic level and in the ideological connotations that this offensive had. The war against the Soviet Union appeared, indeed, as a necessary struggle that Italy had to fight to liberate the world — and the Russians too — from the plague of Communism, an ideology that had pushed people to repudiate the belief in God and that, therefore, had to be opposed for the sake of Christian civilisation.

This war, therefore, assumed the traits of a modern holy crusade that should have proved the superiority of Fascism over Communism, as the propaganda of the regime incessantly stressed. During the year and a half spent on the Eastern front, Italian troops took part in both military and anti-partisan operations, administered vast areas, had the power to apply the death penalty, and were in charge of the economical exploitation of many of the lands that the Axis forces occupied. The Italians took also part in the Stalingrad siege: they were positioned on the rear front, along the River Don, where they controlled an area of more than km, from Pavlosk to the mouth of the river Choper.

Here, on the 16th of December , they were overwhelmed by the counterattack of the Red Army. The breakthrough of the Soviets on the river Don marked the beginning of the Axis defeat on the Eastern front and led to a tragic and chaotic retreat. From mid December to the end of January Italian soldiers — together with Germans, Romanians, and Hungarians — had to march backward through the snow while being surrounded by the enemy.

At the end of the retreat 85, Italians had disappeared, either killed or imprisoned. Only 10, of these men survived the war and the Soviet camps. In the postwar years, the attack to the Soviet Union — and the entire Axis War experience — had a complex legacy within the Italian memory culture. In fact, the Italian memory of the Second World War was deeply affected and altered by what happened in the last two years of the conflict and during its aftermath. After the fall of Fascism in July , on the subsequent September the Kingdom of Italy surrendered to the Allies and then swapped side, joining the war against Germany.

This plunged the centre-north of the country into a Civil War fought by Fascist supporters and Antifascist freedom fighters up to the spring of , when Mussolini was eventually captured and killed. At the end of the war, the Antifascist movements that had animated the Civil War conquered political power and, through a referendum, Italy became a constitutional Republic.

These events had a strong impact on the way the memory of the Second World War was negotiated and constructed. The active opposition that a small, but substantial part of the Italian people had shown against the Fascists and the Germans led to the widespread assumption that the Italians had freed themselves from the allure of Fascism.

While this conceptualisation aimed to spare the country from an excessively punitive peace-treaty that could have been imposed by the Allies, it also contributed to detaching democratic Italy from the responsibility for the Axis War. By contrast, the event of World War II that acquired significance for both the identity and memory of the new democratic country was the war of Resistance against Fascism and Nazism that had been fought during the Civil War.

The memory narratives that were developed around the Antifascist struggle claimed that this event had constituted a complete break with the past, which had revealed the true nature of the Italian people. Through the decades, although controversies and polemics continued to surround the memory of this event, the Antifascist Resistance became the central element of the Italian memory of the Second World War and, during the s, it acquired the support of political institutions becoming, as Stephen Gundle puts it, the 'civic religion' of democratic Italy.

While the Italian collective memory was constructed around the Antifascist Resistance, the memory of the Axis War remained confined to the periphery of the public discourse about World War II, constituting what historian Giorgio Rochat has called a 'weak memory'. As a result of this peripheral status within the discourse of World War II, only those segments of the Italian population who had been directly affected by this war remained interested in the preservation of its memory.


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Hence, through the decades, the army and the associations of veterans have been the few public actors who have engaged with the memory of this war. Yet even for these groups the Axis War was not an event easy to remember. First of all, it was a war that had taken place entirely outside the Italian borders, often in far away and unknown locations, and therefore did not possess the same proximity and concreteness of the events that had happened in Italy during the Civil War.

More importantly, this war had been planned and fought by Fascism, a political system that had been overturned and from which democratic Italy wanted to sever any connections. Finally, the Italian campaigns in World War II had been informed by numerous military defeats and failures, even against a country as weak as Greece.

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As a result, the Axis War was the source of a disconcerting and troublesome memory that, rather than boosting national pride, raised unsettling questions about Italy's unreasonable will to power, while revealing, in quite abrupt ways, the deficiency that had affected the Italian ruling class, the incapacity of its military establishment, and the underdevelopment of its industry. Yet, despite remaining a controversial and uneasy topic that never acquired centrality in the Italian memory culture, in the postwar years public narratives on the Axis War took nonetheless shape.

Alongside the veterans and the army, conservative politicians played a particular important role in this process. In fact, especially during the s, conservative groups touched often upon the memory of the Axis War with a twofold aim: expanding their political consensus by gaining the support of the families of the veterans and trying to reduce the growing importance of the memory of the Resistance, which constituted an important source of legitimisation for the Left.

One of the most evident attempts to capitalise on the memory of the Axis War for political purposes occurred during the political election of the 18th of April This was a seminal date in the history of modern Italy. These two movements not only championed different internal policies, but they also had an extremely divergent position in relation to foreign policy, with the former being closer to the NATO and the latter to the Soviet Union.

The Italian vote concentrated in a nutshell all the tensions of the Cold War era and, not surprisingly, the electoral campaign was harsh, with both sides making large use of aggressive slogans and scaremongering attitudes. These electoral posters appear particularly important as they offered to the Italians one of the first visual narrativisation of this war in the postwar years. In one of the posters, in the foreground, an old and sad-looking woman, wearing the traditional dress associated to mourning, looks down, lost in her memories; in the upper side a common soldier is depicted in the moment in which he is about to fall, deadly hit by a bullet.

The poster reads: 'mother, if you had been able to vote, we would not have had the war', suggesting that the Christian Democracy is the only party that could guarantee peace. This image, which presents several references to the catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary, addresses the Axis War from the point of view of the family of the fallen, presenting the war as a useless and avoidable bloodshed, in which many Italian soldiers unjustifiably died.

Another famous political leaflet of that time refers to the Russian campaign in a similar manner. The drawing shows a skeleton, kept behind a barbed wire fence, who points at a hammer and sickle. While on the top a written line reminds the viewers of the thousands of Italian prisoners of War that never returned home from the Eastern front, on the right hand corner the leaflet shouts: 'Mum, vote against them also in my name'.

Mnemosyne and Mars: Artistic and Cultural Representations of Twentieth-Century Europe at War

Here again the representation of the war is filtered through the grief of the mothers who lost their children in the war and the Soviet Union — and, therefore, the Italian Communist Party that was affiliated to it — is presented as the entity that was responsible for their death. In these posters the political and historical context that brought the Italians to the war is completely overlooked and ignored; what remains is only the grief of the families who lost their children, who died while serving the nation.

In Encyclopedie de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale , ed. Paris: Robert Laffont. A Nation United? In Remembering the Second World War , ed. Patrick Finney, 11— Atack, Margaret, and Christopher Lloyd, eds. Margaret Atack and Christopher Lloyd, 1— Accessed 30 Jan Le mythe du Grand Silence. Paris: Fayard. Translation, History and Culture.

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New Orleans: University Press of the South. Binet, Laurent. Paris: Grasset. In Translating Holocaust Lives , ed. London: Bloomsbury. Bond, Lucy, and Jessica Rapson, eds. Berlin: De Gruyter.


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