Mussolini’s Death March: Eyewitness Accounts of Italian Soldiers on the Eastern Front
By Nuto Revelli, translated by John Penuel. 640 pp. Kansas, 2013. $45.
It’s taken almost half a century for this wrenching, revealing book to appear in America. Author Nuto Revelli was an Italian veteran of the Eastern Front turned anti-Fascist partisan. His first book, a memoir, was one of the earliest looks at the staggering number of deaths and relentless misery caused by Il Duce’s vainglorious attempt to join Hitler’s 1942 thrust into the Soviet Union. But Mussolini’s Death March is Revelli’s masterwork on the subject.
Mussolini initially sent his elite Alpini (mountaineering troops) to help the Wehrmacht cross the Caucasus. Instead, these lightly armed men and their mules were used to plug a hole in the German flanks outside Stalingrad.
Then the Red Army’s huge mechanized pincers snapped and devoured the underequipped, usually despised German allies holding those flanks together. About 6,500 of the 45,000 Italians there survived. Entire villages at home were left almost without men. Alpini who didn’t die in battle succumbed to frostbite, starvation, or madness, whether they became Russian POWs or not.
Amid the carnage and horror, though, came human moments: resourceful Alpini found Russian civilians warm and willing to help, feed, and trade with them. Weaving in accounts from 43 other survivors, Revelli’s pioneering book paints a penetratingly vivid picture of their raw struggle for survival, shining an awful light on a corner of the war largely ignored outside Italy. No notion of Stalingrad is complete without it.