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AMERICANS TEND TO LOOK BACK at World War II as a time of heroes and heroism. Ike and Patton and Audie Murphy. Guadalcanal and Omaha Beach and the Bulge. Americans came together and stood tall when it counted, and the world was a better place for it. Today, we lionize the Americans who fought the war as the “greatest generation.” We build memorials and museums to the conflict, and they tend to be big, bold, and upbeat. In short: we enjoy remembering World War II.

But what if the war was something we just wanted to forget? Something best buried? Welcome to Italy.

Italy’s role in World War II does not make a particularly edifying tale. Mussolini unwisely dragged his country into a conflict for which it was completely unready, and Italian forces lurched from defeat to defeat, some against better-armed adversaries like Great Britain and the United States, but some also against poorer, weaker states like Greece. War weariness soon set in, and when war reached Italian soil in 1943, Mussolini’s government collapsed and the country surrendered to the Allies.

But even the surrender didn’t go well. The king and his high command fled Rome without broadcasting any sort of appeal to the armed forces, and the Germans took advantage of the confusion, occupying the entire Italian boot. The Wehrmacht forced the surrender of one Italian unit after the other, slaughtered those who refused to give up, and carted hundreds of thousands of Italians off to slave in German war factories as “military internees”—a new designation intended to rob them of even the rudimentary protection afforded to POWs. The last two years of the war in Italy saw Allied forces carrying out a slow northward grind against fierce German opposition, raking every inch of the ancient peninsula with modern firepower and wreaking shocking levels of destruction. One group is noticeably absent in this epic act of carnage: the Italians themselves. Small Italian forces did join the fight (on both sides), but essentially the so-called “Italian Campaign” was not their fight.

Why would the Italians want to remember any of that?

By and large, they don’t, and they haven’t. I recently visited battle sites in Sicily and Italy, and one thing about the memorials struck me above all: their tiny size. A small plaque near Licata commemorating the landing of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division during Operation Husky. A modest obelisk at Salerno dedicated to the U.S. 36th Infantry Division. An unassuming statue in Rome honoring the Sardinian Grenadiers, one of the few Italian units to contest the German takeover of their homeland. There is a monument at Gela, in the center of the U.S. landing on Sicily: or at least there was. It’s been allowed to deteriorate and is today a broken-down hulk. It possesses a certain dark dignity, I suppose, but isn’t a remembrance. It looks more like a deliberate attempt to forget.

Now, this act of collective amnesia may upset some visitors from the U.S., for whom World War II—and America’s role in it—exist squarely in the realm of the heroic. But that’s the funny thing about memory: everybody has one, and no one can tell another person what to remember and what to forget.

When it comes to World War II, we tend to build memorials to honor our heroes, and sometimes to remember the horrific crimes of the perpetrators. But building a monument to bystanders—the way many Italians view their role in the last two years of World War II? That’s always going to be a problem. 


This column was originally published in the April 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.