Book Review: Rome – City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–44

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by Victor Failmezger

Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2020. Pp. 496+. Illus., maps, personae, appends, notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 147284128X

Rome Under the Nazi Boot

ROMA CAPVT MUNDI, “Rome: Head of the World.” This Latin slogan adorns medieval Roman coins. Capital of an ancient empire, seat of the Catholic Church, a global center of art, culture and learning, Rome has endured many hostile takeovers. When war-torn Italy surrendered to the Allies in September, 1943, the Nazis moved swiftly to impose a brutal occupation on Rome. For over twenty years, Mussolini’s Fascist regime had often been brutal, but it was also Italian, and inefficient. The Nazi occupation of Italy, in contrast, was both brutal and relentlessly efficient. Many Germans regarded Italians as treacherous and cowardly, and treated them with contempt. Rome: City in Terror is the first book-length English language study of this period in the long history of the Eternal City.

The great strength of the book is the skillful interweaving of the historical narrative with the human stories of participants and survivors. The account of the confusion surrounding Italy’s chaotic attempt to surrender to the Allies would be comical were it not so tragic. The description of the Gestapo roundup of Rome’s small but ancient Jewish community deals frankly with the evidence to dispel persistent myths of “Hitler’s Pope,” and Vatican collaboration with the Holocaust. The heroic efforts of many ordinary Italians to conceal Allied prisoners of war and assist their escape -- often at the risk of their own lives -- has, until, now been a largely untold story.

The great strength of this book is the way the author weaves together “big picture” historical narrative with the human interest stories of dozens of participants, ranging from popes, kings diplomats and generals to humble tailors, housewives, petty criminals and soldiers of many nationalities.

Eight very clearly drawn and labeled maps help readers to understand the operational setting and the complex geography of the city. Thirty-two pages of well chosen photographs, some in color, help to illustrate the story.

On March 23, 1944 a Resistance partisan team staged a devastating bomb attack on a column of SS police marching through the city. In retaliation, the Nazis declared that ten Italians would be executed for every German killed. The next day, 335 prisoners rounded up by the Gestapo were shot and their bodies were dumped into the Ardeatine caves (an abandoned quarry on the outskirts of Rome). An unforgettable chapter of the book documents this atrocity in detail.

After a long stalemate on the Italian front, Rome was finally liberated by Allied troops on June 5, 1944, an historic event that has been largely overshadowed by the Normandy landings on the following day:

“The grand entrance of the American liberators into Rome on the morning of June 5 was actually confused and anticlimactic. When General [Mark] Clark entered the city to receive the surrender no one actually knew where, or if a surrender ceremony was to take place. Someone suggested the mayor’s office at the Campidoglio, the ancient heart of the Roman capital. But Clark’s aides and drivers didn’t know how to get there, and so the little convoy of jeeps meandered around the city streets lost. They finally arrived at Saint Peter's where an American priest from Detroit was found….” (p. 410).

The author, my friend, Victor Failmezger is a retired US Navy officer. He served as Assistant Naval Attaché in Rome. Fluent in Italian, with a deep understanding of the culture, he had unique access to personal diaries, restricted sites, and Italian and German archives in years of research for this book. Any reader with a serious interest in the Second World War and who feels affection for Italy and its great-hearted people, will find Rome: City in Terror to be a most enjoyable and informative experience.

 

Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWorld and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors) His previous reviews include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, , D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War, Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War, Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler's "Final Solution" Undermined the German War Effort, Governments-in-Exile and the Jews During the Second World War, and Admiral Gorshkov.

 

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Note: Rome, City in Terror is also available in audio- and e-editions.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   


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