by Hope Hamilton
Philadelphia & Newbury: Casemate/Havertown PA and Newbury, Berkshire, 2011. Pp. ix, 366.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 1612000029
With Sacrifice on the Steppe, Dr. Hamilton (Berkeley and Michigan), gives us a ground-breaking study of Italy’s participation in the Second World War on the Russian Front.
She opens with a short introduction about the Italian Army and Mussolini’s decision to send troops to support the Germans on the Eastern Front. This leads to a closer look at the Italian Alpine Corps, selected because at the time it seemed like the Germans were about to reach the Caucuses. Hamilton then discusses how the Alpine Corps was caught up in the ill-advised German attempt to capture Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942, the massive Soviet offensive that followed in late November, the collapse of the entire Axis front -- usually blamed, by the Germans, on their allies -- concluding with the Alpine Corps’ desperate and epic retreat to the Don.
Hamilton’s writing style is highly impressionistic and for the key episodes in the campaign focuses on a group of individual accounts, some never before published, and none apparently ever previously translated into English. The unpreparedness of Italy for such a war is made abundantly clear as is the esprit de corps of the men in handling atrocious weather and extreme odds.
To be sure, the book is not without flaws. Two-thirds of it is devoted to the experiences of the Italian troops with Soviet civilians during the campaign, and then, of those captured, as POWs, as well as a discussion of the repatriation of the survivors. Hamilton also presumes that the reader has a fair acquaintanceship with the Stalingrad-Don Campaign of 1942-1943. Moreover, she does not devote much attention to the way in which the Alpine Corps functioned within the larger Italian command in Russia, the Eighth Army, nor pay much attention to how they fit into the “Big Picture” on the Eastern Front. In addition, her the treatment of the Germans is almost uniformly negative. While the Germans treated their allies badly, Hamilton manages to reduce their arrogance to mindless behavior, rather than a consequence of their inability to cope with the unfolding disaster. In similar fashion, she treats the Soviets as mere red hordes, with little attempt to analyze numbers, training, leadership, or equipment. These flaws are the result of her impressionistic style and her determination to tell the story purely from the point of view of the Italian troops, and that notably focused on the Alpini.
Nevertheless, Sacrifice on the Steppe would make an excellent addition to any library on Italian participation in World War II, given the extent to which wartime propaganda continues to reduce the role that role to a caricature, and is also an important read for anyone interested in Eastern Front, as very few books in English have dealt with Germany’s allies.