Hitler had a mixed opinion of Italy:
“The Duce is a great statesman. He knows the mentality of his country perfectly and what he’s managed to achieve with Italy and those lazy people is a miracle…” – Adolf Hitler (1940)
“Italy is an enchanting country: it’s just a pity it’s inhabited by such lazy slobs.” – Adolf Hitler (1943)
“Anything would have been better than having the Italians as comrades in arms.” (Hitler a few days before he killed himself.)
Mussolini and Hitler: two evil men of the 20th Century who I hope are in hell
A little known episode of World War Two, is how many Italian soldiers Mussolini sent to the Soviet Union to fight with the Germans in the Ost Krieg or Eastern War. The Germans attacked the Soviet Union on 21 June 1941. The Germans had not asked Italy for soldiers but Mussolini had insisted on sending 60,000 men to participate in Operation Barbarossa, the German Invasion of the Soviet Union, to curry favor with Hitler and to be able to bask in a small part of the glory which would come from the crushing defeat the Germans were going to inflict on the Soviet Union.
Only the Germans didn’t manage to quite do that in 1941 so they asked Mussolini for more troops which he sent. By the summer of 1942, Italians reached their high point on the Eastern Front with 220,000 men, 16,000 motor vehicles, almost 150 aircraft as well as all of their small supply of modern heavy artillery. Italian navy units, primarily special forces, operated in the Black Sea. It’s easy to joke about Italian military capabilities but their naval special forces were as good as any in the world at that time.
Yet this adventure ended in tragedy for the Italians with 90,000 soldiers dead. I say tragedy since most of the soldiers were illiterate conscripts, the elite divisions having creamed off the best men early on to fight in North Africa, and most of these young conscripts were badly led and poorly trained with only the most basic equipment.
These lines from his memoir, The Sergeant in the Snow, by Mario R. Stern, an Alpine soldier from the mountains of Northeastern Italy, give a sense of the unreality of Italian soldiers in Russia.
“What direction is Italy in, Sergeant Major?”
“Over there, you see? A long way over there. The earth is round, Marangoni, and we’re among the stars. All of us.”
Stern’s memoir is one of the few written by an Italian soldier on the Eastern Front. It is matter-of-fact. All he does is describe the retreat of the Alpine troops in winter after the Russians pushed them back. Nothing else is needed to create a story of such terrible reality. Tens of thousands of hungry men, cold, frostbitten units with weak officers simply disintegrating, and at every turn Russians shooting at you or Germans who wanted you to fight but wouldn’t give you anything to eat.
It is a memoir like no other simply because the idea that Mussolini sent troops to Russia in the winter to fight with the Germans is so astonishing, so surprising, and so revealing of the contempt Mussolini had for his own countrymen that just to read it is to be shocked.
None of the Italian divisions ever had enough food since the Germans had to supply them and guess who the Germans supplied first? Most soldiers didn’t have the proper uniforms to fight in the Russian winter. The only soldiers equipped and trained to fight in anything resembling the brutal cold of Russia were the elite Alpine troops but there were only several division of these soldiers. Besides, in the vastness of Russia, what matter were a few division of Italian Alpini anyway?
German commanders were unhappy with the behavior of the Italian soldiers. The Italians wouldn’t shoot prisoners of war or Jews or Communists or anyone really except Russian soldiers and they preferred not to do that.
Instead of treating the Russians like the sub-humans many (but not all) Germans said them to be, the Italians took up with the Russian village women. (The men were all gone to the army of the partisans.)
The Russian women were lonely. The soldiers were Italians after all. Why were the Germans surprised to find the Italian soldiery sleeping with the Russia village women instead of terrorizing them? What annoyed the Germans the most was that some of the Italian units sold their excess arms and ammunition to the Russian partisans in return for food as long as the partisans didn’t use the weaponry on Italian troops.
“Anything would have been better than having the Italians as comrades in arms.”
– Adolf Hitler in his political testament dictated in the several days before he committed suicide on 30 April 1945.