May 07, 2017

Book Review of Mussolini's Army in the French Riviera: Italy's Occupation of France

Emanuele Sica. Mussolini's Army in the French Riviera: Italy's Occupation of France. History of Military Occupation Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 312 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03985-0.

Reviewed by Robert Weldon Whalen (Queens University of Charlotte)
Published on H-War (May, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

On June 10, 1940, in one of history’s more egregious stabs in the back, Fascist Italy declared war on an already bloodied and reeling France. Italy’s reward was the occupation of a thin strip of territory in France’s far southeastern corner. In November 1942, when Germany occupied Vichy France in response to the Allied landings in North Africa, Italy hurriedly occupied Corsica and also expanded its occupation zone along the French Riviera and north to the outskirts of Lyon. This expanded occupation lasted barely ten months; Italy’s occupation collapsed with the fall of Fascist Italy in the summer of 1943. The Italian occupiers chaotically returned to Italy; the Germans replaced them along the Riviera.

Compared to the epic events exploding across Europe from London to Moscow, Italy’s occupation of southeastern France was a modest affair. Yet, as Emanuele Sica, a professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada, skillfully explains, this largely overlooked story is filled with dramatic surprises. Sica organizes his account into eleven chronologically ordered chapters, preceded by an introduction and followed by a brief conclusion. He bases his account on a wealth of French and Italian archival sources and an extensive array of secondary materials.

Wartime is hard time, and an occupation is hard on both the occupied and the occupier. The Italians tried, periodically, to control their zone of occupation with heavy-handed repression. By 1943, the French Resistance responded with a wave of shootings and bombings. As familiar as this might sound to students of the Second World War, Italy’s occupation was no typical occupation.

The first surprise is the relative mildness of the Italian occupation, compared not only to Germany’s often brutal occupations but also to Italian anti-partisan operations in the Balkans. Much of Sica’s narrative explores this anomaly. The Italian military, chronically undermanned, under-equipped, and poorly led, lacked the apparatus needed for a really brutal occupation. Cultural affinities between Italians and the French along the Riviera encouraged peaceful fraternization. Chronic rivalries between Italian military and civic organizations, another major theme of Sica’s book, regularly paralyzed Italian action. Tension between Fascist Italy and Vichy France—though ostensibly allies, Rome and Vichy had very different ideas about the Riviera’s future—further impeded Italian action. Italian efforts to “Italianize” their bit of France went nowhere. The result was an occupation that was often irksome for the French but that had none of the savagery typical of other World War II occupations.

Another surprise—the occupation eventually ground down not the occupied but the occupier. By 1943, the Italian army was in a shambles, its soldiers’ only desire was to flee back to Italy. Morale was often low in Mussolini’s army. Fraternization between Italians and the French triggered a distinct shift in Italian soldiers’ behavior, a shift from “soldierly” to “civilian” behavior. As Sica explains, “by refusing to dress appropriately, incautiously flirting with women, and disobeying orders in general, soldiers were increasingly casting themselves as civilians” (p. 114). The occupiers had hoped that the substantial Italian community living along the Côte d’Azur would be favorable to Fascist colonization of the Riviera, and in some cases that was true. Many Italians in southern France, though, were fuoriusciti, anti-Fascist Italians who had fled to France and who bitterly opposed the occupation. Food shortages, acute by 1942, encouraged both Italian occupiers and the occupied French to engage in a wide range of desperate and illegal black market activities. Ignoring their officers, Italian soldiers, who long since had abandoned any hope that their own army would feed them, turned to theft and pillage. By 1943, the Italian occupation forces were in tatters.

Finally, a third surprise. Italy’s zone of occupation became one of the great rarities in World War II, a safe zone for desperate Jewish refugees. Sica offers, in his penultimate chapter, several explanations for this remarkable development. Repression was already fairly light in the Italian zone. Vichy and Rome did not cooperate well; if Vichy promoted anti-Semitism, the Italians were happy to oppose it. Some Italian officers may have cynically assumed that benevolence toward Jewish refugees would earn them merit among the Allies. Anti-Semitism was, moreover, never as tied to Italian nationalism as it was to German nationalism. In addition, a combination of Catholic piety and residual Renaissance humanism encouraged, perhaps, benevolence toward the persecuted. Italy’s Jewish policy, a “policy in glaring opposition not only to that of the Germans but also to Vichy’s” was no doubt the most remarkable aspect of this often remarkable story (p. 167).

Mussolini’s Army in the French Riviera is a well-crafted, clearly organized, and thoroughly researched account of a little-known story. It sheds an intriguing and important light, in addition, on the vagaries, complexities, and contradictions of military occupation. It is an important book and a welcome contribution to World War II scholarship.