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

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

by Emanuele Sica

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In contrast to its brutal seizure of the Balkans, the Italian Army's 1940-1943 relatively mild occupation of the French Riviera and nearby alpine regions bred the myth of the Italian brava gente , or good fellow, an agreeable occupier who abstained from the savage wartime behaviors so common across Europe. Employing a multi-tiered approach, Emanuele Sica examines the simultaneously conflicting and symbiotic relationship between the French population and Italian soldiers. At the grassroots level, Sica asserts that the cultural proximity between the soldiers and the local population, one-quarter of which was Italian, smoothed the sharp angles of miscommunication and cultural faux-pas at a time of great uncertainty. At the same time, it encouraged a laxness in discipline that manifested as fraternization and black marketeering. Sica's examination of political tensions highlights how French prefects and mayors fought to keep the tatters of sovereignty in the face of military occupation. In addition, he reveals the tense relationship between Fascist civilian authorities eager to fulfil imperial dreams of annexation and army leaders desperate to prevent any action that might provoke French insurrection. Finally, he completes the tableau with detailed accounts of how food shortages and French Resistance attacks brought sterner Italian methods, why the Fascists' attempted "Italianization" of the French border city of Menton failed, and the ways the occupation zone became an unlikely haven for Jews.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252039850
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 12/30/2015
Series: History of Military Occupation Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Emanuele Sica is professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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Mussolini's Army in the French Riviera

Italy's Occupation of France

By Emanuele Sica


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09796-6


Countdown to War

Banging the Drums of War

The Pact of Steel, signed on 22 May 1939, virtually tied the destiny of Italy to that of the Nazi dictator, and the Secret Supplementary Protocols undeniably forecasted an alliance in the eventuality of a war. Ciano, however, had received instructions from Mussolini to be adamant with the Germans that no war should be started before 1942.

Mussolini's wary stance stemmed from the realization that in the summer of 1939, Italy and its armed forces were anything but prepared for war. The country lacked the raw materials, such as coal and oil, that were urgently needed for the operation of the Italian navy, which, ironically, was the only armed service capable of securing the routes to fuel extraction sites. Italy's economy had lagged behind the other Great Powers since the nineteenth century, a trend that was continuing in the first half of the twentieth century. Industrial development was further hindered by the government's resort to autarchic plans. Because of the lack of necessary resources, the result was disastrous. Severe protectionism undermined Italy's preparation for war, as Italian war industries were not compelled to innovate owing to the lack of competition from foreign companies. Italian heavy industries production was propped up artificially by state-induced demand. The country's financial assets were also depleted, as the regime had squandered hard currency reserves to fund the war in Ethiopia (1935–1936) and the intervention in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).

In fact, Italy's chief of general staff from 1927 to 1940, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, was nothing more than a ceremonial figure who had no role whatsoever in the making of strategy. Until the advent of Field Marshal Ugo Cavallero in December 1940 and his reforms of 1941, the chief of the armed forces' general staff did not even have staff of his own. The Duce encouraged this divided and ineffective command structure. He refused to implement any interservice joint command, because he feared that the possible accretion of power it might entail ultimately could challenge his rule. Mussolini's "divide and conquer" strategy was helped by long-standing rivalries between the different services. No service would have ever wanted to submit to the decisions of an integrated command.

The inadequacy of Italy's preparation for war was effectively summarized in a report submitted by Badoglio to Mussolini on 1 November 1939. General Badoglio informed Mussolini that of the sixty-three divisions formally in existence, only ten were fit to go to war, twenty-two were no more than pawns on a battle map, and the remaining divisions were either lacking crucial military equipment, such as uniforms or ammunition, or were far below strength in terms of both numbers and firepower. Given this and the dearth of raw materials plaguing the Italian economy, the Italian army of 1939 was incapable of sustaining even a limited war. Notwithstanding his hope that the Italian army would eventually be the standard-bearer for the new Fascist Italian race, Mussolini himself knew that his bellicose rhetoric could only momentarily sweep under the rug the inherent weaknesses of the Italian army.

Small wonder, then, that a few days after the start of the German invasion of Poland, Mussolini opted for a third way, a policy of "non-belligerence." In truth, "non-belligerence" was more about procrastination than any effort to maintain an equal distance from both the Allies and the Axis as was purported. The unequivocal stance of the Fascist regime regarding its German counterpart was encapsulated in a letter Mussolini sent to Hitler on 5 January 1940. The Duce tried again to dissuade the Fuehrer from launching any major campaigns until 1942, but at the same time he reiterated Italy's willingness to remain loyal to its ideological partner. Mussolini's plea to delay a prospective major Axis offensive should not be viewed as part of a mediating strategy. Quite obviously, he wanted to delay Italy's entry into the war until the very end in order to allow the navy, the air force, and the army time to modernize. The devastating blow the German panzer divisions inflicted on Poland in September 1939 could not have failed to impress the Duce and persuade him that Italy would soon have to join the fray. In his 31 March memorandum the Duce openly advocated Italy's entry into the conflict, with the goal of breaking the politico-military encirclement in the Mediterranean Sea. This "March to the Ocean" would be achieved through the annexations of the County of Nice, Corsica, and some French colonies (Algeria, Tunisia, and Djibouti). Shortly thereafter the stunning German victories in Scandinavia and France definitely persuaded the Duce that siding with the Nazi regime was betting on the winning horse.

In May 1940 the world watched with a mix of awe and fear the astounding advance of the panzer divisions in France. In less than six weeks the German "lightning war" had pulverized the French army, whose soldiers joined the massive civilian exodus to the south of France. Increasingly anxious about being denied a share of the spoils if Italy did not join the fray before the fast-approaching French capitulation, Mussolini ordered his troops to prepare for an immediate invasion of France across the Alps. To this end he persuaded his skeptical generals to wage war by predicting that the forthcoming conflict would last a few months at most and would thus be over before the strains on the Italian military machine overwhelmed it. Mussolini's tirades against Britain and France in the famous speech broadcast over radio waves from the Palazzo Venezia's balcony in Rome on 10 June 1940 ended all illusions of appeasement. The Duce harangued the crowd, booming that "a great people is truly such if it considers its own commitments as sacred and does not evade the supreme trials which determine the course of history," then adding, "A nation of 45 million is not really free without access to the ocean." By opposing the German and Italian "fertile and young nations" against the French and British "sterile and aging nations," Mussolini officially switched Italy from a policy of "non-belligerence" to one of "parallel war." On that day, Italy declared war on France.

Both the 31 March memorandum and the Palazzo Venezia tirade forcefully asserted Italian irredentist claims on French territories that were longstanding. Since the inception of his regime, Mussolini had aspirations for territorial expansion as he sought to annex French or Slavic provinces that were considered culturally part of Italy, such as Corsica, Dalmatia, Savoy, and the County of Nice. The cession of the Savoy territories in i860 had never been completely accepted by nationalists, especially by those in the highest echelons of the state. After all, Italian school manuals in the 1860s still claimed the County of Nice as Italian territory "under French domination." With the rise of Mussolini, these territorial claims were made openly by local Fascist groups organized in Fasci all'Estero (Fascist Organizations Abroad). For instance, the Fasci in the Alpes-Maritimes grew steadily until the late 1930s, largely due to support obtained through the efficient network of Italian state offices and organizations. Not only did the Alpes-Maritimes department now boast a consulate in Nice; two vice consulates, in Cannes and Menton; and four consular offices in other cities, but it also had seven Case d'Italia (Houses of Italy) in Vence, Grasse, Menton, Beausoleil, Saint-Laurent-du-Var, Cannes, and most importantly, Nice. To be sure, through its consulates, especially those in Nice and Marseille, the Italian state funded a plethora of organizations on French soil, from children's Balilla and Avanguardisti to recreational and leisure activities for adults (such as the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro). In order to instill a sense of belonging to the Patria in the younger generations, bigger cities saw the creation of Italian schools where children were taught the economic, cultural, and religious history of the Italian peninsula from a Fascist perspective.

In the interwar years, southern France had become the main battleground between Fascist and anti-Fascist groups, the fuoriusciti (literally, "the ones who went outside"), who created a wide network of workers' cooperatives, friendly societies, and Italian unions, often affiliated with parallel French organizations. Italian fuoriusciti organized attacks and intimidations on Italian pro-Fascist events. Conversely, the Italian secret police, the OVRA, along with the military secret police, the SIM, infiltrated agents provocateurs into the communist and socialist organizations, while the SIM itself was instrumental in the murder of two well-known socialist figures, the Rosselli brothers, Carlo and Nello, in Bagnoles-de-l'Orne on 9 June 1937.

The significance of this political feud should not be exaggerated. Leftist political militants accounted for only 2 percent of the active Italian population in France and were highly dispersed among different groups ranging from the moderate Giustizia e Liberta to the revolutionary communists. Fascist organizations, as much as the anti-Fascist ones, remained marginal compared to a total population of Italians in France, naturalized immigrants included, of nearly one million people, plus another million second- and third-generation Italians. Most of the immigrants, fearful of possible consequences for their jobs, shied away from any form of political activism. To embrace socialist or communist ideas as much as to support Fascist organizations was, at best, frowned upon by French employers and, at worst, to be openly condemned by Italian officials in France. Most of the immigrants were content to remain apolitical. In addition, what might have seemed to a casual observer to be excessive Fascist zeal might have been mere deference to local notables or even an easy way to further one's own interests, be it obtaining a passport, a job, or goods. In addition, boundaries between economic and political emigration could be very hazy. Some Italians crossed the border to flee from poverty and from political repression at the same time.

Apolitical and militant Italian emigrants alike dreaded the coming of a Franco-Italian conflict, since the "enemy within" myth had spread many years before the German or Italian divisions. In the late 1930s, as war loomed ominously over Europe, foreign immigrants on French soil saw their rights threatened by new legislature passed by the government of Édouard Daladier. Two law decrees passed on 2 and 14 May 1938 gave French security forces new sweeping powers to crack down on illegal immigration. Prefects' prerogatives were further extended during the drôle de guerre (Phoney War) in 1939 as they were granted the power to expel or intern "individuals who posed a threat to national defense and to public security." A top-secret dispatch from Albert Sarraut, minister of the interior, made clear the extent of their new authority: "This decree ... put in your hands a formidable weapon ... a wartime law, implemented for the duration of the war ... as long as the war will force us to face exceptional circumstances, which, both internally and externally, threaten the national safety." It was a serious abrogation of the basic tenets of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, paving the way for the repressive Vichy laws to come. Until June 1940 this exceptional decree was directed against only leftist activists such as the Italian fuoriusciti, as Fascist militants enjoyed immunity thanks to the frantic search by the French government for an entente with Mussolini's regime. The respite was brief, however. As the rumors of an impending Italian attack intensified, the Ministry of the Interior issued a secret directive on 14 May 1940 that instructed the prefects to immediately "neutralize [Italians who were] notoriously Francophobe or simply suspects" upon the opening of the hostilities with Italy.

In order to weed out the hostile minority from the majority of Italians, who remained friendly to their host country, and to accelerate the conscription of the latter, French authorities, in the wake of Mussolini's declaration of war, immediately plastered every town and village with posters urging Italian residents between the ages of seventeen and sixty to report to the local police by 15 June 1940. In police stations, Italian citizens were invited to file a declaration of loyalty, which could entail an eventual tour of duty in the French army. The response was overwhelming: in Nice alone more than 5,000 emigrants flocked to police stations in the first three days. In the Grasse region 1,532 signed the declaration, with only 6 people refusing. This kind of enthusiastic response was not confined to the Alpes-Maritimes. In the district of Digne-les-Bains, the capital of the Basses-Alpes, more than 500 emigrants, the vast majority of the Italian male population, lined up to sign the oath.

The results could give one the impression of the Italian population's unanimously siding, with a few exceptions, with their host country, to the point of embracing its fight against their or their ancestors' original country. After all, many Italians wanted to show their gratitude to a nation that had granted them political asylum, economic prosperity, and a chance to build a family. Some of them had even seen their children conscripted into the French army. A more careful examination, however, reveals a more nuanced picture. More than a few Italians probably filed for service out of fear of possible retaliation from the French state or population if they refused. Some were quick to grasp that serving in the French army would speed up their naturalization process. A few, in bad faith, committed themselves to France only to change sides later with the arrival of the Italian occupation force. Finally, a minority simply failed to report to the police stations. If some of them, in good faith, were not aware of the authorities' injunction — and that was particularly true in the most remote inland areas, where communication was difficult — some of those living in towns deliberately refused to heed the order. Some of these emigrants refused to sign not out of loyalty to Mussolini's regime, but out of fear of the dreadful prospect of having to face relatives and friends who had been conscripted into the Italian army. Needless to say, the French bureaucracy eyed these recalcitrant emigrants with considerable suspicion and automatically tagged them as Fascist militants.

French authorities did not wait for the deadline to begin their arrests. Massive roundups of suspected Fascist militants were carried out at the same time as the placards were posted. Starting in the afternoon on 10 June, policemen were hastily dispatched to arrest known suspect Italians. This category encompassed any Italian working in or volunteering for the Italian state (namely, in consulates and in the embassy) or for Italian-state endorsed organizations such as the Società Dante Alighieri and Italian schools, with the significant exclusion of the few Italians who had diplomatic or consular status. Men were handcuffed, sometimes in front of their family, and taken away. A few were even beaten by overzealous policemen or openly ridiculed in the streets by hostile crowds. In fact, it was quite miraculous that no one was killed in the frenzied atmosphere that followed the start of the Italian offensive strike through the Alps that began on 21 June 1940. The French population was furious about Italy's attack on France, contemptuously christened "un coup de poignard dans le dos" (a stab in the back). The figure of the traitorous Italian, by nature a turncoat imbued with Machiavellian traits, prone to betraying his old friends for selfish reasons, reemerged with a vengeance.


Excerpted from Mussolini's Army in the French Riviera by Emanuele Sica. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Abbreviations ix

Chronology of the Italian Occupation of Southeastern France xi

Maps xvii

Part I The Latin Sisters and the Coming of the Second World War

Introduction 3

1 Countdown to War 15

Part II The Armistice Period: June 1940-November 1942

2 The Italian Armistice Commission with France (CIAF) 27

3 Italian Irredenttsm and French Patriotism in the Côte d'Azur 42

4 A Prelude to Full Occupation 55

Part III The Italian Occupation of Southeastern France: November 1942-September 1943

5 The November 1942 Invasion 77

6 The Italians Settle In 91

7 Life under the Occupation 115

8 Military Repression, Civilian Resistance 127

9 Collaboration and Accommodation 151

10 The Italian Jewish Policy in France 162

11 Drawing the Curtain on the Occupation 174

Conclusion 183

Notes 191

Bibliography 257

Index 269

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