Sunday, June 14, 2015

Remembering the Eastern Front, 70 years ago

In this scene of "White Tiger" a 2012 movie by Karen Shakhnazarov, tankist' Naydenov (right) tells Lieutenant Sharipov (left) that the crews of German tanks are "Fascists, of course, but all the same.... people"

A few days ago, I published a guest post by Tatiana Yugay on the march of the "Immortal Regiment" in Moscow, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the victory against the Nazis. I published it somewhat in a hurry on the "Russia Day" of June 12, and I had no time to comment on it, but now I can do it.

Different countries have different views of their history, but it is impressive how the Russians found a good way to celebrate victory and maintain a loving memory of their  heroes. In the West, the gigantic struggle that was the Eastern Front is all but forgotten, but it may be instructive to examine how it was perceived in Italy at the time, and of how it is perceived now (if at all).

A good way to get a feeling of how the events of the war were described is to look at the newspapers of the time. As far as I could find, the only archive available on line for those years, is that of "La Stampa." As an archive, it is truly an example of how not to make an internet site, but, with some work, it can give to you a chance to watch in a few hours what Italians could read about the Russian campaign over a few years, while it was taking place.

You can imagine, probably, how the battles of the Eastern front are described in those old papers. Every battle is a victory for our troops who manage either to advance or to stop the evil Bolsheviks from advancing. It goes on like that throughout 1942, until, with November, you may note that something is happening; something big. You read of more and more battles, and of increasing bigger ones. All are victories, of course: the Bolsheviks keep attacking, but they are always repulsed with great losses.

As months go by, however, something changes: you still read of great battles on the Eastern front, but the chronicle ceases to mention Italian troops. By the spring of 1943, only German troops are described as fighting in Russia. But you have to discover that yourself: there is no mention in the newspaper of the defeat of the Italian troops, no news about the fate of the soldiers, no comment on what had happened to them. It is total silence; it is like if the Italian expeditionary corps, the 230,000 men of the "ARMIR"  had marched through a multi-dimensional gate, disappearing to another galaxy. For most of them, it was a one way trip. Those who managed to get back to Italy, were told to say nothing about what had happened. They were forgotten in their own country.

This story has to do with an immense form of evil. A pervasive, multi-layered evil that caused Italian soldiers to be sent to invade another country, to fight an impossible battle against overwhelmingly more powerful forces, to be forgotten by the very country they had served to the ultimate sacrifice.

I know that it is wrong to lump together the aggressor and the aggressed, the invader and the invaded, the injustice and the justice. Still, it seems to me that the last of these forms of evil may be no less monstrous than the other two. Some of the Italians who fought on the Eastern front were fascists, but not all of them and all were - all the same - people.

Perhaps evil lurks in the black ink of the printed page of a newspaper; perhaps for the Gods, our battles are not more important than those among ants. Perhaps, the universe just doesn't care about our struggles and suffering. Whatever the case, much time has passed from those terrible years, maybe it is time to remember them with love, and with a beautiful song like this one.

The cranes

Sometimes it seems to me that the soldiers,
Who haven't returned from blood's fields,
Haven't layed in our land,
But have turned into white cranes.
From those distant times
They fly and we hear their voices.
Is it because so often and so sadly
We are falling silent and looking into heaven?

The tired crane flock flies, flies through the sky,
Flies in the mist at the end of the day.
And it is a small gap in this order -
Perhaps this place is for me.

The day will come, and in such crane flock
I'll swim in the same blue-gray haze.
Calling out like a bird from the heavens
All of you who are left on earth.

Sometimes it seems to me that the soldiers,
Who haven't returned from blood's fields,
Haven't layed in our land,
But have turned into white cranes.

Zhuravli (Журавли)

Мне кажется порою, что солдаты
С кровавых не пришедшие полей,
Не в землю нашу полегли когда-то,
А превратились в белых журавлей.

Они до сей поры с времен тех дальних
Летят и подают нам голоса.
Не потому ль так часто и печально
Мы замолкаем глядя в небеса?

Летит, летит по небу клин усталый,
Летит в тумане на исходе дня.
И в том строю есть промежуток малый -
Быть может это место для меня.

Настанет день и журавлиной стаей
Я поплыву в такой же сизой мгле.
Из-под небес по-птичьи окликая
Всех вас, кого оставил на земле.

Мне кажется порою, что солдаты
С кровавых не пришедшие полей,
Не в землю нашу полегли когда-то,
А превратились в белых журавлей.


  1. Great thoughts, Ugo!
    Notwithstanding official propaganda, the general public still remember this war. I've met many people in Italy whose fathers and grandfathers were imprisoned or killed in Russia. Just during your fabulous Cassandrata, I spoke with your friend whose grandfather was killed and buried near the Russian town of Tambov. His family has known about that only 50 years after his death. That may mean that the Italian state didn't make any moves in order to find out the fate of those who didn't return from the WWII.

  2. Well done, Ugo, and thank you, Tatiana.
    As I was explaining during Cassandrata, my grandpa Corrado Petri was an antifascist, married with two small children, and his father was died in the WWI, fighting against Austro-Germans. He was sent to fight in Russia for punishing, together with a lot of antifascists, with dressing equipment made for North-Africans battlefields.
    Like a prisoner, he only lived 40 days, 50 years after officially said for a disease. Tatiana is right, not only the Italian Government, but at the time the powerful Palmiro Togliatti too, forgot them.