Roberto Vivarelli joined the Decima MAS in the summer of 1944, when he was still only 15 years old, and served with them until the end of the war.
It’s your experiences that I’m interested in. You were so young. I like to think I knew my own mind at the age of 12, 13, 14, but it’s extraordinary that you had such a clear picture of what was going on at that age.
That’s the way I was looking at things at the time. It’s funny – at the end of the book when I say I wasn’t ashamed because I didn’t think I had anything to be ashamed about. If I put myself in my shoes, going back at that time, that was the only choice that I could make. It doesn’t mean that if I was aware of the whole situation now I would make the same choice but I was trying to put myself back in those terms. As far as I know, when you’re talking about the Jews, the Jewish question was no concern of any militant in the Republican Salloria (??). We knew nothing about the fate of the Jews because all these things came up later on and we really didn’t care, I mean the Jews were no problem for us.
Were you aware of the deportations in Rome?
Yes, but the Germans did it. This has been documented but generally people don’t take any account of it..take Sienna, the town I come from, when Cuco was the so called Cappo de la Provincia, which was like a prefect of Sienna and in spite of the fact that he was a very steady Fascist and actually he had a German wife, he knew 24 hours ahead of time that the Germans were coming and they wanted simply to capture the Jews. He did all he could to inform the Jews in Sienna so that they could go into hiding and in fact many of the Jews in Sienna did hide and their lives were saved. There were a few who refused to move because they didn’t believe they were in such grave danger. You had to make a distinction – there was the ideological side, say Pavolini, and it’s true both in terms of religious ? and also ideological terms there were many statements violently against the Jews. None more violently than years before, but they were considered national enemies. Then there was the behaviour of the rank and file and they really didn’t care about the Jews. The unit that gave help to the Germans to capture the Jews, it was indirect help. It was not that they took the initiative and a direct part.
Turning to Pavolini
He was a fanatic. He is an interesting figure. So far there hasn’t been a critical biography of Pavolini.
In your book, you had a sense that there was an air of wistfulness about him, that he realised this was never going to work out. He thought it was the right thing to do and was the right course for Italy but that didn’t mean to say he felt any confidence in its survival.
He had a pair of boots in very poor condition and someone suggested to him that these boots should maybe be replaced and he told them it wasn’t worth while because they wouldn’t have to last any longer.
What was his villa like?
Oh beautiful; the Villa A? with swimming pool and tennis courts – it still exists in the centre of Milan. The residence of this industrialist, from the sewing machines.
You spent quite a bit of time in the barracks next door?
Yes, my unit was ostensibly was the special, almost body guard of Pavolini, though we didn’t want to do that and so first we went away for ??? Piedmont and then shortly before the end of the war, we were going to the Gothic Line.
That’s when you went down to Bologna? Yes. You know we’ve spent some time with William Cremonini? He gave us your name.
He’s a very honest man; a very simple person. It doesn’t seem to me that there was any serious ideological motivation.
– It was very black and white with him. He just felt that he’d been fighting all through North Africa for Italy, for them to turn around and say that was a waste of time it just felt wrong and his background was one of pro-Fascist; he was surrounded by people who were pro-Fascist; he was excited to join the young Fascists before the war and by all accounts, he served his country with great bravery throughout North Africa and was badly wounded and was on the last ship out.
The unit was a company of about 100 men; the oldest was the captain and he was 22.
When I think of what I was like when I was 21, 22, I was very immature and it’s amazing to think of people like him at that age and then you at age 14. I was pleased to see that you wrote so highly of him. Julia and I when we talked to him, we liked him enormously. It was very much our impression that he wasn’t hiding anything; just telling it absolutely straight.
You still see William?
I see him and talk also on the telephone.
He’s very recognisable from his photograph.
I re-established contact with him more or less when I published this booklet.
He struck me as someone who was a typically good NCO; very calm. A good man in a crisis.
The commander of that partisan group wrote me; we had a little exchange. It was rather nice I must say. It’s much easier to get along and even to remember these things with people of their generation who were directly involved. The younger people are much more prisoners of a sort of mythology and they make a dividing line – friends and enemies in a much more rigid and abstract way, not having had the experience, they don’t really know what it was like and they present the whole thing in I would say a very partisan way.
Yes, for those who lived through it, it is different. Did he have anything interesting to say?
He wrote me this letter after he’d read my memoirs. The letter had the wrong address so it reached me after a delay. Shortly after, I received another one saying I knew you wouldn’t answer me and so I could answer back saying it never reached me. So we had a little exchange. He said it was not true that the castle was the logistic base of the partisans and so on. He said perhaps our letters could be published, but it didn’t seem to me that they were of such extreme interest for a publication.
By and large he agreed with what you said?
Yes; the only thing he claimed..but this is true up to a point because I remember that we found an enormous amount of supplies like toothpaste, toothbrushes, cakes of soap. They must have been left there by some partisan group to use gradually. I don’t think there’s any other explanation.
You also made the point that the people from your company who’d been taken prisoner & then released on exchange, they reported favourably about their treatment and they were saying how impressed they were with the sophistication of the partisans and that’s something that really struck me when I was doing my research in Bologna. I was looking at a number of partisan brigades in that area and it was quite clear to me that there was a far more sophisticated structure to the whole thing than a lot of books would give credit for.
People like me who joined the Decima MAS from the very beginning, we didn’t want to fight the partisans. As a matter of fact, at that point they didn’t exist.
No, that’s a really important point – you wanted to get to the front line and do your bit.
Exactly; we wanted to keep going in the war the way we started. We wanted to go to the end. The partisan war came later. It was a very unpleasant surprise. None of liked to go to that rationalemente ?? It was imposed upon us by the circumstances.
It sounds like the rationalemente you were doing, you didn’t find anything anyway. It sounded like there were only about 2 or 3 occasions when you came across partisans.
I know that Bocca resented that; said â€˜Ah, what a lie.’ From their point of view it would have been foolish, if they had the possibility to subtract themselves from the ? – why not? This is a war. You don’t want to face an enemy running the risk of being defeated; it’s part of the game that you try to hide as long as possible. There’s nothing shameful in that.
I was struck by your absolute determination to join up; to try to join the Decima MAS but at such a young a age. I know you went off to Rome initially with a friend of yours but that’s unusual isn’t it?
Probably! I don’t know.
You didn’t have other friends who joined at such a young age?
Well, I wasn’t unique; there were other people more or less my age. I couldn’t explain it myself. I was just crazy that I wanted to do it. The idea of staying home when othersI just couldn’t bear it; I wanted to take part.
I remember the description of the allies trying to attack a ship off the coast of Venice and missing – did you suffer much bombardment yourself? When you were living in Milan and Sienna?
Oh surely; I don’t remember the date when there was the first bombing of Sienna but I remember very well. Sienna is a small place and it was a very vivid experience and then I had a dramatic experience coming back from Rome. There was this plane that came down and I was trying to drive back and plenty of people got killed and I saved myself just by sheer luck. I was in Braisha (?) when there was I think the first bombing of Braisha and that was really quite dramatic because I was thrown against the wall and there were splinters all around. In certain circumstances, everybody’s scared; you shouldn’t be any human being to not be scared. However, if you happen to have some physical courage, and that is nature, war for a young person can be plenty of fun you know? It changes all the time; there is a certain tension..
And the camaraderie; the fellowship.
Yes; in a way you’re taken care of..I think to present only the negative side without taking into account the ..I wouldn’t say positive but..an attractive side, I think is so important.
Presumably when you were in that truck and you got strafed by the aircraft that was your first experience of seeing people around you getting killed and wounded?
Yes, and the first time I experienced being shot at directly, more or less. Later on I found myself in similar circumstances, more than once.
Was there a sense of ..’Oh my God, I’m really in the thick of it now.’ Or do you think you took it in your stride?
Under those circumstances, you try to save your life. You go to the side of the road or wherever, to avoid the shooting and later I was absolutely shocked to see these people killed and I was traumatised and burst into tears and walked away; there was nothing else I could do. But I don’t think at that moment one makes any kind of complicated reflection. One acts out of instinct. One also has to consider, and I think this is very hard for people nowadays to do, that if you are in a war, in a situation in which already after a number of years, even in terms of the news you are hearing every day, you are exposed; you know these things are happening all the time. The way you are looking at things is not the same way that it would be for you and I today. I’m just reading the books by Anthony Powell which are about London during the war. People in London during the war were used to the bombings and the fires and of course it was a shock; it was a trauma, but after a certain while, you almost take it for granted and you get used to it. So somebody today would react very differently to people under those circumstances.
You had a pretty happy and contented childhood didn’t you?
Yes, I did. I had a nice family and a very nice house in Sienna where I grew up most of the time. My father was away a lot because first he was in Abyssinia and then he joined the army at the beginning of the Second World War.
Did he tell you what he’d done in Abyssinia?
My father didn’t talk very much about himself or about politics in general. He was a very traditional man. He cared very much about the king; he was devoted to him. Also when they say that during the Fascist time, there was more revolution than tradition, this maybe so, but it does not correspond to my experience. I had a very traditional education – I was taught to believe in the Fatherland, religion and the family. My father was Catholic although in general my family wasn’t clerical. When I was teaching here in Florence some years ago, practically all my colleagues were communist; I was not. It came out that I was not only the only non-communist but the only one who had never served Mass in the ?? because my family never sent me to the priest. We were Catholic but the church was there and the family was here and we didn’t mix very much. Only for Mass and the formalities.
The reason you left Naval College was..?
In Venice it didn’t exist any more; it moved to Padua.
It seems to me that society in the north for the most part was a lot more ordered than one might imagine and I wonder if you’d go along with that?
I’ve no opportunity to compare because I’ve no idea of what was going on in the south
It was terrible.
We need a general history of Italy in those years, taking into account the north and the south. It seems to me that after the 8th September there is not any longer an independent Italy. On part is dependent on the allies and the other is dependent on the Germans. In terms of food and supplies, I have the impression that it is difficult to generalise. I have the impression that there were problems everywhere and troubles everywhere and people were starving. However, there were different ways of defending yourself and finding a remedy for the situation. On thing was how close you were to the countryside. In a large city people suffered much more than in a small city. A city like Sienna was in a much better position than Florence. Food that was available was in the country. I imagine that the Republican government did its best to feed the population. Generalising is rather dangerous I think. I know in the north, one of the staples was rice; pasta was rare because there was no flour.
But as a soldier
When we were in Milan, we had more or less decent meals. When we were in Piedmont, ostensibly we received our rations from the Germans and the food was dreadful. We received these huge – they looked like bricks – bread, made by the Germans, which were supposed to last for a very long time. In fact there was a date stamped on them. Then we got some sort of sliced pork of some kind and for vitamins they gave us some sort of candies but we almost never had, or not officially supplied, milk. The result was either we tried to buy some in the shops, but there was very little to find, and other times we begged for flour or other things from the farmers around.
At one point you pretended to be partisans..
Did it ever work?
I’m not sure that the peasants or whatever believed we were partisans but there was also some fear no matter what so generally we managed to get something.
The conditions in which you were living and operating were generally..ok?
I think so, apart from the danger, but that was part of the game.
You were never short of equipment in terms of boots, clothing?
Not along those lines. It changed as far as weapons were concerned; we may have had troubles and also in terms of petrol.
You seemed to cover quite big distances. Even at the end of the war when you were going from Bologna back up to Milan, you weren’t doing that by foot were you?
We did part on foot, between Bologna and the Po River, but then there were lorries to take us and when we arrived in Milan, we went by lorries. I couldn’t tell you where the petrol came from. Ostensibly, we were regular army but at times you had to arrange things, in a sort of unofficial way. We were stealing or taking whatever was available.
One of the things about the establishment of Pavolini’s Black Brigades – there seems to be quite a lot of controversy over that even and why they were set up in the first place.
I’ll tell you why. It was because he thought it was a good idea to fight the partisans. It wasn’t a good idea in general; I think it was a terrible idea because it exposed many people later on to retaliations.
It’s interesting looking through the old editions of Il Resto del Carlino; to begin with, a lot of the exploits of the black brigades are written up, and then from I think it was October 1944, you don’t see another mention of them again. I guess that must have been a deliberate decision.
It’s possible. I don’t mean to deny that terrible things happened during that time. I think it was a brutal war with terrible things going on. Terrible things happened on both sides, not just on one. Unfortunately this is what goes on in a civil war.
There were also moments of generosity and magnanimity. The example of the prisoners being exchanged and both sides treating each other very well.
There was the possibility of this exchange but in other circumstances they could all have been shot, the same way that we could have shot them. There was cowardice; there was brutality; there was carelessness.you name it. You take prisoners and you need to know what to do with them and if you don’t know what to do with them, you simply kill them.
That’s what happened to your father isn’t it?
Why were you so keen to specifically join the Decima MAS? Was it because you had a greater chance of getting to the front line?
It was one of the few units that could fight on the front line and this was what we mostly wanted to do.
Is there a part of you that after the war, when you learned what happened to .. what was it M Company? There was a bit where one company was going to join with the ??Gobbi Company and you were both going to go to the front line and then only the M Company went.
Yes, it was Capitani Biffoli ?? from Bologna we were supposed to go to Pianola but the Gothic Line was broken. It was actually broken in the direction of Modena not Bologna, so the reason we had to retreat rather quickly was that the danger was to be surrounded.
That journey, you made it on foot up to the Po? Amazing and presumably you were on the go pretty much all the time were you?
Well, we had to stop occasionally but it wasn’t all that easy because the allies were coming up rather quickly and there was bombing and shooting.
Presumably, by the time you were going back across the Po, most of the German forces had already gone across had they?
The German forces at that point were in a state of complete disarray; not orderly any longer. It was very easy to perceive that this was the end and actually I still have these vivid memories of this retreat; German soldiers mostly by themselves with any transportation that was available. To see an army retreating is not a very cheerful spectacle.
I thought it was interesting what you were saying about that last talk you were given by Pavolini; he could sense that it was all over and yetcan you remember a sense of desperation?
Oh yes, desperation. It was the end of all illusions. However, this is something I resented the way I have been presented more recently because a few years later I had made a clear break with fascism in fact I’ve never been tempted by neo-fascism or anything like this. I cannot say I regret that time; I cannot say I am sorry about it. I didn’t do anything that I must feel ashamed of and there were good reasons for me to make that choice and I don’t see why I should deny it or pretend to repent, because I don’t. I know perfectly well that in general terms it was the wrong side; at times you happen to be on the wrong side.
My point is that it’s not as simple as that. There is no right or wrong necessarily. Nazi high command is obviously wrong, but on your individual basis.
You try to look at things in a very broad way. I identify myself today with a sort of liberal tradition which is mostly British and that has nothing to do with the side I took during that time.
You must have views on the change that happened – why do you think it was that Mussolini could be feted and cheered for 3 days in Milan in December ’44 and 5 months later there he is, upside down.
It’s an interesting question; why was Mussolini so popular? It’s undoubtedly that he had charm and succeeded in charming people, even in cheating people. He had charisma and personality and plenty of people would go after him.
And presumably in the 20’s and 30’s he made enough changes for people to feel that life was better under the fascists?
Yes there was a positive aspect of government and also there was the appearance; the illusions he gave. He was very good at selling illusions.
What do you think motivated Pavolini?
To me he was an enigma. I am sorry that so far there hasn’t been any critical biography of this man because in many ways I think he’s an interesting person. Ideologically, he was steadier and more rigid than Mussolini himself. I think he had the idea of this new order and that the whole of Europe should be organised in different terms. I don’t know enough . How corresponding his ideas were with Nazi ideas but socially, my impression was that he sailed much closer to Germany than Mussolini himself. His father was a scholar; a teacher of Sanskrit. I wonder if there is a connection between his family background and the ideas he developed later on. Personally, in the contact I had with him he was a perfectly nice human being. You could say that probably about Himmler or Hitler, if you met them on personal terms.
We went to talk to Elena Curti and she said she thought she was a little bit in love with Pavolini. She said he had this wonderful charisma.
I remember her from the time although I’ve never seen her again.
What was she like back then?
She was a handsome girl.
You get the impression that she was a young, good looking girl who enjoyed the attentions of all these good looking young Italian officers and being at the centre of it all. She was with Mussolini til the point where he left the car and put on the Luftwaffe outfit and they all parted company. She was unbelievably lucky to have escaped with her life. I wonder what it was that prompted you to write your memoir in the first place?
It’s something I’d been brooding over for a long time. After a certain age memory can be a bit heavy and you like to get rid of it. Writing an autobiography is always a little dangerous and no always very wise but after a certain age it’s easier. I waited til I was over 70 to do it.
Have you read many histories about the period?
No; I have other things to do and also I have the impression that they get it wrong and that makes me uneasy. If you have lived through a certain event and then you see the way the historians are reporting that event, you feel very unhappy because things weren’t that way.
You seem to have kept in close touch with your mother throughout the war?
Yes; she left Siena and came to the north. My father had been killed and she didn’t want to lose contact with her 2 children. She didn’t have anything to do and no place to go so she had to knock on the door of the party shall we say and ask for employment. They said she should join the ?? and that’s how she became one and then she was put in charge of Pavolini’s residence. It was not a choice for her; it was the only chance.
What happened to your brother?
He moved around and was in and out of the Dejima (?) and at the end he was in one of the Dejima units and was a so called NP – Notatori ??. He survived and is around still. He’s a great communist and a great admirer of Fidel Castro.
Does he ever talk about the war?
Probably, yes. My brother is a very different person. He was in show business all his life; he still is. Very flamboyant and now writes occasionally in the Manifesto.
That’s quite a change. Do you think that came about as a direct result of the war?
The war once you had been in it was an experience you could not remove. You could draw different consequences and results from it, but it’s there. I decided, reluctantly, to move into historical studies, because I wanted to understand the experiences I was coming from. After the war I was 3 years in the military hospital which was quite an interesting experience of a different kind. That’s where I had my first teaching experience because teachers were needed to organise course for ex soldiers and all of my students came from German concentration camps.
Can you remember being shocked when you learnt about the Final Solution?
I certainly was, in fact I even wrote it in the book that I saw the documentaries in the summer of ’45 in Milan. Right after – a couple of months after the end of the war – it must have been between July and August – the military authorities in Milan had put up some sort of movie theatres and they were showing documentaries about the conditions that the allied troops had found and particularly these concentration camps and I went and saw these films and I was absolutely appalled and shocked.
What was your attitude to the German troops who were in Italy in the war?
I didn’t have much contact with the German troops. Of course, we depended on them for supplies and I imagine also at the level of command there was some
You said you trained on an MG42 which was a German gun.
Yes, but that was just 2 Germans who came and were teaching us on this what I called a bazooka, but they were Panzerfaust. Also to use this MG42, but we weren’t in permanent contact with German troops. Previously, I had some contact with Germans when they arrived in Siena, but they were very friendly with us. As soon as you appeared to them as a person on their own side, they were very friendly.
It’s easy to behave well if you’ve got enough food yourself, and got enough supplies and you don’t feel the whole local population is taking pot shots at you, it’s easy to be friendly. When you’re in a long retreat with no food and supplies
There was a ruthless element in the German army. War was taken very seriously and in a certain way, war had no rules. The German army was very well trained. If they to do something, they did it, taking very little care about what civilians would have suffered. The way they behaved in Polandalthough the way they behaved on the Eastern front was always very different than the way they behaved on the Western front.
The levels of destruction in the south were phenomenal – whole towns obliterated.
They put great emphasis on the terrible things the Germans undoubtedly did, but then I remember myself these planes coming down and shooting at little children going along a road in the countryside.
You did see that happen?
Yes and they would do it all the time; it was regular.
The destruction in the south was mostly done by the Allies. It was in battle, but the Allies had greater fire power.
I think more civilians died on account of the bombings more than the Germans massacring.
Marzabotto was the biggest single massacre and that was 987 people.
It’s more shocking; the determination; you take people and line them up 20 yards away and shoot them. Whereas bombing is impersonal. That makes a big difference.
Something people don’t tend to take into account is if you are a military man – say the commander of a military unit – your first responsibility is for your own soldiers. I remember talking to some of the officers of the allied forces shortly after the end of the war. They said they would rather spare their soldiers than spare their ammunition. So if it took 200 shells to bomb that place, let’s do it rather then sending troops in with the danger of being shot.
In your experiences of the last year of the war when you travelled around a lot in the north, can you remember..did Italy look like a country that was falling apart at the seams? Were the big cities that had been bombed regularly, were they in a terrible state?
They were not like the German towns. Even Milan which was probably the most severely hit by bombs – there were streets and houses, some severely damaged in certain areas, but the city was there and life was more or less going on. Bars and shops were open and cinemas. I think it was probably like London that had been bombed for years – life still went on.
Have you been surprised by any feedback you’ve had from your memoirs?
Yes, I hadn’t expected so many reactions. I thought this would just have one amongst many books coming out that would go practically unnoticed. I was pleased to do it; excise the memory, but I didn’t mean to make a splash and then all these reactions came out and I wasn’t very happy about it; I was a little confused.
I am very conscious that I am writing about part of our own experience but I am writing about things that belong uniquely to Italy and Italians and it does seem to me that the war in Italy for a lot of people was not all that long ago and there is still confusion and ..maybe bitterness isn’t the right word. There is still a bit of a divide. Would you go along with that?
My impression is that it is more due to recent political events rather than being a legacy of the war. Something to keep in mind which is very hypercritical – since the resistance claimed that they had liberated Italy, they tried more or less openly, to play down the role of the allied troops. If you recognise that Italy was liberated by the allied army and not by the partisans – there’s nothing shameful about it; it’s just the way it was. The fate of Italy was decided by the fate of the war; it’s as simple as that. But they’ve always tried to put aside the contribution of the allies. There’s always been a streak of not so much anti-English feeling, but certainly anti-American and this is still around. With things that are happening now, some of these old feelings are coming up again. I have the impression that it’s the new way.
I thought it had all settled but there’s a lot in the newspapers now.
Newspapers now tend to be sensational and I think that’s an unpleasant trend. I received a large number of letters after the publication of the book. The book went rather well in terms of sales; sold about 20,000 copies which for Italy is a lot.
Do you feel you have drawn a line now? You wrote the memoirs for cathartic reasons. Do you feel having done it that..
Oh sure, I’ve put it aside. But some people think that because I wrote the book, I’ve changed. I haven’t changed. I told my story but it doesn’t mean I have different feelings from the feelings I had before writing the book; it’s exactly the same.