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War in Val d’Orcia/Iris Origo

A contemporary chronicle or journal is of considerable historical value as a primary source but has its disadvantages too in terms of authenticity and good writing. Iris Origo, an English born aristocratic wife of a landowner in Tuscany, has written an account of her times (1943-44) which were confusing and difficult. In short, Italy was invaded by the Allies, Mussolini fell in July 1943, the Germans under Field Marshal Kesselring fought a stout rearguard action and restored Mussolini. At one stage Italy had 4 governments – that of Badoglio who replace Mussolini , the Allies, the Germans and Mussolini’s restored one. The two that mattered were the Allies and Germans. The Germans imposed a harsh regime of requisitioning almost everything includng the Origo home and enforced conscription. Although the Allies were the seventh cavalry they also bombed most of the major Italian cities causing much death and destruction.

Iris Origo and her husband Antonio seemed to be land downers of substance in their Tuscan valley near Montepulciano with much land, many farms,workers and retainers. Interestingly a postscript reveals they bought the land and farms in Tuscany though the impression is given of being seigneurs for many generations. She showed enormous courage and kindness in helping with food, maps and shelter the Partisans and escapee POWs drifting through and hoping to pass through German lines to the Allied Forces bogged down by rain and the stoutness of the resistance by the Nazis. This was best exemplified by Monte Cassino the hilltop monastery which took the Allies some considerable time to overcome. Her deeds, particularly in the saving of the children, should have won her a humanitarian award yet there is another darker side to her too. She expresses the hope and wish that the liberating force will not be coloured Moroccan soldiers. I found this revealing. A war was waged against the Nazis in a country with a fascist dictator but her prejudiced view of humanity belongs to both. It might also explain why Italy embraced Mussolini.

As a piece of writing it is impressive too. She often just records the facts, be they of every day life under the yolk of Nazi occupation and oppression. She is also interesting on the ever-changing political and military complexion of Italy in this period. The war was a disaster for Italy. Militarily they were the weak links of the Axis. The African campaign in Ethiopia was also thwarted by the inferior in numbers British army in Egypt under General Wavell. They were pretty hopeless in defending their country to the Allied advance and soon capitulated. Their country was left in enormous poverty with the major cites bombed. This is only a snapshot of two years but of great use in understanding Italy, Italians and what they went through. It’s hard not to be sympathetic. Norman Lewis and Eric Newby have both written outstandingly on Italy in this period  but this account stands alongside the best of their writings.

About Melanie Gay

A former literary agent with three published novels of her own, Melanie retains her life-long love of the written word and recently mastered the Kindle. She is currently writing a historical novel set in 17th Century Britain and Holland. More Posts