In 1943, Germany occupied the city of Rome, Italy after they joined the Allies. While the occupation lasted only 9 months, the devastation that came along with it was extreme. Thousands of civilians died, and those who survived were emotionally scarred from fearing for their lives. The Nazis imposed a curfew on citizens, and hung posters around the city with new rules that were punishable by death. They planned to force the government’s hand by starving them from food and much-needed supplies.
The Gestapo took over a former apartment building called Via Tasso 145, and used it as the Nazi headquarters and prison. It became known as a place where Italian people go to die. The Via Tasso was directly next to a boy’s boarding school, and the children could hear the screams of the tortured prisoners through the walls. Today, the building remains exactly as it once was, and it is the Museum of the Liberation of Rome.
Despite all of their suffering, Italians are strong and resilient people. They formed a resistance, the mafia pushed food through the black market, and even women and children fought for their freedom. The American Allied troops were able to liberate the city in 1944. Today, the story of the Roman occupation is not well-known outside of Italy, but that doesn’t make the story any less fascinating.
Goodbye Axis, Hello Allies
In 1936, Benito Mussolini was the Prime Minister of Italy, and he joined forces with Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War II. Over the years of the war, the Italian people began to see through the cracks of their fascist leader, and began to seriously dislike Mussolini and all that he stood for. They just wanted the war to be over, and bring an end to death and destruction.
In 1943, the Americans bombed a section of Rome called San Lorenzo, killing between 2,000 to 3,000 civilians. Troops landed in Sicily, and Italy had no choice but to surrender. On July 25th of that year, Benito Mussolini was replaced by General Pietro Badoglio, who wanted peace with the Allies, so that the fighting could stop. There was an armistice on September 3rd, and on October 13th of that year, the country signed an agreement that they would officially become part of the Allied Forces. This was great news for the vast majority of the Italian people, who were Anti-Fascist. According to Peter Ghiringhelli, who was a child during the war, people were screaming and cheering, waving flags in the streets, because they believed that this news meant the war was going to be over soon. However, they were not allowed to be a neutral party and stop the fight. They had to continue fighting in the war.
Of course, Germany was not happy about their partners switching sides. There were already German soldiers stationed in Italy before the switch in loyalty, so they already had the upper hand. The very next day, Germany decided that they would have a hostile takeover of Rome. Italian soldiers and civilians tried to defend the city against the Germans in a battle at the Porta San Paolo. 597 Italian men and women died trying to prevent Rome from being taken over.
In his arrogance believing that they would eventually win the war, Hitler took Benito Mussolini out of Italy and gave him rule over his own puppet-government called the Italian Social Republic. When the war was over, Mussolini’s karma caught up with him. He was captured and executed, but not before Italy had to deal with the war coming to their front door.
When Italy was apart of the Axis Powers, they still had the choice whether they were going to adopt Nazi practices or not. As a fascist, Prime Minister Mussolini agreed with some of their principles of Anti-Semitism, which is why there were new laws put in place in 1938 that removed Jewish people from positions of political power and higher education.
Unfortunately, there was plenty of anti-Jewish sentiment in Rome long before World War II. In the year 1555, Pope Paul IV decreed that Jewish people could only live in this small neighborhood in the Catholic-dominated city called The Portico d’Ottavia. No one really wanted to live in this area, because it dips down 20 feet below the rest of the city, and it was prone to flooding when it rained.
Just two days after the Nazis officially occupied Rome, the SS Captain Theodor Dannecker gave the order to empty the Portico d’Ottavia and bring all of the Jewish people to die in concentration camps. For anyone who had not already escaped just 48 hours earlier, they had to run and jump on rooftops from the 365 German soldiers who were running through the ghetto, closing off all of the exits to that section of the city.
Over 1,000 people were taken in the back of trucks and transported to Auschwitz. Out of those original 1,000 people, only 16 survived and were able to return to Italy after the war was over. Thankfully, enough Jewish people were able to escape to safe houses that they were able to return to their homes in Portico d’Ottavia when the war was over. Today, it is still a predominantly Jewish neighborhood with family-run businesses. A plaque hangs in the square to remember the lives that were lost, but not forgotten.
The Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome had been standing for hundreds of years before the Germany occupation, and its employees did not give up their tradition of saving lives just because the Nazis decided to take over. The head surgeon and hospital director, Giovanni Borromeo worked together with the head priest, Father Maurizio to act as part of the Anti-Fascist Italian resistance. For years, they had been sneaking in Jewish doctors to work at the Catholic hospital, and they had a radio room set up in the basement, which came in handy during the occupation.
When Nazi soldiers showed up to demand deportation of Jewish patients, they were stopped in their tracks when they were told that they had a contagious disease called “Syndrome K”. Since tuberculosis was still a very real fear for people, the soldiers did not want to get sick from a foreign illness they never heard of before. Since the hospital was located on its own private island, it was actually used to isolate people with contagious illnesses. They were also known for having some of the most modern medical tools available in the country, and doctors who were not trained to deal with a rare issue would often send patients to the Fatebenfratelli.
It turns out that “Syndrome K” was totally made up. The doctors used it to hide Jewish and Anti-Fascist rebels in the hospital. Since the Nazi soldiers were too scared of getting sick, they never even walked through the doors of the Syndrome K isolation ward. One young Jewish doctor named Vittorio Sacerdoti was 28 years old at the time. He had false paperwork drawn up by Dr. Borromeo that helped him pass as a Catholic, so he was able to quickly hide 45 of his friends and family members before they were deported from the Jewish ghettos. The total number of lives that were saved by “Syndome K” is unknown, but it is likely to be in the hundreds.
Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring was one of the most celebrated commanders in the German army during World War II. He spent years helping to invade Poland and France, and he received one of the highest Nazi honors of the Iron Cross. Kesselring was in charge of the invasion of Italy, and he was also behind the deaths of thousands of innocent people. He kept the citizens under constant fear by plastering posters all over the city, threatening to hang groups of people and force others to watch and bury their bodies if they stepped out of line. The “K” in “Syndrome K” was actually an inside joke referring to Kesselring, insinuating that he was the real sickness in the country at the time.
When the war was over, Albert Kesselring was captured and sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. That sentence was overturned and changed to life in prison, and he was released in 1952 for health reasons. He released his autobiography about his perspective of the war. In the book, he claimed that he tried to stop Heinrich Himmler from deporting Jewish people to the concentration camps, and that he was careful to preserve the art and culture in Rome. Of course, this does not excuse his actions, and he still goes down in history as being one of the most hated figures in World War II.
During the occupation, Italian soldiers were deported to Germany as prisoners of war and used for slave labor. Any civilian men who were left behind were forced to work in factories to make supplies for the Germans. If they refused or tried to run way, they were tortured and killed immediately. According to a testimony from Peter Ghiringhelli, who was 14 years old in 1944, “I got used to people being shot or disappearing. The way the Germans now behaved seemed senseless to everybody.”
According to Ghiringhelli, there were many Italians who were part of the Fascist party, and continued to support Mussolini, even after he was removed as Prime Minister. These Fascists became the leaders in these factories, and were trying to oppress anyone who was anti-Fascist. If a partisan tried to escape, the would have their eyes gouged out and were tortured before being shot. After witnessing this enough times, the Italians who secretly hated the Nazis knew to keep their mouths shut and just wait for the war to be over.
The men in these factories were not getting paid. They were simply working in exchange for food, but they were not given enough to eat, and they were never allowed to have any salt. Without sodium, a body cannot regulate fluid properly, and it makes people very sick. Since they were lacking sodium in their diets, the men would get severe headaches and collapse from exhaustion. During the winter, they just barely made it with the fuel they had available to them, and many people died of illness.
The Mafia Actually Saved the Day
When he was in power, one of Benito Mussolini’s goals was to take down the Italian Mafia. At the time, it was run by a man named Calogero Vizzini, who was a vocal anti-Fascist leader in the Sicilian community. Vizzini was known as being the “boss of bosses”, or the biggest kingpin in the mob. The Sicilian Mafia and Jewish crime syndicates collaborated with the American government in what was called Operation Underworld in order to destroy Fascist regime in Italy. They were behind the Allied invasion of Sicily, but it backfired when the Germans took over Rome anyway.
Once Rome was cut off from the rest of the country, citizens were given food rations that were barely enough to keep them alive. This made people angry, and there were food riots. It was illegal to smuggle food into the city, but black market goods were the Mafia’s speciality. What was once considered a crime was now greatly appreciated by people who were once law-abiding citizens.
Later, when the American troops liberated Rome from the Nazis, Don Calogero Vizzini became the mayor of Villalba. Since he was so popular with the people, it only made sense that he should be in charge, but his political position gave him even more ability to run his black market and expand his crime syndicate even after the war was over. Critics would later blame the Americans for giving the mob boss too much power.
The Bombing of the Vatican
The Vatican in Rome is its own independent nation. This was done in a treaty during World War II, because Pope Pius XII wanted to remain safe from military attack under any circumstance, and have the power of a sovereign nation. However, when the Allies landed, it made the Pope very nervous. He began to burn a lot of documentation, and guards were posted outside of the buildings at all times. He wasn’t afraid of the American troops who were now on Italian soil. He knew that the Nazis would be angry, and he was afraid that he would be kidnapped. He had no intention of leaving Rome and abandoning his duties as Pope, but he was constantly on edge, waiting for something terrible to happen.
When the Germans occupied Italy, the Pope increased his personal army from 100 men to a whopping 4,000. He was determined to stop the Nazis from getting anywhere near him. The moment he was waiting for came in November of 1943, when bombs were dropped from a plane on to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Thankfully, no one was killed. But a second bombing happened in March of 1944, and one employee of the Vatican was killed.
The Partisan Resistance
According to the testimony of Peter Ghiringhelli, Italy during the German occupation felt as though there was a civil war going on, with half of the country being Pro-Fascist, and the other half being Anti-Nazi. Speaking out loud about Anti-Nazi sentiment was enough to get someone killed. In one incident, Peter Ghiringhelli was at an Inn with his father after work, when two German soldiers entered the building. Peter heard one of this father’s friends whisper that they should outnumber the soldiers and kill the the Nazis. Someone whispered back that it would only draw attention to them and cause trouble. Despite the fact that they never acted on the violent impulses, word got out about the young man’s suggestion to kill the Nazis, and he was murdered.
There were posters hung in the city warning people that for every Nazi soldier that was killed by a member of the resistance, 10 innocent Italian citizens would be shot. This was enough to deter people from acting out, because the blood of innocent people would be on their hands.
Even in rural farming areas surrounding Rome, like a village called Porto, a group of partisans killed a small number of German Nazi soldiers who had been raiding the farmers and stealing their property. They believed that they were far enough away from the city for any other Nazis to figure out who was to blame for the soldier’s deaths. However, the Italian Fascist sympathizers knew, and hung the partisans in the center of Porto for everyone to see.
The resistance had to work quietly, and in secret. They used secret code words and met in the shadows, passing along secret information that would help the Allies win the war. Many of the leaders in the resistance movement were Roman Catholic priests. Father Maurizio from The Fatebenefratelli Hospital was busy all day intercepting the radio signals of the Germans in his secret room in the basement of the facility. He would take the German information and pass it along to the leaders of the Italian Air Force.
The Ardeatine Massacre
In March of 1944, a group of Communist rebels called the Patriotic Action Group plotted to take out as many Nazi soldiers as possible. They dropped a bomb in the middle of Rome while hundreds of Nazi soldiers were gathered to run their drills, and they ended up killing 42 and injuring 60 Germans, in addition to 10 Italian civilians who were nearby when the bomb went off.
At first, Albert Kesselring was so outraged that the Italian people fought back, that he wanted to kill 50 Italian civilians for every one German who was killed, but he remembered his promise from the public notice that he had written himself. He reduce the number back down to 10, as it was originally. Since they could only capture three of Patriotic Action Group members who were actually responsible for the bombing, they purposely targeted Jewish people who had not been taken to the concentration camps. It didn’t matter that they had nothing to do with the plot. Seventy five Jewish people were included in the total of 335 Italians who were chosen to die. They also made sure to include some women and children in the mix.
They were ordered to march to the Saint Calixtus catacombs, and the German soldiers shot at these people. They were all pushed into a mass grave. It didn’t matter than many of these people were still alive as the Nazis dumped dirt over their bodies. The event was called “The Ardeatine Massacre”, and the site of where their bodies were buried has been designated as a historic landmark in Rome.
Rome, Open City
Most movies that are based on true stories of war time events are made decades after the event is actually over, and in some cases, most of the people the story is based on are already dead. Directors and screenwriters are usually just guessing how people felt at that time based on research read in autobiographies, letters, and interviews, but the end result usually says more about the time period in which the movie was made, rather than what people were experiencing the actual year the story happened.
After the occupation was over, film director Roberto Rossellini did not waste any time turning the true story into a movie. Only two months after Rome was liberated in 1944, he started preparing to make Rome, Open City. The movie premiered in 1945. It was so soon after the event, in fact, that he was able to film in Rome while it still looked exactly as it did during the occupation. He even placed a camera in the middle of the town square and just let it film real people walking through the city, in order to capture what life was like.
Even with the paid stars of the film, it could be argued that their performance was much more realistic, because they actually lived through the events depicted in the movie. In the beginning of the film, there is a disclaimer that the characters are all fictional, but everything else is based on true events.
Even as fictional characters, it is easy to see how different personalities reacted to the occupation. There were people who were almost in denial. They refused to allow the war to come in the way of their own personal hopes and dreams, and they were willing to betray their friends and side with the Nazis, if it meant getting what they want. Then, there were the rebels who were apart of the resistance. It won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and its screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943-June 1944. Robert Katz. Simon and Schuster. 2010.
Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City. Sidney Gottlieb and Horton Andrew. Cambridge University Press. 2004.
Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encyclopedia [2 Volumes]. Alexander Mikaberidze. June 25, 2013.
Oct. 13, 1943. Italy Switches Sides in World War II. The New York Times. 2011.
Italian Doctor Who Fooled Nazis. BBC. December 3, 2004.
Echoes From the Roman Ghetto. David Laskin. New York Times. July 12, 2013
The Holocaust: An Encyclopedia and Document Collection [4 volumes]. Paul R. Bartrop, Michael Dickerman. ABC-CLIO. 2017.
Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-1945. James Holland. St. Martin’s Press. 2008.
The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Kesselring. Albert Kesselring. Skyhorse Publishing. 2016.
The Mafia at War: Allied Collusion with the Mob. Timothy Newark. Casemate Publishers. 2012.
Pius XII, The Holocaust and the Revisionists: Essays. Patrick J. Gallo. McFarland. 2005.