Race and Victimhood in Postwar Representations of Sexual Violence in Occupied Italy

After the publication of La Ciociara and the release of the film version – which had simplified the more complex text of the novel – by Vittoro De Sica in 1960 the topic of Allied sexual violence in Italy remained relatively absent from cultural media and political discourse.[14] But, in the last few years, the violence committed by the French colonial troops in particular seems to have taken on new meanings, sometimes functioning as a ‘usable past’ in political discourse.[15] For instance, in 2005, Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) released a poster calling for an end to sexual violence against women, demanding that the perpetrators of such violence be punished according to the law [against sexual violence] passed in Italy in 1996. The poster, which read in bold “Never Again!” featured a screenshot from Vittorio De Sica’s La Ciociara.[16] Three years later, in 2008, a women’s organization in Bologna announced an anti-violence against women initiative with posters showing a propaganda image from the fascist period – of a black American soldier sexually assaulting a white woman – which read, “Defend her! She could be your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter.”[17]

The publication of the flyers elicited intense reactions. A number of local politicians representing the Partito Democratico (PD) argued that the image – regardless of the organizers’ intentions – criminalized foreigners. Critics of both the Alleanza Nazionale and the Bologna Women’s Center posters voiced their concern about the use of such images, which, though attempting to raise awareness about violence against women, seemed, to instead, re-evoke the fears of ‘the black peril’. Critics also did not fail to notice the particular salience these images took on in the atmosphere of heightened fears surrounding the growing number of ‘extra-comunitari’ in Italy. Outside of Italy, the representation of the violence committed by the French colonial troops has also recently served as a backdrop to a novel written by the American author, Joanna Scott, whose earlier novel The Manikin was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Liberation, published in 2005, is a novel about the occupation of Elba in World War Two; it is narrated by Adriana Rundel, an elderly woman living in New Jersey, through a series of memories of her experiences as a young girl (Adriana Nardi) living through the liberation. Andrea Nardi, is a privileged, slightly spoiled, and very protected eleven year old. When the French colonial troops arrive on Elba, Adriana is forced into hiding in a closet as word of the violence committed by these troops began to spread. Adriana is vaguely aware of the threat that they pose to her:

Deep inside her growing body, inside the cabinet, inside the kitchen, inside the walls of La Chiatta, she let herself consider what could happen. She could guess that it had to do with the advantages of strength over the stupidity of innocence. Adriana Nardi wasn’t stupid. She’d always considered herself exceptionally knowledgeable and didn’t find it difficult to surmise at least a part of the truth from which she was being protected. It had to do with young girls and soldiers and how, if a girl’s body was too little for their [soldiers’] pleasure, they had to make it bigger. (Scott 2005)

Her sheltered world changes as the war begins to disrupt life on the island and brings a young Senegalese soldier, Amdu Diop, who has escaped from his regiment into her backyard. Amdu had run away after accidentally viewing a group of his fellow soldiers gang rape and murder a young Italian girl: “He couldn’t unsee what he couldn’t deny was beyond the general’s liberal directive of tout est permis. Surely this act wasn’t covered by tout est permis. Anything goes…except this. This was not war.” (ibid., 33)

After his escape, Amdu finds himself in the garden of La Chiatta, where he encounters Adriana Nardi. In their first meeting he saves her, in fact, from some stray bullets as they fly over her garden. When he takes her into his arms he muses on the fact that she “wasn’t unlovely” and that it felt good to hold her, “and to smell the sharp lime smell of crushed grass mixed with the dry brown spines from the hedge and to feel the body beneath him accept its defeat” (ibid., 66). But, Amdu does not take advantage: “In some ways, it would be easier to have his way than not, and for this reason most men in Admu’s position would have continued with the expected action. But Amdu wasn’t like most men” (ibid., 66). He was not like the other soldiers in his regiment. He is, and this becomes increasingly clear as the novel goes on, an exception. He is, like Rosetta, almost too good, too saintly for the war. He is also, unlike the other French Colonial soldiers in Scott’s novel and in Moravia’s La Ciociara, a fully-developed character and not only a rapist.

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Bildnachweis: Mulberry Street (ca. 1900), Library of Congress (cc), https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8e/NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg/1200px-NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg