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

In 1990 Andrea Z., who lived through the liberation of Southern Italy as a young man, described the experience before and after the armistice in the area around Frosinone, where he was living with his family.[1] He writes that before the liberation, when the Germans were occupying his village, life was relatively tranquil and relationships with their occupiers was friendly: “Prima dell’armistizio i rapporti con questi soldati furono meravigliosi. In un paese dove non succedeva mai nulla, si creò un’atmosfera di festa e noi ragazzi tutti i giorni ci recavamo tra loro portandogli uova, frutta fresca, dolci, e sempre questi contraccambiavano con caramelle, cioccalote [sic], sigarette, che noi davamo agli adulti.”[2]

After September 8 1943, that all changed. In addition to the heavy bombing and widespread hunger that plagued Southern Italy, the hoped-for liberation brought other sufferings, including the “mass rapes” of Italian civilians by the French colonial troops. For Andrea Z., recalling the liberation meant remembering the rapes of civilians – men, women, and children, but above all women (some of whom, as he claims, were raped by hundreds of men) – by the Moroccan troops as well as the impotence he and other civilians felt when they failed to protect “le nostre donne”: “Alcune madri, fratelli, padri furono uccisi per difendere il loro onore. In poche ore i nostri ‘liberatori’ sono riusciti a cancellare 6 mesi di barbarie tedeschi.”[3] Italy’s liberation in his testimony became equivalent to rape; the two were bound up together in his memory. According to his testimony, love did not exist for Italian civilians during wartime. “Atti d’amore” – presumably of a violent nature – existed only for the Moroccans and for the soldiers of the various occupying armies: “ci furono però atti di amore tra i soldati di tutti gli eserciti.”[4]

His testimony is significant for a number of reasons. First, it complicates the trope of “il cattivo tedesco” and evinces a certain sympathy for the Italians’ German occupiers who, while guilty of their own sort of barbarism against civilians in the South, nevertheless seemed to generally respect Italian women.[5] His testimony also seems to echo a sentiment expressed by many Italian civilians who lived in the South during the war: that the liberation represented a watershed in the history of the war in the sense that it signified the beginning of real suffering for Italian civilians – the hunger, the bombings, the rapes. The language Andrea Z. used to describe the rape of Italian women is also, in its own way, telling and emblematic. The raped women were “our women”, and he and the other civilians had failed in their duty to protect their honor. The rape of women in wartime, as many scholars have noted, is not only often a reality of war it is also a frequent trope – a symbol of “national and sexual humiliation” (see e.g. Fehrenbach 2005: 50). As foreign troops entered Germany in 1945, for example, German men sometimes found themselves powerless to protect German women from sexual violence; the presence of foreign troops also meant that they no longer had “exclusive claim to bodies of white German women” (ibid., 47). Like their German counterparts, Italian men also realized that during the liberation they lost their status as defenders and protectors of women. But, men were not the only ones who may have faced such affronts. As Gabriella Gribaudi has written, raped women were “segnate”; many who were known to have been raped found themselves unable to marry or, if they were able to, it was often with less than desirable partners (Gribaudi 2005: 527).

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foto: 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