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ITALIAN SOURCES – DOCUMENTS ON MASSACRE OF SERBS IN DALMATIA, LIKA AND KNINSKA KRAJINA (1941 – 1943)
The role of Italian Army on the territory of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia has been unjustly neglected even in the Italian historiography itself. The entry, deployment and actions of 2nd Army in Istria and Dalmatia – ordered and executed on 11 April, 1941 at 12:00pm – deserves more detailed study, because in that sector Italian units found themselves in a complex wartime and political situation unlike history has ever seen. The Italians carefully monitored and recorded the events and by that gave support to many complex historical truths with collected and saved material – evidence which was often the only testimony of those truths.
Italian units were entrusted with control over a large part of the new Kingdom of Croatia with the aim to enable Poglavnik Ante Pavelić to strengthen his authority. However, what the Italian political leadership definitely did not foresee was the Ustasha “hunt for the Serb”, so the Italian forces were forced – with precise instructions from Rome, to be impotent observers of the Ustasha violence, from the very beginning of the NDH. Horrified, appalled and disgusted with Ustasha behaviour the troops reacted and the command already on 11 June, 1941 (personally commander of 2nd Army General Vittorio Ambrosio) writes to the Chief of General Staff in Rome that “in Lika, where there is the largest number of Serbs, the political and religious battle is becoming truly horrifying, because the Ustashas commit vengeance and retaliation that was only seen in the darkest times of the Middle Ages”. General Ambrosio lists Ustasha murders and slaughter over Serbian population – among others the one in Glina where 650 Serbian civilians were massacred – and warns that there is a need to “make it stop, unless they want the new Croatian Kingdom to be swept with a storm of uprisings which would compromise not only its progress, but its very existence” and asks a withdrawal of the order by the Government and the General Staff on non-intervention of Italian troops witnessing Ustasha “crimes being committed before the eyes of the command and troops of our Army”.
Sentiment of all Italians in Dalmatia was that this passivity damaged and smeared the reputation and honour of Italy. Their disbelief and shock over unreasonable orders from the Government in Rome not to respond to crimes, is proved by a letter written by a Milan citizen and a friend of Senator Salato, who, after spending a few days in Split, writes that “the occupying forces in the whole of Dalmatia and so in Split, maintain public order but do not intervene in other events, so there is a massacre after massacre which in some towns, like in Knin, reached horrible proportion”. He then makes a devastating, seemingly absurd, but very accurate comment: “of course, the presence of our military in the field compromises us heavily, because they do not intervene in the defence of innocent victims” (Ministry of Interior – Archives of Yugoslavia – a letter attached to the letter send by Senator Francesco Salato to Filippo Anfuso, Head of Minister’s Cabinet on 30 June, 1941).
From this it becomes clear what was the level and form of the revolt of Italians soldiers towards Ustasha crimes and orders from Rome. A regular log of the Sassari Division Command on 16 June reads: “Deep discontent can be seen on the faces of our soldiers, partially caused by the realisation that the Croats can barely stand them, and on the other hand by orders not to react with military force against acts of terror and bloodshed… the morale of our troops, which was high at the beginning of the war, is even higher now out of revolt”.
Regardless of everything, the orders from Rome remained the same as the ones received on 19th May: stay put, mind your own business, and do not intervene. The only thing was that the Italian soldier, in his own way, did not obey. Secretly at first, testing the reactions of their commanders, soldiers started hiding few old men and children in the barracks. Realising that the superiors did not punish or prevent them and that the officers not only failed to punish anyone for such violation of orders, but joined the initiative, helped and perfected it, the efforts to protect the Serbian population spread and became a mass rescue and protection of the Serbs. So shelters were formed in and around Italian barracks. Off-duty soldiers searched the territory looking for people escaping the Ustasha terror and hiding in woods and caves, mounting ravines and gullies…” (General Staff History Archives, envelope 523 – Sassari Division Command, 18 June, 1941)
At the same time, both the Italian Army and civilians recorded and documented all events, from the ambiguity and double dealings in political relations between Rome and Zagreb, on conflicts of assessments of Italian military commands and Italian diplomatic mission in Zagreb, on misconceptions in relationships with the allies-enemies (Croats) and enemies-friends (Serbs), on Ustasha crimes, on Serbian uprising, on Chetnik goals, on Partisan movement, … and dulcis in fundo (last but not the least), constantly more difficult and stretched relations between Rome and Berlin.
The topic of this presentation is Italian sources on the massacre of Serbs in this area. They were taken from the Central State Archives, from the Historical Archives of the General Staff of the Army, Air Force and Navy, from the Historical and Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from the Library of the Parliamentary Assembly. The sources are also testimonies and memories of many participants in the events such as Senator Aimone Finestra, historians such as Oddone Talpo (Dalmazia, una cronaca per la storia vol. 1941.), prof. Menachem Shelah (Un debito di gratitudine – Storia dei rapporti tra l’Esercito Italiano e gli Ebrei in Dalmazia – 1941-43.), prof. Salvatorea Loi (Le Operazioni delle Unita’ italiane in Jugoslavia – 1941-43.), prof. Gian Nicola Amoretti (La vicenda italo-croata nei documenti di Ajmone di Savoia – 1941-43.). The sources are also the most important newspapers of the time.