Italian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union

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Axis POWs in Stalingrad German pows stalingrad 1943.jpg
Axis POWs in Stalingrad

Italian prisoners of war in the Soviet union is the narrative of POWs from the Italian Army in Russia (the ARMIR and CSIR) and of their fate in Stalin's Soviet Union during and after World War II.

Italian Army in Russia

The Italian Army in Russia was an army-sized unit of the Italian Royal Army which fought on the Eastern Front during World War II. The ARMIR was also known as the 8th Italian Army and initially had 235,000 soldiers.

Joseph Stalin Soviet leader

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was a Georgian Bolshevik revolutionary and Soviet politician who led the Soviet Union from the mid–1920s until 1953 as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922–1952) and Premier (1941–1953). While initially presiding over a collective leadership as first among equals, he ultimately consolidated enough power to become the country's de facto dictator by the 1930s. A communist ideologically committed to the Leninist interpretation of Marxism, Stalin helped to formalise these ideas as Marxism–Leninism, while his own policies became known as Stalinism.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Characteristics

Over 60,000 Italian prisoners of war (POWs) were taken captive by the Red Army in the Second World War. Almost all of them were captured during the decisive Soviet "Operation Little Saturn" offensive in December 1942 which annihilated the Italian Army in Russia (Armata Italiana in Russia (ARMIR)).

Red Army 1917–1946 ground and air warfare branch of the Soviet Unions military

The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, frequently shortened to Red Army was the army and the air force of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and, after 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The army was established immediately after the 1917 October Revolution. The Bolsheviks raised an army to oppose the military confederations of their adversaries during the Russian Civil War. Beginning in February 1946, the Red Army, along with the Soviet Navy, embodied the main component of the Soviet Armed Forces; taking the official name of "Soviet Army", until its dissolution in December 1991.

Operation Little Saturn military operation

Operation Saturn, revised as Operation Little Saturn, was a Red Army operation on the Eastern Front of World War II that led to battles in the North Caucasus and Donets Basin regions of the Soviet Union from December 1942 to February 1943.

Italian participation in the Eastern Front

The Italian participation in the Eastern Front during World War II began after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, on 22 June 1941. To show solidarity with his Axis ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered a contingent of the Italian Royal Army to be prepared for the Eastern Front and, by early July, an Italian force was in transport.

At its height, the ARMIR was about 235,000 strong, and operated between December 1942 and February 1943 in support of the German forces engaged in and around Stalingrad. In this period the total figure of missing Italian soldiers amounted to 84,830 (Italian Ministry of Defence, 1977a 1977b). According to the Soviet archives, 54,400 Italian prisoners of war reached the Soviet prisoner camps alive; 44,315 prisoners died in captivity inside the camps, most of them in the winter of 1943.

Battle of Stalingrad Major battle of World War II

The Battle of Stalingrad was the largest confrontation of World War II, in which Germany and its allies fought the Soviet Union for control of the city of Stalingrad in Southern Russia.

A list of the soldiers' names, in Cyrillic, including date and place of death was yielded by the Russian authorities after 1989 (Italian Ministry of Defence, 1996). 10,085 prisoners were repatriated between 1945 and 1954. The individual fate of 30,430 soldiers, who died during the fighting and the withdrawal or after capture, is less well known. It is roughly estimated that about 20,000 men lost their lives due to the fighting and 10,000 men died between the time they became prisoners to the time they registered inside the camps.

Russian sources list the deaths of 28,000 of the 49,000 Italian war prisoners (according to them) in Soviet Union 1942-1954. [1]

The way to the POW camps

Travel to the destination camps in captivity covered hundreds of kilometres and was done mainly on foot. They were reported by survivors as the "davai" marches. "Davai!" is a Russian expression of urging, in this context meaning "keep moving!". The prisoners were escorted by Red Army, and often, partisans without mercy for those who fell down frozen or exhausted (Revelli, 1966). The transfer was completed by using freight trains, where many prisoners died of the extremely cold temperatures and lack of food.

Camps, treatment and causes of death

Suzdal 160, Tambov, Oranki, Krinovoje, Michurinsk, sited in Eastern European Russia, were the camps where most Italian POWs were detained in dismal conditions. Others were known just by their reference numbers, as Lager 58/c and Lager 171 (Italian Ministry of Defence, 1996). Typhus and starvation related diseases were the major causes of mortality inside the camps (Giusti, 2003). Brutality from the Soviet troops and partisans to unarmed prisoners was reported, but survivors testified also to episodes of comradeship among soldiers of the two opposing nations, especially on the front line (Rigoni Stern, 1965) and, compassion from the Russian civilians (Vio, 2004).

The Italian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union were subject to plenty of propaganda. The propaganda was delivered by Italian Communist cadres who had fled fascism in Italy to the Soviet Union, known in Italy as fuoriusciti, "people who left home" (Zilli, 1950). Despite allurements and threats most of the prisoners, particularly if not previously compromised by fascism, resisted the propaganda (Giusti, 2000). Prisoners' conditions improved greatly with the spring of 1943 because of Soviet Government concern and better camp administration, sharply increasing the food supply and the numbers of soldiers surviving.

War criminals

Most of the survivors were allowed to return to Italy in 1945-1946. In the same years, a group of Italian officers under detention were accused of war crimes and sentenced to many years of forced labour. After the death of Stalin the accusations proved to be false and they were released in 1954 (Reginato, 1965).

The Italians in the Soviet Union had not acted as occupation troops, and atrocities against partisans and civilians were therefore unlikely. Soviets captured by the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia, CSIR), which operated from July 1941 to June 1942, were delivered to the Germans and endured cruel treatment by the Nazis. After the establishment of the ARMIR, Soviet prisoners were kept in Italian custody in reasonable conditions. For instance, Russian POWs were fed with standard Italian Army rations (Ricchezza, 1978).

Reasons for forgotten tragedy

The issue of Italian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union remained a hot political topic in post-war Italy. It was never seriously investigated because of the Soviet authorities' unwillingness to yield information about the destiny of the tens of thousands of missing soldiers. Their case was used in an instrumental way by the centre-right parties which accused the Soviet Union of not returning its prisoners of war (Democrazia Cristiana manifesto, 1948), and denied as anti-communist propaganda by the left (Robotti) during the first democratic elections in Italy (1948). Unbiased information underpinning the size of the tragedy and an objective historical reconstruction came only after the fall of the Soviet Union (Giusti, 2003) when most public interest in Italy had already faded away.

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References

  1. Vadim Erlikman. Poteri narodonaseleniia v XX veke : spravochnik. Moscow 2004. ISBN   5-93165-107-1 Page 47

See also