Emanuele Sica is professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada. He answered some questions about his book Mussolini’s Army in the French Riviera: Italy’s Occupation of France.
Q: Was the occupation of the French Riviera in World War Two a “friendly” one?
Emanuele Sica: I would not categorize it as friendly, as we have to remember that any military occupation, particularly in the Second World War, is an intrusion in the everyday life of the local population. And that was the case too of the Italian occupation of France: curfews were enforced, troops were billeted in public buildings such as schools or French military barracks and officers in private houses, there were occasional round-ups of civilians. What I posit is that the Italian occupation, as opposed to the Italian one in the Balkans or the German one in southeastern France in 1944, never degraded into wanton violence and atrocities. This relative moderation stemmed from the conflation of two factors: the war contingency which humbled Italian commanders in seeking accommodation with the local populace and the cultural proximity between occupiers and occupied.
Q: Did the French population come to depend on their occupiers?
Sica: Occupiers and occupied certainly established a variety of different relationships, either formal or informal, throughout the occupation period. Love stories abound, as in the German occupation area, and that is hardly a surprise given the number of French men missing in POWs camps and the precariousness of being a lone woman in a patriarchal society as the French one. What I found interesting is how much the Italian soldiers participated in black market activities with local civilians, and to that effect, they certainly developed symbiotic relationships. However, as a whole, 140,000 more adult mouths to feed were a huge strain for the food distribution system in a region already touched by stringent rationing.
Q: Were there a number of people with Italian heritage in the occupied area? Did that change the dynamics between the soldiers and the local population?
Sica: Yes, and this factor indeed played an important role in shaping the Italian occupation policy. Depending on the area, up to one quarter of the population was of Italian descent, and in some cases, were still Italian citizens. Arguably, a common heritage and culture smoothed the angles of a difficult cohabitation at a time of heavy rationing and political uncertainty over the fate of France, and in particular of the Côte d’Azur, bound in the mind of Fascist apologists to be annexed to Italy. This cultural proximity was crucial to explain the relative moderation of the Italian policy in southeastern France. Officers and soldiers were more disinclined to mete out harsh punishments to civilians who looked alike, and in some cases, were, their own family. As opposed to the Italian occupation in the Balkans, where Italian occupiers considered the Slavs as nothing more than “feral beasts” in need to be tamed, no such racism existed with the population in southeastern France. On the contrary, a common language and heritage not only kept the incidents to a minimum, but also favored lasting relationships.
Q: Was there much of a fascist political presence in the Riviera before the occupation?
Sica: In the interwar years, two political groups were present on French soil: on one hand, the fuoriusciti, the Leftist Italian emigration fleeing the clutches of Mussolini’s regime, and the Fascists, often grouped around Italian state-agencies such as consulates and the Italian cultural institutes, the Dante Alighieri and Case d’Italia. During the Italian occupation, both groups activated themselves with two contrasting goals: left-wing emigrants joined the ranks of the local Resistance and were particularly useful in promoting defeatist propaganda in the Italian rank-and-file. On the other hand, local Fascists were used by the Italian authorities both to spearhead a prospective annexation of the French Riviera and to help with the day-to-day routine of the occupation. For instance, lacking intelligence on the ground, Italian officers relied on local informants to find fuoriusciti. It is worth noting though that the grand majority of the Italian diaspora in the French Riviera were apolitical. In truth, either out of fear for possible reprisal from French employers or Vichy regime officials, or perhaps simply because of the focus on surviving, the majority of the Italian community did not partake in any political activities
Or so they thought, as even most did not understand that every action or social activity linked to the Italian occupiers, no matter how innocuous could be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of Italian annexationist ideas. And in the postwar war purges, thousands of Italians will be prosecuted for intelligence avec l’ennemi (high treason).
Q: How did the Italian “Jewish Policy” differ from other Axis-occupied areas?
Sica: The Italian Jewish policy in the occupation of France was arguably one of a kind in that in virtually no other Axis-occupied territory were the Jews treated so leniently. Directives both from the Italian General Staff and the Italian foreign ministry trickled down on various commanders to ensure no Jew in the Italian zone should be delivered to Vichy or German authorities. On the contrary, a comprehensive aid network under the auspices of Italian civil and military authorities developed, with the help of an Italian Jewish banker, Angelo Donati. Jewish refugees were channeled to Alpine hamlets and protected by the Italian army, living a relatively normal life, provided they showed up twice per day to the local Italian garrison. This benevolent attitude probably stemmed from different prestige factors. On one hand, the Italians used the Jewish issue to challenge the sovereignty of the French Riviera from the Vichy regime. What is more, protecting the Jews was also a way to demarcate the Italian policy from the German obsession on the annihilation of the Jews. To be sure, the Italian army was also less anti-Semitic than its German counterpart, and eager to help shielding the Jews.