Some unexpected results, hitherto unknown, of the failed attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler made by Klaus von Stauffenberg on 20 July 1944 have recently emerged. We are speaking of the liberation of close to 600.000 Italian prisoners from Nazi concentration camps with their status upgraded from “traitors” to “betrayed”. That was essentially due to the unrelenting action of Benito Mussolini, worried about the fate of thousands of Italian soldiers and officers kept in Germany, since the Badoglio Government – acting on orders issued by King Vittorio Emanuele III – on the 8th of September 1943 switched side, entering the war against Germany, on the side of the Allies.
Such an act, seen as a treachery by Adolf Hitler, led to the German invasion of Italy and to the creation of a new government headed by Mussolini, based in the North of Italy, which was named the Italian Social Republic, or R.S.I.
Il Duce tried repeatedly to use his influence on Hitler to obtain humane treatment for all the Italians in German Lagers but to no avail. Then he tried to discuss this matter during a meeting with Hitler at Klessheim, on 22-23 April 1944 but Hitler exploded with rage, refusing to discuss that matter. He had previously claimed that Italy would be treated worse than Poland…
The positive role played by Mussolini in this matter was already known in Italy, but only within academic circles and no serious discussion or research was ever attempted, because that would have been equivalent to endorse the R.S.I. a thing which, according to the Vulgata of the Resistance was unacceptable.
Things have changed since new documents, found in Italian and German archives, were made available.
It all begun on 18 November 2008, at the San Sabba concentration camp in Italy, when the then Foreign Affairs Minister of Italy, Franco Frattini and his German counterpart, Walter Steinmeier, agreed to the setting up of a special commission to investigate the fate of Italian prisoners in Germany during WWII.
The commission, made up of historians, like Gabriele Hammermann e Wolfgang Schieder, reached its conclusion in July 2012.
The results demonstrated that, from 20 July 1944 onward all Italian prisoners in Germany had received a better treatment, being considered equal in status of foreign workers and thus enjoying medical care, pension and payment of a salary. The Italian side of that commission, apparently, did not operate properly and, if they had have done it, historian Paolo Simoncelli claims, the results would have been astounding.
The status of 600.000 Italian prisoners, scattered in 66 different concentration camps, changed after the last meeting between Mussolini and Hitler, immediately after the bomb set up at Wolfsschanze by Stauffenberg, failed to kill the German dictator. On the same day, when Hitler went to the railway station to welcome Mussolini and a delegation of Italian ministers, he was still in shock, having been slightly wounded by the explosion. Thanks to notes and telegrams recently investigated, we know what happened: Mussolini took that opportunity to table again the discussion about the fate of the Italian prisoners and, surprisingly, Hitler accepted without discussion. Clearly he had more pressing matters in his mind at that point.
In August 1944 at the camp of Wittenau, Stalag D, in Berlin, an official ceremony was held to mark the destruction of walls and barbed-wires fences surrounding the 2000 Italians kept there. The undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Serafino Mazzolini, of the R.S.I. Republic gave a speech on that occasion. The same opening process went on in other camps during the following months. Ten of thousands remained behind in Germany to work as farmers or in factories and, at the end of the war, they returned to Italy to their families.
Here is the integral version, in Italian, of the article by Paolo Simoncelli:
(Published 18 June 2017 – © «Corriere della Sera» – La nostra storia)