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The War Nerd / April 10, 2011

I’ve been thinking it might be a good idea to do the Sunday blog on war books. The only problem is, there are so many great ones it’s hard to decide which one to start with.

I’ve noticed one thing about war books, kind of a rule: the more messed-up the war, the better the books. That’s why there are so many great books about Vietnam but no really good ones about the US forces in WW II. In Nam we had no strategy, so we sent small units out into the bush to trigger ambushes. Terrible way to fight a war but a great way to start a million stories. Whereas in WW II we were doing intelligent large-unit combat with a coherent strategic plan, which made for a great victory but no good books I know of. Maybe I’m wrong there; anybody know any great war memoir by an American soldier in WW II? If you do, I’ll bet you in advance it’s by an American who was involved in one of the less successful, more messed-up theaters of the war.

The best WW II memoir I know about The Sergeant in the Snow, by Mario Rigoni Stern.

Mario Rigoni Stern

Just proves my bad-war-equals-good-memoir theory, that the best WW II memoir would be by an Italian, because you can’t get much more messed up than Italy’s adventures in WW II, and this guy went through the worst of them, the encirclement of the Italian forces in Ukraine in the winter of 1942-43. Mussolini had sent a small Italian contingent along on Operation Barbarossa. So did almost every European country east of Germany; when the Wehrmacht has just conquered all of Western Europe while losing only 30,000 kia in the process, they sure look like a winner, and everybody wanted shares in the company. Nobody in Europe discovered that “Fascism is a bad thing” until Stalingrad fell, when they all sorta had the big born-again moment while pissing their pants in terror.
So in the Summer of 1942, the Italians doubled down on their Eastern Front contribution, sending almost a quarter of a million soldiers to man a section of the Wehrmacht’s line along the Don River in Ukraine. Some of those units were good, especially the Alpini.

 

Alpini on the Eastern Front

The Italian Army had developed very good mountain troops and tactics fighting the Austrians in the Alps in WW I, and the three divisions of Alpini Mussolini sent east could have made a real contribution if they’d been assigned to the Caucasus, where they were supposed to go. But the Germans were always too arrogant to use their allies effectively, and they did it again this time, sending these mountain troops to hold the line in flat farmland along the Don where all their training was wasted, and their small, portable weaponry was guaranteed to be outgunned by massed Soviet armor.

Mario Rigoni Stern, the man who wrote The Sergeant in the Snow, was a sergeant in the Tridentina Division of the Alpini, the best of all. His book describes the quiet time, almost happy, when he and his division held the line by the river, and then the collapse of the whole line in mid-winter. Only a few of the Italians on the Eastern Front made it out of “the Bag” the Soviets caught most of the Wehrmacht’s allied armies in that winter. Rigoni Stern was one of the few to escape, and to his dying day (he lived until 2008), the thing that made him proudest is that he led a group of 70 Italian soldiers out of that bag without losing a single one.

You might notice that his name isn’t classic Italian: “Rigoni Stern.” He was a mountain kid, from the quasi-German mountains in Northern Italy, where the people are tough and don’t have the tradition of bowing and scraping to the aristocracy the way they did further south. You have to remember that until 1945, most of Central and Eastern Europe either was German or was pretending to be German or had an ambition to become German some day. Rigoni Stern was from one of those parts, and it can’t have been much of a stretch for him to find himself in the battle-line with the Wehrmacht. But like I said, the Third-Reich vintage Germans were totally arrogant and stupid about their allies; they could have had all Ukraine on their side, the way Stalin tried to wipe the Ukrainian peasantry out, but they treated the locals like garbage…which is why after 1945, instead of everyone from Zagreb to Alsace claiming to be German, you had people from Dusseldorf trying to convince everybody they were “Swiss.”

The Sergeant in the Snow is one tiny story in that huge long disaster, but it doesn’t waste any time on the big picture. It’s told from the view of Rigoni Stern himself, and like most of my favorite war books it’s mostly about food. Seriously, this is one thing I’ve noticed: one thing you can count on in a good war book is some great descriptions of food. I guess because food is so iffy, and so precious, when you’re on the front. Food and warmth, those are the big things in this book, which is natural when the author’s describing an army retreating through a Russian winter.

The first part of the book is almost happy: Stern and his fellow Alpini are dug in along the Don, making the best of it, trying to find better food, telling stories, keeping watch, doing all the things guys in a small unit do to keep busy on a static front. Nobody is that eager for combat, not the Italians, or the Rumanians and Hungarians beside them, or even the Russians emplaced across the river. Everybody’s hoping things can stay static.

They don’t, of course. But once you’ve read this part, you’ll never forget the weird dreamy happiness of just having a good meal in the bunker, laughing at the weird way guys from different parts of Italy say things, passing the time. Maybe war makes people appreciate the little stuff more; I don’t know. All I know is that in English class you have to read novels about people like that Gatsby who have everything, they’re young, rich, cool, etc.—and they’re totally miserable. In most war novels the guys are filthy and scared and can’t even shave, but they can talk for a page about how wonderful a piece of cheese from home tastes and make you feel it too. I’ve noticed prison stories are the same, nobody really wants to talk tough, they want to talk about the time somebody brought a package from home.

Then the book shifts gears fast. The line collapses for a hundred miles on either side and the Alpini have to get out. On foot, mostly. Stern is great describing walking through the snow. In fact the book starts with a line like, “My head is still full of the sound of snow crunching under my boots.” The Alpini are tough guys, and they stay out of “The Bag” long enough to get back inside the Wehrmacht’s new defensive line. But the real fun reading this is the little stuff Stern goes through along the way. You realize what a multi-ethnic quilt of an army the Wehrmacht was on the Eastern Front. You don’t see many Germans in this book. You meet everybody else east of the Rhine: Hungarians, Croats, Rumanians, Czechs, all the little pilot fish that were happy to swim along with the German shark until it got netted.

The fighting in the book is like the rest of it, almost drugged out, slowed down in the cold. Nobody really wants to go outside and fight. They want to go inside somewhere and stop marching, have something to eat, to keep the furnace going, keep the core temperature up. Once Stern ducks into a hut and finds a coed Soviet army squad slurping up the borsch. They can see he’s one of the enemy, but this is a serious war book, meaning it’s about comfort and food. So they shove him a bowl and keep slurping.

Stern made it out and kept his men with him. About 140,000 of the quarter-million men the Italians sent east weren’t so lucky.

But then “luck” was kinda relative if you were in Eastern Europe in 1943. There wasn’t a lot of luck to go around. Stern made it out of the Soviet trap all right, but then the Italians decided to hang Mussolini upside-down on a meathook and the Germans got peeved. The Wehrmacht that had “rescued” Stern sent him to an internment camp. Well, even so, that probably was good luck by the local standards.

In some ways The Sergeant in the Snow reads like a fantasy story. That’s how gone that world is. It doesn’t seem like there ever could have been this cold European world where little countries actually did things, sent their wacky soldiers to the big army like the more outlandish tribes in the Persian Empire. When you’ve finished this book, you don’t really think about battle maps or military history; you remember that crunch of the snow and the long, long convoys in retreat, and all the weird little tribes jabbering at each other in a dozen languages in the snow, and how great food is.

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111 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Korman643  |  April 14th, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    @Ludo I can see why “Guerra” may be difficult for someone not familiar with Italian partisan warfare, as a good knowledge of the political complications, treachery and Byzantine stuff that characterized it and of the terrain (the Western Alps) makes the experience much more interesting. So for me live very close to those “unloved battlefields” (thanks WN for that definition) and knowing all the historical tidbids make it probably much more special. If you happen to come in NW Italy sometime in the future make sure you take the time to hike in Valle Gesso or Val Maira – they’re still beautiful, untouched places and you may learn a lot about warfare there just simply walking.

    About Russia, one of the things that takes Rigoni Stern apart from Revelli is that Rigoni Stern had done the whole bloody “via crucis” in the Western Front, Grecia, Albania before going to Russia. And he was a real peasant, with very little illusions about the war itself. And he had absolutely no respect whatsoever for official culture (he liked just the books he liked and had a great dislike for teachers all his life). He once said “any ignorant farmer need to know much more than any banker – we need to know about biology, chemistry, meteorology, a banker doesn’t know shit”. He also said once that for him paradise was an eternity wandering in a snowy forest.

    Revelli was an officer, he came into the war as a committed fascist, really believing they where in for some great adventure. And he had a “respectable” cultural background. So his experience was in some way much more traumatic – losing his innocence, to use a clicheè. He was a tough bastard and a very good soldier (he “loved” combat much more than Rigoni Stern did), but he seemed to have been embittered by a life long streak of unhappiness.

    It’s interesting that two different people like Rigoni Stern and Revelli could become friends. I think that what they had in common (with Levi too) was that burning, all encompassing love for mountains.

    Of Rigoni Stern, did you read “History of Tonle”?

    There’s also Primo Levi short story called “Iron” from its “The Periodic System” that he dedicated to Revelli and Stern. It deals with mountains of course, and (in more than one way) with warfare.

  • 2. Korman643  |  April 14th, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Ciao Stefano,

    ah, Trenches. Forgot about that. Very good book. I’ve read it just after discovering that Salsa had collaborated with Monicelli in “The Great War”.

    I agree that maintaining cohesion and combat effectiveness was a big feat for those alpine unit. However, basically only “Tridentina” Division was combat worthy by Nikolaevka’s time. “Julia” had been vaporized at Valujki, and “Cuneense” held on just a bit more. I believe that the asset “Tridentina” had was closer ties between the soldiers and better officiers. But they had a close call too.

    There’s a decent ’91 book by Alessandro Massignani, “Alpini e Tedeschi sul Don” that makes a convincing case about the XXIV Panzer Korps and the Alpini doing a rather good job collaborating to break out from the Russian encirclement. I’m quite sure than the less short sighted elements of the German army did realize quite soon that it was a bad case of “keep together or perish”. However collaboration didn’t last much after Nikolaevka – actually it ended as soon as the XXIV PzKp linked again with the rest of the Pz Armee.

    The rest of the Italian Army was more or less luggage, maybe except the “Torino”.

  • 3. Ludo Totem  |  April 15th, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Yes, Korman I’ve read the Tönle book, and probably everything else Rigoni Stern wrote, except maybe a few newspaper articles that have never appeared in books. I’ve even translated some of his shorter pieces: one with the strange title “[…]” and “Che magro che sei, fratello” for example.

    I wonder, though, if Revelli and Rigoni Stern were really all that much different. Rigoni was of peasant stock, to be sure, but if I remember right he volunteered for the military–whereas the peasants whose testimony Revelli takes in “La strada del davai” or “Il mondo dei vinti” rarely had more than three or four years of schooling and joined the military only when they were conscripted–and didn’t Rigoni Stern’s family own a shop in the center of Asiago? I would put Rigoni Stern somewhere between a “warmonger” like Revelli and the poor devils who tell their stories in Revelli’s books of testimonies.

    Until at least “Il disperso di Marburg,” there’s a lot of anger, a lot of indignation, in Revelli’s books–that’s partly why they’re so good–but I’m not sure I’d say his life was one of lifelong unhappiness.

  • 4. Stefano  |  April 15th, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Ciao Korman

    I did not read that Massignani book; however, the point seems quite credible. As long as the Alpini retained some fighting power (and supplies) it was quite convenient to team up with them, even for the Germans: they also were in the pocket, after all.

    However, I would like to remember the short story in the Rigoni book “Ritorno sul Don”, about the straggling Alpino who spends the night in yet another Ukrainian peasant cabin, and unexpectedly hears somebody speaking his “dialetto”. I found it heartbreaking (*).

    But since this is not War-Nerdish, I salute you (a polenta-eater on the Exiledonline!)

    (*) Btw, I heard later that in WWI a lot of Trentini actually fell on the Eastern Front.

  • 5. Xenophon's Mama  |  April 17th, 2011 at 9:03 am

    @postman
    What email can I reach you at? As a fellow victim of censorship we have much to relate.
    exiledisstasi@yepmail.net is a good one to find me at. I’m curious what you actually said before you were censored by the man. censored eXiled comment trolls unite!

  • 6. Korman643  |  April 17th, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    @Ludo: Yes, the Rigoni family had a “bottega” (“Stern” is the family nickname)in Asiago trading diaries made in the mountains with stuff taken in the plain. Good to avoid starving, but not anything particularly lucrative. Mario volunteered for the Aosta war school because it would have conscripted anyway (draft was a compulsory three years affair back then) and volunteering was a good way to choose the place you wanted to to the training camp. Aosta was – and still his – ideal if you’re into climbing and hiking and skiing, and was a good chance for a country lad to enter the Alpine Corp sport units (btw, the German Alpenkorps had the same type of units). The war ruined everything.
    Revelli was from Cuneo’s middle class, and had a family rich enough to allow him to get a high school degree. Cuneo is/was not Asiago, it’s a relatively big centre with a long history of trade with France and everything. And Revelli originally was seriously into Fascism and the militay and being an officer (he went to Modena, Italy’s West Point).
    You’re right about Revelli resentment. But that’s the main difference between the war experience in the Italian NE and the Italian NW. In the NE there was a lot of bad shit going on (particularly in Friuli with all Titoist, Italians, Germans, White Russians fighting each other – there was even a German brigade fighting for the Partisans!) but generally things got relatively smooth (lot of killings, make no mistake). In the NW it went totally out of control. My father was 10 years old in 1944, and the stuff he had to see was unbelievable (Pancho Montana could sympathize) and the whole moral compass of it absolutely messed up. Revelli first had to endure the sense of betrayal generated by the Russian debacle, then came up home and get the local version of Mordor for two years. But you may read “Marburg” as the whole thing gone full circle – Revelli went to Russia wanting to be “German”, and 50 years later he somehow made peace with that.

  • 7. Korman643  |  April 17th, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Ciao Stefano:

    the problem XXIV PzKrp faced was that, by Little Saturn/Ostrogorzk-Rossoš time, they had no shock troops left there (because anything resembling that was being wasted north of Stalingrad). The best next thing they had in the Don area were the Alpini. Everything else, including the German chain of command, simply broke down (Rigoni’s statement is “they were a good Army as long as things were good”).

    So Julia/Cuneense got used as a shield, and Tridentina as a sledgehammer (they had good artillery too). The Germans had a bit of armour and mobility, plus the heavy MGs to provide volume of fire. The Russians were really thin there, thus the thing worked relatively fine, even with enormous losses. But the second part of the deal was that once out the German had to provide supplies and transportation, and what they did was to say “Hey, fuck you guys, nice to have known you, see you in Kharkov.” Results – a bunch of heavily armed, motivated, trained guy who comes home wanting nothing but settle the score.
    The funny thing is that it wouldn’t have been enough to trigger a full scale guerrilla warfare, if it wasn’t for the stupidity of a single individual, namely Johannes Peiper. The moron, who was stationed with most of the 1° W-SS Pz Div “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” in Cuneo in Autumn 1943 for a short R&R, was nostalgic for the steppes and having a bad case of massacre withdrawal. So he decides, shortly after the Italian surrender in Oct. 1943, to destroy an entire village (Boves, near Cuneo), murder all the inhabitants, burning them alive – just for kicks. Bingo! What could have been a been for the German Army a nice and peaceful rear line resort including nice food and wine, becomes the 1943 version of Ciudad Juarez, minus the mariachi music and the dope. And Kesserling is suddendly forced to commit 10 divisions, badly needed somewhere else, to try keeping the supply lines open and the area somehow under control.

    As the WN would probably say, a military genius may be not enough to win a war, but a military moron is always enough to help losing one!

    Trentini in WWI – yes! A lot of them fought with the Austrian in the Brusilov offensive (WN, please, we want to read about that one). Mostly used as cannon fodder, I’m afraid.

    All that is very war-nerdish of course! And I suspect there are more polenta-eaters than people may suspect

  • 8. Ludo Totem  |  April 18th, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Thanks for the extra info, Korman. I like having the chance to discuss Revelli and Rigoni virtually because I don’t know anybody who’s read either!

    I’d be interested in knowing some of the titles of some good books on the Italian campaign in the Balkans. I’ve read only Rigoni’s “Quota Albania.”

  • 9. Korman643  |  May 14th, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    @Ludo, many apologies for not seeing this before, in case you may check this thread, THE book on the Albania front you’ve to read (beside Rigoni’s) is of course “La Guerra di Albania” by Giancarlo Fusco, was re-published by Sellerio (those Sicilian guys who’ve done truckload of money with Camilleri!) in 2006.

    It’s an absolute hoot, typical Fusco half-fun, half sad “I was there and I had a big time despite the circumstances” series of vignettes, masterfully written, you’ll love it. And by the way, try reading anything you may find written by Fusco. He was a genius of Italian journalism, long overdue for a rediscovery (they made a movie about his life title “The Snake Enchanter” in 2009 but no one saw it). He had an incredible life – soldier, dancer, Marseille gangland member, journalist, character actor in many great no budget Italian comedies of the 70’s. Died utterly broke in 1984 after wasting every single cent he had in prostitutes, alcohol and prostitutes (again), despite being a workhaholic who had not been out of writing work since the end of the war (he had a very popular daily column on “Il Giorno).

    He wrote some astonishing stuff, “Duri a Marsiglia” (his semi-autobiographical evocation of the Marseille underworld of the 30’s ) is considered a great classic. My personal favourite of his (besides “Albania”) is “Gli Indesiderabili”, a book on the destiny of 120 small time mafia bosses who got forcibly repatriated from the US at the end of the war, and without local connections ended up as pathetic small crime crooks (mostly running scams or prostitution rings in the Italian night club scene of the 60’s). Great book.

    And you must check out Giancarlo Fusco acting – here’s a cameo he did in Ciccio Ingrassia “Ku Fu – Dalla Sicilia con Furore”, the ultimate kung fu movie parody. He’s the fat restaurant owner at 05:30 in this clip.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p34AbPTWtkY

    Again, not sure you’ll ever read this, but just in case…

  • 10. Ludo Totem  |  June 2nd, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks, Korman. The Fusco stuff sounds interesting; I’ll be on the lookout for it.

  • 11. Antonio  |  April 10th, 2015 at 3:26 am

    Mario Rigoni “Stern”….
    Stern is the historic surname his family had (in Italy lots of families still know each other by surnames, coming from “dialects”, especially in small villages)…does not mean he was/had German roots!!!
    As an example the historic surname of my family is “Jallaqa” – and I have no Arabs roots at all!!
    The stereotype caused a big fail here for you, War Nerd


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