Rome in World War II

Rome in World War II

By 1943, during the harrowing violence that saw bombs raining down just outside the walls of Rome in World War II, it became patently clear to all that Italy’s political dalliance with Nazi Germany was an egregious mistake of monumental proportions, driving the country ever closer to ruination. In a monumental act of defiance, the fascist Grand Council dismissed the infamous dictator Benito Mussolini, and the king, in a swift move, ordered his arrest.

In a desperate bid to evade the arm of justice, the deposed dictator fled north, leaving fascism to crumble ignominiously without any trace of violence. Rome in World War II, in turn, was declared an “open city,” effectively signifying its status as a demilitarized zone devoid of any military bases. The beleaguered Italian nation soon surrendered to the Allied Forces in a bid to extricate themselves from the morass of the war.

The king, seeking refuge and sanctuary, fled to the welcoming arms of Allied-occupied southern Italy, effectively abandoning Rome in World War II to the insidious clutches of the marauding Nazi forces, who proceeded to occupy it for a protracted and terrifying nine-month spell. It is worth noting that the Roman people and the Vatican forged a formidable alliance in a bid to save some of their beleaguered compatriots from the grasping hands of the Nazis.

However, even with the best of efforts, the Gestapo callously demanded a king’s ransom in gold- 50 kilos- from the Roman Jews, who valiantly mobilized every available resource and help from their non-Jewish compatriots to provide the payment. Despite their gallant efforts, over 2,000 Jews were eventually deported to the infamous concentration camps.

In a shocking reprisal, the Italian partisans, in a daring act of rebellion, planted a bomb near the Trevi Fountain, killing 32 German soldiers in the process. This provoked the retaliatory wrath of the Germans, who randomly selected over 300 prisoners from Rome’s prisons and summarily executed them. The tragic and gruesome nature of this incident, aptly referred to as the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, has been indelibly etched in the Italian consciousness.

As the Allied Forces marched ever closer to Rome in World War II, they resorted to bombing its environs, but studiously avoided the city center. Fortunately, the tables turned when Hitler granted the occupying Nazi troops permission to vacate the city, which he curiously and somewhat paradoxically declared a “place of culture” that should be immune to the ravages of combat operations.

In a show of solidarity, Pope Pius XII, in an unprecedented move, declared, “Whoever raises a hand against Rome will be guilty of matricide to the whole civilized world and in the eternal judgment of God.” The German troops finally left Rome in World War II, and on June 4, 1944, the jubilant and exhausted city welcomed the American troops with open arms, marking the end of a long and arduous journey to freedom.

Rome in World War II: All the Sites 

E.U.R. Rome

In the 1930s, Benito Mussolini, Italy’s authoritarian leader, envisaged an international exhibit, named the 1942 Exhibit Universal Rome (E.U.R.), to exhibit the marvels of his fascist regime. Alas, these wonders contributed to the advent of World War II, thus impeding II Duce’s festivities. In the 1950s, the uncompleted, colossal undertaking was finalized, and it now encompasses apartments, corporate and governmental establishments, and extensive yet scarcely frequented museums.

Had Mussolini and Hitler triumphed in the war, our contemporary world might mirror E.U.R. (AY-oor). Traverse E.U.R.’s vast, pedestrian-centered thoroughfares and witness patriotic murals, pillars extolling extreme right-wing ideals, and austere plazas adorning the spiritless, systematically planned grid, and sterile office edifices. Patriotic proclamations are etched into walls. The streets are named after Astronomy, Electronics, Social Security, and Beethoven, though they prove more arduous than inspiring. Mussolini, seeking to rival the ancients, erected a towering obelisk in the center of Piazza Marconi, in the likeness of a fascist-style monument.

Despite E.U.R.’s gloomy past, it has transformed into an affluent locale, with a blend of professionals and young people frequenting its fashionable cafes. The district’s renown rests on several architecturally significant modernist buildings. Architecture enthusiasts journey to E.U.R. to admire these landmarks. The futuristic convention center, “The Cloud,” nicknamed for its suspended glass box appearance, augments the district’s vitality.

E.U.R. is skirted by the Metro, with three stations only ten minutes from the Colosseum. Tourists can access the Palace of the Civilization of Labor via E.U.R. Magliana. The museum is located in the district’s center, and visitors can opt to take a twenty-minute stroll from the Palace to the museum.

Mussolini’s Balcony, Piazza Venezia

Upon his arrival at Palazzo Venezia, Mussolini wasted no time in transforming the building into the headquarters of his fascist government. He moved his office into the palace and began to hold regular meetings with his government officials in its lavish rooms. The balcony of the building became the site of many of Mussolini’s famous speeches, where he would address the masses below and rally them to the fascist cause.

Palazzo Venezia became the center of the fascist government’s operations, with various departments and agencies occupying its halls and chambers. Mussolini himself took up residence in the building and used its grandeur to bolster his image as a strong and powerful leader.

During his time at Palazzo Venezia, Mussolini oversaw a number of major events, including the invasion of Ethiopia and the establishment of the Italian Empire. The palace became a hub of activity, with diplomats, military leaders, and government officials all converging on its halls to discuss strategy and policy.

Today, Palazzo Venezia remains a symbol of Italy’s past, both the glory of its victory in World War I and the dark era of fascism that followed. The building has been restored and converted into a museum, with its many halls and rooms now displaying works of art and artifacts from throughout Italian history. Visitors can still see Mussolini’s office and the balcony from which he delivered his speeches, providing a glimpse into this complex and controversial figure’s legacy.

Stumbling Stones

Rome’s Stumbling Stones, or Stolpersteine, are a powerful and poignant commemorative project that memorialize the individual victims of the Holocaust. The initiative was created by Berlin artist Gunter Demnig in the early 1990s. Demnig personally embeds each brass stone outside the final abode of the victim, ensuring that the location of the stone makes sense to the relatives and descendants of those being commemorated.

The inscriptions on the brass stones are brief but haunting. They begin with the words “Qui Abitava” (here lived), followed by the name of the person, their date of birth, the date of their deportation to Auschwitz, and, where known, the date of their death. The intention of the Stumbling Stones is to commemorate the individual, as the Nazis viewed their victims as statistics.

In Rome, there are 200 Stolpersteine, with 12 located in the Jewish Ghetto and the rest dispersed across nine other Roman districts including Trastevere, Campo de’ Fiori, the Aventine Hill, and Prati. The stones are forever rooted in the fabric of the Eternal City, embedded outside the final home the victim chose to live in.

Since the installation of the first stone outside Cologne’s City Hall in 1992, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine have been created and installed in over 1,200 towns and cities throughout Europe, including Germany, France, Spain, Poland, and the Netherlands. The name Stolpersteine, meaning “stumbling stones,” was chosen by Demnig to provoke an emotional response from those who come across them, making them stumble mentally and emotionally as they confront the devastating history they represent.

Historical Museum of Liberation, Via Tasso

The Museum of the Liberation in Via Tasso, Rome is a powerful reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during their occupation of the Italian capital. The building, which once served as a prison for the Sicherheitspolizei under the command of Herbert Kappler, was a site of great suffering and torment for prisoners who were detained and tortured in an effort to extract information about the resistance movement.

The museum stands as a testament to this dark period in Italian history, providing visitors with a haunting glimpse into the lives of those who suffered here. With its cells largely preserved as they were during the occupation, the museum offers a deeply emotional experience that is difficult to forget.

The graffiti on the cell walls, written by prisoners with spikes and nails, offer poignant messages of farewell to loved ones, courage, faith, and love for their homeland. Among the detainees were around 2,000 men and women, including partisans, soldiers, and ordinary citizens. Many of them were killed in the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, which took place as a reprisal for a partisan attack in Via Rasella on March 23, 1944.

Visiting the Museum of the Liberation in Via Tasso provides a powerful reminder of the importance of understanding and confronting the darker moments of our collective history. It is a moving experience that serves as a tribute to the many people who suffered and lost their lives during this period of Italian history.

Museo della Liberazione

Via Rasella

Following the attack, Colonel Beelitz informed the supreme command in Germany, and General von Buttlar called him back with Hitler’s order to blow up the neighborhood, evacuate it, and shoot fifty civilians for every German. However, Beelitz understood that “it was not a question of a definitive order from Hitler, but of an outburst of anger at the moment.” He called Hauser, who recontacted von Buttlar, who spoke again with Hitler. He was still very excited and said that “the reprisal is the responsibility of the supreme command in Italy,” that is Kesselring. Kappler and Kesselring agreed that the maximum limit should be ten hostages for each soldier killed.

Following the attack, Colonel Beelitz informed the supreme command in Germany, and General von Buttlar called him back with Hitler’s order to blow up the neighborhood, evacuate it, and shoot fifty civilians for every German. However, Beelitz understood that “it was not a question of a definitive order from Hitler, but of an outburst of anger at the moment.” He called Hauser, who recontacted von Buttlar, who spoke again with Hitler. He was still very excited and said that “the reprisal is responsibility of the supreme command in Italy,” that is Kesselring. Kappler and Kesselring agreed that the maximum limit should be ten hostages for each soldier killed. The victims were to be chosen from among people “already under arrest for actions against German laws”.

Despite Hitler’s initial order, he was eventually convinced to accept the “10 Italians for every kill” quota, resulting in the Ardeatine massacre. The massacre sparked outrage and is still remembered as a dark moment in Italian history. At the trial against Nazi criminals in Rome after the war, SS Chief Dolmann admitted that “Rome has been the capital that gave us the hardest time.”

The Via Rasella attack and its aftermath serve as a reminder of the courage and sacrifice of the Italian Resistance during World War II and the brutal retaliation by the occupying German forces.

Via Rasella

Ardeatine Caves

The Ardeatine Caves and mausoleum are among the most poignant and enduring WWII landmarks in Rome.

On the 23rd day of March in 1944, the Italian resistance movement deployed a rubbish cart stuffed with 40 pounds of explosives into a procession of Nazi Order Police who paraded along the streets of Rome. The detonation resulted in the demise of 33 of them, 28 of whom met their end immediately while the remaining five succumbed to their injuries by the end of the day.

By nightfall, the leader of German police in Rome, Herbert Kappler, sanctioned by Hitler himself and with the support of other Nazi commanders in Rome, sanctioned a retaliatory act that called for the execution of ten Italians for each German that died in the attack. This act, unfortunately, was a common practice at the time, and a similar form of reprisal was executed after the Czech resistance assault in Prague.

Villa Torlonia

Villa Torlonia was constructed for the Torlonia family, a newly rich Italian family often compared to the Rockefellers of the 19th century.

During the 1920s, the infamous Italian dictator Mussolini took up residence in the Villa Torlonia, which had been rented from the Torlonia family for a mere one lira per year. While Mussolini did construct an air raid shelter and bunker beneath the villa, he did not make significant modifications to the building itself. Following the Allied High Command’s occupation of the villa from 1944 to 1947, the building was restored and transformed into an art museum. In late 2014, the public was granted access to Mussolini’s bunker, which had been sealed off for many years.

Despite long years of neglect, recent renovations have restored the vegetation and structures throughout the park.

The main palace, Casino Nobile, was designed by the celebrated architect Giuseppe Valadier, and boasts a magnificent neoclassical design with an impressive ballroom, frescoed salons, and a towering temple-like facade. Although the palace has been stripped of its furnishings and artistic masterpieces, certain salons still showcase valuable remnants of decor. Among these remnants are the reliefs crafted by Antonio Canova, a revered figure in the Italian neoclassical sculpture movement.

In stark contrast to the grandeur of the main palace is the Casina delle Civette (Little House of Owls), a charming example of the early 1900s Liberty style. The picturesque cottage-palace displays an array of majolica and stained-glass decorations, including windows adorned with owl motifs, making it a rare and often overlooked gem for devotees of 19th-century decorative arts. The small yet elegant Il Casino dei Principi (The House of Princes), also designed in part by Valadier, serves as a venue for temporary exhibits.

Foro Italico

The Foro Italico, previously known as the Foro Mussolini, is a sports complex located to the north of Rome’s historic center. Built during Mussolini’s regime, the complex features a large marble obelisk bearing the words “Mussolini Dux” and pavement mosaics reading “Duce, Duce, Duce.” One of the main attractions of the complex is the Stadio dei Marmi sports stadium, which houses 60 marble statues of nude male athletes representing each of Italy’s provinces. Notably, even the statue representing skiing is depicted in the nude. The Foro Italico was used for the 1960 Olympics and features various other sports facilities, including a tennis stadium, two pools, and the Olympic stadium, which hosts soccer matches. The sports complex is a prime example of Rationalist architecture and a lasting legacy of Mussolini’s vision for Italy.

The Pyramid of Cestius and St. Paul’s Gate

The Pyramid of Cestius, located near St. Paul’s Gate in Rome, is a monumental tomb that was built in 12 BC for the wealthy praetor Gaius Cestius. Standing at a height of 120 feet, it was designed in the form of a pyramid and was once a part of the Aurelian Walls. Not much is known about the life of Cestius, but it is evident that he had a taste for grandeur and liked to showcase his travels to far-flung parts of the early Roman Empire.

Today, the pyramid is a part of the Cimitero Acattolico and is a popular tourist attraction in Rome. It was recently restored with the help of a €1 million donation from Japanese fashion tycoon Yuzo Yagi. However, due to COVID-19 precautions, the interior of the pyramid remains closed to visitors at present.

The pyramid also has historical significance as it was the site of a valiant attempt by Italian men, women, and children to stop the German forces from entering Rome on September 10, 1943. Italian military, police, and cadets fought alongside civilians armed with clubs and knives in an effort to defend the city. Today, the site has several memorial plaques that honor the 597 people who lost their lives in this tragic event.

Guided visits to the Pyramid of Cestius are available on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, although reservations are required. Despite its historical and architectural significance, it is important to remember that the pyramid is, first and foremost, a tomb and should be treated with the respect and solemnity that such sites deserve.

San Lorenzo

Rome in World War II. San Lorenzo area was heavily affected by American bombing on two occasions in July and August of 1943. The attacks caused significant damage to the area, including the basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, which was later restored. Today, the neighborhood is known for its vibrant atmosphere, with a large number of students and faculty from nearby universities. The area also boasts numerous artist studios and galleries, lending a bohemian and creative feel to the neighborhood.

The Rome War Cemetery

The Rome War Cemetery is a site dedicated to the memory of 426 Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives during World War II. Situated near the Pyramid, the cemetery was established soon after the Allies took control of Rome on June 3, 1944. The cemetery serves as the final resting place for soldiers who died in Rome and the surrounding regions, as well as those who passed away while being held as prisoners of war in Rome. The cemetery stands as a solemn reminder of the sacrifices made by these soldiers in the pursuit of freedom and peace.

The Jewish Ghetto

The Jewish Ghetto is an area in Rome that holds a tragic history from WWII. On October 16, 1942, the Nazis conducted a raid on the Portico d’Ottavia, rounding up around 1,000 Jews and deporting them to concentration camps. Sadly, only 16 of them survived. Today, a plaque on one of the buildings in the area commemorates the tragic event. The message on the plaque reads, “On October 16, 1943, here began the merciless rout of the Jews. The few who escaped murder and many others, in solidarity, pray for love and peace from mankind and pardon and hope from God.”

What happened in Rome during WW2?

In the annals of human conflict, it is rare to find instances where the addition of a new adversary could potentially harm one’s enemy more than oneself. Yet, in a peculiar manner, this was the case with Mussolini’s Italy.

The entry of Italy into the war was met with much pomp and pageantry, but it swiftly devolved into a fiasco. Despite the fact that the Italian army in Libya far outnumbered the British forces in Egypt, it moved with a lethargy that proved perilous, adopting a hazardous formation wherein individual units were dispersed too widely. This left them open to being ensnared and obliterated by the ensuing British counter-attack. The aftermath of Operation Compass, launched in late 1940 and early 1941, saw more than 100,000 Italian soldiers being taken captive, for a loss of just over 550 British soldiers killed and missing. Germany was thus compelled to intervene with Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which went on to clinch stunning victories throughout 1941 and 1942, but was ultimately vanquished, culminating in a net loss of German resources, as thousands of Axis troops were forced to surrender in Tunisia in 1943.

Italy’s ineptitude was also conspicuous in the Balkans and Mediterranean theaters. Italy’s attempt to invade Greece in 1940 was soundly repelled by highly motivated Greek troops, who had the advantage of both terrain and fortifications. The Italian debacle in Greece emboldened an anti-German insurrection in Yugoslavia, necessitating a massive German intervention in the Balkans during April-May of 1941. It has been conjectured that this delay may have spelled disaster for the German invasion of Russia that summer, as the month that could have been used to move towards Moscow was instead expended in seizing Belgrade and Athens.

At sea, the Italian Navy, which had been hyped as a force that could challenge the Royal Navy for dominion over the Mediterranean, proved to be more useful as a fleet-in-being than an actual combat fleet. Even then, it was rendered powerless by the British raid on Taranto Harbor, where bi-plane torpedo bombers sank several Italian battleships, crippling the Italian Regia Marina’s ability to thwart British convoys that kept the vital base of Malta operational. This enabled Britain to assail Axis convoys traversing between Italy and Africa with impunity.

Overall, Italy’s performance in the Second World War was an utter catastrophe, resulting in Germany having to divert resources far from where they were most required – on the Eastern Front. The Italian army, charged with guarding the German flanks at Stalingrad, famously crumbled under a Russian assault, paving the way for the encirclement of the German 6th Army in the city. While it is impossible to determine with certainty whether Italy’s neutrality would have been more beneficial to Germany, there is little doubt that the Italian contribution to the war failed to outweigh the cost of keeping it afloat.

Why was Rome bombed in WW2?

On July 19, 1943, the United States bombed railway yards in Rome as part of an effort to break the will of the Italian people to resist the Allied advance. This attack came just days after President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appealed to the Italian civilian population to reject Mussolini and Hitler and “live for Italy and civilization.” The American bombers destroyed Rome’s railways, causing panic among the Roman population, who had been convinced by Mussolini that the Allies would not bomb the holy city. The bombing not only shook their sense of security but also their confidence in their leader.

This attack was not the only blow to Mussolini’s regime. Hitler himself had grown increasingly concerned about the state of affairs in Italy. He feared that Mussolini, having suffered successive military setbacks, would sue for a separate peace, leaving the Germans alone to battle it out with Allied forces along the Italian peninsula. In an attempt to revive Mussolini’s flagging spirits and address his deficiencies as a leader, Hitler met with him in northern Italy. However, Mussolini remained uncharacteristically silent during the meeting, partly due to his own poor German and partly due to his fear of Hitler’s response should he tell the truth about Italy’s military situation.

Despite Mussolini’s efforts to maintain a brave front, the reality was that Italy was beaten and could not continue to fight. Within a week of the Rome in World War II bombing, events took a stunning turn. On July 25, 1943, Mussolini was ousted from power by his own Fascist Party and arrested. This marked a turning point in the war in Italy, as the new government immediately sought a separate peace with the Allies.

The bombing of Rome in World War II and Hitler’s meeting with Mussolini illustrate the complex political and military dynamics at play during World War II. The Allies sought to break the will of the Italian people to resist, while Hitler sought to prop up his Italian ally and prevent a separate peace. Ultimately, events on the ground dictated the course of the war, and Italy’s military collapse led to the downfall of Mussolini and a new phase in the conflict.

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