Venetian Officer Lt. Col. Antonio Zitelli and the Italian Tragedy in Montenegro

Zitelli’s first-hand report, which the Venetian high officer wrote upon his return from Montenegro to Italy, describes the tragedy of the Italian troops abandoned to their fate on the evening of September 8, 1943.

Versione Italiana

Avvenimenti dopo l’armistizio
La relazione del tenente colonnello Antonio Zitelli (Montenegro, 1941-1944)
Cura e introduzione di Federico Goddi
Presentazione e profilo biografico di Andreina Zitelli
Prefazione di Amedeo Osti Guerrazzi
Biblion Edizioni

At this point I think it appropriate to recall that around 8 pm I had telephoned the Command of the VI C.d’A. – the Operations Office – from where Lt. Col. Tricomi answered me, and I said: “What are you doing?”. And he replied: “Nothing for now, maintain discipline” and the communication was cut off. (page 46)

These few lines of the report by Lieutenant Colonel Zitelli (Venice, 1897-1976) contain the whole tragedy, bordering on the grotesque, of the Italian troops who were abandoned to their fates – it must be said – on the evening of September 8, 1943 in Montenegro, which they had occupied since 1941. The report that the high officer (who had previously been decorated in the First World War and had been in prison after Caporetto) drew up upon his return to Italy and which he would then continue to refine until the Seventies (it would conclude his brilliant career as a General) is, as Osti Guerrazzi rightly defines it in the Preface, “the objective gaze of a war technician”. The report is a precious and rare document for its precise and almost sterile approach, which imparts to us the enormous complexity of the Balkan war scenario in the part of the former Yugoslavia occupied by fascist troops in 1941. Zitelli’s account, which finds its watershed in armistice day, allows us to take a broader look at the Italian presence and occupation tactics within the framework of a strategy that saw the project of an independent Montenegro under the aegis of Rome – a project that failed to the extent that Italy was forced to concentrate over one hundred thousand soldiers in that small territory to counter an increasingly strong and dangerous resistance.

Antonio Zitelli, captain of the 6th Regiment. Campaign art, in 1935.

In his official report, officer Zitelli also analyzes the enemy, which is unusual for an instrument of analysis and reporting requested by the Army General Staff, noting that Tito’s partisans, who were initially irregular bands, acquired the traits of a regular army between 1943 and 1944. He contrasts the partisan units with the collaborationist ethnic militias, criticizing their brutality towards Muslims. He also recognizes Italian repressions, such as those of the Pusteria Division, but considers them to be a reaction (perhaps excessive?) to the situation, which was increasingly unfavorable to the occupying troops. Zitelli offers advanced reflections on transitional justice, exploring issues of post-conflict justice precisely on the topic of violence committed against civilians:

On this topic of reprisals the partisans do not want to hear reasons; they opine that “no rights belong to the occupier”; but I thought that, even accepting this thesis, if there is to be a judgment on the matter regarding Montenegro, it will have to be taken into account that, while denying any rights to the occupier as such, the rights of human dignity remain, and there is a line that cannot be crossed without offending the universal value of civilization with barbarity and torture. In my opinion, it will be a question of establishing who has crossed this line, and whether or not in certain specific cases the occupier, as well as the occupied, has the right and duty to stop those who have crossed it, in the name not of one’s own interest, but that of all humanity. (page 25)

Before leaving, they exhaustively asked me who was giving the orders for the reprisals, since, as an officer of the C.d’A Command, I had to know. While pointing out that this topic did not involve the C.d’A Command, my office, I could only clarify things known to all, namely that the orders came to the C.d’A from the Governorate of Montenegro, where they were evidently given by the Governor, who, on the other hand, did not allow any other policy other than his own, and thus that no reprisals could be carried out without his order (naturally excluding the judgments of the War Tribunal and events due to operational contingencies). (page 26)

The expert high officer (who directed the Information Office at the Troop Command of the XIV C.A. at Podgorica) takes an attentive look above all at the inadequacies, delays and inability of the Italian troops and of the Commands in particular, too often forced to act in situations that became emergencies due to the lack of planning, of an overall strategic vision, in an increasingly precarious war scenario which will find its definitive dissolution in the armistice.

Zitelli astride a coastal artillery battery

In those hectic hours and days of September 8th (“What are you doing?” Almost an echo of “everyone go home”) Zitelli made a choice that is in line with his military career but also with his personal training (his father a Mazzinian and Freemason, his mother a devout Catholic) whose reference text was Confessions of an Italian. He not only decided to not collaborate with the Germans or to end up a prisoner, but he left the General Staff to rejoin the Venice Division, which, with part of the Taurinense would be the nucleus of the Italian partisan Garibaldi Division from December 1943 to August 1944. This fighting formation of over twenty thousand units paid a heavy price for its choice: the number of its fallen is between 6500 and 8500, a calculation that has still not been better specified, also due to the large number of missing people. The Italians in the Balkans had a difficult choice after September 8, which historiography has seriously questioned (Elena Aga Rossi and Maria Teresa Giusti) and which saw, in the case of the Acqui Division, the Italian troops condemned to an atrocious end.

But the birth of the Garibaldi Division is also emblematic of the chaotic situation of those weeks: the command of the Venezia Division, located in a favorable position in Berane, under the orders of General Oxilia, did not follow instructions from Army Command, but (with the approval of the British) instead formed an agreement with the nationalist (Chetnik) partisans, who were soon replaced by Tito’s units, alongside whom Garibaldi officially fought from December 2 until the liberation.

The Zitelli report (completed on October 25, 1944 and made available by his daughter Andreina), has now been published in its entirety for the first time, complete with the author’s handwritten notes, and stands alongside what is contained in the documents of the Commission for the Study of the Resistance of Italian Armies Abroad (activated by the Ministry of Defense in 1988-92). The publication offers us, also thanks to the in-depth introduction by Federico Goddi, a complete look at those weeks during which, from the dissolution of the previous military structures, the awareness slowly arose of the possibility of organizing a defense action (and not only) against the Germans. The report is also a reflection on the transition between fascist war and partisan war: Zitelli’s objective is to trace the history of the Garibaldi Divion without forgetting how much the occupation of Montenegro meant in terms of violence and cruelty, carried out by those same units who, after the armistice, chose to resist alongside Tito’s troops.

Translation by Paul Rosenberg

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Venetian Officer Lt. Col. Antonio Zitelli and the Italian Tragedy in Montenegro ultima modifica: 2024-07-04T16:30:40+02:00 da MASSIMO STORCHI
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