Added 20 August 2003.

Nichivó: Life, Love and Death on the Russian Front

Giorgo Geddes

Giorgio Geddes da Filicaia was a serving officer in the Italian Army in World War Two. In April 1942 he was asked to serve as a liaison officer with the German Army and chose Russia over North Africa due to his interest in the Soviet Union. Thus he found himself on the Eastern Front with Army Group South and the Arma Italiana in Russia (Italian Army in Russia).

Nichivó is less a history of the campaign or of personal fighting experience than a series of snapshots of the life of those caught up in the consequences of the fighting, particularly the Russian and Ukrainian populations. These latter suffered terrible deprivations: even those that were left unmolested by the occupiers had to travel miles, sometimes hundreds, to find wheat or flour, during which time they were in constant danger not only from the Germans but also their own people, some of whom were unpleasantly opportunistic or even criminal. Ukrainian militia and police units could often be more zealous than their overlords, although some saw which way the wind was blowing eventually, while after the Russian counter-offensives in 1942-3 thousands of people were to flee westwards for fear of reprisals from the commissars. Murder, not only in the form of judicial execution, could happen all too often, and people, including adolescents who became fighting men, had personal and bitter scores to settle against one side or the other. "Nichivó" is the Russian and Ukrainian word for "nothing", as in "there's nothing you can do about it" - a philosophical resignation in the face of such hardships and oppression.

Apart from the suffering civilians, Geddes also looks at some of the German administrators, particularly the Sonderführer, who were a sort of militarised civil servant sent to oversee captured Soviet enterprises, industrial or agricultural. Not all were brutal overseers, and some appear to have been caught up in events beyond their control. Some even brought their wives to Russia and for a while lived in a manner rather reminiscent of British civil servants in colonial India. Typical is the story of the steel refinery at Rikovo, which the Germans spent two years trying to bring back into production, only to have to abandon it in the face of the resurgent Red Army. Geddes notes the fate of some of the Sonderführer, some of whom were able to escape, but others who, in his words, went down like a captain with his sinking ship.

Apart from personal contacts among the Italian forces, Geddes does not cover much about the Italian units in his area. However, in his introduction he frankly notes that the Italians sent to Russia were totally inadequately equipped to deal with either the Red Army or the extreme climate of the region, and that "only through courage and the spirit of emulation, and at the cost of heavy losses... our soldiers managed to achieve some exceptional military exploits, for which the Germans eventually showed their appreciation." This last leads to another point he makes: the deteriorating relationships between the Axis allies. Ironically, a few weeks after Geddes' return to Italy, the Armstice between Italy and the Western Allies was signed, upon which he was thrown into a concentration camp by the Germans. He succeeded in escaping with the intent of joining one of the Liberation Units with the aim of helping to get the Germans out of Italy, and during his hideout in a farm began work on the first draft of the book.

In his foreword Geddes is not bitter, but is quite clear about the aims, and costs of the war: "Even as partners in its victory, we would have been nothing but a Mediterranean pawn in the German game." The cost of the German game in Russia was severe for the Italians: of 230,000 men sent, 170,000 died or were lost in action, a total of about 74%. As he says, "Today's wars, however bloody and horrible, are comparatively very small. The Second World War was - and the figures do not lie - the biggest massacre in history."

Back to Military History | Back to Books | Back to Culture | Back to Home Page